Март 27, 2018
Roundtable: “From America with Love. American Slavists and the Russian Perestroika” (organized by The New Review in co-partnership with the Harriman Institute, Columbia University) October 21, 2017
The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. At that point, Americans started ties with post-Communist Russia. However, not only a professional interest captivated policymakers, journalists, and scholars, but also pure human curiosity and inspiration. They worked together with a liberal circle of Russian intellectuals such as journalists Yury Schekochikin, Anna Politkovsky, Galina Starovoytova, Professor Galina Belaya, Dr. Ekaterina Genieva, and others. During Russian Perestroyka, Yeltsin’s presidency and Gaydar’s reforms, American slavists, journalists, and film-makers took an active part in the American-Russian multi-cultural dialogue, in the observation, analyses, official advising, research, as well as genuine support of the process of building a New Russia. They researched and established special expertise on political, social, economic, and cultural fields of new Russia; they visited the country trying to understand the Russian lifestyle, Russian culture, and “Russian soul.” They “fell in love” with Russia -- though very soon they also fell down into disappointment and frustration.
The Roundtable “From America with Love” gathers American slavists who have taken an active part in this process. The participants will discuss the following questions: what do they think about that period of time after over two decades have passed? How do they feel today about their 90s hopes, ideas, and projects? What do they think about the real value of those years as well as present-day perspectives on Russia?
Among the participants of the Roundtable will be (in alphabetical order):
Moderator: Nadezhda Azhgikhina, Vice President of the European Federation of Journalists; co-founder of the “Free Word’ Association
Prof. Ellen Chances, Princeton University
Jamey Gambrell, translator editor of Art in America
Katrina vanden Heuvel editor-in-chief of The Nation
Piskounov Eugene, NTVA/ART Distribution Inc., CEO
Prof. Carol Ueland, Drew University
Lynn Visson (interpreter)
Grace Warnecke Kennan, National Committee on American Foreign Policy (NCAFP), Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Harriman Institute at Columbia University
The Round table will be in English. The Roundtable will take place at DCTV as part of the program dedicated to the 75th anniversary of The New Review, the oldest Russian-language intellectual magazine in the US. This Round Table will take place at the television center DCTV during the 10th annual documentary film festival organized by The New Review Inc. The film-program includes several screenings about Andrey Sakharov, Yuri Shchekochikhin – Duma’s members in the 1990s, about Yegor Gaydar, about Boris Nemtsov, and others. All details about this remarkable program of the film-festival can be viewed on the website: www.rusdocfilmfest.org.
The original stenogram was recorded at the slavists' meeting at DCTV (see a short version).
...Great honor to be with you and to start our short - but I think a very important - discussion devoted to our past, devoted to our dreams, devoted to several generations of people who had and still have a dream, both from the United States and from the Soviet Union, which has been transformed into Russia. And as a representative of this process and the moderator of this round table, which will be put on the web, translated and included in the New Review publication, and posted on the website of the Free Word association, and I will talk about it at the end if we have time. I would like to express my deep appreciation to the Harriman Institute, the New Review Corporation, to everybody who...who contributed to this process and to this transformation of the world, not only the world of professional academic status, not only the world of translation, journalism, but the whole environment. Because this intention to destroy, the Iron Curtain, to destroy, hatred and prejudice and the Iron Curtain inside our souls it was started long before perestroika. But perestroika gave inspiration, and I'm very happy to give the floor here today to those people who have contributed a lot, who did a truly pioneering job, and who overcame what was not possible to overcome at that time, and opened the way to a new development. Everybody is unique, and I hope that we will have time in the future to prepare some more deep and comprehensive observations, and probably we'll talk about it today.
And my first and probably the only question to each of our participants would be to remind us of the most remarkable moments and the most important results of this transformation, which was started and it's not ended yet. And if I could, I would like also to ask you to tell why this is so and how we could go on. I would like also to remind you that after this session, we'll have a short break, ten minutes, and after that we'll go to watch a couple of movies, and one movie is devoted to the person who used to be my husband, who used to be one of Russian pioneering contributors to this stream of deep dreams, who believed that we could make a difference. And our personal choice made a difference, and it's important to remind ourselves that time and those expectations, and probably to think of what could be done to fulfill those expectations.
And it is my pleasure to give the floor to Grace Warnecke Kennen, a legend of the women's movement, a legend of these very first steps of cooperation in meetings and gathering between Russians and Americans, the Harriman Institute, lots of other initiatives and fantastic personnel. The floor is yours.
Grace Warnecke Kennan:
What an introduction. I can't believe it. First of all, I do want to bring greetings from the Harriman Institute. Unfortunately, Alex Cooley, the director, is out of town, and the various faculty members who wanted to come also had a conflict. So because I'm on the National Advisory Council, I'm here representing Harriman, as well. I don't think I'm a legend in any way, but for a lot of reasons, I've been involved with a lot of projects, starting, really starting before the Soviet Union fell apart. It was not all in the '90s. And in each one of them, we sort of had a dream that maybe this would help end the Cold War. I remember really thinking that that was a great goal.
But to give you some idea of the various things I did—and these are not in complete order—I was the, one that – and Katrina also knows about it – I got involved with something with something called the Alerdinck (CHECK SPELLING) Foundation for the East-West cooperation, which, her husband was also involved with. But we were bringing journalists from East and West together, usually in lovely...well, we met in Paris, we met in New York, we met in Moscow. And we would... He was a very idealistic, rich Dutch businessman who started this foundation, and basically he would bring out very anti-Soviet articles that American journalists had written, and then bring out the anti-American articles that Soviet journalists had done, and then he would bring them all together, and we would read...everybody would have lots of drinks, become very friendly, and then read these aloud. And it was a wonderful kind of illustration of how ridiculous this conversation had been.
