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To Russia, With Love and Pharmaceuticals

November 26, 2000|NINA KHRUSHCHEVA | Nina Khrushcheva is senior fellow at the World Policy Institute of the New School University in New York

Happily, some of the humor coming out of the test of wills over who will become the next president of the United States carries the imaginative lunacy of Rabelais, Gogol, Dickens and P.G. Wodehouse. Consider the verbal images: "butterfly ballots," "pregnant chads," "chadder" as a new form of chatter. No wonder political satire is said to be dead in the United States; real life has bolted beyond it.

For the rest of the world, humor's coup against American politics is great news. Yet the problem is that the vote counting will end and the U.S. will go back to normal and begin exporting rationality once again, perhaps even trying to send some to Russia. Yet as the years of Russia's transition have shown, the country simply does not appreciate normalcy and values the excitement of humor and fiction instead.

Humor helps you to survive the hardship of reality by making that reality seem unreal and distant. Why do Russians sometimes appear distracted and gloomy? Because they are busy contemplating their next joke. Russians say that their reality has come out of Gogol and Dostoevsky, where hypothetical conditions are as important as facts. Visitors to Moscow are stunned by the number of restaurants, bars and other businesses carrying names of writers or literary characters: Pushkin, Oblomov, Khlestakov, Vanya.

Yet U.S. policymakers seem to still prefer the "virtual" Russia of their imaginative constructs to the looking-glass world in which Russians live. So perhaps a practical policy suggestion would be for the next U.S. president to provide Russia with ample supplies of Prozac. Prozac could assist Russians in changing their behavior and attitudes toward the practical and realistic. The drug could be administered in the same way fluoride is diluted in water in the U.S. As Americans now have no cavities, the next generation of Russians would have no national depression or desire to escape reality.

But as some Russians do not drink water, preferring vodka, and anti-depressants are not to be mixed with alcohol, perhaps the Prozac should be distributed in the way the Red Cross fights other epidemics around the world. Prozac tents could be set up in parks where pills or shots could be distributed.

After the successful completion of "Operation Prozac," America could embark on Phase 2 of its Russian Efficiency Project: a ban on reading fiction in favor of reading contracts. Actually, the ban on fiction would be a better discouragement; our official bannings, as with the samizdat press of the Brezhnev era, only served to strengthen dissident movements. Indeed, one of our modern-day Solzhenitsyns surely would rise up against this Prozac gulag.

But we are great self-sufferers and natural autodidacts. So in addition to the voluntary literary chastity, if Russians were offered lessons in business--say, Uncreative Reading 101--they would answer the call. For creativity is a serious Russian problem. When publishing an annual report, one international organization was stunned by a Moscow publisher's explanations for why he blew all deadlines and standards: "My people are artists, they mix colors by hand."

"Annual reports do not need Kandinskys," the earnest American contractors argued. "They need professional printers." He'd have been better off offering Prozac.

Indeed, look at the titles for some business proposals submitted by Russian nongovernmental organizations to Western foundations: "David Copperfields of Saratov," "Green Noise in Siberia" ("Green Noise" is a poem by Nekrasov) and, my favorite, "Educating Lolita." Program officers are Westernized enough to understand that these are not book proposals but projects aimed at improving orphanages in Saratov, environmental protection in Siberia or creating the social conditions to eliminate prostitution.

Russians can't help themselves. All these concrete, measurable matters are simply not as exciting as discussing "War and Peace." Worse yet, you can't really think about them without thinking about "War and Peace" because, when we look for truth, we start with things some author made up. When Russians (let's say in another 10 years) learn to do business with precision and to respect rules, perhaps they will then be allowed to get back to Gogol and Pushkin.

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