Lost in Translation: A Russian-American Love Story

russian dollsThis post is part of our Love Symposium. An introduction to the symposium can be found here; all of the posts written for the symposium can be found here.

My future husband, The Russian, and I met on the Internet about 17 years ago at a now defunct dating site for Jewish singles: yenta.net. He sent off a one-line email in response to my profile, which intrigued me because you could almost hear his Russian accent from the computer screen. He’d started speaking English in earnest when he came to the United States in 1988 and hadn’t quite mastered the verb tenses or the proper use of the prepositions “a” and “the,” a quirk I found charming.

In my former career as an adjunct history professor, I’d taught courses about the Cold War and US-Soviet relations from 1917 to the present, so thought it would be interesting to correspond with an actual Russian. I replied to his single sentence with a brief email of my own thinking nothing much would come of it, certainly not romance.  I was wrong. We exchanged emails, then phone calls, and eventually I flew from Rochester, NY to Chicago to meet him in person. The rest, as they say, is history.

A few months after The Russian and I started dating, a friend and I attended the 22nd Cleveland International Film Festival. Among the films we saw was a documentary about The Russian’s hometown of Leningrad (now once again St. Petersburg). The film, wednesday 19.07.1961, chronicled the lives of about 70 residents born in the city on that particular day.

Three things about the movie still stand out for me all these years later. First, the description, which noted that the filmmaker, Viktor Kossakovsky, had captured “the oddly romantic fatalism of the Russian soul, passed on…from one heartbroken generation to another.”  Second, the appearance of the residents who, although born about two years after me, looked at least ten years older, the one exception being a remarkably robust-looking prison inmate. And finally, it struck me how gray and depressing Leningrad circa the mid-1990s appeared to be. Even those residents who’d likely be described as middle-class lived in small, decrepit apartments with few of the creature comforts the average American takes for granted such as ready access to fresh food and grime-free living spaces with adequate light.

Presumably, life had improved somewhat for Leningrad’s citizens since the fall of communism and the break-up of the Soviet Union. Presumably, as well, life in the newly renamed St. Petersburg was much better in the 1990s than had been in the 1960s and 70s when my husband was growing up. But, after seeing the film, I could now understand why The Russian’s favorite quip about his homeland was and still is “there’s a reason why I’m from there.”  Indeed. It’s the third world. While I grew up in a house with my parents and sister having my own bedroom and later, when we moved to California, a backyard swimming pool, he shared a bedroom with his parents in a three-room apartment where they lived along with three of his grandparents. They considered themselves lucky because they didn’t have to share housing with strangers.

One might think that growing up in such different economic circumstances would make for large differences between us. To some extent, that’s the case. By the time I’d met The Russian, however, he’d already leveraged his talents to accomplish at least some of what he’d come here to do; that is, make lots of money. His primary impetus for leaving the Soviet Union was not lack of political freedom–he could work around that (his other favorite saying the first few years we were together was “government bad”)–but lack of economic opportunity. At the time he departed, nobody anticipated the rapid breakdown of the Soviet empire and rise of the new Russia with its ample, if sometimes dangerous, opportunities for profit. Rather, my husband assumed that he’d toil away at some Soviet bureaucracy with little to show for it except maybe a larger apartment than his parents, shared by far fewer people.

For the most part, The Russian is much more impressed with America’s culture of consumption than I am. I walk into a store looking to find what I need and then escape as quickly as possible. He wanders through like a curious child in a amusement park, forever in search of that next big thrill. When he used to visit me in Rochester, we’d always make a trip to his favorite place in a city he otherwise had little use for–the giant Wegman’s on Monroe Avenue, one of the first “mega” supermarkets in the country. I can see how someone who’d grown up in a country known for food shortages, where fresh produce was often a novelty, would be drawn to the impressive displays of fruits and vegetables and the wide variety of newly baked breads, meats, cheeses, and other delectables. Now that he’s been here 20 years, you’d think he’d have gotten over that sense of awe, but he’s yet to recover.

So, while The Russian and had different economic starting points, this discrepancy proved fairly easy to overcome. The differences that have proved more enduring are those of language and culture. While the Russian is very much “from there,” he is also, nonetheless, very much “of there.”

