Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russian Life Seems Simpler From America

CAPE COD, USA -- First, the good news: There is life outside of Moscow. There is a world where the city's dirt and disorder are but a distant, vague memory, where car bombings and mafia shootings are the stuff of made-for-television thrillers and whole days go by without a thought being spared for the latest exchange rate or the state of Yeltsin's health.


The bad news is, it's kind of boring. After three days of bobbing around on beautiful Cape Cod Bay with a cranberry cooler in one hand and a mystery novel in the other, I bolted for the north, to the verdant hills of Vermont, where every summer a bunch of Russia junkies meets to commiserate with each other under the guise of a Russian language school.


The Russian School is a serious place, with groups of tortured-looking students wandering around looking as if they've been reading too much Dostoevsky. The faculty consists of ?migr?s and visitors from Russia in almost equal proportion. Their main occupations seem to be thinking great thoughts and arguing with one another.


A fresh arrival, I was besieged with questions. Not for the first time, I was drawn into the dispute between the "real" Russians -- those who would shortly return to their homeland -- and those who had made the United States their permanent home.


In the old days, the sides were pretty clearly defined -- the Soviets were looked down upon as spies, while the ?migr?s were ridiculed for their old-fashioned language and outmoded concepts.


A lot has changed in recent years. It is no longer an article of faith that any Russian allowed out of the country is a KGB informer, and many of the ?migr?s have gone back to spend significant amounts of time learning about the new Russia.


But, as they say, the more things change ... The newly liberated Russians and the newly educated ?migr?s were locked in the same battle they have been conducting for decades. The topic -- what else? -- Russia: Past, Present, and Future.


One art historian from Vologda confided to me that he had been surrounded at the beginning of the term by eager listeners waiting to hear how bad things were "over there." Armed with horror stories from the American press, they awaited fresh details of murder and mayhem.


"I told them things were actually going pretty well," he said. "They said, 'Great, you'll have to tell me all about it sometime,' and disappeared."


An economist from Moscow had the same sad tale. "Everybody asks how much longer Russia can last. When I say that the economy is developing pretty normally, all things considered, they get this glazed look in their eye, and wander away. No one wants to hear that things are okay."


Both sides have their points. It is pretty scary over there, and the ?migr?s seize on the bad points to justify their own decision to leave -- whether it was made five months or fifty years ago. But those of us who live in Russia know that things are a lot more complex. This is especially true when one is away and distance seems to airbrush the memory, lending a soft-focus charm to images of Russia.


As I left, I swapped business cards with some of my new friends, promising to call when I got "back home," which, they assured me, would be in no time at all.


"Don't worry," one of them said, "Time goes by very quickly here. Before you know it, you'll be back in Moscow."


That's what I'm afraid of.