I then started on a series of projects which, I think, in their way did make a difference. Two of the most dramatic were these: I ended up being the founding executive director of the American Soviet Youth Orchestra. Well, this was the idea of Fred Starr, who at that point was president of Oberlin College, and Oberlin has a big music department, so he wanted to promote Oberlin's music department, of course. And, I was, as often the case, I was between jobs, so I was happy to jump on this bandwagon. And he said, "You know, why don't you do a feasibility study, and we'll see whether it's possible to have an American Soviet Youth Orchestra?" Well, at that point, I went overseas anyways, and I went to Moscow as an editor of “A Day in the Life of the Soviet Union.” Do you remember those big books? And while I was there, I happened to meet the deputy director and I told him about this idea. And unbelievably, he thought it was a good idea, and that's where it all started. And then I came back and was just told to start an orchestra.
I was not musical. I did not have a musical background. I had absolutely no way to start a whole orchestra. But, I seemed to have done it right. I did go around and get a very prestigious board or advisory council, and that I was able to do, and with that I went and met all the heads of all the conservatories because I knew that if the conservatories weren't in charge, were not for this thing, that they would not encourage their musicians to audition. So we got that all settled. And then I went to Moscow, and I met with the Moscow conservatory. I met with GosKoncert, which – I will not even repeat what happens at GosKoncert. Such a horrible organization. But, believe it or not, we actually did put together an orchestra of 110 musicians. We had Zubin Mehta as the the conductor of our first concert, and we toured both countries. And I think this was the kind of thing that did make a difference. And we decided that we would do the rehearsals at Oberlin College, but the Russian chaperones who came with the students said that on no condition can Russians sleep in the same room with Americans in the dormitory.
So, we had a big party the night before. We got all the Russians drunk, and then we put the kids together: one American, one Russian. And by the next morning, it was done, and they couldn't do anything about it. It's a true story, funny story, but it happened. And we have even had... That orchestra continued — not under me, thank goodness — and for 15 more years. We've had marriages from that orchestra. It had a big, big effect in bringing people together. And I could go on and on. But, in a few words, another thing people said couldn't happen was “A Day in the Life.” We had a hundred photographers—50 from the East and 50 from the West—and we covered the entire Soviet Union. They all took pictures on one day: May 15th, 1987. And, that was an incredible thing to put together, because they all had to start at the same time, and they all had exactly 24 hours to take their pictures. And for those of you who've seen the book, it's a pretty wonderful book. But, again, it was a matter of going to places where nobody had ever been before, and getting permissions. And they told us... We said, "We want to shoot a prison." They said, "You can't possibly shoot a prison," but we did end up being able to shoot a prison.
So, a lot of these were lessons that things people think are not possible but are possible. And I'm going to turn it over now tothe others.
Thank you, Grace. It's really great to remember those years of our life. It's...it's really great. Lynn Visson also was one of the first people who did this fantastic job, who prepared lots of future developments. What later turned into several books. First in history, the New Russian-English vocabulary of political development for the UN, translators and interpreters, and lots of other stuff. So, what do you remember?
Thank you. It wasn't really for UN translators, but I was trying to keep up with the changes in the vocabulary because the language was changing so fast that even professionals couldn't manage. I was an interpreter at the UN. It was very difficult when you were suddenly confronted with a totally new word, and you didn't know what it was or where it was coming from. And I remember one speech in the kind of warm, fuzzy days of 'we all love each other', when the delegate ended with a quotation from Chingiz Aitmatov, who was a wonderful writer and very popular, who said, “Мы должны все-таки научиться жить вместе, а то мы все станем манкуртами”
There are times where we were totally blank, and then something floats into your head, and suddenly I realized what she meant was a zombie. We're all going to become zombies otherwise.
Yes. Well, that's about all you can do with it, but you think of the word that isn't even in Russian. But the two areas in which I had some experience... First of all, I would like to politely take issue with the title, “From America with Love, American Slavists and Russian Perestroika.” I would want to say now, ”From America with Regret.”
Ellen Chances: No.
Lynn Visson: Yes. With regret for what happened later. Or perhaps “From America with Hope.” But, “From America with Love is a little bit James Bond-ish.” So, perhaps we could do a little change on that one.
Ellen Chances: No, I thought “From America with Love” is fine because it builds bridges.
Nadezhda Azhgikhina: Okay, you will tell about it later.
Lynn Visson: No, in terms of love, a lot of the work I was doing then, for over two and a half years, was on a book on Russian-American marriages, and that was the first attempt at doing that kind of thing. I admit that the impetus was given by my own marriage, but, whenever we would meet a mixed couple, and I would say, "Why did he do that?" My Russian husband would say, "Because," and then he would say, "Why did the American do that?" and I would say, "Because," and we would find ourselves going like that. So, the number of marriages increased tremendously with the beginning of perestroika. But before that it was impossible. There was a law on the books, passed in 1947, forbidding Russian-American marriages, that then somehow slid off the books. And with all the exchanges, and people going back and forth and so on, there were more and more people meeting, and more and more of these marriages, which I think had a tremendous influence on the cultures, because people saw up close how the other half lived and where the differences were.
The other thing that I think was very important, and is now quite forgotten, were the Space Bridges. And particularly, starting in the mid '80s, there were a whole series of Space Bridges. I have a list of about 32 of them, and they were badly in need of interpreters, so I got called on for those. I think I did about 27. They were on all kinds of subjects. The ones that are most known is the series that Phil Donahue did. He did five of them in Russia. And this was with Vladimir Pozner. This was really a new experience because, even though people found it very hard to believe, they were totally unrehearsed, and completely spontaneous. I mean, there were people on both sides, who had been put into the audience and said to them, "Ask this or that question,” or whatever, but there was no formal rehearsal, , nobody was obliged to answer any questions. And there certainly were some surprises that nobody expected.
