My first shock is a flat-screen TV mounted high on the wall in one of the airport cafes. American policemen are gassing a crowd of protesters. It’s a little after 7 am on January 26, six days since the inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States. I have just arrived at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport from New York. The last time I visited Russia, the country of my birth, was in October 2013.
The ticker headline on the TV screen reads Unruly political situation in the US after presidential elections. The camera cuts to a white male officer who grabs a black woman by the arm and forces her to the ground. I can’t move; I stand and stare.
This is how the country that took me in as an immigrant 18 years ago is portrayed on Russian TV — as racist, violent, chaotic. The imagery conjures up propaganda from the Cold War days. Americans, we were told, were crazed and aggressive, the product of corrupt democracy and degenerate morals.
I pick up my bag and hurry into -23 degrees Celsius weather. The cold is my second shock. Had I forgotten it so easily? But it’s nothing compared to my third — the slow shock that builds through conversations that will invariably turn to American elections: “What’s going on in your America?”
Over the next three weeks of walking freezing streets, riding the metro, and sitting at kitchen tables laden with food and vodka, I listen to Russian disdain for America and the general mistrust of governments, politics, and elections — the hot buttons that haven’t changed since I left Russia in 1998.
Everyone has an opinion for me on imminent wars, unpredictable leaders, and the powerlessness of ordinary people to bring about change. Some of it is laced with nostalgia for Soviet times, when to scorn and to slander was admired as strength and to love and to empathize was branded as weakness.
I’m baffled at so much disillusionment, but whenever I open my mouth, I’m rolled over as with a bulldozer. My opinion is dismissed as irrelevant, laughable: After living in America for nearly two decades, I’m too comfortable, in Russians’ eyes, to speak about their pain. Yet when I say I’ll be writing about our conversations, the assertive bravado gives way to fear: Most people I talk to don’t want me to use their names. I’ve used real names only where I have permission, and pseudonyms where indicated.
“They’re puppets. Politicians. All of them. Putin, Trump, Obama.”
“At least there won’t be a war,” says a sturdy woman in her late 50s, a pensionerka. A pensioner. We're waiting for the same bus, watching the afternoon traffic crawl along the snow-swept avenue. “If Clinton won, there'd be war with Russia. With Trump, it’ll be softer. He's a businessman. But I think there will be civil war in America. A misfortune.” She shivers.
“Why do you think there will be civil war ?”
“Because they’re puppets.” She waves a dismissive hand. “Politicians. All of them. Putin, Trump, Obama. At least Trump will try to deliver what his bosses want.”
She explains that by “bosses,” she means America’s business tycoons who made their money in gas and oil — a belief I hear over and over again in the following days. Her tone is tinged with anger and bitterness over the crumbling economy in Russia. Her idea of the civil war in America — whites against blacks, Chinese, Latinos, Muslims — is fueled by still-rampant racism and the particular flavor of Russian chauvinism that discriminates against any nonwhite ethnic group. When I ask her to elaborate on this, she eyes me suspiciously. “Why do you want to know?”
“I’m interested in your opinion.”
“Who cares about my opinion?” she snaps. “Nothing I’ll say will change it. It’s like it always was.”
“Our government is just like your government, concerned with only one thing — power”
I hear the same defeatism when talking to a single mother in her 30s who lives in a newly erected city block on the outskirts of Moscow.
“It’s all a provocation,” she says. “Your elections.” We sit in her searing hot kitchen. She’s breastfeeding her baby; I eat a slice of bread and drink kefir. “Similar to how Putin was elected. They told us, here’s your new president. And there stands this little guy in short pants. Like a little boy! Who appointed him? Why? We'll never know. Same in America. Who appointed Trump?”
“American voters,” I say.
She tosses back her head and laughs. The baby spits out the nipple, startled. “It's like an ass and a finger. We’ll never know who fucks whom. American thinkers will now have more sympathy for Russia. It’s a good thing. It’ll be better for everybody if Russia were more stable. This constant confrontation between our countries is like bad romance. He charmed her; she betrayed him. I’m tired of hearing it.”
