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Translation and Her Retinue

America of the Mind
by Sergey Gandlevsky
translated by Philip Metres

     "The border held mystery for me;"
                      --Alexander Pushkin
      "You young people have one America on your mind," my elderly relative was saying, letting me know that there was no sense in wasting his breath on a nursling like me. The conversation could have moved, by the way, into the advantage of a multiparty system or the true author of Quiet Flows the Don--but it didn't change the issue: the America in my mind was a total fairy tale [1]. My relative was not a caricatured Soviet pensioner. Not at all. But from the altitude of his age he counted all who appeared in the world noticeably after him as part of the same tribe of "youth." (These days I commit the exact same sin).
      Most likely, he didn't mean us, but the previous generation--the Stilyagi of the Sixties generation [2]. In contrast to the model images of that highly-gifted generation, we didn't "make life" from America, harkening to jazz under the photograph of Hemingway and calling each other "old man." We devoted all our free time (and it was all free) to Scythian drunkenness, with the inevitability of one who has in mind seditious speech--actually, in fact, rebellion sold by a certain brand of foul vodka, or "Volga Dawns," or cheap portwine in half-liter bottles with dirty blind etiquette. And in the profession of our group of drunken anticommunist cavemen, the United States of America came in handy.
      America represented a kind of anti-country to the U.S.S.R., a government in reverse, and we, malcontents and insolents, cracked jokes listlessly, wandered around Moscow half-drunk and spent the night in the capital as if we were "over the ocean"--at the Regressive Theater, War Boulevard, the Anti-Soviet Hotel. [3]
      (Subconsciously, probably many of our fellow countrymen actively hoped that the world's laws--including the transatlantic and material ones--were not written for the New World at all, and would diminish, perhaps, with the rotation of the globe counterclockwise, and almost peter out in America, that ultimate development of the West. How else to explain the childishly carefree attitude of those gray-haired, more or less respectable and prudent people at the end of the 1980s, when "The West" kicked open the door of the Country of Soviets? How they hastened to lend money for a fantastic percent to fly-by-night banks and even to the first Tom-Dick-or-Harry, as if we were never taught the laws of conservation of matter and energy! Personally well-versed in these laws, Yury Karabchievsky, an engineer by trade, troubled the delight of some neophyte investors who yesterday were more detestable than bohemians: "Things must be pretty bad in the economy if money is coming to punks like us." He really saw into the crystal ball. Now, it turns out that in some deep sense, my surly relative was in part right about the "America of the mind.")
      All of us 1980s generation counted on Uncle Sam the way we had on Uncle Steve, the Soviet version of "Officer Friendly." We thought: yeah, he'll definitely mete out justice for the hooligan pranks of the "Evil Empire." And, some years later, high above the Adirondacks, I saw a ring of planes that read "U.S. Air Force," I thought, mockingly, for old times sake: "one of ours!" It was natural that during this time Ronald Reagan became an idol of our group. Like Nikolay Rostov with the tsar in War and Peace, we fell in love with the American president. It is true that this comical feeling more than irked American intellectuals who from time to time visited our circle, but we heatedly based their reaction on snobbism and the "childish illness of the Left." (Now I wouldn't judge them that severely).
      To my taste, the best monument of the ancient game of bowing low before the West was the "Ode to the Seizure of St. Georges, October 25, 1983," written by Alexander Soprovsky, regarding the landing of American armies on the Island of Grenada. Due to lack of space I cite selected strophes and the final chord of this excellent poem:
      I drink a lot of vodka,
      And don't neglect portwine
     Even on an empty stomach.
      I grab the charming ladies,
      Now and then, in different places.
      And now in the White House
      You press against the morning news
      Democracy in stirrups,
      Not knowing other concerns
      Other than the rights of one man.
      The dawn shines over the Potomac.
      Under the stars and stripes
      Of McDonald's, the victorious fleet
      Flies like a bird over a ravine,
      A predatory fish swimming--
      And lo! the bulwark of Marxism was falling.
      And over the waves of the Caribbean
      By the green of Manzanita
      The sons of an international power--
      O you, young MacFarlane,
      O you, intransigient Weinberger--
     Thunder to doomed Havana!
      For whom, amid wild drunkenness
      Do I sing, jumping from the table?
      Who, taking up arms against the powers of evil,
      Casting aside the Kremlin tanks?
      In whom has honor not yet died?
      Whose legendary dealings
      Will Yankees for ages never forget?
      The Californian eagle's!

