Since reading Kapuczinski as a small boy, I wanted to be a journalist. A foreign correspondent. So when I graduated Moscow State in '96, my path was obvious. America was the biggest story going. The success of that vast and complex nation's transition to Russian-style stability and Orthodox values was then, as it is now, uncertain. For an aspiring journalist there was no bigger adventure than a continental nation in the midst of such enormous -- nyet, historic! -- social and economic change. It may only span three time zones, but the U.S.A. held much more magic for me than puny, ossified, heavily Russified Central America. Even before the graduation ceremony, I had applied for a visa and booked a ticket through Delta Air. This was a few months before the Atlanta firm went bankrupt and was nationalized on advice from the CIS Monetary Fund.
Packing my bags for Washington, I sang along to the Depression-era minstrel Woody Guthrie as a first step toward learning English, a difficult language with a strange music all its own. "From California to the New York Island," I sang, "this land was made for you and me." I grew giddy at the thought of one day reading Kerouac and Hemmingway in the original English. I imagined renting a red Chevrolet convertible and driving across Route 66, meeting Negro jazzmen and red-cheeked farm boys playing baseball on farm lots. "This land was made for you and me..."
I landed at Dulles with a small fortune of 4,000 rubles (the dollar was trading at 30-to-1) and a letter of introduction to the editor of Ze D.C. Gazeta, a new Russian-language daily catering to the large and growing community of Russian businessmen in the American capital (eventually replaced by Vashingtonskoe Vrema). The editor there was a slight bald man from Sochi who insisted that I call him "Todd". Though he had no vacancies, he said he would keep my resume on file; plus, I was welcome to submit freelance pitches. I wasn't worried. There was a steady market for news from America back home, and I expected to find camaraderie with the other intrepid Russian journalists. We were all strangers in this land. No doubt we would work with and inspire each other in explaining America to our countrymen.
My idealism died young.
Halyavshiki in the Intourist.
How do you cover a continent-sized nation from a hotel bar? Try asking Misha Mishishinsky. In the seven years he spent here as Washington D.C. correspondent for Kommersant, I never saw him outside of his favorite window booth at the Russian-owned Intourist Hotel, surrounded by a rotating slew of biggies in the Russian press, each of whom I came to loathe. They'd sit there every night and complain about America, which they knew nothing about, and count the days until their transfer back to Moscow, or one of the CIS nations (or Cyprus) where they feel more at home. My old apartment was about ten blocks from the Intourist, and I often passed Mishishisnsky's booth on the way home from the metro. On the table it was always the same: steaming plates of pelmeni, small mountains of caviar. Empty bottles of Russkii Standart rounded out the scene. If a single image can capture the essence of the Russian press corps in Washington, that's it: Fat Mishishinsky and his drunken crew getting fatter on ruble expense accounts, who will only leave their Russian-style digs if there's a good halyava to be had.
Or maybe Mishishinsky stumbling through Georgetown with a Negro whore on each arm, belting out slurred Russian folk songs. The fact that their correspondent was a disgusting drunk who couldn't speak English didn't bother Mishishinsky's editor. So long as he filed reports that were in line with the standard Russian "frame" of America at the time, he was fine. More than fine, he received official plaudits in Moscow and was feted by the venal bigshots of the American press. Fred Hiatt of the Washington Post and Tom Friedman of the New York Times were regular guests at Mishishinsky's table. Both were typical "Russified Americans" and enjoyed Mishishinsky's contacts with senior Russian officials and his made-up war stories. I remember walking past the Intourist one night seeing Mishishinsky's showing a delighted Hoffman and Friedman what appeared to be a large birthmark on his knee. No doubt he told them it was a scar from Afghanistan. If it wasn't a hotel bar, most Russian journalists could be found at some lavish banquet at the Russian embassy on Wisconsin.
Guess which Russian journalists haven't gone local.
The real America, meanwhile, quietly suffered all around us. This America most Russians heard nothing about. Mishishinsky and his ilk filed story after story about the wonders of Russian-style stabilization, glorifying a new generation of oligarchs emerging from America's "rapid if uneven" boom. But I preferred to write about America's losers. The drug epidemics that made Russia's vint problem look like a bad flu season. The women from economically ravaged parts of the country who answered ads promising "Be a prostitute in Kiev" - only to end up working as temps in offices in Atlanta or Washington. The destruction of America's last remaining forests at the hands of RosLesStroi. The systematic dismantling and sell-off of America's once-proud industrial economy, which, while it's true it had all already been sold off to the Japanese, Saudis, and Chinese, had at least never been sold off to the Russians.