As such, Russian is and always will be his native language. I swear that he has a different personality when he speaks Russian. Friends here, who’ve never heard him speak his native tongue, frequently ask if The Russian has emotions. The English-speaking version–not so much. The Russian-speaking version, on the other hand, is a much louder and far more expressive guy who often talks with his hands. Apparently, Russian is meant be spoken several decibels louder than English.

Because my Russian is limited to about 30 words, most of which are unprintable, I often feel like there’s a part of him that will be forever inaccessible to me. Even if I did make the effort to learn the alphabet and the language with its three genders and its verbs, nouns, and adjectives that vary accordingly with each gender, there’s still a whole set of cultural allusions that will likely forever allude me. From what I understand, Russian has far more nuance than English, nuance the non-native speaker will probably never master–much like Russian jokes, which, let me assure you, are rarely funny to the non-Russian. I’ll never get those either.

My inability to understand Russian bothered me a lot more when we were first married although obviously not enough to do anything about it. When we lived in Chicago, most of our friends were Russian. I used to swear they all had switches on their backs. The minute the non-Russian-speaking person left the room, they’d immediately revert to Russian and then switch back to English just as quickly when that person returned. I also used to hate when The Russian would talk to his conniving ex-wife over the phone and I had no idea what they were saying to each other. They knew the code; I didn’t. It felt a lot like exclusion from a secret society. Not only had she given him his sole kid, she also knew his language and I didn’t.

One of my greatest nightmares is that The Russian might suffer a stroke and lose his ability to speak English. It happened with a friend’s father although English has since come back to him. What then? Would we be reduced to sign language? Our relationship is based largely on our ability to converse. We wrote and spoke to each other long before we met in person. I fell in love with a voice and a personality before I saw the flesh-and-blood human being.  After nearly 17 years, he remains one of the most fascinating and darkly humorous people I’ve ever known.

The Russian gets a kick out of playing on this fear by reminding me, on occasion, of the possibility he might indeed have a stroke someday. His nickname isn’t The Prince of Darkness, Master of the Worst Case Scenario for nothing. That quote about “the oddly romantic fatalism of the Russian soul”–it’s pretty much true. There’s a reason why, when two suicide bombers blew up the international arrival hall at Moscow’s Domededovo Airport a few years back, the Russians cleaned up the carnage and reopened the airport as quickly as possible. Life goes on. It’s not that Russians are immune to human suffering–they aren’t–but, for them, suffering is to be expected. As Lynn Visson noted in her book Wedded Strangers: The Challenges of Russian-American Marriages:

A Russian expects things to go badly. A corollary to this negativism is the conviction that the world is a fairly rotten place populated primarily by rotten individuals who are out to cheat you. The paranoiac legacy of Stalinism decrees that everyone is guilty until proven innocent, and many Russians who reject the tenets of Soviet Marxism continue to view the world through the lenses of its dogma.

The Russian sums up this world view with a short list of lessons learned from his grandparents, one of whom was a general in Stalin’s army. It provides a stark contrast to the sunny and often stupid optimism characteristic of many Americans:

  1. Never volunteer.
  2. Don’t have hope.
  3. Don’t believe in anything.
  4. Don’t admit to anything.
  5. Don’t cooperate with authority.

This bleak set of rules, and the mindset that goes with it, speaks to a world in which trusting anyone outside of immediate family and old friends could prove dangerous. Saying the wrong thing to the wrong person could bring upon you the unwanted attention of Soviet authorities, which was never a good thing. My stepson, child of two immigrants, once told me that Russians are snakes, by which he meant that they never state an opinion directly; they never tell you what they are really thinking. To admit to an opinion is to take responsibility for it and deal with the consequences. While here, those consequences, if there even are any, tend to be minor, in Soviet Russia, they could be quite serious. As Visson states:

Years of living in fear of the secret police make Russians hesitant to state their ideas explicitly, and they often seek a veiled or subtle way of conveying a thought. If the listener is intelligent, he should understand what is meant, and it is insulting to spoonfeed it to him. For Americans, speaking intelligently means speaking directly and clearly.

Shaking a mindset that’s served you well for nearly 30 years is damned near impossible. If I had to pick the one most infuriating thing about dealing with The Russian, I’d have to say that it’s his inability to state clearly his preferences, to answer simple yes or no questions when it comes to making marital decisions. He’d rather I tell him what I think then, if he disagrees, find a way to badger me into acquiescing to his unstated viewpoint on the subject. It took me years to realize that for him “no” was not a definitive answer, it was merely the start of a long series of negotiations. What I view as manipulation, The Russian sees as productive conversation. Unlike him, I don’t speak in code.

