PIZZA IN PUSHKIN SQUARE What Russians Think About Americans and the American Way of Life By Victor Ripp Simon and Schuster. 224 pp. $18.95
A Soviet newspaper recently published an account by the popular humorist Mikhail Zhvanetsky of his U.S. tour. His rapturous description of American supermarkets was followed by a sudden shift in tone: Amid all this plenty, American life was extremely boring, and Americans were always rushed and harried and indifferent to culture.
As Victor Ripp's often fascinating new book, "Pizza in Pushkin Square: What Russians Think About Americans and the American Way of Life," makes clear, such ambivalence is quite typical of Soviet attitudes toward the United States. Ripp, the American-born son of Russian emigres who has made five trips to the Soviet Union, not only draws on his own experience and contemporary sources but also surveys nearly two centuries of Russian writing about America.
In the 19th century, many Russians looked for similarities and parallels between the two nations, from vast landscapes to human spirit, and "some even claimed to have discovered a shared destiny." This amicable view largely persists today, but it is rife with ambiguities; praise for Americans is liable to slide into condescension, and for some, it seems, Russian virtues are mirrored by American flaws: "Russians are direct, while Americans ... are naive. Russians are impatient with empty formalities, but they profess shock at how little Americans understand basic rules of etiquette." What shocks Ripp is that many Russians who know next to nothing about America have very firm, not easily dislodged opinions about our national character.
As Soviet people painfully reassess their way of life, America is increasingly an object of longing, a model of abundance and comfort. Ripp recounts a poignantly amusing episode in which an industrial designer from Boston presents a slide show of state-of-the-art American appliances to a group of his Soviet counterparts; for a personal touch, he ends with slides of his office, his family, his suburban home and car -- which stun the Soviet viewers far more than the futuristic furniture and robots they had just seen. "Russians still believe fervently that America's economy is not only the most provident but the most efficient," and American-made goods have a special, almost magical aura.
Even the Bolsheviks of the 1920s and early '30s, says Ripp, paradoxically worshiped American industrialism -- and the person of Henry Ford. Stalin himself in 1931 extolled "American efficiency ... that indomitable force which neither knows nor recognizes obstacles."
Yet the admiration was never unmixed, and not only, Ripp suggests, for ideological reasons. In Soviet-era travel writing about America, starting with the 1935 "One-Story America" by satirists Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov, Americans were skewered less for their sins against Marxism than for their bad manners and tacky pleasures. The Soviet observer, like a "detective tracking a tricky suspect," was always searching for the (presumably ugly) truth behind America's facade and cutting down to size her seductive wonders. Americans came to be seen less as a model than a standard to be surpassed. In a bizarre twist, Vladimir Mayakovsky, the bard of what Ripp wryly calls "communism's self-confident period," imagined that as the actual America sank deeper into capitalist decadence, Soviets would inherit the best of the true American spirit, becoming "the new Americans of the modern age."
"Pizza in Pushkin Square" also explores the experiences of Americans living in Russia, the Soviets' fascination with American writers, and their chafing at the Americans' failure to duly recognize the magnitude of Russian suffering in World War II. However, some intriguing and important subjects such as the symbolism of America in the contemporary Soviet political struggles -- a beacon to democrats, a devil of Jewish dominance and consumerism to nationalists -- are slighted, and only scant attention is paid to glasnost-era Soviet writing about America.
More unfortunate than these oversights is Ripp's penchant for patronizing generalizations about Russians and the Russian character -- the same kind he finds so grating when the shoe is on the other foot. Thus he flatly states that collectivist Russian culture, unlike the West, knows no personal guilt, only "social shame." (Really? Read Dostoevski.) Whenever "the Russians" disagree with Ripp, even if it's about the films of Walt Disney -- which they love and he doesn't -- he tends to dismiss their views as sad national idiosyncrasies, with such comments as "Though contrary to all common sense, the nineteenth-century rigamarole about the artist's unique vision is accepted." This jarring note of arrogance mars an otherwise delightful and informative work. "Pizza in Pushkin Square" leaves one hoping that, as the Soviet Union and America open up to each other, people on both sides will cut through the stereotypes and see people. But it also suggests -- not always intentionally -- that this will not be easy. The reviewer, born in the Soviet Union, is the author of "Growing Up in Moscow."