Generalities about national, ethnic and religious groups are always suspect, but based on experience I conclude that some are better company than other. I’ve always enjoyed myself with Cubans, Poles, Italians and Jews. That’s not to say these groups are without their share of bores, boors and sociopaths, or that I dread the company of all others. Like the Russians I have known, people in the groups I just named have nearly always been smart and animated, with a gift for enjoying life and generous in sharing their enjoyment with others. It’s Aldo Buzzi’s theory – and I suspect his Italian gift for enjoying life is bottomless – that Russians and Americans have much in common, and perhaps that commonality is the source of the pleasure I take in Russians. Here’s what Buzzi writes in “Chekhov in Sondrio,” a delightfully stitched-together quilt of an essay included in Journey to the Land of the Flies:
“In 1861, Czar Alexander II abolished serfdom. Two years later, in 1863, Abraham Lincoln abolished slavery. Both nations are ignorant of the bidet and rightfully consider the ground floor of a building to be the first floor... Other similarities: a ban on selling alcohol near a church; the importance of firefighters, given the frequency of fires (`As everyone knows,’ says Turgenev, `our provincial towns burn down every five years’); finally, both Americans and Russians build in the country little wooden house in a neoclassical style. Both love picnics and stuffed turkey, and both have a generic name for cats: the Americans Pussycat, the Russians Vaska, the diminutive of Vasily (Basil), the blessed one of Red Square.”
Buzzi adds that our paper moneys are different. The Russians color-code theirs. Ours are called “greenbacks,” though the recent re-design of our currency has added a touch of minimalist whimsy – stray reds, blues and yellows. Buzzi quotes Mayakovsky:
“And you who, through work and melancholy, have a face crumpled and green like a three-ruble bill.”
Later in the essay Buzzi quotes Gogol, who might be writing of Americans:
“In Russia, everything loves to present itself in grand proportions, everything without exception: mountains and forests, and steppes, and faces, and lips, and feet.”
Who told an interviewer: “I am as American as April in Arizona.”
That great Russian-American, of course, Vladimir Nabokov.