If there is a Russian in your life…

… I recommend reading Little Failure: A Memoir (I’m halfway through).

A family vacation in which the decision to emigrate was made:

Over a bowl of tomato soup, a stout Siberian woman told my mother of the senseless beating her eighteen-year-old son had endured after his conscription by the Red Army, a beating that had cost him a kidney. The woman took out a photo of her boy. He resembled a moose of great stature crossbred with an equally colossal ox. My mother took one look at this fallen giant and then at her tiny, wheezing son, and soon enough we were on a plane bound for Queens.

Here’s the Soviet emigre engineer encountering an American college:

On his first visit to Oberlin my father stood on a giant vagina painted in the middle of the quad by the campus lesbian, gay, and bisexual organization, oblivious to the rising tide of hissing and camp around him, as he enumerated to me the differences between laser-jet and ink-jet printers, specifically the price points of the cartridges. If I’m not mistaken, he thought he was standing on a peach.

Soviet health care in the 1970s:

[the author as an infant is] revived, but the next day I start sneezing. My anxious mother (let us count the number of times “anxious” and “mother” appear in close proximity throughout the rest of this book) calls the local poly-clinic and demands a nurse. The Soviet economy is one-fourth the size of the American one, but doctors and nurses still make house calls. A beefy woman appears at our door. “My son is sneezing, what do I do?” my mother hyperventilates. “You should say, ‘Bless you,’ ” the nurse instructs.

Russian grandmothers:

Behind every great Russian child, there is a Russian grandmother who acts as chef de cuisine, bodyguard, personal shopper, and PR agent. You can see her in action in the quiet, leafy neighborhood of Rego Park, Queens, running after her thick-limbed grandson with a dish of buckwheat, fruit, or farmer’s cheese—“Sasha, come back, my treasure! I have plums for you!”

An immigrant trying to understand American TV:

The Brady Bunch: Why are Mr. and Mrs. Brady always so happy even though Mrs. Brady has clearly already had a razvod with her previous husband and now they are both raising children who are not theirs? Also, what is the origin of their white slave Alice? Three’s Company: What does it mean, “gay”? Why does everyone think the blond girl is so pretty, when it is clearly the brunette who is beautiful? Gilligan’s Island: Is it really possible that a country as powerful as the United States would not be able to locate two of its best citizens lost at sea, to wit, the millionaire and his wife? Also, Gilligan is comical and bumbling like an immigrant, but people seem to like him. Make notes for further study? Emulate? Planet of the Apes: If Charlton Heston is a Republican, are the monkeys Soviet?

Dreams in the new country:

There are three things I want to do…: go to Florida, where I understand that our nation’s best and brightest had built themselves a sandy, vice-filled paradise; have a girl tell me that she likes me in some way; and eat all my meals at McDonald’s.

More: read the book

4 thoughts on “If there is a Russian in your life…

  1. My maternal grandmother was Russian and lived in New York. When I was in high school she told me she would give me $1000 if I got into MIT (that’s about $3K adjusted for inflation). I did get into MIT (and in fact it’s the only place I applied to) but when my mother heard about the arrangement she made me give back the money.

  2. The Soviet health care system had an impressive lead over the US for life expectancy (more than completely reversed since the collapse of the Soviet Union due to alcoholism). My father worked at the Paris affiliate of a US engineering firm that did business in the USSR, and he told me they had much more stringent workplace safety standards than in the West, e.g. employees could not be required to lift weights above 25kg/50lbs.

    Interestingly, the Soviet standard for maximum allowable exposure to electromagnetic fields is 100 times lower (i.e. 100x more stringent) than in the US and Western Europe. China and Switzerland have adopted that standard. What do they know that our benevolent cell phone and TV/radio broadcasters would rather we didn’t?

  3. A Russian in my life told me she was amazed when she moved to California, that there were houses so close to power substations (as in next-door). Not that someone would try to build a house near such a facility, or live in one, but that the government would allow it. There is a substation my dog and I walk by, next to 4 houses including one where kids live and I wonder what the electric and magnetic field strength is at the house or in the yard. I am guessing in the 10’s of V/m.

  4. @Fazal

    “The Soviet health care system had an impressive lead over the US for life expectancy”

    What is the source of this information? I have strong reasons to believe this was not true at all and that the Communist authorities provided false statistics.

    Also, I believe that the alcoholism had been a huge issue in Russia even before the collapse of the Communism. It’s one of the reasons why Gorbachev introduced a partial prohibition in 1985.

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