The Grandmotherland

“She must be a Russian spy,” people commonly joke when they hear about my dual Russian-American citizenship at a party with a majority American crowd. Although always in a lighthearted context, it unintentionally reveals an American view of communist Russia that I have encountered repeatedly, and am unable to reconcile with what I know about my family that grew up in the Soviet Union.

My Babushka (grandmother), born in 1952, is not a beaten-down-and-scared-to-say-something-wrong-or-step-outside-the-door type of woman. I’ve never heard horror stories about family members disappearing, nor found a trace of trauma in her tight hugs and heartwarming smile. 

Honestly, she could not be further from a devious Russian spy. “She gives me vibes that you could snuggle with her on a cold night,” says my younger brother (who just turned thirteen. Please save us.). She has a unique ability to make everyone feel comfortable, constantly offering more pryaniki or worrying that someone isn’t warm enough. 

While Russia can arguably be considered the polar opposite of the US, I believe extending this opinion to Russian citizens is misguided. Both my Babushka and my mother spent their youths running around and playing with the other children in their neighborhood in Ordzhonikidze, now Vladikavkaz. As Babushka Natasha explains it, she simply grew up worrying about “studies, fun, and love.” When she was my age, she was a university student, and her typical day was split between classes, homework, napping, and hanging out with friends. Which basically describes the life of any US college student. 

For fun, she often went camping. She would spend the nights out under the open air, unfolding the car’s roof and rolling out mattresses on top of the seats. Actually, this anecdote is almost identical to what my American grandmother tells me about family trips when my father was growing up. “Pack the tents, food supplies, and seven kids into a big truck, drive out to a lake or forest in the middle of nowhere and sleep under the stars” is basically how it went.

Hearing about these parallel, seemingly mundane (but fundamental) simplicities of life makes me recoil from the rift between Russians and Americans in how they consider each other. While I recognize that not all experiences were the same as my grandmother’s, her story pushed me to lament the lack of time both peoples spend recognizing and appreciating commonalities, the focus instead always on cultural differences. In the words of Sting:

What might save us, me and you
Is if the Russians love their children too.
(Russians, 1985)

This piece reflects the peak of cross-cultural misunderstanding present during the height of the Cold War. The word “if” is a needle to my heart. I can only hope that Sting was being ironic: how can something so intrinsic to our human nature such as loving our children be doubted based on the subscription to a particular political ideology? If these prejudices are truly so blinding, we really do need saving. 

Babushka told me that this separational mindset was not at all present while she was working as a university professor during Soviet times. She got to know representatives from all over the world that had gathered to share friendship and knowledge. In an environment where contrasting backgrounds were not overemphasized as I feel they are now, bonds regardless of nationality were second nature. Babushka even told me about an American professor that she translated for and became good friends with, and how anyone coming from a warm climate was immediately taken to the store and given appropriate winter gear from head to toe. “No one cared to delineate between cultures. Everyone respected each other.” 

This is only part of a general inclusivity that was present during the Soviet Union, in which everyone, not solely foreigners, was united by the goal of building a just community. An underlying sense of trust defined their way of life. “If you showed up in a new city, knowing no one,” she tells me, “people would let you into their home and give you food.” People only cared about how they could be useful to others. A neighbor was automatically a friend. 

I strain to find any link between this lived experience and the stereotype of a deceitful communist, cringing at the paradox that a society based on reliability garnered so much suspicion amongst the American population. Why would you want to avoid someone who willingly opens their door for you? 

Of course, these misconceptions are diluted in the present day. Ironically, though, so is the foundational Russian interdependence. As Babushka Natasha puts it, “Now, this openness towards strangers is completely gone.” 

Once the Soviet Union collapsed, the sense of mutual support between members of the community crumbled. “People lost their conscience. In the Soviet days, people knew what was good and what was bad. If someone did something wrong, they were judged fairly,” Babushka explains. Abruptly, instead of building together, everyone was left on their own. My grandmother realized that she had this naive idea that the whole world is good and treats everyone well, which fell apart along with the USSR.

A repercussion of the eradicated Soviet collectivism was the development of fear. “Kids were being stolen. There was no more order.” It became unsafe for a child to take the tram across the city to and from school unsupervised, something that Babushka Natasha had done starting in second grade. Thinking back to her camping excursions and trips from one Russian city to another many years earlier, Babushka emphasizes: “There were no times when I was scared.” No hesitation.

She accredits this ability to walk down the street fully confident in her own wellbeing, even at such a young age, to the structured society and way of life that the USSR provided. “Everything was very well controlled.” 

In the land of the brave and free, “control” is a heavy word, carrying with it the weight of constricted options and lost freedoms. But for Babushka Natasha, control means stability, and it’s what she misses most. “It was impossible to perish,” she explains. “You would always have a job, a home and an education. You were never lost.” 

Here I can see the benefit of a rigid structure, but I struggle to accept it as an absolute way of life. I find that being lost is just as important as knowing the right path. This was my primary reason for applying to exclusively American universities—they had a unique emphasis on exploration and allowed flexibility when deciding on a line of study. In contrast, undecidedness is discouraged in the Russian educational system, where subject specification is required much earlier on. I would not have been able to commit to a subject, let alone a career path, as would have been expected. 

The primary goal of such a system is to give its participants the ability to live independently and productively, something that was achieved to an incredible extent during the USSR. My grandmother’s grandmother learned to read and write at age 28 thanks to the newly implemented policies, allowing her to advance in the workforce and improving her overall quality of life. 

In addition to the usual school subjects, girls had to take a class about how to run a household, while boys were taught how to use tools and other skills “for men.” Everyone knew how to cook and clean: in seventh grade, Babushka learned the recipes for olivier salad and kozinaki dessert, which I can gladly confirm that, after years of practice, have achieved perfection. “Everyone did things themselves, and because of that no one was afraid of anything.” Soviets were not oppressed by their government, as is generally assumed: they were guided and given the tools to succeed (under their particular definition of success). They were empowered. 

Perhaps this is the origin of Russia’s identity as the motherland. The personification of the country as a woman engenders the “female” attributes of nurture, care and support. Both metaphorically and literally, the land provided life to its people. 

The opposite is true in an American individualistic society, where the struggle of pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps is romanticized. Is this fundamental contrast the root of distrust towards Russian culture? Babushka Natasha explained that the communist social security net makes life easier for its people. It therefore threatens the integral structure of capitalism, which is built on the concept of painstakingly carving a path for yourself, completely on your own. And so, Russia is vilified in order to avoid confrontation with this question: what if it isn’t meant to be that difficult?

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