In Search of Melancholy Baby

Vasilii Aksenov, Loving the States. 1952

 

In 1952, when I was a nineteen-year-old student from the provinces, I found myself thrust into Moscow’s high society. I had been invited to a party at the house of an important diplomat. The guests consisted mainly of diplomatic corps brats and their girlfriends. It was the first time I had ever seen an American radiola, the kind that let you stack twelve records at a time. And what records! Back in Kazan we spent hours fiddling with the dials on our bulky wireless receivers for even a snatch of jazz and here it was in all its glory-with the musicians’ pictures on the albums to boot. There they all were: Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole, Louis Armstrong, Peggy Lee, Woody Herman …

One girl I danced with asked me the most terrifying question: “Don’t you just love the States?”

I mumbled something vague. How could I openly admit to loving America when from just about every issue of Pravda or Izvestiia Uncle Sam bared his ugly teeth at us and stretched out his long, skinny fingers (drenched in the blood of the freedom-loving peoples of the world) for new victims. Overnight our World War II ally had turned back into our worst enemy

“Well, I do!” she said, lifting her doll-like face in a challenge as I concentrated on twirling her correctly. “I hate the Soviet Union and adore America!”

Such trepidation shocked me speechless, and the girl dropped me on the spot: The provincial drip! Was he out of it!

Sulking in a corner, I scrutinized the mysterious young beauties gliding across the darkened room-the shiny hair so neatly parted, the suave, white-toothed smiles, the Camels and Pall Malls, the sophisticated English vocabulary (“darling … baby … let’s drink”)-and their partners, so elegantly attired in jackets with huge padded shoulders, tight black trousers, and thick-soled shoes. Our gang in Kazan did everything it could to ape American fashion; our girls knit us sweaters with deer on them and embroidered our ties with cowboys and cactuses. But it was only imitation, do-it-yourself. This was the genuine article, made in the USA .

“Wow, what class!” I gushed to the friend who’d wangled me the invitation. But when I referred to the crowd as “real stilyagi (the name given to the disaffected, Western-looking Soviet youth of the fifties), he corrected me arrogantly-though he himself fit in only slightly better than I-saying, “We’re not stilyagi; we’re Stateniks!”

As I subsequently discovered, there were whole pockets of America lovers in Moscow, and all of them rejected even French fashion in favor of American. Wearing a shirt with buttons that had two or three holes instead of the requisite American four, for example, was considered a disgrace. “Hey, man,” your Statenik pals would say, “there’s something wrong with your getup.”

(I might add that I have met more than one Statenik-turned-»migr» who has rejected everything stateside, drives a Volkswagen, and wears the latest in Italian fashion.)

The party I went to climaxed in a spectacular boogie-woogie with the girls flying this way and that. I looked on transfixed as the skirt of my former partner sailed up toward the ceiling. It was all so real not only the dance but the skirt and what I’d glimpsed under it. I later found out she was the daughter of a high-ranking KGB officer. Who in the States would have thought that at the height of the cold war, America had such devoted allies among the Soviet elite? Recently a German director and I were throwing some ideas for a film satire back and forth. The setting is a large European hotel, where a round of Soviet-American disarmament talks has been going on for several months. We see the heads of the negotiation teams, both men in their fifties, sitting face to face. “They don’t understand each other, of course,” the director said. “They’re from different backgrounds, different worlds.” “Not so,” I objected. “They both may have jitterbugged to Elvis a few years back.”

Among the Soviet rank and file, pro-American feeling had a more material base: the people connected the word “America” with the miracle of tasty and nourishing foodstuffs in the midst of wartime misery. Bags of yellow egg powder and containers of condensed milk and cured ham saved hundreds of thousands of Soviet children from starving to death, American Studebakers and Dodges were instrumental in keeping lines of communication open throughout the war. Without them the Soviet Army would have taken not two but ten years to advance. America provided a lifeline during a period of total death-and what a life that line led to: it was like nothing we Soviets could even imagine. The American presence gave the ordinary Soviet citizen a vague hope for change after the war was over.

Before the war that ordinary citizen had little sense of America. True, the country figured in a few crude ditties, but they reflect more the offbeat surrealism of folk humor than anything else. A typical example:

America gave Russia a steam-driven boat. It had two giant wheels but barely stayed afloat.

