FIFTH COLUMN: Behind Smiles, People Are Still Worlds Apart




It is amazing how little the Russian perception of foreigners has changed with the disappearance of the Iron Curtain. True, people will no longer run in terror from an American reporter trying to do man-on-the-street interviews. And true, a foreigner at a Russian table is no longer a celebrity just by virtue of being foreign, at least in Moscow and St. Petersburg.


Yet consider this. In the early 1950s, future dissident writer Andrei Sinyavsky was returning to Moscow from Vienna by train in the company of officers from the Soviet occupying force in Austria. He recorded the officers' complaints about the West in his autobiographical novel, "Goodnight." "Everyone is so polite but they are not friendly," one drunk officer ranted as he threw the empty bottle out the train window. "There is no real friendship there."


One could write that off to the natural unfriendliness of the occupied toward the occupiers. In 1999, however, Oleg Skripka, singer for the illustrious Ukrainian rock band Vopli Vidoplyasova, was saying much the same in an interview with the magazine Om. Skripka spent a lot of time in Paris playing gigs. He was not part of any invasion force - Vopli Vidoplyasova has never been compared to the Beatles or the Red Army. But listen to him.


"If you compare the French to the people at home, it's like comparing an imported hothouse cucumber to a home-grown one," Skripka said. "The hothouse cucumber looks great, but it is utterly tasteless. The homegrown one is crooked and it has all these warts, but what a taste! You can have a lot of French acquaintances, but not a French friend."


There is an old joke that goes: "If a guy you don't know smiles at you on the street in Moscow, your fly is probably open." If they smile at you on the street in the States, it's because... Because what? Because they're friendly?


Hardly. I've heard a compatriot theorize that the American smile beamed at strangers is actually a defensive grimace. They do not actually smile; they show their teeth the way stray dogs do when they meet other stray dogs.


Even some of my friends, true internal emigres who generally love Americans and Austrians and even do not dislike the French, have expressed these sentiments. It is hard to explain what makes a Russian friend more "real" than a Western one.


Is it that, with a Westerner, you cannot get drunk and cry on his shoulder? But then, I've done that with some Americans and they seemed as drunk, as moved and as willing to do some of their own weeping as any Russian I've ever met. Is it that you cannot borrow $100 from a foreigner if he knows he will never get it back? But that's not true, you can if he's your friend. An American or an Englishman is probably as likely to help you to his own detriment as a Russian.


What are the standards, then, that we Russians set for friendship and that Westerners do not meet? That, to me, is a total enigma. I suppose some stereotypes die harder than others. Russians tend to open up more naturally and more easily than some Europeans and many Americans, and maybe, when we do not get the instant reaction we expect, we fall back on time-tested perceptions.