The evening’s Russian leitmotif doesn’t end there. This friend had introduced me to Ayn Rand, although she currently denies any affiliation for the Russian objectivist. At the very least, this friend taught me how to pronounce the thinker’s name, a unique talent in my shady corner of a small Chicago suburb. Unconvinced that I can stretch my theme even further? My friend had a brilliant father who invented a popular board game called Diplomacy, a game in which the Russian Empire loomed large. The game is set in Europe on the eve of the First World War. In this game, up to seven players attempt to manipulate others into helping to upset the balance of power. The game depends on the near-equality of all seven Great Powers, which included Britain, France, Austria-Hungary, Prussia, Italy, Turkey, and of course Russia.
As always, Russia was unique. While all other countries began the game with three armies (or navies as the case may be), Russia alone was granted the privilege or responsibility of fielding four military units. Looking back, this anomaly seems fitting. When you played Russia, you were inevitably forced to think in multi-dimensional ways. Specifically, you became involved in the Balkans and, at the same time, you moved again foes in the Baltic and Northern Europe. The strategic and symbolic effect of Russia’s position in the game mirrored that of historic Russia, which often balanced forces in these two areas, or balanced forces on its eastern and western flanks.
This notion of a constructed country comes in part from Antoinette Burton, who in turn relies on Benedict Anderson and a host of postcolonial theorists and practitioners. Burton spends a lot of her time diagnosing Britain. Who came up with this idea of what Britain means? Who benefits from this idea? Who reproduces this idea? Thinking back on my evening with an old friend, I can’t help but reflect on what Burton might call the contingent or even artificial nature of history. On a personal level, my idea of Russia, even my love of Russia, was influenced by a hundred different but related circumstances, including a board game, a Russian novel, and the public person of one of Communist Russia’s most famous critics. If my own definition of Russia has been manufactured in chaotic but not entirely random ways, how should we think about America’s overall perception of Russia and the Russian past? And why stop there? Who has gained, and who gains today, by a European or even global thesis that Russia is backward, violent, bipolar, or even soulful? I’ve spent a lot of time reading about Russia, but much less time thinking about how and why I’ve encountered the texts that I’ve read about Russia.
I guess this is the point of Archive Stories, to remind us that such pilgrimages come at a price if they reinforce or reproduce distorted or ultimately harmful views of a people. For my part, I’ll confess a moment of supreme awkwardness in Pushkin House, a moment that certainly reflects Burton’s concerns about ethnocentric and quasi-imperial attitudes toward the Other. In the archive, I spoke my own language. Worse still, I assumed that Russia was in economic free fall, and at one point offered a generous archivist a “tip” for spending so much time walking me through the exhibits. She refused, of course, but the audacity of my own condescension left me feeling ridiculous. I too am a part of the history of the Russia “idea.”