New York Times
POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Dec 11, 2012
MOSCOW » After 20 years of opining on weighty bilateral issues like NATO expansion and ballistic missile defense, the political analyst Nikolai V. Zlobin recently found himself trying to explain, for an uncomprehending Russian readership, the American phenomenon of the teenage baby sitter.
In Russia, children are raised by their grandmothers, or, if their grandmothers are not available, by women of the same generation in a similar state of unremitting vigilance against the hazards — like weather — that arise in everyday life. An average Russian mother would no sooner entrust her children's upbringing to a local teenager than to a pack of wild dogs.
But of course much in everyday American life sounds bizarre to Russians, as Zlobin documents meticulously in his 400-page book, "America — What a Life!"
It seems strange, 20 years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, that ordinary Russians would still be hungry for details about how ordinary Americans eat and pay mortgages. But to Zlobin's surprise, his book — published this year and marketed as a guide to Russians considering a move abroad — is already in its fifth print run, and his publisher has commissioned a second volume.
With the neutrality of a field anthropologist dispatched to suburbia, Zlobin scrutinizes the American practice of interrogating complete strangers about the details of their pregnancies; their weird habit of leaving their curtains open at night, when a Russian would immediately seal himself off from the prying eyes of his neighbors. Why Americans do not lie, for the most part. Why they cannot drink hard liquor. Why they love laws but disdain their leaders.
"The secret is that everyone wants to know what America is without its ideological blanket," said Zlobin, who has lived in the United States on and off for 20 years and serves, at times, as an informal consultant to the Kremlin. "Originally I thought you had to watch the important issues, but it turns out what matters are the very basic ones."
He is not the first Russian to engage in this exercise. In 1935, Ilya Ilf and Yevgeny Petrov, Soviet satirists, embarked on a road trip across the United States. Their book, "One-Story America," described its residents' earnestness ("Americans never say anything they do not mean") their provinciality ("curiosity is almost absent") and the ubiquity of advertising, which, they wrote, "followed us all over America, convincing us, begging us, persuading us, and demanding of us that we chew ‘Wrigley's,' the flavored, incomparable, first-class gum."
That book, published less than two decades after the Bolshevik Revolution, was a touch subversive because it did not focus on the class struggle, then the Kremlin's central talking point about the United States.
Zlobin is writing at a moment when state-controlled television casts the United States as a global bully, releasing waves of turbulence on the world and covertly undermining President Vladimir V. Putin. Zlobin does not make much effort to advance that thesis, instead suggesting, in his soft way, that Russian leaders would benefit from understanding what Americans are like.
"I often get appeals for help in Washington — ‘Get to know so and so,' they tell me, naming some public figure, ‘We need to solve this problem,"' he writes. "It is difficult to explain that in the United States, in most cases, problems are not solved this way."
Zlobin, who has lived in St. Louis, Chapel Hill, N.C., and Washington, finds his answers in middle-class neighborhoods that most Europeans never see. Readers have peppered him with questions about his chapter about life on a cul-de-sac. Most Russians grew up in dense housing blocks, where children ran wild in closed central courtyards. Cul-de-sac translates in Russian as tupik — a word that evokes vulnerability and danger, a dead end with no escape.
"It's such a new concept for them, that you can get security by putting distance between yourself and the others," he said. "The Russian concept is that you're safe when you're with the crowd."
American life, as he describes it, simply lacks the fretwork of close, sometimes constricting relationships that take shape around a Russian practically from birth.
He writes of "a complete absence of the social institution of the grandmother and grandfather, in the Russian understanding of that role," since instead of spending their 50s and 60s raising grandchildren, American women "are busy with their own lives." Generations within American families "rapidly distance themselves from one another," and Americans don't hire their friends as doctors and lawyers, preferring to keep their professional ties untainted by personal ones.
He devotes many pages to privacy, a word that does not exist in the Russian language, or in the airless human mass that forms when Russians wait in line. Americans, he reports, prefer to converse at a distance of at least 4 feet."I suppose that in a typical Russian line, your average American would lose consciousness," he writes. "Any touch to an American is taken as a violation of his personal space, so in the U.S., as a rule, people do not take each other by the elbow and do not tap each other on the shoulder if they want attention, they do not embrace each other like brothers."
Zlobin is rather withering about drinking vodka with Americans, recalling an occasion when he split a bottle with a friend and did not see him sober for four days. (He makes exceptions for Americans of Irish and Scottish extraction, as well as certain impressive young women, "as a result of emancipation.") Though Americans are slovenly in their outward appearance, he said, it is "completely unacceptable" to show up at work in the same outfit two days in a row. They are amazingly loud in everyday activities, but muted in their expressions of joy and grief.
"You can't suddenly show up at a friend's house in the middle of the night with a bottle of vodka, to talk over your problems and seek support," he writes. "Russians solve problems when they reach a critical point — that is our national style. Americans try to keep things from getting to a critical point."
At a book fair in Moscow last week, many of Zlobin's readers had already forged their own opinions from friends or relatives in the United States. A woman named Marina practically shuddered remembering how her Americanized nephew moved out of his parents' home at the age of 19, a custom she said "destroys families." Tatiana was more positive, but recalled a conversation with a friend 15 years after he made the decision to move to America. He said that even after he had gotten used to the loud talking, fast eating and lacquered-on smiles of his new countrymen, he ached for Russia.
"He says it's boring," she said. "It's all OK, and it's boring."