Or even worse:

An American–alas!–Stuck a finger up his ass And thought-what a laugh! He’d wound up his phonograph.

Despite the almost total absence of a Russian “sense of America,” both these masterpieces relate in their own way to technology. America has always been connected with something revolving and springy.

Not until the war did Russians acquire a firm sense of America as a country of fabled riches and munificence. The brief, euphoric period of postwar contact in Europe gave rise to the opinion that Russians and Americans were in fact very much alike. When you tried to pin Russians down about what it was that made the two peoples so similar, they tended to say something like: “Americans are down to earth and enjoy a drink.” “And do they like to raise Cain?” you might ask to pin them down even further. “No, they don’t” would be the reply, “but they can kick up a hell of a rumpus when they feel like it.”

The decades of anti-American propaganda that followed have done little to shake this belief Strange as it may seem, the Russians still think of Americans as close relations. The Chinese, on the other hand, they think of as beings from outer space. And although the idea of communism traveled to China via Russia, the Russian in his heart of hearts believes that if anyone is predisposed toward communism it is the Chinese, not he or his fellow Russians.

In 1969, during the skirmishes along the Sino-Soviet border, I happened to be in nearby Alma-Ata, the capital of Soviet Kazakhstan. One day I shared a table at the hotel restaurant with an officer from the local missile base. Before long he was dead drunk and weeping like a child: “There’s a war about to break, and I’ve just bought a motorcycle, a real beaut, a Yava. It took me five long years to save up, and now the Chinese’ll come and grab it.” “So you re scared of the Chinese?” I said. “Not in the least,” he slobbered. “I just don’t want to lose my motorcycle.” At this point I couldn’t help putting a rather provocative question to him, namely, “What about the Americans, Lieutenant? Are you scared of them?” Whereupon he sobered up for a moment and said in a firm voice, “Americans respect Private Property.”

The official goal of Soviet society is to reach the stage of historical development known as communism. For want of religious underpinning, the goal has taken on a purely pragmatic and rather feebleminded “self-help” kind of image; it is now a means of “satisfying the ever-growing demands of the working people.” In 1960 Khrushchev set out to overtake America (Soviet production statistics have always been measured against American production statistics) and build a Communist (that is, in the popular imagination, prosperous) society, both by 1980. Although the Soviet Union might have overtaken America in the production of tanks, it failed everywhere else: the bounty of Safeway shelves still surpasses the wildest dreams of the Soviet consumer, plagued now as then by never-ending lines and shortages. As for communism, it still seems to be receding into the future.

The combination of vague pro-American feelings and an all-out anti-American propaganda campaign caused a certain segment of Soviet society to start leaning unconsciously in the direction of America in matters aesthetic, emotional, and even to some extent ideological. I have in mind the Soviet intelligentsia of my generation.

It is no easy task to explain the exodus from the Soviet orbit of a generation so thoroughly ready for Soviet life. (What could have been better preparation than the arrests of our fathers during the 1937 purges?) Theoretically, we ought to have turned into “new men” even more ideal than our elder brothers, the intellectuals who went off as volunteers to fight against Finland in the belief that their infamous sally would further the great revolutionary struggle for liberation. As far as they were concerned, everything emanating from the Kremlin had a noble, radiant aura. Members of the celebrated Institute of Philosophy and Literature condoned both the purges of the thirties and the anti-cosmopolitan campaign of the forties. For these intellectuals, many of whom spent time in the camps for their Communist ardor, the unmasking of Stalin was a catastrophe, the “thaw” an excruciating process of self-reevaluation.

For us, however, it was the start of a great carnival. Down with Stalin! Up with jazz! We were ready for the about-face; in fact, we had been ready since before Stalin’s death. Far behind the indestructible iron curtain we had somehow managed to develop a pro-Western mentality-and what could be farther west than America?

A number of films, gleaned from the booty brought back from Germany after the war, fell into the hands of the authorities. Most were sentimental trash or Nazi-made anti-British products, but here and there an American classic of the thirties would turn up. The authorities, looking for a way to bring in money, decided to swallow their ideological pride and release them for public consumption. This decision, unusual enough in itself, was rendered even more so by the fact that the impossible burden of making ideologically pure pictures had forced the Soviet film industry to curb its output to three or four films a year.

