I first celebrated American Independence Day in Russia, surrounded by Russians. Now you might think that curious, given the history of (at worst) enmity and (at best) mistrust that exists between the two nations but… hell, Russians love to celebrate and any excuse for a party will do. That’s why in the last 10 or 15 years they have enthusiastically embraced hitherto foreign festivals such as St. Valentine’s Day, Halloween and even St. Patrick’s Day, while surrendering none of their own “indigenous” holidays.
The Independence Day party I attended was held at Kuskovo, a large estate in Moscow’s Deep South. At one point the vast territory had belonged to some aristocrat who (if I am not mistaken) had built a serf theater on the grounds. Or maybe it was a serf art gallery; I’m not sure, it all happened a long time ago. A lot of the historic buildings still stood, and it was a pleasant enough place to stroll, even if it was located a ridiculous distance from the subway. And on July 4th it always filled up with a large crowd, looking to par-tay.
I was invited by an American friend and his English wife, who had managed to rustle up a few other Americans they knew. It felt a little odd to be there, given that I am British and this was a celebration of a victory over my ancestors. I remember, not without some pleasure, winding up the Americans by dismissing their glorious Revolution as essentially a tax dodge. After all, the onerous tax burden that was so offensive to the colonialists was in fact much smaller than that suffered by people living in Britain at the time; or so I have been told.
“That’s not the point,” they replied, rising to my bait. “It was taxation without representation. They wanted a say in how they were governed.” This was obviously a formula that had been drilled into them at school, but it was difficult to argue with nonetheless.
The Moscow July 4th party was always organized by the American Chamber of Commerce in Russia, and in the subsequent years that I attended I observed a few traditions:
1) Americans were vastly outnumbered by Russians, most of whom I presumed worked for American companies, although some probably came for the cool fireworks.
2) The main entertainment would always be provided by a second tier Russian rock band. One year it was Bi-2, actually Belarussian, who played some awful dirges. Another year it was Splin, an anodyne indie band who had a hit about a girl who liked sugar free Orbit chewing gum.
3) There would always be a booth where an employee of The Moscow Times (founded by a Dutchman, even though it is in English) would struggle in vain to sell a coffee table book containing mediocre photographs from that tepid rag.
4) There was also usually a booth occupied by some uptight young men who described themselves as “Republicans Abroad,” or something. They wanted me to sign a piece of paper saying I would attend meetings in which we would all figure out how best to support George W. Bush from our position in exile. I signed up, thinking it would be an interesting group to sit in on, but alas my accent gave the game away.
5) There was always a stall selling spectacularly tasty chimichanga burritos, stuffed with rabbit meat. Even after five years’ spent living in Texas I am yet to encounter their like, no matter how close I get to the Mexican border.
I also recall seeing the American ambassador, in 2004. His name was Alexander Vershbow. In my mind’s eye I see him shaking hands with Mikhail Khodorkovsky, although I know I have superimposed that scene on my memory from a photograph I saw in the newspaper, because I was not important enough to get close to Khodorkovsky, although I think he was at the party at some point. In the picture they were yukking it up, as if old friends. Within a few months, Khodorokovsky would be arrested and Vershbow rapidly distanced himself from his good buddy…for diplomacy’s sake, of course, although I often wondered if the ambassador was ever troubled by his conscience.
But what I remember most was the spectacular fireworks display that ended the proceedings, uniting everybody in awe and amazement. Explode a little gunpowder in the sky, and all of a sudden everybody was an American. Or at least, the Americans in Russia saw their celebration as everybody’s, and welcomed anybody who wished to attend; and thousands were happy to join them within the borders of a country that had until recently been a sworn enemy.
I thought that was remarkable then, and I still do now.
What does the world look like to a man stranded deep in the heart of Texas? Each week, Austin- based author Daniel Kalder writes about America, Russia and beyond from his position as an outsider inside the woefully - and willfully - misunderstood state he calls “the third cultural and economic center of the USA.”
Daniel Kalder is a Scotsman who lived in Russia for a decade before moving to Texas in 2006. He is the author of two books, Lost Cosmonaut (2006) and Strange Telescopes (2008), and writes for numerous publications including The Guardian, The Observer, The Times of London and The Spectator.