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Return to Motherland

“Dumb Socialism”

People emigrate usually for one of the two reasons: either in search of a better life (wellbeing, lots of dollars) or for political motives. Although my living standards were always, as they say now, “below the poverty line”, I never was particularly bothered by problems of personal wellbeing. My departure was caused rather by political motives. Unlike the bona fide political emigrants who were forced to leave because of their conflicts with the system - namely the KGB, I got along fine with the system, rather, I had no quarrels with it. On the contrary, I loved socialism; because of it I was able to move from the outback, from a poor family, to the capital, to work there in such prestigious research institutions as the Institute of the Far East, then the Institute of the World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO), then the Institute of Social Sciences (ION) of the CPSU Central Committee. At the same time I was constantly annoyed by perceived “departures” from socialism, such as the exceedingly easy employment of the offspring of Academicians, CPSU functionaries, government bureaucrats, etc., whom I first have come upon at IMEMO. I came to really be disgusted with socialism at ION, where I first encountered the Communist Central Committee privileges that I had previously known only by hearsay. All these apparently nice people of the nomenklatura elite had no relation to the “people” or to socialism, whom they supposedly served. Although I was not a politicized person at that time (busy with teaching and research work), my annoyance with socialism grew because of the hopeless stupidity of the state officials, by whose fault “dumb socialism” had been built. Science bosses were no better, at least in the area of social science. These functionaries couldn’t even write their own speeches, while people who had not discovered a single regularity (to say nothing of laws) in their area of study became Academicians (full members of the Academy of Science). Decisions about publication of books and articles were made by officials who didn’t differ GNP from GDP, integration from internationalization, and defense of doctoral theses depended on “agreements” with the Director of the Institute and good relations with his clique.

This kind of “dumb socialism” started to turn me into an active proponent of capitalism, which made a favorable impression on me during my many trips abroad to international conferences and business trips for research purposes. What attracted me most in capitalism was creative freedom and freedom of publishing, especially after my book had been held in the Oriental Literature Publishing House for five years, before it was finally published. Eventually, through a chance occurrence  (marriage of my son to a Canadian citizen, followed by his “reunification” with me and my wife) I found myself in Canada – the very best capitalist country of them all, according to the United Nations statistics.

Capitalism: buy cheap, sell dear

First, a few words about the reaction my return caused. For some reasons, it irritated some of my acquaintances enormously. One “left-wing” journalist who had once worked in Canada could not understand how could anyone return from that “paradise” to the madhouse that is Russia. I got the impression should the opportunity present itself, he would gladly quit his struggle against the “regime” and depart to Canada. Another acquaintance, a well-known figure in the left-wing circles, attacked me once (after I published an article critical of him), proclaiming that he had been fighting the regime here while I was enjoying life in the West, so how dare I criticize him! However, in the end all those offended were reconciled by the conviction that I returned because I had turned out to be a failure, a loser.

 It’s not that simple. Your success or failure as an immigrant depends on the goals you set for yourself. If your goal is simply “to live decently”, in the bourgeois sense of having an apartment, a car, good food and clothing, then there’s no problem in obtaining all that in Canada. Even if you are an unemployed welfare recipient, you have all that for free. This freeloading distinguishes Canada from the United States, where the social guarantees have to be earned. That’s why many people seek to gain entry specifically to Canada. (My wife and I described the details of Canadian life in our book Immigration to North America: Advices of Russian Canadians, which is available in Moscow at the bookstore in Novy Arbat Avenue).

But if creative activity is the purpose of your life, then you run into problems, especially if you’re Russian. Many Russians imagine that we are like Americans and even more like Canadians. In reality, we differ from them more than, say, the Japanese differ from the Chinese. When I was a fervent Marxist-Leninist, I accorded no importance to ethnic and cultural differences between nations. I imagined that we are all brothers, and the only real differences are the class ones: the poor vs. the rich. The class differences do exist, obviously, but national differences turn out to be no less important. When I lived in the USSR, I was never concerned about my ethnicity (my mother is Russian and my father a Tartar), but as soon as I set foot on Canadian soil, I realized that I am Russian to the bone. The instruction booklet for immigrants from Russia served to reinforce this feeling. Of the many points made there, the following are the most memorable: remember that here in Canada children don’t support their parents and vice versa; young people don’t offer their seats to senior citizens; if a friend asked to borrow some money from you, excuse yourself and invest that money in your own business instead, and so on. I didn’t take serious notice at the time. Later, however, I saw on many occasions that these abstract recommendations are true to life - in particular, in the case of my Canadian daughter-in-law and her rich parents.

Also, I discovered with surprise that Canadians don’t fulfill their promises, just like Russians, except that the manner of breaking promises is more elegant here. Simple friendship between people is almost impossible, unless their relations are built on “mutual needfulness” in business or in some common cause.

It is not difficult in principle to penetrate into purely Canadian society: you need, first, to master English, preferably with no accent; second, to adopt their type of thinking and conduct, based on a single principle, in four words: buy cheap, sell dear. I devoted my first two years here to the study of this foundation, I read a lot of books, starting with nursery rhymes and ending with their modern authors. Actually, I overdid it with the latter, for most Canadians do not know them, neither do they know their history. I intended initially to socialize exclusively with Canadians, avoiding contacts with Russian immigrants and any Russian speakers. But soon I grew tired of it. I found out that I am unable to support an hours-long conversation about hockey or climbing some mountain (those being the most popular topics here). Here, people don’t talk about politics, literature, the meaning of life, much less about foreign countries, simply because they know nothing about these things and most importantly, people don’t even understand why they should know about them. They are all good specialists in their areas and they constantly think about one thing only: how to make more money, how to survive and improve their wellbeing. 90% of all books are precisely about ways to make money and survive “in the jungle”, “in the shark pond”. I remember how shaken I was when I first read the book 7 Steps to Freedom by Benjamin D. Suarez – a 700-page volume describing the path to becoming a millionaire from the author’s own experience. He announces proudly that when the goal was achieved after 20 years, he bought jewelry for his wife, a house and an RV, in which they traveled all around America. That struck me as strange, for I had traveled all around the USSR despite being no millionaire (by means of the Znanie Society), and I had many opportunities to acquire a house or a dacha, if I only so wished – without any trials of the kind described by B. Suarez. Sure, I understood that’s capitalism for you, but I hadn’t known how powerfully it turns all people into bolts in the free-market system. It was all so foreign to me as a truly Russian man. Like I said, I moved to Canada for the sake of creative freedom, not for money. And this is where I suffered a complete fiasco.