Since the authorities had no intention of paying royalties on the films, they showed them under false titles. Stagecoach, for example, was called The journey Will Be Dangerous; Mr. Deeds Goes to Washington-The Dollar Rules; The Roaring Twenties-The Fate of a Soldier in America. In addition to ideologically emended titles, the films received ludicrous introductions- “The Journey Will Be Dangerous treats the heroic struggle of the Indians against Yankee imperialism” which replaced the credits and therefore prevented us from getting to know names like John Wayne and James Cagney.

I saw Stagecoach no fewer than ten times and The Roaring

Twenties no fewer than fifteen. There was a period when we spoke to our friends almost entirely in quotes from American movies. One such friend, after becoming a high-ranking officer in the Soviet Air Force, confided in me, “Comrade Stalin made a big mistake by letting our generation see those films.” My friend was right: they provided one of the few windows to the outside world from our stinking Stalinist lair.

Another of those windows was provided by jazz. From the moment I heard a recording of “Melancholy Baby”-a pirate job on an X-ray plate-I couldn’t get enough of the revelation coming to me through the shadows of ribs and alveoli, namely, that “every cloud must have a silver lining.”

In those days jazz was America’s secret weapon number one. Every night the Voice of America would beam a two-hour jazz program at the Soviet Union from Tangiers. The snatches of music and bits of information made for a kind of golden glow over the horizon when the sun went down, that is, in the West, the inaccessible but oh so desirable West. How many dreamy Russian boys came to puberty to the strains of Ellington’s “Take the A Train” and the dulcet voice of Willis Conover, the Ova’s Mr. Jazz. We taped the music on antediluvian recorders and played it over and over at semi-underground parties, which often ended in fistfights with Komsomol patrols or even police raids.

Clothes provided yet another window on the West. That is why, as I’ve pointed out, they turned into such a fetish. If a girl in an American dress (how did she come by it?) showed up walking along Leningrad’s Nevskii Prospect, she would soon be followed by a crowd of stilyagi. Swinging and swaying (which is how they thought Americans moved along Broadway-they even nicknamed Nevskii Prospect “Broad”), they would sing, “I’ve met a girl/As sweet as can be/ Her name is Peggy Lee.” The first satirical article about the stilyagi described a gang of youths swaggering down Nevskii Prospect in stars-and-stripes ties. When you think about it, stilyagi were the first dissidents.

Leningrad was far ahead of the rest of the country in terms of Westernization. Soon a Leningrad variety of know-it-all began to proliferate, a cat who could fill you in on anything and everything to do with America, from the early popular and later banned editions of Dos Passos and Hemingway in Russian to Dizzy Gillespie’s latest Greenwich Village concert, (Last Saturday at the Half Note-no, sorry, man, it was Friday; Saturday was Charlie Parker, and was it pouring! Can’t you just picture it, man? The rain, the Village-it’s enough to make you piss your pants.)

The picture of America that our generation pieced together In Its Imagination was impossibly idealized and distorted, but it also had an amazing-astral, if you like-truth to it. No one paid much attention to the pro-American phenomenon at the time, but looking back on it now from a distance of thirty years I can say-without any pretense at scholarly analysis, of course-that the America cult had its roots in our basic anti-revolutionary character. Not that we were aware of it at first. But what had once been called the “romance of the revolution” had all but evaporated by the time our generation came along; what is more, it had started giving way to a “romance of counterrevolution”: the young now found the figure of the White Army officer more romantic than his Red counterpart. Unlike Gorky, Pilniak, or Maiakovskii we refused-unconsciously as yet-to see the revolution as a latter-day deluge, a force of universal purification. We knew that instead of purity it had brought in its wake the monstrously bloody, monstrously dreary Stalinist way of life.

America rose up out of the mist as an alternative to an outdated and nauseating belief in Socialist revolution, that is, the revolt of the slaves against their masters. The intervening thirty years have dispelled many of my illusions, but on this point I have not wavered. In fact, I perceive with greater clarity that totalitarian decadence must be (and is now in the process of being) outweighed by the forces of liberalism and benevolent inequality. And I thank God that the leader of those forces is a powerful America.

Source: Vassily Aksenov, In Search of Melancholy Baby (New York: Random House, 1985), pp. 12-19.

 

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