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Cold War in the Sauna: Notes From a Russian American

I had just finished exercising and went to the sauna. The gym I go to is a modern facility with new equipment and is very popular in our city.

My favorite parts are the sauna and the steamer. Both remind me of my old country – Russia. Though, to be politically and geographically correct – I never lived in Russia: I was born and raised in one of the fifteen republics of the former USSR – the republic of Kazakhstan.

So, I am a Russian from Kazakhstan. It’s kind of confusing for Americans, and when twenty-six years ago my American wife brought me here, the customs official gave me an alien card where my nationality was stated not Russian but Kazakh. My friends make fun of me, because Russians and Kazakhs are like apples and oranges. We look different…

In 1992, when I arrived in America, the relationship between the two cold war rivals was excellent: Americans traveled to Russia, opening McDonalds, KFC’s, Burger Kings, and other businesses, and Russians were opening not only their hearts but even the secrets of the overthrown KGB. Millions of Russians and Americans enjoyed such a “romance” between the two most powerful nuclear countries in the world.

Not anymore! Every morning I wake up to the words, “Russia is terrible,” and go to sleep with the humiliating jokes of the “night-show-clowns” about “the dictator” Putin and “barbaric” Russians, whose 13 hackers changed the electoral minds of millions of naïve Americans. Wow! What a powerful “gasoline station country”- Russia, as Senator McCain calls it.

If in 1992 the people in my city who heard my accent were very nice to me and to Russia, now the usual reaction is to stare at me like a goat at the newly painted gates. One of my neighbors even yelled at me when I answered his question about my recent trip to Russia. I told him: “Russians like Putin because he saved their country from collapse. I saw with my own eyes how Russia has changed since my last trip there. I didn’t see the impact of Obama’s sanctions, Russians have better roads, than we have in Colorado; the shops, are filled with all kinds of products; the churches are restored…”

My neighbor who didn’t like Trump yelled at me: “If you like Russia go back to your country!” My answer was: “I love Russia but I am American – like your immigrant wife, like you. I love America for a lot of reasons, one of them – the right to speak! Nobody should privatize this right.” He ran away, later coming to apologize…

My wife, knowing my hard-tempered character asks me not to talk about policy – Putin-Trump anymore. And I don’t, to a certain degree. However, when someone asks me about Russia or Putin I usually answer, giving my point of view; I just cannot be silent. I was silent for 40+ years living in the USSR, not anymore! Of course, not everyone likes my answers, like the man I am going to tell you about.

So, I went into the sauna; a stout man was sitting on the upper bench. He was the same age as I.  Many of the older men in America call ourselves “old farts.” The name is not offensive to us, because we really do not care about our image, and because we like to make jokes about everything, mostly about ourselves. Usually, we old farts are nice, we love to talk, even in the sauna. Young people nowadays do not talk. They turn on their phones even in the sauna – I bet they do not know how to talk with other people. They cover their “secrets” in towels while we do not – we do not have any secrets anymore.

Anyway, the man said hello to me, I answered, and he caught my slight accent.

“Where are you from?” It’s a question I am usually asked.

“From here.” I answered.

He was a little confused. I knew what usually followed if I had said – “from Kazakhstan.” Usually, there would be an exchange of this type: “Where is it?” – “Between Russia and China,” – “How do you like it here?” The silly film “Borat” helped me for a short period of time. People were smiling, as if they met Sasha Cohen, and I was happy that at least they knew some geography, though the film was silly and the geography in it was completely mistaken.

“No, I mean originally where are you from?” The guy, let’s call him Tony, found the right question.

I decided not to check his geography skills and said that I came from Russia. The dialog that followed was remarkable. Here it is.

“Welcome to America! Your English is pretty good!”

“Yours, too.” He didn’t get my humor. “Just joking,” I said, “As for welcoming, it’s a little late: I have lived here for 25 years.”

“Have you been in Russia lately?” He asked.

“Yes, I go there every year.”

“Wow. So, what do you think about that crazy guy…, Pyutin?”

“Sorry, honey,” – I apologized to my wife in my thoughts and picked up the gauntlet. “You mean Putin? He is not crazy. Actually, he is one of the smartest rulers Russia ever had.” I said.

Tony’s eyes nearly leaped from their sockets. “But he is a dictator and kills people!”

“I wouldn’t call him a dictator – he was just last week elected by nearly 67% of Russians. I would call him an authoritarian, strong ruler; but a weak ruler in Russia wouldn’t survive a day. Besides, there were seven people opposed him in the election!”

