Watching the first episode of “The Americans,” I felt a strange tension. The show, about Soviet spies living in America during the 1980s, made me uncomfortable and not in the usual way high-intensity shows can. I was rooting for the main characters, the Soviet couple deep undercover in a DC suburb, because the show is set up for the viewer to do that, but it all felt so very wrong.
I was born in the Soviet Union and came to America as a small child. Unlike immigrants from many other places, once you left the Soviet Union there was no going back. You were a traitor, and they took your passport at the door. The family you left behind might suffer for your decision. My parents pulled no punches about what a horrible, backward, evil place it was and how happy they were to be out. They referred to it as “prison.” Every year we celebrate the day we came to America, our “Americaversary.”
I don’t remember Russia but I certainly remember being a Russian child in America. I didn’t speak any English when I started school. My parents dressed me funny. I was the kid with weird lunches. The 1980s were a challenging time to be a kid from Russia in America. The Cold War was fairly hot. The other children weren’t the kindest. Some of them called me Commie. I mostly shrugged it off, but it stung somewhat because my family was so decidedly anti-Commie. When my brother Ronald (named after Reagan, of course) was born in Brooklyn, I decided to start lying about my own birthplace. I had the details of the story now, the name of the hospital, the city. I was American. My birth elsewhere had been a mistake.
I Root for Anyone But Russia
It’s not unusual to root for “bad” people when they’re the protagonist of a TV show. We all rooted for Tony Soprano although we understood him to be a sociopath we would never want to know in real life. But Tony Soprano has nothing to do with me personally. I have generations of stories on the evil of the Soviet Union, especially for Jews like my family. I’ve never, ever, rooted for “the Russians” before.
I was on Rocky’s side against Drago, obviously. I never even half-considered rooting for Russia in the Miss Universe pageant or the Olympics. I adopted an “anyone but Russia” policy for events like that, the way the Scots do when England is competing. If America wasn’t in it, I’d root for a hundred other countries before Russia. I’d turn off the TV before Russia. My parent’s stories had sunk in deep.
My grandmother’s father was arrested, in front of his family, for owning a bakery at a moment when private business became illegal. He was sent to the gulag and never returned. My mother’s father had a low-level government job, so after she left Russia my mother never saw him again (her mother was allowed to visit her a few times but she barely spoke on those trips, convinced she was being followed). There were a million smaller stories of indignity, discrimination, and violation.
The Relativism of ‘The Americans’ Generates Confusion
“The Americans” is confusing to me beyond what it would be, I’d think, to another patriotic, American-born, person watching the show. I don’t hate Russian people, but KGB agents? Actual commies? Yes, I do hate them.
Still, when Elizabeth plays the tapes from her mother, (which aren’t subtitled but I can understand) and they’re filled with longing and missing her child and the grandchildren she has never known, it tugs at my heartstrings the same way as when I heard my own mother sing my daughter a Russian lullaby she had sung to me when I was a baby. I’m transplanted back to funny outfits, to not understanding the other kids, to wanting to fit in. Russian is the language of my childhood. The feeling of nostalgia it evokes is strong. When Elizabeth’s mother calls her by her real name, Nadezhda, which means Hope, it strikes a chord in me.
I know, it’s only a show. It’s that girl from “Felicity” and that British guy from that other show. So why do I get so worked up when Philip and Elizabeth compare America to the Soviet Union and she says “it’s easier here but not better”? I want to throw things at the screen. I understand loyalty to country, but few Russians arrive in America, especially during the time of the Soviet Union, and don’t see that things here are, objectively, better.
Ultimately, though, history tells us where “The Americans” will go. Philip and Elizabeth won’t grow old fighting for Communism while undercover in America. Their belief system will join other discarded philosophies “on the ash heap of history.” It will be interesting to see where they end up—whether they’ll be Americans with their American children or return to Russia. I’m betting on the former. Few with a real choice ever chose the latter.