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From the Review section of the San Francisco Chronicle

Sunday, December 16, 1990


PIZZA IN PUSHKIN SQUARE: What Russians Think About Americans

and the American Way of Life

by

Victor Ripp

Reviewed By Jock O'Connell

This book's regrettably burlesque title is gratifyingly misleading. Readers expecting a potpourri of humorous, if predictably condescending, anecdotes revealing how the Soviet people routinely misconstrue America and Americans will find Victor Ripp's "Pizza in Pushkin Square" a much more substantive and therefore satisfying work.

The book also serves as a timely antidote to the dubious but increasingly popular notion in this country that an enduring Soviet-American friendship will naturally follow from more frequent contact between citizens of the two nations. After all, when paranoia is a well-established national trait, familiarity can easily breed contempt. And make no mistake about it, the Russians are far more accomplished xenophobes than even we are.

While freer exchanges of information may eventually exorcise some bogeymen on both sides of the relationship, there is a lot of uphill skiing to be done first. As Ripp abundantly demonstrates, the prism through which the Soviets view the United States has been thoroughly distorted by two centuries of accumulated misconceptions, myths and propaganda.

Before glasnost, credible news about America was exceedingly hard to obtain. But this did not prevent Russians from forming strong images of life in America. According to Ripp, "America was like some never-never land, continually imagined and never perceived." Apart from Voice of America broadcasts or risky encounters with American tourists or scholars, interested Soviets were left with official reports which invariably dwelled on the less savory aspects of American life. Yet even the most carefully crafted propaganda campaign occasionally backfires. For example, photographs of long lines at unemployment offices in the U.S. reportedly caused discerning Soviet readers to marvel at how comparatively well-dressed these "victims" of capitalism seemed to be. A former professor of Russian literature at Cornell and Russian Studies at the University of Virginia, Ripp matches a strong academic background with considerable first-hand exposure to the normally cockeyed views Soviets hold about us. He lends a useful historical perspective to his discussion by tracing the development of Russian impressions of America and Americans from the time of our Declaration of Independence.

Among the most durable themes of Russia's image of America is the nearly mystical sense that we and they share a common destiny and maybe even a common soul. The Soviets have forged what Ripp describes as "a free- floating fantasy, a dream that projects a Russia and an America that are somehow akin." Not surprisingly, Russia's image of America includes Russia's image of itself. And therein lies much of the problem. For even the most astute Soviet observers of American life are prone to explain American behavior, particularly in the realm of politics, by reference to classically Russian motives and methods.

One of the more amusing tales Ripp relates involves a lecture and slide-show presentation by representatives of the Industrial Designers Society of America to the Soviet Society of Designers in Moscow. Among the slides were several stunning photographs of the perfume department at a Neiman Marcus store. "And where are the people, the customers and the sales clerks," one of the Russian designers asked with a knowing wink to their others in the audience. "Is business always so bad?" The American lecturer tried to explain that the slides had been shot while the store was closed. The point, after all, was to show the design and lay-out of the perfume counters, not a store full of happy shoppers. Yet the Soviet audience would have none of it. As Ripp describes the scene, the Soviets clucked confidently that they had unmasked yet another capitalist fraud, another Potemkin Village.

Edmund Wilson, who visited Russia in the 1930s, came to the conclusion that Americans and Russians are "antipodally different." As Victor Ripp's eminently readable book shows, superpower harmony may be easier to achieve if we begin by acknowledging our profound differences rather than clinging to fancied similarities.

This book's regrettably burlesque title is gratifyingly misleading. Readers expecting a potpourri of humorous, if predictably condescending, anecdotes revealing how the Soviet people routinely misconstrue America and Americans will find Victor Ripp's "Pizza in Pushkin Square" a much more substantive and therefore satisfying work.

The book also serves as a timely antidote to the dubious but increasingly popular notion in this country that an enduring Soviet-American friendship will naturally follow from more frequent contact between citizens of the two nations. After all, when paranoia is a well-established national trait, familiarity can easily breed contempt. And make no mistake about it, the Russians are far more accomplished xenophobes than even we are.

While freer exchanges of information may eventually exorcise some bogeymen on both sides of the relationship, there is a lot of uphill skiing to be done first. As Ripp abundantly demonstrates, the prism through which the Soviets view the United States has been thoroughly distorted by two centuries of accumulated misconceptions, myths and propaganda.

Before glasnost, credible news about America was exceedingly hard to obtain. But this did not prevent Russians from forming strong images of life in America. According to Ripp, "America was like some never-never land, continually imagined and never perceived." Apart from Voice of America broadcasts or risky encounters with American tourists or scholars, interested Soviets were left with official reports which invariably dwelled on the less savory aspects of American life. Yet even the most carefully crafted propaganda campaign occasionally backfires. For example, photographs of long lines at unemployment offices in the U.S. reportedly caused discerning Soviet readers to marvel at how comparatively well-dressed these "victims" of capitalism seemed to be. A former professor of Russian literature at Cornell and Russian Studies at the University of Virginia, Ripp matches a strong academic background with considerable first-hand exposure to the normally cockeyed views Soviets hold about us. He lends a useful historical perspective to his discussion by tracing the development of Russian impressions of America and Americans from the time of our Declaration of Independence.

Among the most durable themes of Russia's image of America is the nearly mystical sense that we and they share a common destiny and maybe even a common soul. The Soviets have forged what Ripp describes as "a free- floating fantasy, a dream that projects a Russia and an America that are somehow akin." Not surprisingly, Russia's image of America includes Russia's image of itself. And therein lies much of the problem. For even the most astute Soviet observers of American life are prone to explain American behavior, particularly in the realm of politics, by reference to classically Russian motives and methods.

One of the more amusing tales Ripp relates involves a lecture and slide-show presentation by representatives of the Industrial Designers Society of America to the Soviet Society of Designers in Moscow. Among the slides were several stunning photographs of the perfume department at a Neiman Marcus store. "And where are the people, the customers and the sales clerks," one of the Russian designers asked with a knowing wink to their others in the audience. "Is business always so bad?" The American lecturer tried to explain that the slides had been shot while the store was closed. The point, after all, was to show the design and lay-out of the perfume counters, not a store full of happy shoppers. Yet the Soviet audience would have none of it. As Ripp describes the scene, the Soviets clucked confidently that they had unmasked yet another capitalist fraud, another Potemkin Village.

Edmund Wilson, who visited Russia in the 1930s, came to the conclusion that Americans and Russians are "antipodally different." As Victor Ripp's eminently readable book shows, superpower harmony may be easier to achieve if we begin by acknowledging our profound differences rather than clinging to fancied similarities.


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