Nadezda Azhgikhina: What year was this?
Lynn Visson: Donahue was around '85 to '87.
Female Speaker: Yes, he tried...he's tried in the last year to start those up again. Has had no bidders.
Lynn Visson: Yes, I know. Then, are five Donahue shows on the Soviet Union. And then there were a series of other youth Space Bridges, which were very interesting, called Teen Bridges, in Seattle, in California, in New York, where you had teenagers. The initial shock – and Volodya Pozner really described that magnificently in one of his books – was the first Space Bridge. What happened was you had the television screens, and, suddenly—as he put it—there they were. And that was really a shock for both sides, when you suddenly saw the audience on the other side: normal people who look just like you or whatever, smiling back. And then somebody started waving, and everybody started waving.
This was not all love and kisses. Some of them got into some pretty rough stuff. You know, why don't you allow Jewish immigration? Why don't you allow for the publication of opposing views? And there was no attempt at censorship. Phil's contract that he signed with them stated that there would be no censorship. That didn't mean there'd be no cutting because, everybody knows that for a TV program of an hour and a half, you’ve got to film at least slightly under four hours to have enough material. So, of course, the material could have gotten dropped, some of it was controversial, but a great deal still made it in there, because otherwise you wouldn't have had continuity, and it wouldn't have made any sense. So I think those had a tremendous influence because they were shown over and over, and ordinary people saw them because they found them so interesting, and such an incredible experience.
The other thing I wanted to say was on change. When Gorbachev came in, there was a feeling of a totally new breath of wind, that everything was going to change, and in a way, both sides were – I hate to say it – at fault, but perhaps we should say slightly mistaken here in believing that you could change everything overnight. And William Taubman described that very well in his excellent biography of Gorbachev, there was this expectation that now everything is going to be new and wonderful, and of course it wasn't, it was a slow process. Some things worked, some things didn't, but it took a while to figure those out, and took a while for that to come around.
Also, you had various generations. The Teen Bridges were one thing. The Donahue ones had some people who were middle-aged, or even elderly, and who were quite shocked by some of the questions. And there was one where, finally, a woman raised her hand during the one on women, and said, "Don't you ever talk about anything normal in Russia, or do we have to talk about sex here for two hours on television?"
That got cut, by the way. But I think the Space Bridges were extremely important. Gradually, they began specializing, which was useful. There were Space Bridges on medicine, Space Bridges on science, Space Bridges on the nuclear age, teenage Space Bridges. And after a while, they just did themselves in. There were too may Space Bridges. They started getting repetitious, and they simply petered out because the whole interest had been the shock of seeing the other audience and, what do they think? And when you knew what they thought, it became less interesting to hear this the 25th time.
Nowadays, when we have a bit of a rolling back to the old days, one can get a bit nostalgic about the Space Bridges, and the phenomena that really worked for change at that point. And I do think they were very important. The other thing I think that sometimes is forgotten, is that when perestroika started, and the changes in the Soviet Union started, a lot of people expected that, "Oh, now they're going to become just like us. They're going to take over our system. It's going to be like democracy in the US," which, of course, it was not. But many people didn't realize that until it was, unfortunately, too late. What are they doing, saying this, that, then the other if they're not working for democracy, freedom, et cetera? But freedom and democracy don't mean being a clone of the United States. And I think there was a tendency to ignore national character, national history, the specifics of what made Russians Russian. That is not something for commercial television. That's something for books or for much smaller discussions.
The other thing, I think, is the tendency to go to extremes here, that both sides moved towards extremes with the TV shows, with what they were writing. The feeling of, "Oh, now we're going to have everything wonderful. Great lovefest on both sides." Or, "No, no, no. They are still our enemies. They're still after us." And it was very hard to find a middle path. If you do a word analysis, by the way, you will find that the words 'moderate' and 'moderation' are very, very common in English in writing about other countries and other cultures. You do not see умеренный and умеренность that often in Russian at all, if you compare the number of times these words are used. And I think that is, to use a Russian word, неслучайно. Well, I'll stop here.
Nadezhda Azhgikhina: Oh, thank you very much. Katrina, would you like to react, or...?
Katrina vanden Heuvel: Editor –in chief- The Nation
I have come to admire Nadezhda's independent voice and spirit in all times, especially in difficult times. And she, has kindly started writing a “LETTER FROM MOSCOW” FOR THE NATION. I hope she'll do more writing because her wise voice is needed. My husband Stephen Cohen lived on and off in Moscow from '85 to '92… I say with humility that my journaslistic life there tracked with Nadezhda. She was at Ogoniok, which was also a flagship of Glasnost, and I worked for three months in 1989 at Moscow News, Moskovskie Novosti. This glasnost’ paper had a very interesting editor –in-chief, Egor Yakovlev, one would see him or his deputy every week, cross the street to Glavlit, the censorship office, to negotiate what could and could not appear in that week's issue. And you could actually see glasnost’ in action.. And I think in the end, a lot of what certainly Moskovskiye Novosti and Ogonyok did, as Glasnost publications, and as Gorbachev, a fervent anti-Stalinist, did with his signature program, was to disclose and ensure that the revelations revelations about Stalin, the Gulag, and its horrors were disclosed publicly and throughout society.
