What does it tell us about a people that their language has a word for how we feel when we want something that cannot be? Does the absence of such a word tell us something about another people who believe that anything can happen if only you want it bad enough?
Here’s the passage from Tessa Hadley’s 2011 novel, The London Train, that brought these questions to mind:
– And toska, in Russian, Gerald said, – means ‘how one feels when one wants some things to happen and knows they cannot happen’.
– Very Russian.
– That’s the point.
As terrifying as it can be to contemplate Russia’s long history of oppressive, autocratic government from the czars to today’s oligarchs, Russians look back with nostalgia. Lacking conviction that things will ever really change for the better, they dwell on the victories—their defeat of Napoleon in 1812 and Hitler in World War II—and their cultural heritage in dance, music and literature. Although the Gerald character says we have no word in English for this attitude, “wistfulness” and “yearning” come to mind.
In these ways Americans are the opposite. They look forward and assume that solutions can be found to all vexing problems, as refrigeration was invented to prevent food spoilage and duct tape to keep heavy objects in place. Some Americans believe government can improve, but it seems the majority has no confidence in their politicians, and even less interest. What Americans have in common is a belief that products can be made better and cheaper.
Americans often criticize themselves for their ignorance of history and geography, but if knowledge is seen as valuable only to the extent it has practical application, such ignorance makes sense. How exactly could awareness of the Missouri Compromise help counter cyber warfare?
By contrast, Russian preoccupation with the past may explain their resignation to tyranny. Then again, what alternative do they have considering how badly previous revolutions turned out, worst of all in late 1917?
Like all generalizations, there are exceptions, and the exceptions matter. One can argue that consumerism defeated the old Soviet Union (Mother Russia’s previous guise) and its satellites. To the former East Germans looking through the Iron Curtain at West German television ads, people on the other side appeared so much more prosperous, happy and healthy.
Meanwhile, American materialism periodically creates a spiritual emptiness and yearning for something beyond merchandise. This time around, that yearning has produced something strange and contradictory. On the face of it, Donald Trump’s election victory was due to widespread economic discontent. However, even if his supporters believed his campaign promises, it must be obvious after six months in office that his focus is on making the wealthy wealthier at the cost of affordable health coverage, environmental safety, honesty, decency and civility. His continued support among the faithful is more about his nationalism and appeals to American myths, above all that anyone can become rich if they really want to. Nationalism appeals to that part of us that craves a larger meaning than ourselves. Oddly, so does the American dream, a hope for all but realized by few. No one could be more materialistic than Trump, and yet he has the support of religious organizations and extremist patriots.
If Russia and the United States are opposites, perhaps it makes sense that they saw each other in the twentieth century as enemies—the big old bear versus the brash upstart. But it wasn’t always so. In 1867, the United States acquired Alaska from Russia not by conquest, but by contract. Another way of looking at opposites is that they attract, or else that they fit together like a two-piece jigsaw puzzle.
* * *
In the quoted dialog from The London Train, one of the two British characters calls the concept of “toska” “Very Russian.” The remark captures British impatience with the introspective complexity associated with Russian novels. The British don’t dwell on what can’t happen; they content themselves with what is happening in the moment. At the same time, they recoil from American materialism. It isn’t that the British aren’t thinkers or that they don’t aspire to higher standards of living. It’s a matter of how it’s done: Give the matter some thought, but don’t agonize; enjoy your new coffee maker but don’t fetishize it.
An immigrant from England, I’ve lived long enough in America to have absorbed its values. If a stiff upper lip of resignation was ever my style, it certainly isn’t anymore. If something goes wrong, I want it fixed. When I want something, I expect it now. But along the way, thanks to my adolescent idolization of Russian literature, I also picked up an affinity for toska. I want everyone I care about to live forever, a vain wish if ever there was. To me, toska is the pain that survives acceptance, the sadness inherent in resignation.
These two strains, American optimism and Russian toska, reside comfortably together and alongside my English DNA. How very New York. Actually, how very Oklahoma, as in the song from the eponymous Rodgers and Hammerstein 1943 show, “Oh the farmer and the cowman should be friends.” There’s every reason why Russia and the United States should also be friends.
Indeed, after more than seventy years of almost unbroken hostility, amicable coexistence looked possible in the 1990s as Russia tried to adopt a market economy, government openness (glasnost) and other measures compatible with American values. All that changed as Russia returned to its old autocratic ways.
Then with the 2016 election, everything changed again. Cynical Russian oligarchs and an American family seen by enough voters as the American dream incarnate prove to be a match made in … well … After all, both the oligarchs and the Trump family believe in the higher power of nationalism, never mind that they represent two different nations.
Russia has infiltrated its tyrannical tentacles into the American body politic just when the American dream has given us the ultimate self-interested materialist as President. If we persist with pure materialism in nationalist robes, we will succumb to Russian inveigling. But if we choose to apply good old American problem-solving to our politics, we will push Russia back into its historical toskan torpor. It is a decisive moment.