During an inauguration weekend of spectacular protest marches in some 70 countries around the world, I happened to find myself in Russia, the one place, it seemed, where no one gave a damn about Donald Trump. With so much justified concern about the Kremlin’s role in the U.S. election, it was an odd and somewhat surreal coincidence to be there. But it was also refreshing, and it reminded me of that apocryphal story about Guy de Maupassant, who supposedly ate lunch at the Eiffel Tower every day because it was the only place in Paris where he wouldn’t have to see the monstrosity.
In Moscow, and even more so in Saint Petersburg, there was no public reaction—or even acknowledgment—of what was transpiring in Washington D. C. On Friday, as Trump was being sworn in, my buddy and I spent our self-imposed media blackout in a traditional banya (bathhouse), beating each other with birch leaves and sweating out our toxins. The TV in the lounge area showed a Russian basketball game, as groups of Muscovites sipped tea and ate shrimp and brown bread with smoked herring. We interacted with several of them, but the conversation never turned political. Of the dozens of Ubers we took, not a single driver—defying international stereotype—wanted to theorize.
An American presence was palpable in the former imperial capital of Saint Petersburg. Across the street from a bustling KFC, we had brunch at a new restaurant called The Clean Plate Society. English-speaking wait staff served up perfect eggs benedict to a soundtrack of Gangstar and Queen Latifah. However compromised our hard power may have just become, this kind of soft power felt gratifyingly intact—and perhaps it will prove our salvation.
Before I’d left for Russia, my brother had asked me to bring him back a Trump/Putin matryoshka doll, but I couldn’t even find one. At a wonderful bookshop in Saint Petersburg, not far from Dostoevsky’s house, I did get a pack of black pencils with an inscription in Cyrillic that my friend translated for me as: “From St-Petersburg, with apathy and indifference.” It seemed a perfect description of what we had encountered.