“I don’t know what hunger is,” said Mikhail: teacher, father, product of the Soviet Union. It was strange hearing that from him, even more so with a bright smile in his eyes and overall jovial demeanor, as if he were discussing a recent hockey victory and not a supposedly sore subject. Rather, as an American it was strange hearing that. I think of the USSR, and I think of tanks, grayness, secrecy, scary and impenetrable Cyrillic lettering, looming misery, and long bread lines in inclement weather; the depressing and immoral yield of a communist machine; the enemy of capitalism and, consequently, freedom. So how could Mikhail even utter the words: “I was a teenager. I didn’t have problems”? Of course you had problems! The single story I know says so! You are a product of the Soviet Union, Mikhail, and nothing else.
Such is the danger of the single story. A single story, as eloquently illustrated by novelist Chimamanda Adichie, pigeonholes the world to the scope of one individual. It’s a narrative that compresses a diverse group into one single stereotype, one plot with no room for subplots or alternate story lines: Africans are poor, starving, and wholly isolated from everything “Western” (Adichie mentions how her American roommate was surprised to hear that there were Britney Spears fans in Nigeria), Middle Easterners are violent Muslims, and the Swiss are wealthy pacifists. These are the stories we repetitively hear. As such, the way we perceive the world becomes inaccurate and oversimplified. This has serious real-world implications that present physical threats to our well being, like invasive TSA screenings, Russian skinheads targeting anyone who looks foreign, and unjust racial profiling in major cities. Just as venomous is the abstract, spiritual harm. Single stories hijack possibilities of realistic images and expectations: while traveling through China, a girl asked me why all American girls are rich, beautiful, tall, and skinny. Little girls in Nepal, Argentina, Romania, Peru, Mongolia, and Spain had similar questions, all the while expressing a collective desire to be white, blonde, and blue-eyed.
These stories also present an existential danger. We become sheltered by a self-fashioned bubble of cognitive dissonance and ignorance, one that saves us from a world that is complex and difficult to understand but also endlessly diverse, forever intriguing, and unimaginably colorful. Adichie warns about the dangers of the single story: “All of these stories make me who I am. But to insist on only these negative stories is to flatten my experience and to overlook the many other stories that formed me. The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” As with any kind of story, incompleteness is unsavory. And yet we live, often obediently, by unfinished yet close-ended narratives.
America gets a single story of Russia. In history classrooms, pop culture references, and even present-day politics and foreign relations (Mitt Romney recently declared Russia the nation’s number one foe), there’s this archaic story of Russian brutality. The Russian experience is merciless in weather, culture, and life. Villains in American movies are frequently Russian (still considered a classic choice that, interestingly enough, was popularized in the 50s and 60s due to certain world events) and they’re often depicted as unfeeling ruthless psychopaths – with thick, don’t-fuck-with-me accents – to mimic an extreme yet fabricated Soviet mentality (villains such as Rosa Klebb, Ivan Vanko, Irina Spalko, among countless others). Also popular in America are Yakov Smirnoff’s Soviet reversal jokes: “In America, you watch Big Brother. In Soviet Russia, Big Brother watch you!” These punch lines offer a laughter-through-tears kind of comedy, one that mocks the Russian vernacular while incorporating heavy Orwellian undertones that suggest an intrinsic lack of control and, in turn, Soviet-spurred hopelessness and nihilism. Yakov Smirnoff jokes are still alive and still funny.
But beyond that, an American will consider a Russian to be inextricable from Russia’s recent history, politics, and that famous, unchanging Russian mentality. The Russians have an unshakeable pride and stalwartness, one that whitewashed the great Napoleon’s formidable yet naïve assault during a pitiless Russian winter. The classic postulate of a Soviet mind is one of loyalty, but it’s also considered to be opaque, humorless, and intolerant. And then we get the story of America vis-à-vis Russia, its conniving Cold War arch-nemesis – brutality against outsiders, disavowers of the system. We get the story that Russian Communism was godless and, thus, evil, that it left its people fighting for their lives while at the mercy of a small yet maliciously powerful elite. All Russians were inherently Red and they were bent on our demise. They were cruel and deceitful Socialists and we were benevolent and strong Capitalists. Joseph McCarthy helped the cause a bit, revealing in a 1950 speech entitled “Enemies from Within”, the one where he presented an irrefutable list of the names of 200 Communist subversives lurking within the American government, that, “the real, basic difference, however, lies in the religion of immoralism . . . invented by Marx, preached feverishly by Lenin, and carried to unimaginable extremes by Stalin. This religion of immoralism, if the Red half of the world triumphs, will more deeply wound and damage mankind than any conceivable economic or political system.” This is the story that is implanted into young American minds, very often with no healthy or possible alternative.
So how could jolly Mikhail not know hunger? What’s his story?
While there have been occasions in Soviet history when bread lines were a very dismal reality, a beautiful rejection of the single story allows for a different story. People don’t know – I didn’t know – that life in Soviet Russia wasn’t necessarily the seventh level of hell. From the years 1988 to 1991, for example, Mikhail had little to complain about: “In Soviet times, my fridge was always full. Now, not so much.” Here’s how it worked: people were given sheets of paper divided into coupon-like squares. Each square had some kind of rationed product that was good for one person for one month. Everyone received 1.5 kg of meat, 0.5 kg of butter, 1.5 kg of sausage, 2 kg of flour, 100 grams of tea, 1 bottle of vodka OR 2 bottles of wine, and 10 packs of cigarettes. Everything else could be bought in stores for next to nothing. A liter of milk and a kilogram of sugar were 22 kopecks, the modern-day equivalent of one-cent. Mikhail’s salary was twelve dollars a month back then, and he and his wife lived comfortably.
