Russian Americana

The fact is, as most of us Americans in Russia can attest, no matter how bad the political situation has been, the antipathy towards America has never been personal. And it certainly has never been cultural. The problem is that there just aren’t that many of us Americans left to attest anymore. And most of us figure that about 80 percent of the Americans once here have left over the last four years.

A long, strange trip

When I first arrived in Moscow in the late 1990s, the myth of America and many Russians’ fascination with America were at a fever pitch. Indeed, in my opinion at the time, things were even a bit overheated.

Per capita, there were very few restaurants in Moscow 20 years ago; and for the expat community, the social center of Moscow was the Starlite Diner at Mayakovskaya metro. Years earlier, a group of U.S. businessmen planted this authentic American diner smack in the middle of the Akvarium Garden, the first in a successful run of them. Go there any time, and you would run into people you knew. And just five minutes away was the notorious American Bar and Grill, a decidedly more seedy variation on the American theme; but just like the Starlite, it was always jampacked with Russians digging the American theme.

At the same time, there was an American aspect to Moscow that was much more fascinating, accidental and authentic. There were genuinely rough bars all over town, and I adored them. In my mind, they were as wild and unpredictable as I imagined that the American honky-tonk bars had once been decades before. One place I enjoyed going was in the basement of the Central House of Artists, called Taxman. My first time there, some kid was playing perfect Jerry Lee Lewis – and I really mean perfect – while people around me were fighting and empty beer bottles were flying. I was in heaven. This was a place that wasn’t trying to be American, but was more of a genuine and altered glance into an older and cooler America of honkey-tonks, attitude, fighting, great music and whatever happens next. It was in places like this that I began to appreciate one of the genuine connections between Russian and American cultures.