In our book, Jewish Luck, Vera describes a morose chauffeur, Ivan, whose spirits cannot be lifted by any favor, big or small. After giving Ivan money for his children’s education, finding him an apartment, and increasing his wages, this benevolent boss asks what more he can do for Ivan.
“I want to be driven,” Ivan answers.
Vera used this story to illustrate the lack of initiative in Russian culture- Russians want the perks without the responsibility. The story may reveal something deeper and more disturbing in the Russian psyche.
On a lovely Saturday afternoon in West Rogers Park visiting my second and fourth cousin, Joanie and her wonderful family after a few decades of not being in touch, a guest rapped on the door. In strolled Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern with great energy and pomp and took his place at the Shabbat table. Both of us were passionate about the books laid out on the table- one mine and one his. He was the heavyweight.
We arrived at the topic of Putin. As a man raised in Kiev, Petrovsky-Shtern had strong opinions, and I agreed with most of them. Moving to the topic of Putin’s mental health, I diagnosed Putin as grandiose, narcissistic and, no doubt, sociopathic and then became confused about possible redundancy of my terms, which led me to an internal tangent on the problems with DSM V. I couldn’t judge as to paranoid traits, but I wouldn’t be surprised. Yohanan’s answer (after the first argument I considered us on first name terms) was that
- Putin was sane (according to the legal definition).
2. He was not behaving markedly differently than his predecessors dating back to Imperial days.
3. I overestimated the desire of the Russian people to participate actively in political decision-making. They support a strong leader.
Let’s begin with the last point. I considered how my city council representative routinely knocks on our door or calls my husband Harry, the perennial delegate to district conventions. We expect politicians to engage us in conversation and to listen to what we say.
This also holds true for members of congress and senators. Frankly, I am naïve enough to believe if I wrote President Obama about an issue dear to my heart, he might care. We anticipate that our opinion matters. There is no doubt that as a responsible citizen, I must exercise my right to vote and be politically active, though the latter is delegated to my husband, who has more free time.
I have been brainwashed by democracy. What if none of this really mattered in the end? Perhaps, if you watch the Netflix drama, House of Cards, or if you’ve spent enough time under Putin’s rule you might believe this.
In Soviet days, Russians were required to vote in order to give the unopposed Communist Party the veneer of a popular mandate. For the last decade or so, Vera and Alexei have exercised their freedom by refusing to vote. They did not want to sanction a mock democratic process where genuine political opponents are still eliminated one way or another. At first, I was appalled by the lack of civic participation; but, now I am beginning to understand. They don’t want to be driven. Alexei wants to drive himself, and Vera wants to be the one to give directions.
Grandma Rae proclaimed “It doesn’t matter where we’re going as long as we’re on our way.”. This phrase could not apply in Russia, it very much matters who the driver is and what the destination is. Unfortunately few but the driver know.
 Joanie is both my second and fourth cousin. You read that correctly.
 Check out our book review of Petrovsky-Shtern’s new book, The Golden Age Shtetl (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014)
 The DSMV is the latest rendition of the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Psychiatric Disorders. (Our book is a much better read.) Aren’t all sociopaths narcissistic and grandiose?
 Adler, Leslie Levine and Meryll Levine Page, Jewish Luck, p. 7