In the link to the present , though we've CERTAINLY WITNESSED political descent—D-E-S-C-E-N-T—from openness, and growing openness to conformity and compliance, but in 1993 I met in the cafeteria of Moscow News, Dmitry Muratov who was then founding Novaya Gazeta. And Yegor Yakovlev was the informal advisor, and the Gorbachevs—both Gorbachev and his wife, Raisa—contributed much of their Nobel Peace Prize money to starting the newspaper, and they were great supporters. So, I think of that today because the arc, even in this time of growing censorship, that Novaya represents is one of continuing glasnost’. ... Even just this past week, as you saw, the New York Times reported on Novaya’s investigatuon on the Chechen government’s abuse of gay men. Novaya held a press conference to reveal more of its
its reporting. The newspaper has been ferociously independent, and I think that's a testament to the continuing power of glastnost’.... Let's be honest, one wishes there was more from below, but I do think to a large extent Perestroika was driven from above ---as Glasnost. And Gorbachev was a great leader in opening the doors for much of what we did. I mean, opened the doors FOR democratization; opened the door, certainly, in trying to bring an end to the Cold War. And I think that's important to remember, and important to remember these things, they're processes, as is our struggle for freedom in our own country. Change is never linear, it zigzag , forward, backward.
I also saw, and I'm sure Nadezhda and others might agree,, what I would call de-democratization occurring in the '90s. The shooting of the Parliament in 1993, and the beginnings of an oligarchical system of media. We talk a lot about government censorship, but there was oligarchical control of these vehicles fused with the state, so I think that's important to remember in these times.
And one very important part of my life with Nadezhda was - and Colette Shulman, who had hoped to be here - was starting We/Mы, which was designed to bring about a dialogue between American and Russian women, whether it was about creating domestic or crisis centers, or small businesses. I also worked with Progress publishers, through the Soros Foundation, which then had an office in Moscow, to fund works of feminist classics. We brought Our Bodies Ourselves; Betty Friedan, Miriam Schneir's anthology of Western feminist writings, Simone de Beauvoir’s work to Russia. Let's be honest, I look at what we did, Nadezhda, Colette and we brought progress and hope but there's a lot more work to be done before Russia is a fair and just and equal country for women.
Ksenia Sobchak who is running in the Russian Presidential campaign of 2018 probably rivals Madonna in her ability to reinvent herself. Yet I want to take hope there's a woman running. But I will close by saying, these are very bad times for US-Russian relations. It takes two to tango, you know, but it's very bad. And where I sit, what worries me is the dominate narrative is the new Cold War; it's all about Putin, Putin, Putin. I think that demonizing Putin is not a policy; it's an alibi for not having a policy. Sure, he’s am authoritarian leader, but as a journalist who’s reported from there, Russia is a very rich, complex country with a long history. I'd love to see more about the role of the church; about the role of the right wing, or young students and where they come from, who are in the streets. But so much of US media coverage is dominated by a Cold War mentality, and I think, anything that can build trust and dialogue in these times is critical. So, I just hope there's a way forward; that people who care can speak up for a more sane future. I don't know if it's from America with love, but from America with hope, dialogue, beginning to renew some relationship that will preempt A very dangerous and escalating Cold War.
Nadezhda Azhgikhina: Katrina, you brought me back to this fantastic title, you came together with Colette to do.
Katrina vanden Heuvel: I know.
Nadezhda Azhgikhina: ...Ogonyok... but we are opening our past together with you and with Steve, andwith the first publications, and those enormous expectations. But what was interesting is that everybody around this table from this part contributed
Katrina vanden Heuvel: To ourWe/myi..
Nadezhda Azhgikhina: We/Mы. It was started by Colette and Katrina in 1991, I think. And then it became Russian-American real dialogue from both sides, and then it became an international women's magazine. And so I think it was a perfect resource for mainstream media, in Russia at least, because many heroes, many issues, came to mainstream media from this grassroots modest publication. And I'm very proud that first chapter was translated later into Russian. And it's a pity that this part of our bridges...Space Bridges and other bridges, haven't been developed enough, so I think that this is a missed subject, something we should develop properly in the future. But we could not forget, and we shouldn't forget, the first steps of those bridges have been done by scholars who were studying Russian literature and culture. And culture, of course, was the main tool, the main opportunity to overcome political or military or other issues and everything. And Ellen Chances was the American chair of one of the first projects devoted to cross Russian-American, American status and Slavic status, both of them together with Professor Zasursky...
We participants of the round table were asked to ponder three questions:
First, what do we think about the perestroika era after more than twenty years have gone by? Secondly, how do we feel today about our 1990s hopes, ideas, and projects? And finally, what do we think about the real value of those perestroika years, and what do we think about present-day perspectives on Russia? In addition, we were asked to offer recollections and thoughts.
All of that – in seven to ten minutes!!
...So here goes…
One word characterizes my feelings during the perestroika years – euphoria. I remember being in Moscow during the summer of 1988 when perestroika was in full swing. The Gorbachev-Reagan summit meeting had taken place during the spring of 1988. The Moscow mood was bursting with the exciting energy of an awakening, a blossoming. I remember individual moments of those months and beyond – political satire openly performed on the Staryi Arbat (Old Arbat). Books by Daniil Kharms and many, many, many others being sold on tables inside subway stations. People constantly telling each other about the latest publication of some previously forbidden literary work: “Did you see that a Nabokov work came out in a magazine?” People waiting for the latest issue of Ogonek. Previously banned books were being published in thick journals and as separate volumes. There were TV programs that were real that talked about flaws in the Soviet system. People were glued to their television sets to watch the Party Congress.
There was the thrill of meeting friends in a café instead of only “na kukhne.” There was the Trenton, New Jersey-Moscow pizza truck in the middle of Moscow.
