Notes of a Russian Visitor

The director of PEN Moscow is worried about Russophobia.

Thirty-two years ago, in the spring of 1991, I first came to New York, to attend the Glasnost in Two Cultures conference of women writers in Russia and North America. It was my first real trip abroad. Going to America at the time was like going to the moon for Soviet people.

The flight itself took almost a day, with stops in Ireland and Newfoundland. Soviet citizens could take out only $30 regardless of the duration of the trip; there was only one bank where rubles could be changed for dollars, and people had to sign up for an appointment a week in advance.

The lucky ones “back from the moon” described the incredible number of VCRs and varieties of sausage. Soviet TV showed gleaming Fifth Avenue storefronts and strolling ladies with dogs instead of the usual propaganda reports from slums. In Russia at this time, there were shortages of the most basic products.

The first thing that struck me about New York was the endless variety of people, cultures, and museums, as well as the very rhythm of the city, which was similar to Moscow’s. I immediately felt at home here. Early in the morning before the conference, I went out to Washington Square, where students were lying and sitting on the grass, and there was a hotdog stand on the corner, the smell mingling with the smell of apple blossoms. When I bought a hotdog, the vendor asked where I was from  and was happy to hear that I was from Moscow. Gorbachev! Everybody then was interested in what was going on in the USSR, how people lived, what they thought.

The conference, organized by New York University and the Modern Literary Association, was the first large-scale meeting of Slavists, American feminists, and Russian women writers; it gave an energetic start to dozens of new projects, books, and translations, and, most importantly, to regular personal contacts and dialogues. “People Instead of Reinforced Concrete” was the title of my article in the magazine Ogonyok about these meetings, referring to the fact that the “Iron Curtain” was broken by people from both sides who believed in a new, free, more perfect world without stereotypes, without hatred and hostility. Then, Americans started to come regularly and stay to live in Russia for long periods of time, and Russians began to live in America. The Moscow–New York flight became part of the professional and personal lives of many on both sides of the ocean.

I haven’t been to New York in almost three years, since the pandemic began. So much has changed in the world. The Covid pandemic closed down life. The Ukraine war has revealed the fragility of longtime relations and the cruelty of wars of attrition. Many things were frighteningly reminiscent of my childhood experiences during the Cold War. It seemed like the Iron Curtain was suddenly and rapidly coming down on both sides. I was on my way to meet friends and understand what was going on.

Today, once again, a trip to the US for Russians is like a trip to the moon, the way it was in 1991. To renew your visa, you have to go to another country for an interview and live there for more than a week, waiting for processing. There are no more direct and cheap flights from Russia (the trip takes about a day, with connections), and instead of $500–700, economy class now costs about $1,500–2,000. Russian banks are disconnected from the international system, so, just as in the 1990s, you need cash. But cash is not taken everywhere. My first encounter with the New York subway in April 2023 turned out to be an unpleasant surprise: The subway pass could be bought only by credit card and I had to take a cab, which cost three times as much as it had in 2020.

In 1991, the first thing I saw on TV in America was Donald Trump and demonstrations with portraits of Lenin in Moscow. Then I was afraid that perestroika was dead, and I rushed to call home. It turned out to be okay: They were showing the daily pickets on Mayakovsky Square. In the spring of 2023, there were debates on TV about the upcoming election, Zelensky demanding guns, and Trump again. “Of course, we should give Ukraine more weapons,” said a friend, pouring tea, “but so that they don’t reach Moscow.” I got scared.

My friends asked if there was food in the stores. I said that there was, that the brands that were no longer available in the country were still sold by boutiques, that in general you could buy anything if you had money. An acquaintance asked me to meet her neighbors, who wanted to hear from a person from Moscow.

“Everyone knows that Russia is the greatest evil in the world, a threat to humanity and progress,” a respectable elderly gentleman began the conversation. “What should we do about this evil?” I told him about a neighbor at my dacha near Moscow, a lover of Russian vodka and political TV shows; after the first drink, he always said that the United States dreamed of making all Russians slaves. I said that many Russians, despite the propaganda, have an interest and sympathy for Americans, that I recently attended a conference in Moscow about American culture. And many students and scholars cannot come to the United States because of sanctions that hit not politicians and oligarchs but millions of ordinary citizens, primarily the middle class and intellectuals. The sanctions are leading some people to agree with the propaganda. The gathered neighbors recalled how they met Russians in the 1990s, and how interesting it was to socialize with them.

At two universities where I visited Slavic culture departments, I was the first guest from Moscow since the pandemic began. I heard about how Russian programs were being closed, how funding was being cut, how scholars from Russia were being removed from conferences. One colleague (who left the USSR in the 1980s to escape anti-Semitism) recently lost her seat on the board of a prestigious association—she was born in the USSR, and the board did not like it. Fortunately, the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies (ASEEES) opposes the “abolition of Russian culture” and even invites Russian researchers to participate in conferences. But this seemed to me almost heroic.

Colleagues asked if there were any scholars and journalists left in Russia, having read in the press that everybody had left. I told them about the recent 30th anniversary of Novaya Gazeta in Moscow; about the work of the editorial board under hard pressure; about the new independent online media, which appears in megalopolises and small towns almost every month (I enumerated a couple of dozen of them from memory). I also told them about the work of Memorial, about crisis centers and other NGOs (including those on the list of “foreign agents”) that help people. About the new phenomenon of thousands of people sending money every day to independent media and NGOs in order to pay for the fines of activists, and to help refugees in all regions of the vast country. About local deputies from the Yabloko party, who won elections on a platform for peace.

“We haven’t read about that anywhere,” said a colleague. “How can we help them?”

Thirty years ago, Russians and Americans discovered each other. In that time together, they managed to create professional and civic communities and to tell a wide audience about it. Now, it looks like we have to start all over again. However, the experience of 30 years cannot be undone.

The main thing we can do for each other is not to lose touch and to remember that our common future depends on us, too. This is what Track Two Citizen Diplomacy, ASEEES, and groups like Women Transforming Our Nuclear Legacy are talking about today in America: that history is made by people. And we will make it. I believe that.

Nadezhda Azhgihina is a journalist and the director of PEN Moscow.