All marriages have their difficulties. All of us, to some extent, harbor secrets from our spouses, keep a bit of ourselves aside. We are all at least a tad unknowable. Cultural differences, like any others, can be overcome if you put in the effort. As The Russian and I approach our 15th wedding anniversary, we’ve found that there’s far more that draws us together than pulls us apart. And, to the extent that we can never fully bridge the cultural gap that divides us–well, a little mystery can be a good thing when it comes to keeping the romance alive.
















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14 thoughts on “Lost in Translation: A Russian-American Love Story

  1. This is pretty wonderful, Michelle.

    We are so shaped by our cultures, and yet we can integrate that into new culture, recover (or not) from where we came from.

    We lived in Brookline, MA for many years, our children went to school there. Brookline has a a lot of non-native English speakers; mostly because it’s a bedroom community for the universities and medical centers in Boston. Each of the primary schools focuses on specific ESL language groups; our school was focused on Chinese and Russian students.

    Each of my kids, in 3rd grade had this happen: Russian kid comes up, and says, “You do this, or I’m going to tell the teacher you did this other thing.” And that other thing was, of course, a total fabrication.

    Both kids came home, hysterical. Not so much because of the threat to tell the teacher something bad, but that the thread was completely made up, and how do you defend yourself against such a false accusation?

    It made me very, very sad for the things those children’s parents went through, and you do a terrific job getting at what that experience was, and how comical (in the classic sense) that can be.


    Many happy years ahead.

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    • Thanks for your kind words, zic.

      Your story about those kids doesn’t surprise me. Truth seems to be a much more elastic concept in Russian culture. The Russian seemed to think nothing of it when his kid lied to him. I remember one conversation where he seemed to have almost a perverse sense of pride in his child’s ability to construct tall tales, whereas I thought he should call the kid on the carpet.

      We had a lot of disputes about child-rearing, especially when my stepson lived with us full-time. But that’s a whole other post. Let’s just say the word “boundary” is not in The Russian’s vocabulary.

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  2. We’ve a dear friend who married a Russian woman and, one night when we went over there for dinner, we discussed culture shock and she explained to us that “All Americans are crazy.”

    Everyone at the table nodded.

    Anyway, she explained to us that Americans never shut up about religion. Even the atheists!, she complained, talk about religion day and night. She told us that, in Russia, everyone is Orthodox and nobody talks about it.

    (She also thinks it’s silly how Americans are always smiling. Apparently, only idiots and Americans smile all the time.)

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  3. To the Japanese mind, saying “no” is unforgivably abrupt and rude (to the point of being something only a child could/would say).
    It is fascinating to read another reason for not being as straightforward as Americans expect.

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  4. This was both beautiful and fascinating, Michelle. My partner has spent much time in post-communist Romania, and we have many friends who are Romanian immigrants. The need to be circumspect and observant seems powerful for many of them too.

    Not to hijack this discussion, and not to compare living in the closet to living under Stalin or Ceausescu, but some of those traits are also lived by folks who spent much of their life as closeted lesbians or gay men.

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  5. you could almost hear his Russian accent from the computer screen.

    I know exactly what you mean. I have a student who came to the U.S. from Russia when she was 11 years old, not knowing a word of English. She is very intelligent and quite fluently bilingual now, but her writing sounds Russian. It’s that curious lack of articles. We do a bit of that in American English, “going to church” or “to school,” but not consistently; we don’t to “to hospital” (as, I think, the Brits do), or “to market,” “to game,” etc.

    Years of living in fear of the secret police make Russians hesitant to state their ideas explicitly, and they often seek a veiled or subtle way of conveying a thought.

    Hmm, not the Russian who sat on my dissertation committee. I think everyone who knew him could have wished for a little more of that in him, as he was damnably brusque about his opinions. Then again, I suspect he was somewhere on the spectrum and not quite aware of how he came across socially.

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  6. Having only met the Russian once I distinctly got the impression that he was very deliberate and guarded in his thinking and speaking, moreso than a lot of other immigrants I know. As the daughter of immigrants myself, I would also agree that when I am around family and the primary language is Dutch, there is a different vibe in our interactions but the openess of the Dutch culture has made it easier for James to feel a part of this. I suspect if my family had come from a culture with some core differences this may not have been the case.

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