Maybe Americans aren't so bad after all

Natasha defended Americans when I felt inclined to criticize them.

Melanie Stetson Freeman – Staff
Ordinary people: Shoppers look for bargains at a market in Zaraysk, Russia.

When overseas I find that I am often compelled to defend America. As the daughter of two attorneys, I like to argue, placing myself in the opposite camp of whomever I'm with. While abroad, though, my tendency to argue typically has me playing defense.

One night, however, a storm of emotions swept over me. I was sitting at an old wooden table in a small, cramped apartment with a woman named Natasha at my side. That night I forgot to be forgiving.

It was the fall of 1999, and I was a junior in college, studying Russian language and classical piano in Moscow. Natasha was my host mother, a journalist who'd clocked years at the newspaper Pravda while raising four skinny, curious, delightful kids.

Having hosted several American students before me, Natasha knew how to use simple words and strong body language, stressing the vocabulary I was certain to understand. "Liza," she nearly gasped, clutching my wrists and leaning in. "Ostarozhna!"

The subject was Americans, and I was struggling to explain how wasteful my people were – literally and figuratively – how much garbage we threw out at our curbs and how many freedoms we took for granted.

I was casting furtive glances at her home's single, tiny trash bin – which filled up so slowly – and the jars of home-canned fruit that lined the kitchen shelf. The contrast between that and America was painfully, humiliatingly clear to me.

But she stopped me with that simple word, "ostarozhna," imploring me to "be careful" with my accusations.

Natasha held my gaze and sketched out her life under communism: the fear of misspeaking, the anxiety of moving too noticeably and thinking too hard.

When it all collapsed around her, though, life became unbearably difficult. The fall of the Soviet Union brought a sudden and swift devaluation of the Russian ruble, and Yeltsin's "shock therapy" hit her family square in the jaw. Unemployment and crime cast long shadows, and both Natasha and her husband found themselves without work – and, before long, without food.

It was only at their most desperate moment that Natasha threw her hands in the air, defeated, and marched over to the offices of a Russian/American relief group. Her family of six was going hungry. "How much per month?" the organization asked.

Natasha responded: "$40."

Thus began the long-distance relationship between her family and a young couple in a Missouri suburb just west of St. Louis. As Natasha spoke their names, her eyes welled with tears. She made her way to her desk and pulled out a yellowed envelope. She had kept the letter that accompanied that first $40, and it was obvious she had read it again and again.

"These are Americans," she said to me in Russian. "These are the people you accuse of being greedy and wasteful."

There was a long pause, and my cheeks burned with shame. I don't remember her words precisely, but she demanded that I never again equate the American people with their government.

To this day it is unclear whether Natasha was defending Americans or, more broadly, the notion that a state and its people should never be confused.

In Russia, it is terribly insulting for the narod ("people") to be considered representative of their government, or even for their government to be representative of them. The Russian narod have survived too many failed systems, endured too much corruption and deceit, and Natasha believed they had come out stronger than any system could ever be.

What I do know, looking back on my time in Moscow, is that Natasha opened up her home to me, an American, precisely because she believed it was her duty to take in a person who represented the very reason she survived.

Whatever wars we fight, whatever systems of government we may defend or despise, I hope always to remember that the goodness of ordinary people persists.

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