MOSCOW—The last time I was at Sheremetyevo International Airport, I arrived early for my flight, inched through a five-hour customs line, and napped on an inflatable mattress. It was March 1991, I was 3 years old, and my family had made the difficult decision to leave our home in the Soviet Union and move to America to escape the political and economic instability of the USSR, anti-Semitism, and the fallout from the Chernobyl nuclear accident not too far from our hometown of Kiev. Now, nearly 22 years later, I was at Sheremetyevo airport again, dark-blue American passport in hand, going the other way through customs. It was my first time in Moscow since 1991.
Back then, as a toddler, I didn’t even have my own passport. I was a handwritten entry on my mother’s Soviet one: “In conjunction with: daughter, Olga, 1987.” It was a period of mass migration, and everyone in the country, from government officials to thieves, was using this moment to take advantage of emigrants. As advised, my parents hired a mafia van to take us to the airport and protect us from the robbers targeting emigrants, who traveled with all of their most valuable possessions. We were allowed to leave with only two suitcases and $150 per person; customs officers seized anything else that looked valuable, including two of four anniversary silver spoons, handed down in my family for generations, and several collectors’ ruble coins from my older sister’s wallet. The USSR dissolved nine months later.
This time, it’s 2012, and I’m returning as an American journalist, much to the consternation of my parents and their friends, who bombarded me with admonishments: Don’t get into gypsy cabs. Keep a low profile. Don’t write anything political. Don’t talk to strangers. By way of exhorting me to dress warmly, my mother even sent along a Wikipedia article about how many military invasions had faltered during the long Russian winter. And, anyway, why would I go back to a country they had given up so much—family, friends, possessions—to escape?
The occasion was a bilateral journalism exchange, sponsored by the Knight Foundation, designed to smash stereotypes for the 12 reporters from each country. Surely, after all this time, the people of these two great nations should realize just how little divides them—and then, perhaps, their governments could follow suit? America is not a nation of materialistic cowboys and fat, ignorant imperialists; Russia is not the arctic criminal melodrama depicted in James Bond films or etched into my parents’ memories. Bears do not wander the streets here. Gypsy cabs and strangers aren’t so bad.
But my prodigal return did not always go the way the organizers had hoped. Despite a fabulous swap of ideas with our Russian counterparts, the trip failed to disabuse of us certain notions. The early-winter freeze was, in fact, nearly intolerable; my colleagues and I were regularly offered vodka at all hours of the day. More broadly, though, the two nations are not really any closer to understanding each other. The Cold War may seem like a distant memory for Americans, but it feels much closer here. A deep cultural and political chasm still separates the two nations, and the official declaration of a diplomatic “reset” is not going to bridge it. We’d come to dispel the stereotypes, but the trip confirmed some of the worst ones.
A BRIEF FLIRTATION
In 2009, President Obama had vowed to improve relations strained during the Bush era by the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Russia’s invasion of Georgia, and disagreements over missile defense. Obama and then-President Dmitri Medvedev promised a “fresh start” that would “move beyond Cold War mentalities.” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and her counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, pressed the infamous red, plastic “reset” button. They agreed on a New START pact, promised to cooperate on Iran and Afghanistan, and pledged to get Russia into the World Trade Organization.
The good feelings began to sour in the fall of fall 2011, when Vladimir Putin announced that he was ready to return to the presidency. He campaigned on an anti-American, anti-Western platform, accusing foreign powers (“Judas,” in his telling) of meddling in Russia’s internal affairs and funding opposition groups. “It would be better if they used this money to pay off their national debt and stop conducting an ineffective and costly foreign policy,” he said before a return to power that will probably keep him in office until 2024. Washington’s response to Putin’s election was subdued: “The United States congratulates the Russian people on the completion of the presidential elections,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a statement. Then Putin snubbed Obama by opting out of a Group of Eight summit at Camp David. His first state visit was to China.
A month later, in June 2012, Putin signed a bill tightening control over foreign-funded NGOs, branding them as “foreign agents.” In September, the Kremlin ordered the U.S. Agency for International Development out of Moscow, saying it had meddled in Russia’s internal politics. In October, it said it would not renew its 20-year nuclear-disarmament pact with the United States, the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, which is set to expire this spring. Meanwhile, members of Congress were mulling a bill targeting human-rights violators in Russia, which Obama eventually signed in October, and the countries divided over Syria’s civil war. (Russian officials see Americans as buttinskies.) When I arrived in Moscow in late November, most experts were already declaring the reset’s demise. “As for the ‘reset,’ ” Putin said at his annual marathon press conference in December, which I sat through for four and a half hours, “this is not a term we use.”