Then, there was the thrill of being able to be invited by Russian friends who were able to get an official invitation from some institution for us to spend long or short periods of time in Russia. Therefore, we did not have to rely only on the official US/USSR cultural exchange. That meant, for some of us, that we were going back and forth to Russia several times a year, to do research, and to participate in conferences and joint enterprises. I remember, for example, a few of us Americans being the first Americans to be invited to give papers at a Soviet conference on American literature. (My paper was called, “Moscow Meets Manhattan. The Russian soul of Woody Allen’s Films.” It was not only about the obvious influence of Russian literature on Love and Death, but about the ongoing importance of Russian literature in his films.)
American films, including Allen’s films, were shown in Russian movie theaters. I saw Woody Allen’s Purple Rose of Cairo in a Moscow movie theater. As people left the theater, I asked them why they had come to see Allen’s movie. One man said that he had wanted to see the 1970s American film, Kong Kong, which was playing in the adjoining hall, but had accidentally stepped into the wrong hall.
Sitting with the people at our round table reminds me of two Russian/American joint projects. Nadia Azhgikhina and Katrina van den Heuvel were editors of and instrumental in the ongoing success of the women’s journal We/Myi. Nadia and I were parts of a Russian/American joint set of conferences, in Moscow and the US, on contemporary Russian and American literature.
At the time, all of these exciting aspects of glasnost’ and perestroika seemed like the beginning of a dream come true – the ideals of a world without a Cold War, the ideals of Russia without the Iron Curtain. I believed in those possibilities of an opening of Soviet society because as an American who had lived through the 1960s and 1970s, I had seen a time of opening and ideals coming true. I had seen justice prevail as the anti-Vietnam movement ultimately led to the end of American involvement in the Vietnamese war. I had seen the Civil Rights movement. I remembered Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. I remembered the song, “We Shall Overcome.” I believed that beautiful ideals for a better world could prevail. And progress toward that goal had been made and continues to be made on many fronts. …So that was what I expected to happen in Russia…
Now, some dreams have dissipated. All over the world there is increasing divisiveness, distrust, and the rise of ultra-right extremists.
So how do I feel today, about the 1990s hopes, ideas, and projects connected to Russia? What do I think about the real value of those years? What are my present-day perspectives on Russia? I feel that all of those 1990s hopes, ideas, and projects were not in vain. All of those hopes, ideas, and projects were seeds. Those people who planted the seeds have conveyed and transmitted those seeds, those values, to subsequent generations. No matter how grim and glum prospects may look now, the forces for good, for justice, for the betterment of our societies, and the betterment of our common world continue to do their work.
How do I feel about present-day perspectives on Russia? I feel the same way about the present-day perspectives on Russia as I do about present-day perspectives in any part of the world, of our planet, of life.
As we all know, life is unpredictable. Dostoevsky’s underground man writes, in Notes from Underground, that you can say anything, anything, anything you want about human history – except one thing. You cannot say that it is reasonable; you cannot say that it is rational. Life is unpredictable. We see evidence of that every single day. For example, at the time, how many people predicted the imminent fall of the Soviet Union? More recently, how many people predicted that Trump would win the 2016 election?
As we know, Father Zosima, in Brothers Karamazov, says that we never know what comes out of what. He says that like an ocean, everything touches everything. And we know that sometimes, consequences of actions are unpredictable, in both positive and negative ways.
What we do know is that the entire world is in a precarious situation. What we do know is that in history, the actions, large and small, printed and in person, of those who, for example, have participated in perestroika, who have advanced the cause of perestroika, have left tangible and intangible evidence of their attempts to better humanity. This, I believe, is the true value of those who were involved in opening, preserving, and transmitting those values in the perestroika era, and those who continue to preserve and transmit those values. And of course, perestroika could begin to blossom because people, before the perestroika years, had been working to liberalize the Soviet Union. They transmitted those values to others.
At the end of the story, “The Student,” Chekhov writes, “The past, he [the student – E. C.] thought, is tied to the present in an unbroken chain of events flowing one out of the other. And he felt he had just seen both ends of the chain: he had touched one end and the other had moved.” [Chekhov, “The Student,” trans., Michael Henry Heim, in Anton Chekhov’s Selected Stories, selected and ed. by Cathy Popkin (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2014, p.294.]
In terms of thinking about Russia, the United States, and the world, it gives hope that there have always been, and continue to be, people who have worked to perestroit’, restructure life in ways that promote the values of dignity, justice, kindness, generosity, equality, and of course, creativity. Thus, we can all, in our own ways, continue to hope, act, preserve, and transmit those values.
Nadezhda Azhgikhina: Brava! What to say? I should confess that a week ago, Carol Ueland and I developed this roundtable for our first meetings of American Slavists and Russian literary critics and journalists in the field of communication during perestroika and after it. And we dedicated this gathering to professor Galina Andreyevna Belaya, who played extraordinary roles on both sides. And, fortunately, one man came to our discussion, my university mate and general director of NTV America Evgeny Piskunov. Galina Andreyevna was our professor, and played an enormous role in arranging meetings, gatherings, and studies for Russian and American professionals. And, Catherine Nepomnyashchy, everybody remembers her, a fantastic person, my close friend, and, like Galina Andreyevna, she also personally dedicated to this process. And she was the first literary scholar who was the Chair of Harriman institute. During this roundtable we thought, of course, we should go on. Of course, we should not just fix in our memories those emotional and fantastic fruitful days, but probably to try arrange this cooperation today and to do our best to make a difference again and to keep our dream and to make it real. And Carol gave a fantastic talk in Russia, I couldn't do it in English.
