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Pizza in Pushkin's Square.

Pizza in Pushkin's Square Pizza in Pushkin's Square. Victor Ripp. Simon and Schuster, $18.95. This short, wry book is delightfully written and revealing about both the United States and the Soviet Union. The author is a professor of Russian literature whose parents came from Russia and who has returned there himself many times before and during the Gorbachev era. For 200 years, he says, Russians have been far more interested in figuring out the American character than Americans have been in understanding Russians. "Though most Russians rarely see an American, and never talk to one, they have managed to devise a balance sheet of our flaws and virtues.... It's an odd perspective, and like creatues in fairy tales we seem distanced and vivid at the same time."

One strong theme in Russia's contradictory view of America is that the two national cultures really have a tremendous amount in common. A team of writers, reporting on a cost-to-coast drive across the United States, excitedly told their readers about a man they had met in Dearborn, Michigan: "His eyes are set close together, the prickly eyes of a peasant. As a matter of fact, he looks very much like a sharp-nosed Russian peasant, a self-made inventor who suddenly shaved off his beard and put on an English suit of clothes." As Ripp points out, the subject of this description was none other than the original Henry Ford--"American to the bone, almost primordially native in occupation and in apperance."

America's failure to reciprocate the respect, attention, and sense of comradeship is the Russians' fundamental grievance. Ripp says that he has been continually lectured about America's refusal to appreciate Soviet sacrifices in World War II. "The truth of these assertions aside--and most rang more or less true--the querulous tone was remarkable. It suggested a boxer who won't stop throwing punches long after the final bell has sounded, the fans departed, and the stadium locked shut." Russia has made special room in its heart for the few Americans who have paid the country proper respect--John Reed, Van Cliburn, the inescapable Armand Hammer.

Similar complaints--"the Americans don't care as much about us as we do about them"--are usually heard in the Philippines, Mexico, or other countries that see themselves as distinctly weaker than the U.S. and therefore the victims of its uninformed whims. Ripp says that to some extent Russia is the same: "Always lagging in material goods, almost always a bit backward culturally, Russia has a longstanding inferiority complex." But he says that most Russians also feel that their values and sensitivities are deeper, more refined, more serious than their cowboy image of American life. They are especially annoyed when America, or the real Americans they now encounter in greater numbers, fail to conform to Soviet expectations. James Fenimore Cooper is revered in Russia for expressing "authentic" American values. A Pravda correspondent visited Cooper's grave in Cooperstown and was heartbroken to see Americans flooding into the Baseball Hall of Fame, totally ignoring his beloved Cooper.

Ripp says that under Gorbachev Russians at last are able to admit something they've obviously believed for many years: that Americans can somehow do things that are simply beyond Russia's organizational grasp. The film director Sergei Eisenstein was boggled by the skyscrapers of New York. Anastas Mikoyan once filed a detailed, envy-filled report on American burger-frying techniques. Even now, Ripp says, Russians see American quality and American technology as symbols of the best that can be done. Without driving the point into the ground, he suggests that this attitude may reveal how backward Russia really is.
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Author:Fallows, James
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1990
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