Tony smiled. “You call it an election? He chose the opponents himself from his friends. The whole world knows that elections in Russia are a sham!”

“Who told you this nonsense, Tony? Did you listen to the debates? Did you hear how these people yelled at each other and cursed Putin, asking people to vote for them not for Putin. They really were as tough as Hillary to Donald! And besides, there were a lot of observers from 110 countries. They claimed the election was legitimate.”

“No, I do not believe you.”

“You may not believe me but I am citing the international organizations reports. You may check their reports on the Internet yourself. You may even sue these organizations if you wish.”

Tony was silent for a minute, then turned his head to me and asked: “You know that Pyutin is evil even to his own people?”

“You mean Putin? Who told you? How many Russians share your opinion?”

“McCain.”

“Is he Russian?”

“No, but he knows that Pyutin is KGB.”

“His name is Putin!” I tried to correct at least this in his mind. “So, you do not believe me, a Russian, who just returned from Russia, but you believe this Senator, who hates Putin and Russia? Besides, there are no KGB anymore.”

“But he used to be KGB?”

“Yes, and Bush H. was also a CIA agent. So, what? After the collapse of the Soviet Union there were no people who didn’t work for government in that country, we all worked for government! Putin is good for Russia, he is the brightest politician nowadays. He is like a great Chess-master, and he is a dangerous player. We must be careful with him. Some Congressmen are underestimating Russia, calling it “a gasoline station with nukes,” but I was there this summer and saw with my own eyes how much people love Putin, and how much he is doing to make that country great again.”

“Yeh, yeh, yeh…” Tony didn’t know what to say. Then he recalled something and turned his red face to me. “Well, he invaded Crimea, and Ukraine!”

“No, he did not. Crimea was a harbor for the Russian navy, and according to the treaty between Ukraine and Russia there were sixteen thousand Russian troops stationed there on a permanent base. There were about twenty-three thousand Ukrainian troops there, too. So, when the thugs in Kiev took power, illegally kicking out president Yanukovych and killing the political opponents, the Crimean people decided to organize a referendum. Ninety-six percent decided to reunite with Russia, as they were Russians for nearly 400 years before the Communist dictator Khrushchev gave that peninsula to Ukraine as a present to his native land.”

“But they had no right to secede from the main land of Ukraine!”

“Yes, they did. International law gives the right for self-determination to people. Remember, we split from the British Empire.”

“But it was so long ago!”

“Okay, what about East and West Germany or Kosovo? The people in these countries also exercised their right of self-determination, but they didn’t have any referendum as far as I know.”

Tony looked at me attentively. “I don’t believe you.”

“You have the right not to believe me. You asked, I answered.”

Tony was silent for a while. Then he threw out his last argument. “I hope you wouldn’t deny that Putin killed British citizens recently, using KGB gas!”

Wow, he pronounced “Putin” correctly! I smiled. The nice face of my American wife appeared in my head again, and she was not happy! I kissed her in my thoughts and finished the conversation with my last knockout blow:

“I wouldn’t deny it if the poisoning by Russians had been proved!”

“But it was proved by Teresa May!”

“Really? What did she say?”

“She said that it was Putin who poisoned the British citizens!”

“Not really, my friend. She said that it was “highly likely” that Russia did it! Besides, only Mr. Skripal is a British citizen, his daughter is a Russian citizen”

“Does it make any difference?”

“You mean, “highly likely” is proof to punish somebody? What about one of the main pillars of democracy – innocent until proven guilty?”

“But we believe our allies, not the Russians!”

That statement made me laugh. “You believe not facts but political statements without any facts? Wow! What kind of democracy is that?”

Tony’s face became so red that I was afraid it would melt. He stood up from the bench and without looking at me firmly said:

“Russians are our enemies, and democracy does not apply to them.”

He left, leaving me with a sudden fear of approaching nuclear war.

At night I prayed for peace. I prayed for American and Russian people-in-power who could easily destroy this fragile planet. If people refuse to understand each other, they fight. Kennedy and Khrushchev fortunately understood this. Will Putin and Trump understand?

Pavel Kozhevnikov was born in Kazakhstan. In 1992 he married an American woman and relocated to Colorado, USA, where he worked in a variety of business ventures and taught various subjects including Russian at Mitchell High School as well as at Pikes Peak Community College and the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.  Pavel continues to enjoy teaching Russian at the local community college and university and devotes his free time to writing. He has published four books of stories and poems as well as numerous articles for newspapers and journals in Russia, Germany, Kazakhstan, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

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