Carol was among those slavists who arranged a fantastic conference in 1991, it was called “Glasnost in Two Cultures.” And it gathered two very different groups of American professionals. And Russians of course.
Carol Ueland: So, now I'm in the very fortunate position of looking at the paper I wrote in Russian and translating it back into English, which is actually considerably easier. This has been an unusual year for me because I've been in Russia twice within four months, and it's just because I'm on sabbatical. But I was thinking about the '90s in connection with four conversations that I had with Russians in June. And these were four people that are not from the same circles, in two different cities, who don't know each other at all. And, at one point, each of the said to me, "В 90х мы были свободны, (in the '90s we were free.)" It just got to me in a way that I thought, "Well, what was different about the '90s? What really is different about the '90s?" So, I don't go back as far as most of you do in terms of experience there, but I did manage to catch the end of the Soviet period, actually during the summer of 1985. The IREX (Fulbright) teachers' exchange usually went to Moscow. And what brought this back was, currently, there's a youth festival in Sochi where Putin's just spoken to the Valdai Group. And we were not allowed to go to Moscow in 1985 because there was a youth festival in Moscow, and they could not accommodate 30 American professors of Russian in Moscow. So, we were sent to Leningrad, which, for me, was a salvation because I've been translating the poetry of Alexander Kushner for about a year and desperately wanted to meet him. Of the two months I was there, it took seven weeks to set up that meeting. It finally did happen. But, just thinking about how Western scholars actually met Russians in those days, you could not invite them to where you were living. They were not supposed to invite you to where they lived. You usually got some connection by bringing books from your academic advisor to them and then maybe that person would want to invite you to their home or not, but it was a very slow and cumbersome process. And then, gradually, you met their friends and that's how the circle slightly widened. When I arrived in Petersburg, sorry, then Leningrad, they had no place for us to stay. The dormitory that had been used to house Western scholars had burnt down. And so, we were put up in the Hotel Morskoi Vokzal, which was where the tour ships came in those days. And it had customs in the building so that you were surrounded by the military and all these customs people all the time. And each time a ship came in, a band came out and played the USSR anthem. And this could be at two in the morning, and I felt like I was living in a Fellini movie. So, that was 1985. Now, the next time I got to go was 1989. And, as Ellen described, the end of the '80s was already the '90s. So, in 1989, I went with Cathy Nepomnyaschy. She was writing an article for the Harriman Institute on the publication of Dr. Zhivago. It was an incredible summer. Akhmatova's 100th anniversary of her birth was being celebrated, but the big event was the publication of Dr. Zhivago. So, Cathy and I went out to meet his son, Evgeny Borisovich, who had edited the publication. But then, we also met Vadim Borisov, who was the deputy editor of Novyj Mir at the time. And while we're in his apartment, a box with the first copies of the entire book, Doctor Zhivago, were delivered, at which point Borisov opened it, took two out, got the covers and put the covers on, and gave one to me and one to Cathy. So, I then went on to Leningrad. And as I'm leaving Leningrad, and I have this thought: I have a copy of Dr. Zhivago which hasn't yet reached the bookstores, and I have no receipt for it. And now, I'm trying to smuggle Dr. Zhivago out of the Soviet Union! And that was when it suddenly hit me, this is a completely new world. This is not going back. So, when we had this panel in Moscow last week, Natalia Ivanova, essentially, repeated a very similar experience, that when she was a graduate student, she met Professor Irwin Weil, and he gave her an American publications on Dostoevsky, the work of American scholars. So, their (Soviet scholars) experience was not that different from ours in terms of how we got contacts with people. Now, what was different about the '90s that hasw not benn not already mentioned is that I think one of the big events was this conference that took place in March of 1991. So, just a few months before the coup, called,”Glasnost in Two Cultures.” I was one of the four people on the organizational committe, and it took us over a year to set up that conference. I don't think any of our departments, even the largest, could have afforded this conference. It was sponsored by the MLA, and it included journalists and literary critics, poets, translators. These people were interpreters and there's a huge difference. It was, really on a scale that, you know, I don't think had ever happened before. So, it was a very eclectic American group. Really leading feminist scholars. Domna Stanton and Catharine Stimpson were the people that were the guiding lights for that,wonderful people. I ran the poetry section, and the person we had wanted to invite was Elena Schwartz, and it just to be clear this wasn't going to work. So, we invited Olesya Nikolaeva. So, she was reading in the same section as Marilyn Hacker. Now,Marilyn Hacker had just won the prize, a recognition for the best lesbian poetry of the year. She was incredibly proud of this. Olesya Nicholaeva, on the other hand, is a deeply conservative, Orthodox poet. A fabulous poet, but she has one poem on Lot's wife, which is a rebuke of feminism. So, these were not people who had much in common, in terms of views, except that they were outstanding poets. So, the Slavists were sort of the folks in the middle and we were all waiting for the explosion, which, fortunately, didn't happen in public, but, it was a wonderful conference. And I think what it really did was to provoke American Slavists into really exploring women's literature in much greater depth than before. So, if you're looking at the publications that came out of that conference, number one, there weren't enough translations of the people giving presentations there. So, a lot of us did translations. So we had to devote ourselves more to translation than we had previously. The other thing that was clear was that it wasn't as if American Slavists hadn't worked on Russian women writers, but it was all done so individually. Lots of people wrote on Akhmatova or Tsvetayeva, but the idea of doing a collective history, a unified approach to Russian women's literature, I think, really came out of that conference. And, if you look at the dates of the publications that follow three years later, you suddenly have, Diana Green, who was the main Slavic librarian at NYU, writing the first history of women writers in Russian literature at the same time as Marina Ledkovskaya put together her dictionary of Russian women's literature. This was an enormous project that both Russian scholars and American scholars worked on. One of the of the people at our roundtable also contributed: Yelena Scarlygina. Yelena Trofimova wasn't there, but she also contributed. It was interesting project in that Charlotte Rosenthal and Mary Zirin, who were two major pioneers in this field also put it together with Ledkovskaya. But I think Marina Viktorovna was really the central figure in that she was from the second generation of Russian immigrants in the United States, and she was also a Nabokov by descent.
