FIFTH COLUMN: Every Dog Has Its Day, Even Russia

The restaurant was called Stella, but it did not serve the eponymous Belgian beer - just Baltika. Maybe that was why my dinner companion, the former editor of a big Russian daily, waxed patriotic.

"If you want to publish foreign comments on Russia, fine," he told me. "But I think it's necessary to preface all that stuff with a comment of your own to show you take it with a grain of salt." When he was editor, his paper always did that. Otherwise Russian readers might have been affronted. They might have thought some foreigner dared to tell them what to do - and their newspaper was taking that seriously.

Russians like to laugh at foreigners, both behind their backs and to their faces. Not that I can blame my compatriots in many cases.

In the smoking rooms of U.S. companies' offices in Moscow you might hear employees snickering at the mission statements and motivational posters pasted on the walls. But then, if you are American, you very likely do not smoke.

When the Bank of New York scandal hit the front pages in the West, few Russians found the concept of massive money laundering hard to grasp. But they laughed at the tidbit published in The Wall Street Journal about bank vice president Natasha Kagalovsky enjoying wild parties with dancing bears and Gypsies. If you do not see what is funny about that, I am not about to explain.

Sometimes the laughter is mixed with anger. In that spirit, NTV television in a recent news program, demolished the new British-produced musical, Tomorrowland, which premiered in Moscow on Saturday.

The play is set against the background of the October 1993 events - the street riots that followed the dismissal of the Russian parliament by President Boris Yeltsin. After making all the requisite quips about the naivete and triteness of the love story involving an American businessman and a passionate Russian girl, NTV's reviewer let loose with this bitter comment: "Maybe today's Russia will someday be used as the stage set for a story about another Russian girl wanting to marry an American."

She meant, of course, the exploding Moscow buildings and the war in the southern Russian region of Dagestan. How is that for a backdrop?

As an internal emigre, I agree in my heart of hearts with the way Westerners see Russia. We do live in a messy country that, from an enlightened Western perspective, still has a long way to go before it becomes fully civilized.

That, however, is a statement that is bound to get me some flak even from fellow Westernizers. Western societies are equally ridiculous in many ways. Russians, as an educated bunch with a good sense of humor, often have the right to a certain superiority.

It is partly the wounded pride of a former superpower's citizens - the kind that creates a market in Britain for badges that say, "Americans have smaller brains." And it is partly a kind of defensive reaction - "What makes you think you are better than us?"

But it is also something in our mentality that makes most of us reject mind-numbing American television and pseudo-academic "deep" Western analysis of Russian politics.

The West works, and Russia often does not. But that does not really take away our right to want better understanding and a less patronizing attitude from Westerners. Every dog must have his day, we mutter under our breath - and we laugh aloud.