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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Moscow: Halfway Between the East and West




Last fall I went on two long trips -- one to the United States, the other to Japan.


The trip from Moscow to New York took 10 hours -- the same time it takes to go from Moscow to Tokyo.


I spent almost a month in the United States, at first participating in a yearly conference of the Association of American Slavists, and afterward giving lectures in universities.


I returned to Moscow for only one week, quickly unpacked, and left for Japan.


On the plane I had a sense of the geopolitical situation of my country. For America, for Europe, Russia is the East. For Japan, Russia is the West.


Being at the same time both West and East, Russia, despite its vast territory, is a borderland.


The fact that it is a frontier in the sense of geography and civilization partly limits and partly conceals its many possibilities. Russia's strange location on the globe made sure that it was never the field of battle between the East and West. And that it was the field of cultural interaction.


Russia's first great poet, Alexander Pushkin, never once set foot in Europe, but having a command of French, accomplished something fantastic through his work: uniting Russians with the values of European culture. His poetry became an extremely quick means of making Russian letters modern. After him, Russian literature began to have an immediate and active influence on the West through Gogol, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov and others. Russia had a double reputation in the eyes of the West and East during the 19th century: that of a repulsive empire, which was threatening and aggressive, and a magical country of wonderful culture, which flourished despite the monstrous ideological climate, despite the despotism and despite the fact that serfdom was repealed only in 1861.


Russia was looked on by many with admiration during the 20th century, regardless of the aggressive face it showed both East and West and its frightening social experiment, to which its people were subjected. Despite this experiment, which resulted in Russia ceasing to be Russia, Boris Pasternak, Anna Akhmatova, Mikhail Bulgakov managed to write.


"The West has lost its soul. There is nothing there to hold it," wrote Pasternak at the beginning of the '30s.


The relationship with the West, even for a poet who was so open to European culture, was a guarded one, for the centralized anti-Western ideology underlying Russian consciousness was unrelenting.


It was not Russia, but the former Soviet Union that lowered the infamous Iron Curtain. Cultural interaction, and even simple human relations became less and less permissible. The circle of isolation gripped Soviet Russian culture. The relationship of artists with the West and toward the West were checked by the level of the purity of its ideas.


For several generations, the West, in the Soviet people's conscious, embodied general social and historical evil, destruction and the downfall of culture, which was masked by industrial and technological progress.


I was born one week after the victory over fascist Germany. My parents named me in honor of the heroine of Tolstoy's "War and Peace." They met and got married on the front and soon after made plans to name their child Andrei (Prince Bolkonsky) if it turned out to be a boy and Natasha (Rostova) if a girl.


A particular characteristic of the highly ideological Soviet empire was the central place that was reserved for literature. The Soviet intelligentsia's pride in Tolstoy or Pushkin took on such a strange shape that classic writers became sacred, almost religious figures, and their heroes more than alive (as long as they did not die in the works). The certain poverty of the existing Soviet literature was compensated by the pride people took in the works of literary giants of the past.


However, never once in my life have I met a person who was named after a literary hero. It is altogether probable that the name my parents gave me determined my fate, my profession. Thus, I turned out to be Natasha.


On the very day my father was born in Moscow, the revolution broke out. My grandmother recalls how there were guests at her home when she, then 20, went into labor. The family gathered at the house, a midwife was called in, and the guests continued to eat and drink, carrying on lively discussions about the revolution. In Moscow, which at that time was not the country's capital city, the revolt was not as noticeable as in the imperial capital, although there was shooting. When the guests learned that a boy had been brought into the world, they cracked open a bottle of champagne and loudly shouted, "A Bolshevik is born!" My father does not remember his own father, who died in 1919 on the front of the Civil War.


Part of the family emigrated to France -- to the West. My grandmother corresponded with her relatives until 1930 and stopped writing thereafter for fear of putting the family in danger.


The country lived through many decades in ideological isolation. And even those of us who studied foreign languages were not quite prepared for a real meeting either with the West or the East. Nonetheless, we read the collected works of both Western and Eastern classics, one after the other.


Of course, everything was sifted through an ideological sieve. Twentieth century works were not readily accessible. Until Khrushchev, works by Western writers who had changed the face of this century were hard to come by. The same went for painters and composers. The decision to publish Ernest Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea" in the journal Inostrannaya Literatura was taken almost at the Politburo level.


At Moscow State University, I entered the Western division of the philological department, with the full approval of my parents. And in the second year, I secretly changed to Russian letters.


The Soviet nomenklatura was supposed to repudiate the West -- the source of evil -- but it wanted its children to be nearer to it.


Later, I wrote my dissertation on "Dostoevsky in Contemporary American Literature." But I did not succeed in defending it -- relations with the United States at that time had grown worse.


I remember reading Hemingway's "A Farewell to Arms" for the first time in a numbered, Communist Party nomenklatura samizdat publication, which my father, being a former Bolshevik and even part of the nomenklatura, brought home with the strict obligation to return it within a given period. My family then lived in a room of an 18th-floor communal apartment, whose walls were covered with books, in a tall, Stalinist vampire-style building on Ploshchad Vosstaniya with windows facing the West.





Natalya Ivanova is deputy editor of the literary journal Znamya. She contributed this essay to The Moscow Times.