So, another important result of the '90s was the way in which Americans saw the change, in that there was much more integration of new scholars who had just emigrated and older Russian emigre scholars. That division between the generations of waves of Russian immigrants seemed to collapse by the end of the '90s. I really think that it became one Russian literature. And I think that continues to this day. I mean, we have now Russian-American poets in New York who are writing in two languages, essentially. Or they're writing in English with Russian subtexts and references that only a person familiar with Russian culture can get. Thinking about the end of the 90s, 1999 was the 200th anniversary for Pushkin. So, Cathy and I were both psarticipants in one of the big Pushkin conferences that year. I did a paper in Tsarskoe Selo, Cathy gave a paper, where Galina Andreyevna was the presiding chair of that session at RGGU in Moscow. And afterwards, we all went back to Galina Andreevna’s place where she made us blini. And I was sitting next to Victor Erlich and Iurii Mann. And I thought, "I have died and gone to Slavist heaven." And what's so interesting is, coming back from Moscow, yesterday, in the "Moscow Times”, Irina Prokhorova has just written an article on the '90s, and this is a quote: "The first post-Soviet decade has a firm reputation as the wild '90s, ruled by the mafia and oligarchs, a time of chaos and destruction of all the pillars of society. But in spite of the economic collapse and political instability, this was the happiest time of my life. For most of my generation, the '90s remain a territory of freedom – freedom of action, choice, conviction, and expression." And I just thought that she expressed exactly my experience as well and that of my generation of American Slavists.
Jamey Gambrell: I found myself in Moscow in February of 1985 as a very doddering Chernenko was still kind of barely alive. And when I came back, I started to write. I had masses of photos and pictures and notes and recorded conversations. Some of them had been very kind of a little bit hostile, like, for the director of the Tretyakov Gallery, complaining that Americans only wanted to know about the avant-garde. They didn't want to know about true Soviet art. And then others... People were very gracious and welcoming. And I started to write. And on my first paragraph, I used the word "gallery," and I stopped. And I realized I can't say “gallery”... It's going to immediately set up a whole set of expectations and assumptions about art, artists, and culture in the Soviet Union. They're Americans, going to think commercial gallery. "Oh, they have galleries like we have galleries." And they didn't. It was totally different.
So, I ended up doing a two-part piece, the first part of which was an attempt to lay out and explain, to some extent, the bureaucratic infrastructure of the Soviet art world, so to speak, so that there would be some context to place these artists in because it was a very different context than here. It would have been very misleading to just talk about galleries in Moscow. And that kind of work, I think continued when I started writing about the Soviet press. I had this idea I wanted... Things were showing up at Pushkin Square...Little leaflets, all kinds of homemade newspapers, and wonderful things, I mean, in both the actual press that was printed and then there were all these little broadsides people wrote, typed out, and photocopied themselves. And it was very exciting. And so, I interviewed a lot of people, and I talked to the New York Review of Books about this. And they were interested, and I had written previously a couple of articles about living in Moscow. Like, for instance, the summer of 1989, and I think it ended up being called... It wasn't my title, but "Living in a Russian Novel" was taken from a sentence, and it was. But I felt like I was. I felt like I was living in a Russian novel. Things were emotional and exciting and hysterical and something dramatic would happen, and you'd expect that everything would change after that. And then it would just kind of disappear, like some big political scandal or something. And then, something else would start up. So, with the press, again, it required... After a lot of interviews, it required discussing the bureaucratic infrastructure behind the Soviet press and what people were attempting to do and how, basically, they were trying to create a new language. The newspaper Kommersant, for instance, was very notable, and it was a very deliberate policy on the part of the editor and of people who advised him to create. So, there's no middle class. There's no business class in Russia. We're going to pretend like there is and create a language for them. And that was a very interesting kind of project, you know, and not something that Americans would understand from the outside because, first of all, how many Americans know Russian? And it would bother... There was much less interest in Russia here than there was interest in America there.
I think, you know, that Glasnost was mostly on their side. And very quickly, alas, on our side of, you know... Our government's side and various U.S.A. I.D. Projects and so on, it became just a matter of, "Oh, we won the Cold War, so we don't have to bother to understand them anymore. Oh, we don't have to deal with Russia. They're a third-world country." Well, they are nothing like a third-world country. I spent time in third-world countries. You don't have 99-percent literacy in third-world countries, for one. And I think that discounting eventually led to some of the problems and the things that we're seeing now. And I find that very sad. And I actually spent most of the '90s probably back and forth from Russia. And, at one point, I lived there for four and a half years and worked at the Soros Foundation Open Society Institute as a deputy director of programs. And, even there...especially there, in very, very long board meetings. And the board was all Russians. I mean, that was something Mr. Soros insisted on. They were all Russians. I was the only American there. And, quite frequently, people would come over, sent over from the New York office to propose, like, say, Bard College in Russia. Did not go over well with the board. Like, "What? We have this wonderful educational system, and you're telling us how we should run our…you know? What are you talking about?" So, I became a kind of interpreter and translator between cultures in the other way because I could see what the Russians' problem was with this, and I could see what the Americans were thinking. And that kind of explanation was very time consuming, intensive, and took a lot of patience. And I think that's the biggest thing. It's so distressing now to hear, you know? Like everybody here probably, we have very similar views on the Putin regime and so on. But, hearing "the Russians." It's "the Russians" that. "The Russians," as if it's a monolithic country, first of all. And not having that patience to really look into what is going on and why things might be done. To give one small example, from watching MSNBC, there's been a lot of questions. Stuff coming out about how ads were bought on Facebook by Russians, government, whatever, to try and sway our elections in some way. I have no doubt whatsoever. I'm shocked that any American government organization ever bought “Kaspersky”’s software. To me, it just seems... Anyone who spent a lot of time in the Soviet Union, it's kind of... "What? Are you crazy? There's bound to be something going on here." But it's made to sound like Facebook is doing something... I don't have Facebook, by the way. So I'm not a very schooled in it. But doing something very nefarious and why would they want to get money from this. And why... Well, first of all..There's a law, I believe, going into effect, maybe this year?
