I went to bed last night wondering what Chekhov, my favorite Russian writer and a supreme student of vulgarity, might say about this election. At 4 a.m. I woke up and saw in the news that a bad premonition had been transmogrified into a travesty of form. I woke up my wife, shared the wild news of the Republican win, then tossed in bed for an hour and finally fell back asleep as my daughters were just waking up. I had an absurdly vatic dream: I found myself back in Russia, in Leningrad, in a huge apartment on the Petrograd Side of the city, standing with close friends and their grown children, gnashing sunflower seeds and spitting the shells onto a luxurious Oriental rug. When my 9-year-old daughter ran into the bedroom, she asked my wife: “Is it true that we’ll have to leave the country?” My Philadelphia-born wife, herself the daughter of Jewish immigrants, assured our child that “even though papa is an immigrant, he’s a naturalized citizen,” and nothing threatened us as of today.
That’s how the morning began. My daughters dressed in black. I took them to school and drove to a nearby Toyota dealership for an oil change. Sipping weak coffee, I sat in the waiting area, surrounded by grim Bostonians. I was thinking of what had happened, and of the first time when American elections had touched a chord in me.
* * *
I was a freshman at Moscow University. My parents and I had been refuseniks for over five years, and my father was soon to enter the worst spiral of persecution by the Soviet authorities. Exodus from Russia was constantly on our minds. Among our American acquaintances was an historian of the 19th century Russia, a Jewish professor from an East Coast university, who was doing research in Soviet archives. On that November day he came to see us directly after having voted at the U.S. embassy.
“For Reagan?” I asked with hope in my voice.
“No, for Mondale,” the American scholar answered softly. At the time I understood very little about American life; I imagined Mondale as a left-winger, and regarded the actor Reagan as a sworn enemy of the Soviet bloc and a defender of human rights.
At the time I linked President Reagan unequivocally with anti-Communism and anti-Sovietism, and appreciated him because of his support of the cause of Soviet Jews. Issues of Reagan’s domestic politics had been of no interest to me as my family struggled for our right to leave the USSR. I don’t think this could have been otherwise at the time, given the country in which I was living and my family’s ideological confrontation with its regime. My political recalibration began in 1987-1988. Soon after coming to America I became aware of an enduring stereotype of a Jewish-Soviet immigrant who votes Republican and abhors Democratic candidates. But I also encountered plenty of Russian-American Jews who felt, as I did increasingly, that voting was not only a matter of politics and ideology but also a matter of taste, an aesthetic choice.
In 1988 I witnessed my first American election. I was now a Brown University student, an immigrant with over a year of American living under my belt. My friend and roommate Chris, a Sacramentan and romantic anarchist, was passionately rooting for Dukakis. Together we watched the election night coverage. I was still a “stateless shadow” (to borrow Nabokov’s phrase) and couldn’t vote, but I remember two simultaneous sensations: a slight stirring of irritation when Dukakis discussed his family’s immigrant background, and knowing with my gut that the political rhetoric of the elder Bush was unacceptable.
Almost 30 years have gone by. I’ve become a U.S. citizen and voted in all the elections, starting in 1996, when Clinton defeated Dole. All these years I’ve voted for Democratic candidates, not only owing to the call of heart and mind but because the Democratic candidates agreed with my taste, with my sense of aesthetic decorum. Or was it because I envisioned Republican presidential candidates as members of some other circle of people, a society to which I didn’t belong for a number of biographical and personal reasons? They all seemed strangers to me—the Yale cowboy George W., the traumatized American soldier McCain, the Mormon illusionist Romney.
I won’t lie to you: Every time, when a Republican nominee would emerge and a new election campaign would start, I thought of a possible Republican victory as a defeat of my Russian and Jewish ideals and predilections. But never before has a Republican candidate’s victory appeared to me as a coup of ugliness—a Bosch painting, in which everything gross triumphs, and everything fine is vanquished and punished. To me as a Jewish-Russian immigrant this is a traumatic event.
Now, this previously unimaginable, topsy-turvy aesthetic outcome has become our new reality. I don’t want to say that die-hard reactionaries have won. This is not a victory, it’s some unthinkable apotheosis of philistinism. How can I shield my children from this spreading threat of public crudeness? From an effigy with colored hair and vocabulary of a tacky third-grader?
That’s all. My car is ready, it’s time to go. A blessed autumn here in New England. And American roads have not yet been blocked by tractor patrols.