Myth of Russian Provinces As a School of Life

Provincial: 1. Of or characteristic of people from the provinces. 2. Backward; naive and simple.

Explanatory Dictionary

of the Russian Language.

Feeling provincial is not a very pleasant feeling. It doesn't matter where you live -- in a little provincial American city or, to take another example, in a Russian one.

My friends in San Francisco complained to me recently that they feel on the periphery of life. Such words sound all the stranger considering San Francisco's status as a major cultural center on the West Coast. Moreover, San Franciscans are so aggressively "artistic and cultural" that you often get the feeling that the city is self-sufficient, at the center of the world. I use the word "aggressive" in the sense that the city's inhabitants persistently see everything around them in aesthetic ways: they build monuments, hold extravagant parades, cultivate elegant flower gardens with the same passion as they found new private museums.

This preoccupation with aesthetics is especially obvious when you travel to other American cities such as Moscow, Texas, where the visitor is greeted by an enormous green dinosaur as he exits from the freeway. Or even Houston, Texas, a city that is so far removed from culture that there are hardly any monuments there, except for the model rocket at the NASA space center, which can be seen for miles.

Life in American and Russian provinces has more in common than you might think. To begin with, let us dwell on a few stereotypes about provincial life. The first holds that provincial people are among the most honest and decent and somehow unspoiled by civilization. The second stereotype characterizes provincial folk as naive and dull-witted. The third depicts the provinces as a sort of school of real life (until only recently in Russia all college graduates were required to work in the provinces). The fourth says that in the provinces, everything is out in the open.

One of the most significant ways that the provinces of the United States and Europe differ from those of Russia is in the means of communication. The opportunity to enjoy the benefits of civilization for a provincial inhabitant of the West is greater than that of his counterpart in the countries of the East. The postal, telecommunication and computer networks and system of highways are almost entirely lacking in Russia. Thus, a person in the West, if he wants, can actively participate in cultural or scientific life. It is not by accident that many American writers, artists and photographers live quite peacefully outside of New York City.

But it becomes more complicated when young people are concerned. The philistine surroundings of provincial America suppress in the adolescent any desire to create, argue and think independently. Lone rebels pull themselves out of this cultural swamp and end up in San Francisco, New York, Paris, Berlin.

I remember the monologue in the American author James Baldwin's novel, "Giovanni's Room," which was written in Paris during the '50s: "Americans should not go to Europe. Once they get here, they can no longer be happy. And who needs an American if he is unhappy. Happiness is all we have." But few rebels ever return to their home towns, and an amorphous group of people that fully conform to philistine stereotypes continues to grow. I also remember a conversation with a waiter in a suburban Texas restaurant: "No, I've never been to Dallas. To be more exact, when I was a child my father once took me to a celebration in the city." The town in which the restaurant was located was only a hour's drive from Dallas. The waiter was 25 years old. The provinces had already swallowed him up.

Indeed, everything in the American provinces is all in the open -- how you live, how you make a living, with whom you have sex. For sexual minorities in both Russia and America, living in the provinces can be a real trauma. I once came across a letter from a young person living in a small town in the Ural mountains. When the town learned about his homosexuality, they did not simply beat and torment him, but collectively raped him in the local militsia station. If in the depths of America, young homosexual people are not punished in such brutal ways, they must nonetheless hide their true feelings and lead a tragic and isolated life.

In Russia there existed a class of provincial intelligentsia that has no equivalent in the West. During the last century, Russian provincial authorities tried to cultivate modest, common people such as doctor's assistants, telegraph operators and rural teachers. The urban intelligentsia went to the people, that is to the provinces, in order to educate them and change their settled way of life. The chronicler of this society, Anton Chekhov, was a brilliant Russian prose writer and country doctor. But from the time of the Revolution an entire generation of the intelligentsia was painstakingly destroyed. The Russian provinces under the Soviets thus degenerated and became the a repository of inertia and lack of culture.

In Russia and America, there is a myth that the provinces represent the face of the nation and there are attempts to find the nation's heroes in them. Thus the majority of U.S. presidents and Russian general secretaries have come from the provinces.

Yeltsin came from the Urals -- the very heart of the country. When people idealize the provinces and provincial figures -- in Moscow, it is said, that everything has been sold out to the Americans -- they forget that Yeltsin was partly responsible for the destruction of Ipatyevsky house, where the Bolsheviks shot the tsarist family.

At her writing desk, a certain young woman wrote what were meant to be her last words: "Moscow or death." The inaccessibility of a Moscow life and the boredom of provincial existence seems to drive the most active of persons to desperation. The young woman did manage to attain a Moscow propiska, or residence permit by going through several husbands.

It is said that Moscow is supported by the provinces. In the past, only the most essential officials were invited to the city. Today, successful "new Russians" have begun to buy up apartments here. Look closely at their faces, and you will undoubtedly see many Siberians or you will hear accents from Vladimir, Ivanov or Volgograd. The children of the provinces bring not only their energy but their culture -- or lack of it. And the new Russians -- uneducated, ill-behaved, unable to speak a single language properly, not even their own native Russian -- are similar to provincial Americans. Surely, they would easily understand each other. The provinces are simply pillaging the capitals -- the pathetic centers of culture, dissent and good taste.

Alexander Shatalov is a poet, journalist and editor of Glagol publishing house. He contributed this essay to The Moscow Times.