Nadezda Azhgikhina: You mean “foreign agent”? The foreign-agent registration?
Jamey Gambrell: Well, first of all, there was a foreign-agent registration which happened sometime back, where anybody receiving money from an American foundation – Ford Foundation, Soros Foundation, doesn't matter – had to register as a foreign agent. But, no. Where all information on Russian citizens has to be held on Russian servers. Facebook doesn't like this. I think a lot of Russian citizens don't like that idea either. And Facebook, in the absence of a more open, independent press, became a forum for the independent press, for people like Sergei Parkhomenko, who no longer had, you know... Well, he had Echo Moskvy, but he no longer had NTV to speak on or Russian Newsweek to write for or Sem' Dney or any number of outlets. He's just one example, but who had thousands upon thousands of followers on Facebook and did everything from political commentary, analysis, and so on, to stories on how the Moscow police, when they put in paid parking, did this tricky thing where this was this one space that looked like you could park there, but the way the sign was, it wasn't clear. So, people would park and then they would get their cars towed or they'd get a boot put on it and have to pay either a big bribe to the policeman or a fine. That was reposted 2,800 times within an hour of him posting it. And that was a public service, really, to drivers in Moscow. So, Facebook became a really important forum for the independent press that had disappeared. So, that just goes to show that you always... You do need to have the patience to look at the details and not, to use an overused metaphor– paint with too broad a brush when you discuss, either side and, particularly, Russia, I think.
Nadezhda Azhgikhina: Thank you, Jamey. We came from scholarship to translators, to journalists, to interpreters, and we have one more speaker. My university’s friend. Big Chief, Eugene Piskunov. And what can you say about, first of all, the reestablishment cooperation and the future in regards to better understanding?
Eugene Piskounov: First of all, my compliments to all the presenters. So I now feel like, the tale of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, you know? Seven Whites and one dwarf. And so... Getting back to this topic.
We belong to the young generation of the journalism school who studied during perestroika. And I'll say that, perestroika and glasnost was started by Slavists...western Slavists, the infidels. And it was ended, unfortunately, by Slavists, too... Western Slavists. I will tell you why. I was employed by a Russian daily newspaper Trud/Labor. One of the biggest newspapers, circulation-wise. It was, like, 20 million copies daily. And I was, in charge of the millionth edition, and we, carefully read all the texts. And I remember we received from Kremlin a special telegram about Gorbachev. And the text was like, "Dear Comrade, Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev, general Secretary of the..." And, in 15 minutes, we received a correction. "Please cut 'Dear' Please cut 'Comrade' Please cut 'Sergeyevich' Just leave 'Mikhail Gorbachev, General Secretary'" So, it was the beginning of history. It was a Thursday. And, after that, everything changed. …everything started going more low-key and interesting. It was 1989. It was 1991. First Chechen War. I I remember, despite, I being employed by state television of Russia, nobody told me what to do. One day, I spent with Chechens, with rebels. Second day, I was with federals. And we were crossing the borders every day. And it was, absolutely... To my point of view, it was independent journalism, in spite of the state, the civil war, and this Chechen thing. And why, in my point view, this period of Western-Russian collaboration, Perestroika and Glasnost ended... Two days ago, I was in Washington, D.C., and there was an international forum. And one of the participants, a very well-known, United States congressman... And he was in charge of Duma- Congress partnership. And he told me a story when he was on Air Force One along with Mr. Bush, he tried to convince Mr. Bush. It was 2003. He was trying to convince Mr. Bush to use the moment and to make Mr. Putin his friend... Don't want to name him. The congressman was assuming that it was a very right moment because Putin wanted to be closer to the west, according to his personal ideas. And Bush said, "No. No. No. It's not a good moment." And the congressman started to ask him questions and trying to understand what was going on, if Mr. President was under somebody's influence. And, in the long run, after this questions/answers thing was finished, Bush blushed. Mr. President blushed and said, "Yes. There is an influence." And Congressman asked, "Under who?" They said, "Condi. Condi." So, Condi was very, very powerful. And Mr. Bush, trusted her and actually followed her directions and her ideas. That's why, in my point view.. a very big responsibility of the experts who might be very powerful sometimes because experts know the topic. And, politicians who are not so well, sometimes, educated, they are talked into... And this happens. As for bridges... Well, we're trying to make bridges. I spent more than 20 years making bridges between Russia and the United States. I was the chief here of Russian state TV during '90s. And, after that, I stuck in New York. And now, I'm running a television network... American television network, which is, like, a subsidiary company of a Russian television network. But, in spite of a very controversial name. NTV, right? NTV. Yes. We are actually an American business and this is a much softer version than in Moscow. And we're trying to add local news and content to Moscow content, making it more acceptable and interesting for the local audience.