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Toska, She Said To The Ugly Americans

I’m at a conference at a resort outside of Austin. In one of the morning sessions, a colleague talked for a bit about what she learned studying the psychology of altruism in Russia. She said that it’s very hard for Americans to grasp how impoverished post-Soviet Russia is in social capital. It’s extremely hard to find the kind of trust between people we take for granted here. Communism destroyed so very much.

Just now, I read this essay about Sochi and American mocking of how crappy Russia is, written by Vicki Boykis, who emigrated from Russia as a child. She writes about going back to Russia for the first time, when she was 18. Excerpt:

For the first three days I was simply in deep shock. I grew up in America, and I had never been anywhere this dirty, this depressing, this-I didn’t even have a word for it in English. But there’s one that exists in Russian: toska, a combination of anguish, anxiety, and melancholy, and finally, acceptance that most things won’t ever change.

It shouldn’t be like this, I thought. It can’t be like this. How is it possible that the country that has produced the greatest literary canon of the 19th century still has people using outhouses? We had beaten the French, the Germans, and sent the first man into space. (Later, I heard the wry Russian observation, “We beat Germany but they’re still living better than us. Maybe we should let them beat us this time.”)

I had a feeling I didn’t know how to reconcile. It was the feeling of simultaneously feeling proud of Russia, of loving Russia to pieces, but also one of complete helplessness. How to even begin fixing something like this, a country where people still live in barracks that weren’t meant to outlast Khruschev? A country where it’s reasonable to expect to to get bitten by rabies-carrying dogs?

And a third, uneasy feeling swept through me, and I recognized it right away: American smugness. Everything is so terrible here. It would never happen this way in America. How can people just take it? People would never be this okay with broken roads, heinous public toilets, and men staggering-drunk in the middle of the day where I was from.

This is in the ballpark of how I often feel about the American South when outsiders regard it disdainfully. They’re not always wrong about our problems, not at all. In fact, more often than not they’re right, in a strict sense. But there’s something wrong with the way some of them gloat, and act like we’re idiots who don’t know shit from schadenfreude. Don’t they think we know what our problems are? Don’t they understand that fixing them is a lot more complicated than they can possibly realize? That when you are a guest in someone’s country, you don’t take pleasure in rubbing your hosts’ noses in their own failures? Boykis unloads on American journalists in Sochi:

I’m more than thrilled that attention is finally being called to how fu**ed up Russia is; it’s only something I’ve been talking about for years.  And it’s fine to make fun of something, but when that something is not your own, not something you understand, babies, goddamnit, you’ve got to be kind as Kurt Vonnegut would say. And kindness from journalists means adding context and not being sensationalist. Not playing the Ugly American Broadcaster.

Read the whole thing. I bet many Southerners in this blog’s readership can relate. Toska is a deeply un-American sentiment, but the fact that Russian has a word for that sort of thing tells us something about the suffering the Russians have endured for so very, very long.


about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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