Eastward Ho!

Eastward Ho!

Back when I was in high school in the late seventies and early eighties, back in the waning days of the cold war, I can remember how it was when anyone criticized any aspect of life in these great United States. Reactions ranged from silence to confusion to outright rage, where I lived anyway. I actually remember being told by a disgruntled male classmate during my senior year of high school that I should go and live in Russia if I didn’t like the USA.

I’m pretty sure I hadn’t even said anything about Russia. Freshly home from a summer exchange program in Stockholm, I think I merely mentioned that unlike here health care and college were free in Sweden.

Of course, even if I had wanted to, just going off to live in Russia wouldn’t have been that easy. It wasn’t like the Russians were just welcoming anyone who felt like coming east. There was actually a very funny movie made about this in the mid-eighties, an independent British film called Letter to Brezhnev. In this film, a Russian sailor comes ashore in the port of Liverpool, meets and falls in love with an unemployed Liverpudlian girl who, after the Russian sailor has to go home, pines for him and finally writes a letter to Brezhnev asking to be admitted into the Soviet Union so she can live with her one true love there. The point that the movie was making of course was that the aimless life the girl was leading as an unemployed statistic in Britain couldn’t have been much worse than any of the difficulties a life in the Soviet Union might have presented for her. This was a debatable point then as now, and it was a point the movie chose not to debate. The film ended with a rousing rendition of the old Soviet national anthem playing in the background while a Brezhnev in profile against a glowing red sunset asked his secretary to come in and take a letter. An exception was to be made, for love.

And now, thirty years later, it still isn’t so easy to just show up at the borders of the Russian Republic and ask to come in, but again, exceptions can be made, for French actors anyway.

I guess Francois Hollande wants to tax the highest earners in France 75% of their income. That does seem like a lot, I have to admit. Jeez, here in the USA, we could barely get to 39%, and only that by courting financial Armageddon. And I guess the highly esteemed French actor, Gerard Depardieu, doesn’t feel like parting with his hard-earned money. He was thinking about Belgium as his own personal tax haven, but now he seems to have found an even better place, far beyond the reaches of the French or even European tax authorities: Russia.

And the Russians are delighted he is coming. The Russians have always admired phlegmatic talent. He has apparently also become great buddies with Mr. Putin since going to Russia to work on a film about Rasputin. In recent press releases, Depardieu has waxed lyrical about the Russians. He loves them, the people, their history, their writers, their culture and their intelligence. Well, who can blame him for that? What’s not to love? The Russian people and their language and culture are one of the most compelling in the world. Their hospitality to foreigners, at least to this one, was prodigious. Their love of language, literature, the arts, and especially the theater is hard to match anywhere in the world. It gets hold of you, the Russian culture, it gets into your blood.

But let’s be honest, it’s a bit of a stretch to call Russia “a great democracy.” Okay, it’s a lot better than it was in the days of Ivan the Terrible or Josef Stalin, I’ll grant you that, but Mr. Putin keeps a tight rein on things these days. Protests of any kind have been pretty much outlawed and it doesn’t pay to raise yourself up too high. Several dethroned Russian oligarchs could attest to the swiftness and brutality of the reaction if you do. I also don’t think, for example, if the price of oil or natural gas were to plummet and stop buoying up the Russian economy, and Mr. Putin had to raise taxes in his country, that he would take kindly to one of his richest citizens announcing that they were leaving the country because they didn’t feel like paying. In any case, as Mr. Depardieu will experience if he truly does take up residence in Mordovia: Russia may be a kind of democracy, but it’s not the kind of democracy he’s used to.

It’s also not the most animal-friendly country on the face of the earth as Ms. Bardot, the next French thespian in line to seek Russian citizenship may find out to her cost. Every Russian town or city I ever lived in or passed through had packs of hungry wild dogs and legions of abandoned cats prowling around the buildings. It was the one thing I would admit under pressure that I really didn’t like about living there. In the winter, which you may have heard in Russia is particularly harsh, dogs slept in the earthen-floored basements of the older-styled Russian apartment buildings, if they could get in. If they couldn’t, they froze to death. In the winter, you never opened the door to the institute where I taught without several dogs making an attempt to get to the warmth inside. People were not very sympathetic about letting them in although sometimes they did make it. I taught an English class once with a large black poodle asleep upside down in front of my desk. I taught another class at a lyceum where the stray cats holed up in the basement under us started howling along as we were singing a song. One of them even had the temerity to venture upstairs and we found it asleep in someone’s fur hat at the end of the class. If there was an ASPCA around, they either weren’t doing much or they were completely overwhelmed. I can only suppose that the Russians might have had the same attitude about the two tubercular elephants Ms. Bardot wants saved.

Both Mr. Depardieu and Ms. Bardot, as French citizens, are probably two centuries too late in their desire to move to Russia anyway. I mean, there are some people who speak French nowadays, but it’s not like it was back in Catherine’s day, or during that, ah, unfortunate invasion that Napoleon undertook in 1812. In those days, the entire Russian upper class spoke French as their mother tongue. Nowadays, and especially if Mr. Depardieu is going to live in Mordovia, he’s going to have to learn some Russian. He says he is looking forward to this, so good luck to him. It’s one of the richest and most beautiful languages in the world. The verbs are a bit tricky though.

Anyway, it’s good that Russia has gotten some migration coming the other way for once. It will be good for their self-esteem. And I hope the price of oil and gas stays nice and high for Mr. Depardieu, so he only has to relinquish 13% of however many millions he rakes in in a year. It would be a shame if he found himself in a dacha in Mordovia with a tax bill he didn’t want to pay. He might have to write a letter to Putin about it, but oh, I forgot, they’re big buddies. He can just give him a call.