Free, but within bounds…

To my extreme surprise, I encountered harsh censorship. I started writing articles about the Russian economy with all its problems of the post-perestroika period. These articles were politely returned to me with the note that they were “not in the plan”. In the USA, my manuscript of a book (The Russians: Doomed to Hope) was rejected, despite my previous agreement with the publishing house. A review by a “black opponent” was attached, containing a heap of recommendations for reworking the manuscript; their main thrust, I gathered, was that the book was not sufficiently critical of the socialist system in the USSR. Also, they recommended that I remove my reflections on Canadian reality. To test my guesses, I wrote an article about the Russian economy in which I made a brief mention of the “difficulties” of introducing a market economy, but went on to express a historical optimism about the inevitability of its triumph over the “totalitarian” thinking of most Russian citizens. This article was immediately published in one of Vancouver'’ economic magazines.

The mechanics of this censorship became clear to me when I was myself asked to do the part of a “black opponent” and review an article – they sent me in advance two pages of objections that can be made to a manuscript. I could choose to reject the article on any one point – say, poor English. But the main reason why the manuscript will be inevitably rejected is its criticism of the free-market economy in general and the American democracy in particular. Anything may be criticized, but not these two “fundamental values”. Also, it is not allowed to criticize any foreign leader whom the USA treat as a friend. For instance, all of my articles that criticized Gorbachev and Yeltsin, and Kozyrev, too, were rejected not just in the USA and Canada, but even in South Korea. Legally, of course, I may publish at my own expense anything that does not violate the Criminal Code. But I would not be able to disseminate my writings without advertisements, and the ad people would be “on alert” already. Considering that Americans and Canadians would never read anything not advertised on TV or in the press, this brand of censorship is most effective under free markets and democracy.

Also, I failed to establish rapport with Canadian social scientists, especially those specializing in Russia. Unlike me, they displayed great optimism about the adoption by Russians of Western, i.e. American values – the only ones they consider truly “valuable”. Besides, like other scientists, they are all experts on “right nostril hairs”, that is, they only know one aspect of Russian reality, and that mostly through the Western press, since almost none of them know Russian. (Can you imagine a Russian expert on America who does not know English?) Narrow specialization and professionalism are both the weak and strong points of North American reality. Here people are professionals of the highest degree who are totally ignorant about every other field. The latter has become an acute problem of the general culture the American population. This is why President Clinton’s latest State of the Union Address implores Americans to devote more effort to literacy and general culture (14% of adult Americans are unable to point out their country on the map, quite a few are unable to read or write upon graduation from high school). This is not to say that there are no cultured, widely educated people among North American scientists. Such people exist, but they are the exception from the general rule. This is why Russians, used to philosophizing on any subject, have difficulty socializing with North Americans. These people are simply dull.

Interrelationships within the science community proved to be not much different from those that enraged me in the USSR. The same clan mentality, the same preference for the well-connected in hiring practice, the same disdain for the “too clever”. The latter is especially characteristic of Canada, where universities have the following preferences in hiring: women, “visual minorities”, people with disabilities or illnesses. If the candidate is all three, there is no way not to hire her. Her knowledge and qualifications are the last of considerations. Canadian journalists keep poking fun at this practice, but discrimination against the “clever” persists. That’s why the most gifted Canadians pursue careers abroad (for instance, the economist and diplomat John Galbraith).

I repeat: the style of thinking and conduct described above can conceivably be adopted. But most Russian immigrants are unable to adopt it, since it is so contrary to a Russian’s mentality. This is why most immigrants from Russia, even those who are Canadian citizens and middle-class in income and lifestyle, are outside the Canadian society, constituting a margin.

To become a real Canadian, one must eradicate Russian personality traits, most notably soul and conscience. Then you’re OK. Some individuals manage it. To them, Russia becomes a means for making money and nothing more.

Unlike them, I chose to remain Russian, to whom all these Canadian-American values mean nothing. My only value is Russia, and my wife and I decided to return there.

*   *   *

We left in 1992 and returned to … 1912. We arrived in a capitalist Russia plagued by the same problems it had had just before the Revolution of 1917: widespread poverty, strikes, dominance of foreign capital, paralysis of government. The intelligentsia in the capital strives to emulate Americans, the language, especially in the press on radio, resembles the Russian ghetto lingo of Brighton Beach, everything trite and disgusting from Western pop culture is embraced. Relations are built on monetary interests, same as in the West. Was it worth returning? – Yes. After spending some time in the periphery, I determined that Russia is still Russia, Russians are still Russians. Ivans haven’t turned into Johns. Capitalism with its principle of buy cheap, sell dear clearly doesn’t work in Russia. Human relationships still exist there. Serious passions are at work there, rage and love - for motherland and for all humanity, as usual. In the West they make money, in Russia we make history. This is what makes Russia interesting.

 Published in "VIP" (1998, No. 10); "Russian Vancouver," January/February ( # 45), 1999.