Column: The Russia watcher’s dilemma

REBECCA BLACKWELL   |   Associated Press
More than 20 new subway stations have opened in Moscow since 2009. In that same time, New York has opened four.
REBECCA BLACKWELL | Associated Press More than 20 new subway stations have opened in Moscow since 2009. In that same time, New York has opened four.
Published July 18 2018

Russia has been in the news a lot lately. You may have noticed. It invaded Ukraine, doped the Russian Olympic team, meddled in the American elections and apparently released a deadly nerve agent in the English countryside. On top of all that, it seems to have cast a spell on our otherwise supercilious president, Donald Trump, who met with President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on Monday.

For someone like me, who has been writing and thinking about Russia for most of my life, the past few years have made for a strange experience. I read the news like everyone else and am horrified. Then I visit Russia and find myself conflicted and confused.

I was born in Moscow in 1975, in what was then the Soviet Union, and came to the United States with my family when I was 6 years old. We moved to the Boston area and lived with some friends from back home, the Moshkeviches. Then, with some help from a local charity, we were able to rent a place of our own.

My parents loved Russian culture, Russian literature, Russian films, but they did not like Russia, at least as it was then. They did love America ó for its freedom and its plenty. People we knew told the story of the Soviet immigrant who burst into tears the first time she saw an American supermarket with its mind-boggling abundance. They did not tell the story to laugh at the immigrant; they told it because they felt the same way. How could a place have so many brands of mayonnaise? So many different fruits? So many kidsí cereals?

As for me, I wanted to fit in. Month by month, year by year, I shed my Russianness; as Chekhov once said about his serf parentage, I squeezed my Russianness out of myself drop by drop. My parents had left, and that was that. We were Americans now.

My mother died of cancer when I was a senior in high school. She was a literary critic who focused on Russian literature and had been in our family the person most attached to Russia. Her death could easily have severed our Russian connection; instead, for me, it did the opposite. I decided as a college freshman to take classes in Russian history and literature as a way of staying connected to her. I was going to do it for a semester and then move on. This was the early 1990s, just after the Soviet Union collapsed; getting a spot in the Russian history and literature seminar was not exactly difficult.

But instead of moving on, I stayed. Before I knew it, I was off to Russia for my junior year abroad. As soon as I graduated, I started writing about Russian culture and politics and translating Russian texts.

It seemed I had arrived too late. By the time I started publishing on Russia, the Boris Yeltsin era had collapsed in ignominy and Yeltsin himself had been replaced by a small gray ghoul named Vladimir Putin. Interest in Russia declined, then cratered. For years the only reliable way to sell an article about Russia was to focus on someone who had been killed or arrested, or to find some other creative way of underscoring how evil Putin was.

I remember an editor emailing me in 2009 to ask if there was any truth to the story that Putin preferred Dostoyevsky to Tolstoy. I was perplexed. A quick Google search revealed that a desperate colleague had, in fact, produced an article about how the Tolstoy estate at Yasnaya Polyana was being neglected, surely the result of some nefarious Putinist plot.

And then, in 2014, Russian forces invaded Crimea. Interest in Russia soared. After the 2016 election, it soared even further.

That was depressing. It was depressing because the Russian invasion of Ukraine led to thousands of deaths, and it was also depressing because of what Russia would now inevitably become: a pariah among nations, locking itself into Fortress Russia, fearing the world around it.

I was depressed, too, by the news coverage in the United States, especially post-election. It almost entirely neglected the long history of American meddling in the internal affairs of many, many countries, including Russia itself. Some of it was perfectly understandable anger at Russiaís role, however marginal, in electing Trump; but much of the Russia talk threatened to crowd out an examination of all the other reasons Trump was elected.

As for me, as a Russia watcher, it was good for business. At the university where I teach, I got the green light for a new class on Russia, and students even signed up. This would not have happened a few years earlier. So why did I feel so bad about the whole thing?

Perhaps it is simply this: Having lived in Russia, I know in my bones how complicated a place it is. Living in Russia is not a nonstop exercise in getting arrested, tortured, shot. People go about their lives. They buy groceries, look at their phones, go on dates, get married. They go to work in the morning, look for parking, try to get to the gym. They tell jokes. And in the meantime, yes, people are getting arrested; some are being tortured; some are being killed.

In Moscow last spring, I experienced this cognitive dissonance all over again. I hadnít been there in a few years, and I was surprised by the changes I saw. There were many more subway stations ó since 2009, the city has opened more than 20 new stations. In that same time, New York, to great fanfare, has opened four. There were numerous new coffee shops, affordable small restaurants and people bustling about. No one would mistake it for Paris, but still, the city would have been barely recognizable to someone transported there from, say, 1998.

At the same time, as soon as you turned on the television, there it was: total paranoia about NATO bombers; aggressive, ill-informed arguments about geopolitics; bad movies about World War II. The political atmosphere is poisonous. Putin is in charge for six more years and has convinced himself and those around him that the country would collapse if he left. Russia has entered another dark period in its history, and there is no end in sight.

But if thereís one thing we have learned in the past year and a half of the Trump presidency, itís that people do not exist in the political atmosphere constantly, or even most of the time. On Facebook and Twitter they may; while watching cable news they do. The rest of the time, though, most of us are able to do other things.

Thatís not necessarily good ó in times of emergency, itís bad. But it canít be an emergency all the time, not even in Trumpís America, not even in Putinís Russia. There are many aspects of Russian life, Russian thought, even Russian politics, that are not under the purview of Vladimir Putin.

So what is it like for a longtime Russia watcher? I guess itís like having your favorite obscure band become famous for some stupid act, like destroying a hotel room ó the hotel room being, in this case, the postwar global order. But I donít know. I never really had a favorite obscure band. Russia was the closest thing I had to an obscure interest. I was a fan of their early albums ó "Late Socialism," "Perestroika," "Deindustrialization" ó but everyone listens to them now.

Keith Gessen was born in Moscow and frequently writes about Russia.