The Atlantic (January 2008)

The American Idea

Beyond the First View

I left my unjust but beloved country at the end of the 1970s. I left for many reasons: the interrogations of my husband about his father Aaron, who taught Hebrew to so-called “plane hijackers” who hoped to emigrate to Israel, KGB interrogations about our visitors from foreign lands, an eight-hour search of our apartment for the forbidden poems of Joseph Brodsky, the ever-present threat of arrest. I poured out my first impressions of America in letters that I wrote to my priest Father Alexander Men, the famous Jewish-born Moscow priest, writer, poet, educator, philosopher, and prophet. In 1991, on the way to his church, Father Alexander was murdered. We still don’t know who did it, although his son is now Governor of the Moscow region. Apparently, his murder must remain unsolved, because it symbolizes the rejection of freedom by the former Soviet people. Americans are different than Russians, I wrote to Father Men. “They don’t pry into your soul, but they don’t let you into theirs, either. Friendship is different from ours.” Father Alexander replied: “To live on a larger scale is the only way worthy of man … Whatever convoluted fate awaits us, it all has a purpose, if only we would find and understand it.”

New York City was stunning, fantastic, monstrous, thundering with cosmic cataclysms, turbulent with the cumulative energies of its millions of souls, each in pursuit of their separate visions of life, liberty, happiness, and I tried to fit in. New York surprised me with a new sense of myself—I gained time as if it were stretched. “Any breakthrough in love, creativity, beauty, and mystery is a victory over time,” Father Alexander would write to me. “And I would remind you once more of the words from the Bible: ‘time will be no more.’” One day “the fallen world” of New York stunned me when a black taxi driver began to speak to us in Russian. He turned in his seat, bellowing “Pushkin! Pushkin!” And then he added in English, “He’s ours! Do you know what I’m saying?” I pronounced my first English phrase for a plumber who came to fix our faucets. When he saw that we were sitting in darkness without lights he went to a store and bought us candles and sweet marzipan rolls. I said to him, “Thank you, you are like a Russian.” But when he asked me, “Are you homesick?” I was too choked up to answer. After our faucets were fixed and he had gone away I sat there and stared at the candles, silently chewing the sweet rolls spiced with my salty marzipan tears. My husband Yakov consoled me, saying: “Now you have a chance to think about one of life’s deepest conflicts—freedom and fate.” And I smiled through the tears of freedom.

The Russian émigrés of my generation came from a country where the “material stimulus,” the taste for possessions, did not exist, where ethical values were derived from literature rather than everyday experience. Now that our children have become Americans, the word “freedom” has acquired a different meaning and sense than we once ascribed to it. Our naïve expectations of America—and the bemusement, disappointment, and love that we felt when we were first confronted with its vexing, paradoxical complexity—are now lost to us behind a wall of time. I don’t hunger for an ideal social system anymore. I enjoy moving in the direction of myself. “The eternal remains under any skies” as Father Alexander wrote, and people everywhere shuttle between good and evil.

Diana Vinkovetsky

Brookline, MA