A country road in America, deep in the backwoods. Along the single lane on either side, the road is almost empty. It’s noon, and 90 degrees Fahrenheit, which is hot (the formula for converting to Celsius is to subtract 32, and multiply by five-ninths). Among the points of interest are endless corn and soybean fields, the sight of which involuntarily gives rise to a disturbing thought: “Humanity can’t consume this much corn; it shouldn’t be this way.” But humanity consumes it just the same. One nonetheless comes across towns—two houses here, as many as ten houses there. Carefully mowed lawns are a common feature. And for whom do people mow them? Ah, yes—for themselves. We should have guessed right away. But why so meticulously and carefully? What, does someone make others drive around acres of land on a riding lawn mower under the scorching sun? The American soul is mysterious. It offers no clue.
In one town, right after a church and before a gas station, there’s a fruit stand on the side of the road. There was a road sign “advertising” it in the form of a plywood panel with an inscription handwritten in marker: fresh peaches, tomatoes, watermelon, and cantaloupe. I stop. Sweltering heat and emptiness are all around, like after a neutron bomb. Well, so we were told it must be after a neutron bomb. Hello, is anyone there? Silence in response. On the stand is a price list: watermelon $4 each, cantaloupe $2, tomatoes around five for $4. There’s no owner. I’m going deep into, invading, so to speak, the boundaries of private property. I’ve read in books that there are cases where an owner is shot without warning. But such is clearly not the case here. It’s too pastoral. The little house’s porch is decorated in the style of “our six hundred square meters” with some kind of doo-dads—an attempt at poignancy—in the form of porcelain rabbits, feathery, grass-like plants in pots, and red-white-and-blue frills denoting patriotism and party affiliation.*
Suddenly I notice nearby a “Negro in his declining years” who looks nothing like Obama and is messing around in a trailer with some hay.** I walk over and ask about the watermelon, saying I’d like to buy some. It’s not mine, he says. It’s the neighbors’. There should be a box there somewhere for the money. Put it in there. It doesn’t occur to him to take it and then give it to the neighbors, I think to myself. Well, or not give it to them. He doesn’t offer to. He’s busy with the hay. I go back to the stand. I didn’t immediately notice, it turns out, the metal box with a slit for cash. It’s locked but not bolted down. I fantasize about “robbing the bank,” taking the entire box with an unknown amount of money and leaving. With the watermelon, too. And the cantaloupe and the pile of tomatoes. On the other hand, if you don’t have exact change, you can’t take change from the box. It’s locked. Again the mysterious American soul offers no clue to this puzzle. Exact change is $4, not $6, so I don’t take a cantaloupe and I leave.
Later I tell this story to a Russian who’s lived in America a long time. Do you run into such a thing often? Even though, to be honest, I’d come across it before. But not in the big cities—only in the country. I asked him just like that. He answered the question with a question: did you leave some money? That is to say, it wasn’t obvious to him. Another Russian native, discussing the very same topic, put forward two theses. The first: sometimes people leave, taking the goods, without leaving any money. The second: the farmer nonetheless has to get rid of his crops somewhere, and losses from theft are compensated by honest people. Some lenders that make unsecured personal loans operate according to the very same scheme.
I didn’t like the “rational explanation.” But then I remembered that in our northern provinces or in villages with an “Old Believer” tradition, it’s also quite possible to encounter such a level of trust. For example, people don’t lock the doors to their homes.
If the dialogue between our countries were entrusted to such people with a similar level of trust toward their neighbor, it would be altogether different. We would be able to reach an agreement about practically everything. But the dialogue is conducted by other people. Hence, Sergei Lavrov and John Kerry tried for as long as 12 hours to reach an agreement on Syria. And it’s not the first attempt to agree upon some generally simple proposals as far as we’re concerned. The total lack of trust and suspicion on both sides, as if we’re from different planets, gets in the way. However, we did finally manage to get from the Americans a list of opposition groups who joined in on the ceasefire in Syria and are distinct from the notorious (from the Americans’ point of view) terrorists. After all, some of our other negotiating partners, it seems, would enter an unlocked house, stealing whatever they could from it, and even take the watermelon without paying—together with the box of money. And the “Negro?” He’d shoot his Colt pistol at them right from the hip.
*Translator’s note: The phrase “our six hundred square meters” refers to the small plot of land on which a dacha, a humble countryside dwelling for residence chiefly in the summer months, was built in Soviet times.
**Translator’s note: “Negro in his declining years” is a quote from the Mayakovsky poem “To Our Youth.”