It was the young dissident writers in America that helped me see what was really happening. Most of them spoke excellent Russian. I hung out with them in their dissident cafes drinking cappuccino and practicing my English. Many of these young American journalists came from wealthy parents, yet strangely went to great lengths to hide this fact. Some of them wore old clothes that needed replacing and even bragged about being broke, even though it became clear they were always just one phone call from home away from being broke. This was what it really was to be on the edge in America, something that the Mishishinskys couldn't understand. My American friends reminded me of those 19th-century Russian aristocrat youths who turned their back on privilege to farm and chop wood with the peasants. "In Russia," I would tell them, "it is good to come from lots of money. Why don't you Gucci out a bit, show some Dolce & Gabbana? It will help you get a Russian expat girlfriend. A real Sterva." But they chose to wallow in their poor-people's fashion. There are aspects of America that will always confound me. The country is an enigma, wrapped in a riddle, smothered in special sauce...
Sometimes my poorly dressed American friends would help me understand the big stories. In the last presidential election, for example, there were a number of "irregularities" reported in the state of Ohio. A strong case was put together by one American journalist that the election was stolen. Most major dailies, cowtowing to the whole Russian style of journalism, ignored the election fraud investigation completely. Those that did report the story described it as an encouraging sign of stabilization for America's emerging managed democracy.
Russian papers were hardly less arrogant on the subject of foreign policy. When I first arrived in Washington, a bitter joke was making the rounds. You heard it everywhere, from the Beltway to Burger King. "It turns out everything our politicians told us about American power was a lie," Washingtonians would mutter, "and everything they told us about Russian power was true." And who would deny that since the collapse of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1991, Russia has gone out of her way to prove herself every bit the expansionist bear Washington always feared?
Fyodor Hiattsky, for one. When Sergei Ivanov quipped last year that the Monroe Doctrine had been supplanted by the Mironov Doctrine, triggering diplomatic protests by the U.S., Hiattsky penned one of the most arrogant essays in the history of Russian hackdom. With troops from the 24-nation Moscow Treaty Alliance setting up shop throughout Central America and the Caribbean, Hiattsky essentially told the Americans to, as they say, "take a chill pill."
"The United States obviously has nothing to fear from a nuclear-armed Cuba and never will," wrote Hiattsky of Moscow's controversial decision to place a missile battery outside Havana. "Washington's protestations are mired in old thinking and a product of paranoia. Like it or not, Russia is the indispensable nation and will defend her interests and those of countries who share her values, whether it be in Havana or Halifax. What Chekhov said of literature applies also to international affairs: 'Let us have new forms, or else nothing at all.'"
Shortly after this piece appeared, I by chance ran into Hiattsky one night in line at Nove Mesto deli in Adams Morgan. While waiting for one of the Russified American counter girls to get off their mobile phone, I asked Hiattsky how he'd feel if NATO hadn't collapsed, but instead expanded into Eastern Europe and the Caucuses. Hiattsky just laughed. "That's absurd," he said. "Why waste your time with such nonsense? Anyway, America should be thanking us for enlarging the zone of peace and security in the Americas."
The guy even talked like a bad op-ed.
"But it's not absurd," I said. "It's a mirror of what we're doing to them and nobody is saying what needs to be said, that the whole thing is insane!"
At this point a waitress glanced up from her mobile phone and Hiattsky ordered his Bucket 'o Borscht. On his way out he turned to me and told me to come by the Intourist Hotel later. He was having drinks with Mishishinsky and an expat oligarch dealing in chemicals. There'd also be some high-ruble dyevs there, he said, and maybe a couple of heavy hitters from the Foundation for Effective Politics, Pavlovsky's think tank. "A good time with people who matter," he said.
I told him to fuck off. Bucket 'O Borscht in hand, I headed across town to a dive bar where I met my lefty American journalist friends. They were all very impressed with my "authentic" Russian goatee, newly grown in. One of them even said I looked like Trotsky. We watched what we spent, even I pretending not have enough money for anything but Pabst and plain nachos. It was a great night. But walking home past Intourist later, I couldn't help but peer into the party inside and reflect on the fact that these lefty American friends of mine never seem to get laid.