Notes on “Notes from a Trip to Russia”
It’s three days before the start of a new decade and I’m once again thinking about your words. Since I began writing about my chronic illness, I’ve regularly revisited your Cancer Journals because they show me how to find some peace with mortality. Your theory of anger has helped me understand the clarifying value of this emotion, its importance for political action. But now that I have the chance to write something in response to your essay on Russia, my thoughts are scattered. It’s Hannukah and I’m reading stories about antisemitic stabbings and shootings. At the border, children are still caged and separated from families. We live under a white supremacist president who has a good chance of being re-elected. Meanwhile, the country you visited in 1976 — the “country” where I was born — no longer exists. But now there’s Russia, where people are persecuted for “gay propaganda.” Some Russian people have only known one president their entire lives. Will they know another?
I return to your essay, getting hung up on the fact that you start with an account, not of your travels, but a dream about Soviet health care. In the dream, you’re with a woman who becomes ill and needs expensive scans. The relief you feel when you realize that you’re in the USSR and therefore need not worry about your lover’s doctors’ bills is heartbreaking. What you couldn’t have seen on your trip, funded as it was by the state, were the glass mayonnaise jars Soviet citizens used to deliver their urine samples, the bottles of cognac necessary to be seen by a noted specialist, the disabled children wasting away in mental institutions. But, as someone who has spent some of her life in the USSR, and much of it in the US, I can tell you that I’ve rarely been more scared than when going to a hospital here, without health insurance. It’s in the US that I have trembled while opening envelopes from doctors and laboratories. It’s in the US that cancer patients must publicly beg friends and strangers to help them pay for therapies and surgeries. “If you don’t have the money to pay, sometimes you died,” you said in 1976. It’s still true today.
“I wish now I had asked about Russian Jews,” you write. Because you were invited to participate in an African-Asian Writers Conference. Because you were made to believe that the USSR was not a racist country, unlike the US. Because when you asked about “the USSR’s attitude toward American racism,” you were told that “the USSR cannot interfere in the internal affairs of any other nation.” As for Russian Jews, when you asked about them, you were brushed off, simply told “there were Jews in government.” In 2019, in the US, we, too, have Jews in government. We have Jared Kushner and Stephen Miller. We have Donald J. Trump, whom some Jews have called “the first Jewish president.” We have a government that “cannot interfere in the internal affairs” of China, India, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Israel…
It’s now 2020 and I, a Russian Jew, an immigrant in the US, am bracing for yet another difficult election. I worry that we’re not prepared to ask the right questions, to stand shoulder to shoulder, to put our bodies into the fight. Images of transnational solidarity are all over your travelogue. You connect to ethnic minorities, indigenous people fighting extinction, African writers. You speak about South Africa. You probe beyond the surface. The USSR has chosen a position “against racism” but does it work in practice or remain the stuff of “lip service?” Is “the personal element” there? You see through the bullshit. “I have no reason to believe Russia is a classless society,” you write. It wasn’t classless or raceless. And what pains me, as a Russian Jew, is that after all that suffering, my fellow immigrants voted for Trump. Not all, but enough. White women also voted for Trump. Misguided attempts at self-preservation and power-by-proxy remain powerful drugs. But, like you, I keep dreaming of a world where those who can’t pay have a shot at survival.
Maggie Levantovskaya writes non-fiction, personal essays, and literary criticism. Her writing has appeared in Lit Hub, LA Review of Books, Catapult, VICE, and elsewhere. She studied Comparative Literature at Pitzer College and earned a PhD at UC San Diego. She teaches in the English department at Santa Clara University in Silicon Valley.