Russian and American Children

The first time I visited the US was in 1990 at the invitation of an old friend, Joseph Bernstein. After my arrival Joseph proposed and I accepted, but my essay is not about that.

Joseph reintroduced me to his daughter, Mira, who was then in her late teens. I was struck by Mira’s charm. I had never before met teenagers like her. Of course, Joseph got points for that as I was hoping to have a child with him. When I moved to the US I met some other kids who were also incredibly charming. It was too late to take points away from Joseph, but it made me realize what a huge difference there was between Soviet and American teenagers. American teenagers were happier, more relaxed, better mannered, and less cynical than Soviet ones.

My oldest son, Alexey, was born in the USSR and moved to the US when he was eight. One unremarkable day when he was in middle school (Baker public school in Brookline), the principle invited me for a chat. I came to the school very worried. The principal explained to me that there was a kid who was bugging Alexey and Alexey pushed him back with a pencil. While the principal proceeded to explain the dangers of a pencil, I tuned out. I needed all my energy to conceal my happy smile. This was one of the happiest moments of my life in the US. What a great country I live in where the biggest worry of a principal in a middle school is the waving of a pencil! I remembered Alexey’s prestigious school in Moscow. They had fights every day that resulted in bloody noses and lost teeth. When I complained to his Russian teacher, she told me that it was not her job to supervise children during big breaks. Plus the children needed to learn to be tough. No wonder American children are happier.

I was wondering if there were any advantages to a Soviet upbringing. For one thing, Soviet kids grow up earlier and are less naive. They are more prepared for harsh realities than those American kids who are privileged.

Naive children grow up into naive adults. Naive adults become naive presidents. I watched with pain as naive Bush (“I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy.”) and naive Obama (Russian reset) misunderstood and underestimated Putin.

Putin is (and, according to Forbes Magazine, has been for the last four years) the most powerful person in the world. Even though the US kept its distance from Russia, he was able to manipulate us from afar. Now that Trump wants to be close to Putin, the manipulation will be even easier. Putin is better at this game. He will win and we will lose.



  1. Felipe Pait:

    Good story! I disagree slightly in 2 points.
    1 – Obama grew up fairly tough and varied environments. Not like Brookline. If he was naive, it was in a much more profound level.
    2 – Putin heavy-handed tactics will backfire. The Chinese will be much more successful manipulating the so-called president – confirming your that part of your theory.

  2. Vladimir Kazanov:


    I’ve been following your blog for a while now, for three reasons mainly: I share your love for math, I share the culture you grew up with and I don’t live in Russia there days. Actually, I grew up mostly outside of the country.

    I also understand the way you think about late USSR, and people in the country, and the way the whole society was corrupted in fa-a-ar too many ways. After all, the whole just disappeared all by itself for a reason.

    There’s one thing you probably misunderstand about immigration: the moment you leave your home country – that very moment you sort of freeze the state of the mother culture. Culturally you still are a 1990 Soviet Russian, the same way couple of previous migration waves (post-empire and mid 70s) culturally were – and I personally know a few people that still do – representing countries that no longer existed.

    So… USSR is no more, schools the way you and your children remember them are no longer there, and the country went through a couple of very, very painful lessons. One of the lessons is the following: thinking that Americans are naive is foolish.

  3. tanyakh:


    Certainly, I do not know much about Russia today. Are Russian teenagers happy? I doubt that. I recently read that Russia allows domestic violence.


  4. Vladimir Kazanov:


    Russia does not allow domestic violence, of course. Please, this is just nonsense. This is not even funny. I heard Putin appoints American presidents now! Now that’s funny 🙂

    I wrote quite a lengthy answer first… But it’s wasn’t to the point.

    You just don’t know us anymore – this is the main thing I was trying to stress.

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