     The reality, as usual, did not slow down to respond to the fantasy, taking everything subsequent into itself. And the author's own words were phrased in keeping with the stylized genre, in the spirit of the adventurous 18th century. By some miracle a short time later, the panegyric of a Moscow parasite was declaimed in the White House before the president of the United States of America. And what is more, the heavens saw fit to remove the poet and the hero of the ode. But since Soprovsky has not been among the living for twelve years, and ex-president Ronald Reagan is gravely and incurably ill and has even made arrangements, according to mass media, from the moment it was known, in order to avoid misunderstandings to let slip by his ears, my solitary witness is doomed against attention and canonization.
      ;One morning, we were overcome by the shakes--and a good third of a bottle of warm champagne foamed out, staining our hands, shirts and chins. Taking turns, straight from the bottle, we emptied a second and final one. And started to feel better. To mark the occasion, we set out aimlessly into the depths of Moscow. Only now did it catch our eye that the capital seemed dead, and only black government motorcades prowled here and there, turning on their flashing lights and chirps. "The satraps are heading home--good riddance," we decided and left Smolensky Square for the Arbat. We immediately fell into a crush of people. The crowd pitched from side to side exactly as if it were pursuing someone. Inside, the service personnel of the nearby cafés and restaurants in the formal old Russian headdresses and tall chef caps drew towards the windows of the establishment eatery, flattening their noses from curiosity. Neither Soprovsky nor I understood at all what this ruckus was about, when the crowd suddenly exhaled a noise like a swordsman-butcher. Here, into a stage-prop cabriolet of some enterprising street photographer in the middle of the Arbat, Nancy Reagan, first lady of America, lightly rose, and, in the next moment, the "California eagle"--the man himself--loomed. And we, in a comradely choir, with bad voices, through two armed cordons (an outer ring of American persecutors and an inner ring of Soviet), said hellos in bad English to the President of the U.S.A. The next morning, we squabbled over a photograph in Moscow News: whose hand salutes in the right corner of the frame--the odewriter's or mine?
      Fifteen years ago, societal events in our 1/6th of the globe began to develop with head-spinning rapidity, and already by the end of the 1980s I was hanging out in Montreal at the house of a second comrade from my youth. Together we dropped in on the local American consular office in order to straighten out our passports and roll into the "real America"--and visit a third buddy.
      A white-haired black bureaucrat wearing inconceivable silver rings, who very much reminded me of someone else, gave me a blank questionnaire. Before I sat down to write, I strained to my memory;That's who! He reminded me of the Uncle Remus from the paperback cover--a North American version of Pushkin's nanny, Arina Rodionovna.
      I understood the questionnaire immediately, which graphically confirmed to me the rightness of my traditional naive picture of the U.S., as a country where everything is topsy-turvy from ours. Answers, fraught with unpleasantness in the homeland, here were obvious and welcoming. I was a little annoyed that in the column "membership in the Communist organizations," I could only put a small expressive dash in place of a beautiful definition: "I was expelled because of personal convictions incompatible with being in the ranks of the All-Soviet Leninist Youth Communist League."
      I was expelled in grand style--in a tall building in Lenin Hills at the committee meeting of the Youth Communist League of Moscow State University, equivalent to a district committee. But within a month or two of my citizen execution, I let my parents know that in place of a diploma I would get a scarlet letter. They sounded the alarm. A friend of my parents, an invalid from the war, a violinist and director of a privileged music school, drank a bottle of cognac with the high-ranking daddy of one of his students, who softened the blow prepared for a freethinker of Soviet fate. Thus my banishment from the "ranks" ended without much of a bang, as it would twenty years later, when filling out consular papers.
      On the appointed day I came for the visa. With much disapproval Uncle Remus extended to me my papers:
      "You are allowed to enter the country, even though you concealed from us your affiliation with the Communist Party."
      "How is that possible?"
      "The computer showed it."
      Then, I really got behind the looking glass.
      In the morning, I, a freshly baked Bolshevik with a jar of beer in his hand, was pulling up in an express bus to the Canada-American border.
      "If they get interested at passport control, whoever you are, don't get it in your head to characterize yourself as a 'poet,'" a Russian traveler warned me just in time, "they can put you away just like they do with their own nutcases."
     The officer of border service translated the visage of Mr. Gandlevsky in the photo as "hammer and sickle" and returned it to the Mister. Uttering some inarticulate American sounds, he smacked the stamp down, and I found myself in America.
      "I have never seen another country yet. The border held mystery for me. Ever since I was a child, I dreamt of traveling most of all." Precisely.
      They called us to board. Before climbing into the bus, I lingered in order to say my own dumb "hi" to this unlikely America, and take a good look into the long-awaited foreign land. But visibility had suddenly worsened; a heavy snow was falling at an angle. Through an absolutely empty area to the control-admission point, a short file of people drew near. In front was a man in a long black coat and black bowler hat, and behind him, as if his copies, stood five boys, uniformly decreasing in a flattering mirror, small-smaller-smallest, in little coats and bowler hats of the same unchildish cut and color. The wind mercilessly blew the sidelocks of the six.
      Why was he wandering from country to country on foot? Was it a Saturday? In an overflow of emotion, I memorized this picture postcard of an exodus.


     1. For his entire life, Mikhail Shokholov dodged accusations of having plagiarized in his novel.
     2. The "Stilyagi," or "style hunters," began appearing in Moscow by 1949, adopting an American sensibility that included zoot suits, chewing gum, greased hair, and jazz.
     3. In Moscow, there is a Progress Theater, a Prospekt of Peace, and a "Soviet" Hotel.




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