Her words resonate with me. During the 2016 election, for the first time in my 18 years in America, I saw the same regressive thinking I’d witnessed at the fall of the Soviet Union in my teens: The loss of the power status and the economic hurt led Americans to choose the white, straight, patriarchal, Christian fantasy that no longer exists, just like it drove Russians into the streets chanting, “Bring back Stalin!”
“So you’re happy Trump got elected, and not Clinton?” I ask.
She nods. “Absolutely. I don't like Clinton's personality. She was slandering Russia for everything. Russia did this, Russia did that. Like we’re the bad guy. And we’re not, you know? We’re just people, like Americans. Our government is just like your government, concerned with only one thing — power.”
I feel saddened. This kind of Russian fatalism is precisely what made me immigrate. I was tired of listening to predictions of doom, tired of witnessing people spend their time arguing over why they’d fail instead of doing something and actually failing.
“It’s a big win for Russia, for Putin’s propaganda”
I have lunch in a restaurant with a well-read and well-to-do businessman in his 50s. “Most Russians believe the media,” he says. “They believe Trump is great because he's portrayed as great.”
I think back to my recent visit to a bookstore. The best-selling books were piled up on the table at the entrance, at least three of them with Trump on the cover, the title promising to teach you how to gain incredible power and wealth.
“It’s a big win for Russia, for Putin’s propaganda,” the businessman continues. “Russians love Putin because he has made Russia stand up for itself. They are willing to suffer terrible living conditions for their restored national pride. They don't know the price they’re paying for it. It simply doesn’t enter their heads.”
“And what’s your position?”
He smiles, spreads his arms. “I have no position. Position is relative. It all depends on people’s mentality. Russians think differently from Americans. We’re a big country with a small self-esteem, used to being pushed around. After Putin came to power, the rest of the world suddenly started considering us. It's fertile ground for Putin. You watch, he’ll get elected again and again. Until it finally hurts enough for people to wake up.”
“And when will that be?”
“When people start thinking for themselves. It’s easy to fool the stupid,” he says unkindly. “Let me pour you more tea.” Tea is the social glue in Russia. Every awkward moment can be smoothed over with an offer of more tea or food.
“Trump is fresh blood. He doesn't need a salary. He's a businessman! Doesn't care what anyone thinks.”
“Eat,” says Olga, 41, my cousin. She pushes a plate of cabbage pie in my direction. It’s night; thick snowflakes drift behind the window. Around the kitchen table sit her husband and two friends.
“How is your Trump over there? He’s got it all in gold in his tower. ‘Gold like in the mouth of gypsies!’”
The table roars with laughter.
I’m stunned. I haven’t heard this expression before, but I see how the jealousy over Trump’s wealth and the typical hostility toward the Romani people has been neatly rolled into one sentence, to be used as a gag.
“You know the running joke? About your presidents?” Olga asks me. “Last year was the year of the ape, and this year it's the year of the rooster!”
They roar again.
I stare blankly.
“Ape,” she says. “Your Obama. He's an ape. And Trump is a rooster!”
The blood drains from my face. They laugh again, this time at my reaction, at my becoming so touchy-feely in America about racism that I can’t even laugh with them.
I’m struck speechless. I’d readied myself for this ahead of time, rehearsing phrases like, “Do you realize that this joke is wrong because it perpetuates the dehumanization of a person based on their skin color?” and, “Do you see how you use humor to put yourself above a whole group of people — human beings just like you?” But I’d forgotten what it’s like to experience it firsthand — just like that shocking cold.
“Trump is fresh blood,” Olga says. “He doesn't need salary. He's a businessman! Doesn't care what anyone thinks.”
“So. You jumped around in that pink hat,” Olga says later in the conversation, referring to my participation in the Women's March. “What for?”
“For women’s rights.”
“What rights are you deprived of?” she sneers.
I’m surprised at her reaction, but only for a moment. This habit of sarcastic dismissal of an individual’s opposition to power — it’s unequal, therefore it’s doomed — is part of the oppressive regime survival tactic I myself adopted in childhood and was able to start shedding in America only a few years ago. It took years to recognize it and to heal. Russians laugh at hardships to keep from crying. I knew that her reducing my protest to a silly thing was the admission of her carefully hidden pain over the inability to do the same in Russia.
