I can’t keep up with the news. I don’t try. Your scattered nations, your different selves, held together now by — what? Under the czar, they say, under the communists, Russia has never known democracy. Have I? Who calls himself Safransky, signs everything I write? The newspapers warn there will be hunger this winter. This I believe. They say a spiritual, god-fearing nation has triumphed over godless communism.
My grandparents were Russian. They booked passage on a ship that promised to take them further than their dreams, further than Jew-hating policemen, and war, and hunger, further than the fear they wouldn’t talk about — teenagers still, setting off for the new world with their suitcases, their pride. They never taught me Russian, but it was written on their faces; each time they smiled, or cried, I memorized a new word. I took the Cold War personally.
Russia, my heart, the burden of the miraculous is upon you. You change, too quickly for me to understand. Yet what really changes? I, too, yearned to free myself from myself — my childhood a tyrant I tried to overthrow. So here I languish, in this prison built for traitors. Good intentions don’t make the revolution, nor smiling politicians, nor frowning politicians, nor standing in front of the clock as if time itself were fooled, as if history checked the calendar before marching over you. You tell stories to keep the night away, but night doesn’t tarry. Hunger is sharpening his opening lines: first impressions are important.
Russia, once the poor turned to you, but you betrayed them. You told them how hard it was. You went on vacation and said help would arrive on the next train. In the bitter cold, they waited at the station, while their children starved, and still they waited. I know, I know: at night, under the covers, ideology gives way to the low lament of the body, the whimpering flesh and upraised eyes — pleasure the bribe we offer ourselves, no matter what Marx said.
Shall I tell you what it means to be an American? To be equally devoted to social justice and to table manners? Every night, the vision of a new world order is tattooed across our dreams. Every morning, on recycled paper, we make a record of troop movements, casualties, dangerous images that slip by, uncensored. We return the extra change at the supermarket, break only big promises. We tell secrets about our husbands and wives to perfect strangers. But did you know a bucket lowered into the well of the past sometimes disappears? We make honesty our God, but God isn’t honest. Truthful, yes, but not honest. How many deceptions He puts before us.
Come to us. Be American, too. The big corporations want you to climb up on their knee. They want to lift your skirt and play with you. They have candy. They have the future. They have rough hands if you don’t obey.
Russia, my crime was to betray you. You weren’t pretty. You stank in all the wrong places. My father changed his name from Safransky to Safran to make it easier to pronounce. I wouldn’t do that. But I, too, drove you out. I waited for perfect love the way you wait now for freedom, confusing the rooster with the dawn. I waited until my whiskers grew so long that birds built nests in them, and tended their young in the safety of my great sorrow. I waited until I forgot what I was waiting for.
Russia, for how many years did we talk of deterrence? The truth is, we were ready to destroy you. You knew better than to trust us — or we, you. Like a man and a woman, wondering if two can live as two and as one. Talking all night, as if talk changed anything, as if words themselves worked the fields, built great cities, fought and died. Yet who lives in sentences, in elegant sentences, no less? Who learns except through error? Who grieves except in silence? Laurie Anderson once played a Tchaikovsky concerto, her violin filled with water so it would weep.