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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Living With the 'Ultimate Souvenir'




"One thing no American married to a Russian seems to have complained of is boredom," writes Lynn Visson in Wedded Strangers: The Challenges of Russian-American Marriages. As her intriguing new book demonstrates, this may be because the couples are too busy fighting about sex, money, interior decorating or cabbage soup to have time for ennui.


From Isadora Duncan and Sergei Yesenin in the 1920s to Susan Eisenhower and Roald Sagdeev some six decades later, the history of such couplings has been fraught with difficulty. The emotional roller coaster and conflicting feelings that many foreigners experience when living in Russia are magnified and compounded when the cultural clash is brought home to stay.


"A foreign spouse is the ultimate souvenir from a trip abroad," Visson writes. But unlike a Hawaiian shirt or a plastic model of the Eiffel Tower, a husband or wife cannot be shoved to the back of the closet when the first attraction fades.


Visson knows whereof she speaks: For 22 years she has been married to a Russian and has had, she confesses, her share of misunderstandings and cultural contretemps. The pair is still together, and Visson makes no secret of the fact that the idea for the study was conceived during extended conversations with her husband.


Visson herself is a blend of the two cultures, having been brought up in a Russian household in the United States. She is fluent in Russian, has taught Russian language and literature at the university level, and works as a simultaneous interpreter at the United Nations.


The book is largely anecdotal in nature. The author wisely does not attempt to over-categorize her subjects, or trim the personal stories to fit rigid philosophical or emotional categories.


The first half of the volume deals with history, and follows the development of Soviet-American relations through romantic entanglements, both successful and star-crossed. Visson has chosen her examples well, and the chronicle makes for lively and fascinating reading.


The 1920s gave us one of the most famous, if spectacularly ill-matched, couples in the Russian-American pantheon, Isadora Duncan and Sergei Yesenin. She was an aging but still prominent American dancer of 44, he a talented and revered young poet of 25. Neither spoke the other's language, and their passionate infatuation reflected more a starry-eyed view of each other's culture than a real attachment. Headstrong and tempestuous, the pair raged through two years before separating, he to commit suicide in a Petersburg hotel in 1925, she to die two years later in a bizarre accident in Nice.


The romance and allure of the Bolshevik Revolution drew waves of Americans who wanted to contribute to the great Soviet experiment. Margaret Wettlin, a teacher from Philadelphia, was one of these eager idealists. In the early 1930s she met and married Andrei Efremoff, a theater director, and spent the next four decades in the Soviet Union. Wettlin, according to her own writings, considered herself privileged to witness Russia's great historical upheavals. Her son, however, who held an American passport, spent years trying to get himself and his family out of the Soviet Union, and was given permission to leave only in the late 1980s.


The Cold War claimed its share of victims among lovers, as witnessed by the tragic story of actress Zoya Fyodorova and her doomed romance with an American naval attache.


The two met and fell in love during World War II, but were unable to wed.


The American, Jackson Tate, was ejected from the country, and the pregnant Fyodorova was imprisoned for eight years. The couple did not see each other again until near the end of Tate's life.


Their daughter, Viktoria, also fell in love with an American in 1975. While her story had a happier resolution (she married and moved to the United States) her mother's life was blighted until the end: In 1981 Zoya was murdered in her Moscow apartment "under mysterious circumstances, allegedly during a burglary."


The second half of the book is a romp through cultural differences, and should be obligatory reading for anyone contemplating marriage to, or even a casual friendship with, a Russian. It provides many amusing and wry insights into the pitfalls of such relationships, and can help cross-cultural couples sort out real problems from surface dissonance.


Where do personal peculiarities end and culturally dictated behavior begin? And can recognizing the forces behind certain habits and expectations help couples to adapt more easily to each other? Visson raises, but does not fully answer, these questions.


When a Russian husband complains that his wife is a lousy cook because she does not serve him a three-course meal at midday, it may help to realize that Americans are more apt to grab a sandwich for lunch and save the fancy stuff for dinner. Hubby may still be annoyed, but perhaps his irritation can be better deflected if he understands that cultural differences are responsible for his hunger, not some plot by his wife to starve him to death. Of course, this is presupposing that the American wife is willing to cook for him at all. Gender roles are an extremely fertile ground for conflict even in relationships between people from the same culture. When more "traditional" Russians team up with relatively liberated Americans, fireworks are sure to follow.


Much of this is familiar to anyone who has spent time in Russia and has close Russian friends. Readers will smile in recognition at accounts of disagreements over money, health care and personal hygiene. When your Russian spouse tells you that drinking water causes high cholesterol, fresh air is dangerous and sitting on the floor makes women sterile, it may help to know that he/she is echoing folk wisdom, rather than just plain nuts.


The main shortcoming of this study is that it, like so much else these days, is being overtaken by events. As one Russian remarked after a news conference Visson gave in Moscow in May, the book would have been a revelation 10 years ago. Now so much is changing, such as attitudes toward work, time, money, even friendship, that Visson's book risks becoming a relic before it has a chance to hit the mainstream.


But there will always be cultural difficulties and misunderstandings in any "mixed marriage" and Visson's "Wedded Strangers" will be there to help smooth out the rough spots.


"Wedded Strangers: The Challenges of Russian-American Marriages" by Lynn Visson. Hippocrene Books. 256 pages. $24.95.