If you want to get to know our neighborhood, stand next to the office-supplies store. It's on the intersection of 108th and 64th. Come as early as you can.
Here are our taxi drivers, just starting to make their rounds: Leva Baranov, Pertsovich, Eselevskii. They're all stocky, gloomy, decisive.
Leva Baranov is past sixty. He's a former Molotov-artist. At the beginning of his career he painted Molotov exclusively. His work was exhibited in countless property-management offices, clinics, local committees. Even on the walls of former churches.
Baranov had studied all the subtleties in the features of this minister with a skilled worker's face. On a bet, he could draw Molotov in ten seconds. Blindfolded, too. Then Molotov was removed. Leva tried to draw Khrushchev, but to no avail. His prosperous peasant's features turned out to be beyond his ken.
The same thing happened with Brezhnev. Leva couldn't tackle his opera-singer face. And then, out of sheer grief, Leva became an abstract painter. He started painting colored spots, lines, and curls. Plus he got into drinking and debauchery.
His neighbors complained to the local beat militiaman about Leva: "He drinks, sleeps around, he's into some kind of abstract cynicism..."
In the end Leva emigrated, got behind the wheel, and calmed down. In moments of leisure he does impressions of Reagan on a horse.
- Sergei Dovlatov, Inostranka (The Foreign Woman)
I'm not very familiar with the diasporas of other countries, but I'm pretty sure Russians are the only people who call theirs, sneeringly, "the emigration." The term has something contemptuous embedded in it, as if what defined the transnational community of Russian or ex-Soviet people were not their common cultural heritage or sense of history but the fact that they couldn't cut it back home. Unlike Russians, French or British expats (or even émigrés) are not treated as traitors when they come home to visit, except in the kind of political sense that is totally foreign to most Russian people. It doesn't even matter why they emigrated, since the manifest differences between the ultraconservative White Russians, the pro-Western liberal dissidents, and even the left-leaning Jews are washed out in the language of "emigration." The reasons behind the sneer are complicated, but they certainly include a fair amount of tall-poppy syndrome and a latent or expressed anti-Westernism. Most vividly they are dramatized in the finale of the early post-Soviet film Window to Paris, in which a bunch of Russian zhloby [boors] end up magically transported to a chic Parisian neighborhood. Among the Russians there is a class of schoolchildren who, at the end of the movie, is faced with the choice of remaining in Paris or returning to Russia; the protagonist makes an impassioned plea for them to return and help fix their miserable, broken country, and they end up agreeing. But the point here is not American-style civic can-doism--it's that only sharing in the misery makes you authentically Russian.
Window to Paris also contains one of the classic Russian portrayals of the émigré: the fugitive who makes it good in his adopted country but spends his time complaining about the dullness and materialism of his new countrymen and pining for the intimate kitchen discussions and pickles of his homeland. (Of course, when he's offered the chance to return, he hates Russia even more than France.) This stereotype isn't entirely made up; I've met a few of these people myself. What it points to, though, is the way in which the essentialized contrast between the authenticity of Russia and the inauthenticity of the West become internalized even among the émigré Russians who are the principal targets of this style of thinking. (Incidentally, this style even predates Russian nationalism properly speaking, which is convincingly demonstrated in Hans Rogger's brilliant and unpretentious 1960 book National Consciousness in Eighteenth-Century Russia.) A distrust of the West is one of the weightiest pieces of cultural baggage an emigrant carries with her, and the largest faultlines in the Russian immigrant community in the States are traced out by the ability or inability to get rid of it.
One of the consequences of all this is that members of the emigration, saturated as they are with the national ideology, have a very uneasy or sometimes outright antagonistic attitude to other émigrés. (I'm one of them, look at me being contemptuous right in this post!) For some reason, Russians rarely seem to develop the kinds of instinctive ties of affinity to one another that members of other immigrant communities enjoy. When I hear Russian being spoken on public transportation, I don't feel pleased or experience any urge to strike up a conversation. Instead, I feel vaguely embarrassed, as if the presence of other Russians were somehow a reflection on my own imperfect assimilation. Brighton Beach, the epicenter and symbol of the Russian community in America, feels cobbled together from fear and desperation rather than a positive sense of communal identity. Even the weirdly anglicized Russian grammar and pronunciation used there strike me as somehow whiny and demanding, despite there being nothing objectively wrong with them at all.
This is why Dovlatov's Inostranka is both one of the best novels of "the emigration" and a profoundly flawed book. It presents émigré life in all its strangely skeevy social complexity, unlike some intellectualized books that seem to treat it as a purely individual matter of tortured conscience and private betrayal, and it has a healthy skeptical attitude about all the sociopolitical rejects that make up The Russians in America. On the other hand, Dovlatov is (of course) himself an émigré, and even a character in his own novel, but he never takes the opportunity to reflect on the sources of his satirical bitterness. To be really profound and thoughtful, an emigration novel needs to figure out why Russians are so disengaged from one another, why you can't feel like a self-confident member of the melting pot without pretending everyone else on your boat just washed up on shore by accident. Something about the emigration seems to work if you look at it hard enough. The more integrated émigrés get into American life (I don't know about other countries), the more comfortable they seem with the Russian community, as if viewing it from from the reassuring distance of full Americanness makes it look more satisfying and cohesive than it can ever be seen from the inside. Dovlatov's style, which works brilliantly in the Soviet context because of the way it skates just at the surface of things and thereby reveals their absurdity, doesn't really untangle the contradictions of the emigration. Here, the absurdity is obvious and the coherence is hidden.
I've dreamed for a long time about writing a history of the emigration that resists the narrative of trauma and dysfunction without ignoring it. But to whom would such a book be addressed? Among Americans it would be of interest maybe to a few literary Russophiles. Among Russians the audience would be made up of the same émigrés and domestic intelligentsia that's been having these discussions for centuries--in other words, the book would be yet another fruitless extension of a debate that's been rendered useless by its own involution. The paradox is that the intelligentsia can't get over its complexes until it starts talking to outsiders about other things, and we can't start talking about other things until we've gotten over our complexes. (Is "complexes," roughly meaning "hang-ups," usable in English in this form at all? I've just realized I've been using it as a calque from Russian my whole life.) Maybe Keith Gessen's essay on Brodsky, targeted, it seems, at a broadly literary reader and generally unencumbered with neurosis, is a good start. We'll just have to wait and see what happens. (It's discussed at Hat's here.)