I had never heard that story before.
Mikhail also recalled less agreeable Soviet experiences, all the while preserving his infectious bubbly persona. When the USSR collapsed in 1991, the Bush administration sent emergency aid to Russia in the form of chicken legs. They quickly became known as “Bush’s legs”. Mikhail stood in line for four hours to get what was due to him – enough legs to feed him and his family. He finally received his lot, and he and his comrades were stunned. It was disillusionment at its finest: “We see images of American chicken – large pieces, juicy, crispy! Capitalism gives big chicken legs! But we received tiny, tiny legs. We were in shock,” as he demonstrated with his pointer finger and thumb how tiny his Bush’s legs were. It’s easy for Americans to assume that all Russians regarded us as capitalist pigs (somehow they were simultaneously considered to be victims of a ruthless regime and opposed to that regime’s ideological opposite). But there were just as many Russians who admired American economic traditions and who wished they had our chicken.
American history curriculums haven’t changed, and the fact remains that modern-day Russia is seldom a topic of discussion in classrooms. This implies a kind of interminable one-dimensional story where the Reds are eternally cooking up something disastrous for American liberty. But Mikhail said that the Soviet Union couldn’t exist again. People too easily become adjusted to improvement. There is no going back: “Now, if there’s a line with five people ahead of me, I won’t stand there. Too many people!” The hell with Gorbachev and his mile-long lines.
Not every product of the Soviet Union would recollect the times as fondly as Mikhail had. An old Russian professor of mine now travels the world and has exotic eccentricities like collecting Cuban voodoo sculptures and Mexican paintings of the Guanajuato countryside simply because of her restricted Soviet upbringing, full of oppressive censorship and propaganda and strict uniformity. She didn’t feel free then, and now, in America, she does. She certainly wouldn’t paint the optimistic pictures of Mikhail’s full fridges and no problems. I remember her looking back on the USSR in disgust, recalling how little she could openly read and watch. And so there were drawbacks.
And that’s the point. There are billions of directions the Soviet story can go, as with all stories. Single stories are not real. Single stories do not allow gray areas in a world where black and white do not exist, either. Where does that leave us? It leaves us in a world where little girls wish they were American for no good reason. It leaves us in a world where kids have to think twice before they wear a hoodie down any urban street, and anyone wearing a turban is considered to be nursing explosives in their shoes.
Adichie’s speech also made two things abundantly, painfully clear: Firstly, I’ve also read into single stories. I was ashamed that I was surprised by Mikhail’s lovely recount of Soviet life. I felt stupid for not knowing better (Adichie herself, with all her wisdom, eloquence, and experience, fell victim to the single story when she realized not all Mexicans are scheming criminals trying to hop the border). Secondly, these deeply engrained perceptions are difficult to shake. My entire family is from Poland, so I heard stories of the Soviet Union more complex than the average American would be exposed to. I travel the world. I constantly meet different people, all with unique stories and views and paths and callings. I know very well that facades are meaningless. I regularly read international news sources and stay up-to-date with publications such as National Geographic, Time, and Foreign Policy. I’m an inquisitive, thoughtful, and world-oriented human being. I thought these could be vaccines against single-storydom. And yet, Mikhail’s optimistic reminiscing of Soviet times sounded off to me, as if I had heard a fact that was doubtful to be true. Because without even realizing it, I bought into the single story of Soviet Russia where everything was miserable and backwards and the average day in the life of a comrade was huddling around a fiery trash can and street fighting with chicken in mind.
The shrewd viciousness of the single story is that no one is absolved of society-prescribed judgment and one-dimensionality. I never considered that people have their own single stories about me, stereotypes that, in their minds, I’m not supposed to exceed. Because I’m young and blonde and female, I’m not supposed to be taken seriously. I don’t deserve to be taken seriously. I have nothing worthwhile to say. Because I’m Polish, all I ever do is complain about how cruel the world has been to the Poles and how much we’ve suffered, how much we’re owed. Because Poland’s single story is the repetitive victimization and obliteration by armies who proved stronger. Contrarily, I have important things to say just like anyone else and, no, I’m not eternally embittered by the actions of Poland’s neighbors. I personally haven’t suffered at the hands of Russians or Germans. No one owes me anything. Most of the Polish people I know share this sentiment; anti-German and anti-Russian fanatics are outliers at best. And yet this is what follows me around; people are surprised to hear that I study Russian and that I think Germany is a pleasant country.
We compartmentalize the world in a way our primitive brains can understand: from the lens of our narrow experience. It is difficult to outright reject every single story we know because we unconsciously harbor assumptions about places and people without active thought or acknowledgment. These narratives are intertwined with ignorance, and ignorance is inextricable from the human condition.
While we can’t know every story, we are capable of appreciating this innate deficiency of information and perspective. Maybe simply recognizing that is enough. Maybe that’s the best anyone can do.
“When we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise,” Adichie brilliantly concludes. Abandoning the single story of any place or person is an effort that takes introspective thinking, empathy, and constant recognition that we are more than what we seem. We’re more than what we know. The whole story will never be revealed to us. And eventually, I assume, the world will become a place of three-dimensionality and rich story plots. Because that’s what happens if you choose to banish the single story by labeling it irrelevant and fictional. Your world will become a place where former impossibilities are suddenly possible, great expectations from people can be met, a surprise like hearing someone was happy and satiated under Communist rule is no longer a surprise, and people are regarded and respected with the courteous assumption of complexity. It’s become that way for me, at least. I walk down a Russian street and instead of noticing the grayness, I notice all the flowers the women are carrying, the bright purple limited-edition Nikes of that Russian hipster (or scarlet red boots), and the gold-toothed smiles of those Russian babushkas as they laugh at a joke they heard the other day.