I meet with Mikhail Bazankov, a Russian novelist, who tells me the dissolution of the Soviet Union has been a mixed blessing for writers. With the Russian economy in shambles, he explains, it’s difficult to get books published and distributed.
Still, I say, it’s wonderful that censorship has been abolished. When Mikhail’s own novel Memory Has Rights, Too was published six years ago, entire chapters were cut. No longer will a writer’s best work be eclipsed by the shallow imaginations of bureaucrats and the fears of party bosses.
But writers in Russia are accustomed to restrictions, he replies. They’re like salty old sailors who know just when their captain is snoozing and it’s safe to slip ashore; then one evening they return to find their ship has sunk. “What’s the point of writing,” he asks, “if you’re free to write anything you want?”
I smile, thinking he’s joking. No one censors my work, I want to tell him, but I rarely think of myself as free: I’m too constrained by my own lack of imagination. Even in a democracy, creative freedom can feel elusive, unattainable; writers can be their own worst enemies. The inner critic — a bearish guy with steel-toed boots and bad breath — is never far away.
But Mikhail’s not joking. Suddenly, I feel foolish: an American who imagines he’s his own worst enemy only because a real boot has never caught him in the ribs.
My wife tells me her brother-in-law, a Methodist missionary, has left for Russia, where he hopes to “plant” fifty churches in the frozen soil of Kazakhstan. That same day, I hear that the Philip Morris Company will build a factory in Russia to manufacture ten million cigarettes a year.
Cigarettes are probably less of a threat than twenty thousand nuclear missiles aimed at Russian cities. Still, smoking kills nearly half a million people each year in the United States alone. Worldwide, more people die each year from smoking than from wars, hurricanes, volcanos, earthquakes, or famines. It’s tempting to compare the manufacture and sale of tobacco to the international traffic in cocaine, yet this is probably unfair to the drug lords, who neither demand government subsidies nor try to convince us their product is safe.
It’s harder to measure the dangers posed by missionaries. Regrettably, Christianity has established itself as the religion of traveling salesmen, from whom the farmer’s daughter and the farmer himself have much to fear. As a lapsed Jew, who prays to Jesus in his own unorthodox way, I respect anyone who turns to this suffering world with forgiveness; who makes his or her life fuel for the flame. But I feel uncomfortable around evangelical Christians, like a non-smoker in a theater that reeks of brimstone and ash. I’m tongue-tied when my wife’s brother-in-law proclaims, “God’s heart is broken that two-and-a-half billion people have never heard the name of His son, Jesus. There is salvation in no other name.”
Yet Russia is ripe for a religious revival, and the Methodists are practiced at this. Methodism was brought to the United States a couple of hundred years ago by Irish immigrants converted by John Wesley, though Wesley damaged the effect of his enterprise by taking the side of the English government at the time of the American Revolution. I hope my wife’s brother-in-law exercises more prudence as the balance of power in Russia continues to shift. I hope he doesn’t cite scripture as selectively as tobacco executives cite experts who insist there’s no conclusive link between smoking and cancer. In their hearts, these people know that smoking is about as safe as being a Jew during the Inquisition. They know that most Americans know it; smoking is on the decline here. So companies like Philip Morris send out missionaries, too.
How eagerly we embrace our godless enemies, offer them the last cigarette from our crumpled pack. Who is a more likely convert to smoking than a lanky Russian teenager, eager to look cool, not caring that each cigarette he smokes makes his lungs flutter like sooty angel wings?
Ten million cigarettes a year in a country as vast and bleak as Russia is nothing, just a start. But even faith starts with just a mustard seed, with a lone missionary following his wandering star. In the new world order, nothing is taboo when there’s money to be made, souls to be saved. Now, Russians too are free to make cigarettes into a god, or God into a god.
I dream that Russia and America get drunk together, then stumble outside, barely able to stand. The other nations stopped listening hours ago to these two lonely heroes sunk in reminiscence: Russia, recalling the promise of communism whispered faintly across the century like a long-ago lover; America, still yearning to sacrifice itself for the good of a world that’s tired of the smell of burning flesh.
They stagger down the street, long coats flapping in the wind, arms wrapped around each other. At the end of the block, they pause outside a tiny church. In a futile attempt to look sober, America throws back its shoulders, weaves unsteadily, then keels over. Russia, taking its cue, keels over too.