“I believe the democratic core in America is strong and Trump will be overthrown”
My next meeting is in a kitchen again. It’s me and four women spanning three generations — “Lena,” 41; her two teenage daughters, “Tanya” and “Varvara”; and her mother, “Oksana Vladimirovna,” 69 — all pseudonyms. On our way to her 12-story Soviet-style block, Lena has warned me, “My mom hates Trump. Better don't ask her — she’ll talk your ears off. The whole time the election was happening, she was sitting on Facebook, reading posts. When I asked her why she hates him, she couldn't explain it to me.”
“I can explain it to you,” Oksana Vladimirovna says when I ask her.
“Back in Soviet times, I worked at the voting booths. Not everyone voted, and there were a lot of blank bulletins left over. You know what they did? They marked them with Brezhnev's name and tossed them in! I said, ‘What are you doing?’ Know what they told me? ‘Someone might be at the dacha. They would've voted for Brezhnev anyway.’ Can you believe that?”
She pauses to catch her breath, upset at the memory of blatant lies — the vehicle of the political corruption in the USSR. She’s read about Trump’s claims that the 2016 election was “rigged,” and she’s angry — angry it’s impossible to know the truth unless you witness it, like she did at the voting booths.
“Russians like to blame America for everything bad in Russia,” she concludes. “And it’s understandable. Why is America sticking its nose everywhere? World aggressor! And now Russia will be the world aggressor. They want to be the big bully like America. When will it end?”
After dinner, Lena pulls me aside. “Don’t get too worked up over Mama’s words. I believe the democratic core in America is strong and Trump will be overthrown. It's something we don't have here, but you have over there.”
In all my conversations, Lena’s was the only positive comment about democracy. The rest dismissed the very idea as tried and failed, with no possibility of honest elections and no chance of the ordinary citizen’s voice being heard; hence, no interest in protests.
“Elections are driven by people with big money, big businesses. Same in Russia.”
“Elections are driven by people with big money, big businesses,” says my Uber driver, who looks like he’s in his 30s. He moved to Moscow from Ossetia eight years ago. “Same in Russia.”
“Is that what they say on TV?” I ask.
He shakes his head. “I don't watch TV, don’t trust it. Not the news, not the books. Nobody knows what’s truth and what’s lies. I trust only one thing.” He glances at me. “My eyes. I can see a dead body, if someone is shot. And I can see factories. That’s what Stalin left, factories. People knew how to work back then. If they didn’t, they got shot. If he were alive, he’d just shoot all politicians. That’s what I’d do, shoot them all.”
“You're serious?” I ask.
“Damn right I am!” He smacks the steering wheel. “Look at Putin. He established the National Guard for his own personal protection. A smart move. In China, if a bureaucrat steals, he gets shot, no questions asked. That’s what we need.”
“To shoot people.”
“That’s right. It’s all gone to shit in Russia. I don’t like it, but it’s better than in Ossetia. I got work here. I drive and sell ice cream. It’s a good trade, selling ice cream, better than in America — it’s all about selling drugs or guns over there. And now you’re freaking out about Trump. What’s there to freak out about? We Russians have been through it a hundred times. Coca-Cola still sells. McDonald’s is in business like before.” He chuckles.
This pessimism, this apathy, coupled with the authoritarian mindset that death fixes all problems, made me feel sick. After living in America for 18 years, I’d almost forgotten growing up with this; I’d started to believe there is another way.
It wasn’t until I landed in New York that the profound difference between the Russian and American outlooks on life hit me. Everyone at the JFK Airport security checkpoint was smiling. In the past, I discounted it with my leftover Russian cynicism as fake American politeness. This time, I couldn’t. I’ve changed enough to feel it in my gut. Every face — black, brown, white — shone with life.
I sat on a bench and cried.
“This is what systemic oppression does to people,” I thought. “It kills hope. This is what I ran away from, and what’s caught up with me in America. And I’m done running. I’ll stay and fight.”
Ksenia Anske was born in Moscow and came to the US in 1998 not knowing English, having studied architecture, and not dreaming that one day she’d be writing. She lives in Seattle with her partner and their combined three kids in a house they like to call the Loony Bin.