Partly Russian

When it’s my turn to receive the coronavirus vaccine here in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, it may be that the shot I get is named Sputnik V — from Russia. Russia is one of the five suppliers of the COVID-19 vaccines that Mexico has begun to offer.

The day I registered for my vaccination and asked Daniel, the young Mexican man who helped me with the online paperwork involved, about the likelihood of this, he answered, “Maybe.”

“That’s funny,” I told him.

He looked at me quizzically. So, because he seemed like a patient and interested sort of guy, I tried to explain to him why.

“When I was a school kid in los estados unidos,” I said, “we were taught that Russia was the enemy. The Russians were out to get us. They were the bad guys, and we Americans of course were the good guys.

“In my muddled little second-grade mind,” I went on, “I imagined Russians arriving — in boats, like the Nina and the Pinta and the Santa Maria – in an effort to invade us and take over our country. But they, in this scenario, were repelled by our brave American servicemen dedicated to preserving our freedoms.

“And then there were the air-raid drills. At the sound of unexpected, ominous, clanging bells, we kids had to shuffle out of our classrooms and line up against the walls of the school’s hallway, several kids deep, facing the wall. To my cynical little third-grade mind, this was an exercise in futility, because if the Russians were to aim their bombs at our red-brick grammar school in the suburbs of northern New Jersey, I figured we’d all be flattened-dead, whether we were sitting at desks in our classrooms or standing in the hall.

“You see,” I told Daniel, “I was raised to fear and hate the Russians. So to think that a Russian vaccine might go into my bloodstream here and now and perhaps help save my life is, well, funny to me.”

Daniel listened and nodded, as if he’d heard similar strange stories from other gringos lately.

And not only that. I’ve recently learned another startling thing: I am partly Russian.

I’d lived this long thinking I was simply fifty-fifty: half Scottish, because my father’s parents were Scottish immigrants to the U.S., and half German, because my mother’s parents were German immigrants. But the DNA test results I received a couple of months ago have proved me half wrong.

Yes, I’m 50 percent Scots, but the other half turns out to be a mishmash: a little Scandinavian, a little English, some Baltics (I had to consult a map for this one), some German, and a small part Russian.

I learned I have Russian ancestors. Russia is in my DNA. That old “enemy” is within me.

I am reminded of something Jane Fonda said this week in her acceptance speech for her lifetime achievement award at the Golden Globes: “Under the surface, there is kinship.”

“Two decades ago,” writes Isabel Wilkerson in her astounding new book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, “analysis of the human genome established that all human beings are 99.9 percent the same. … We all evolved in the last 100,000 years from the small number of tribes that migrated out of Africa and colonized the world.”

Yet, sadly, too many of us have been taught early on to severely rank and judge others whom we perceive as “other.” Too often we tend to see these “others” as “less than,” inferior — or evil and threatening to our place in the world (as I did the Russians).

That world is not viewed as horizontal and embracing of other types of human beings; it’s vertical, hierarchical, like a narrow ladder we’re determined to scale at any cost, forgetting to acknowledge and appreciate the fact that the people on the bottom are the ones holding the ladder up for us.

Sculpture by artist Rodrigo de la Sierra (2016) on the grounds of the Fabrica la Aurora in San Miguel de Allende

In her brilliant new book, Caste, Wilkerson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Warmth of Other Suns, explores, through an immersive, deeply researched narrative and stories about real people, the unspoken caste system that has shaped America, and she shows how our lives today are still defined by a hierarchy of human divisions.

“In the American caste system,” she writes, “the signal of rank is what we call race, the division of humans on the basis of their appearance. In America, race is the primary tool and the visible decoy, the front man, for caste.” In a nutshell: “Caste is the bones, race the skin.”

Wilkerson’s thesis is that this caste system does harm to everyone, not only to those at the bottom of the ladder. The loss to society from preventing others from achieving their highest potential is incalculable. In her Epilogue she writes:

“We are not what we look like but what we do with what we have, what we make of what we are given, how we treat others and our planet.”

I’ll give Wilkerson the last words here:

“None of us chose the circumstances of our birth. We had nothing to do with having been born into privilege or under stigma. We have everything to do with what we do with our God-given talents and how we treat others in our species from this day forward.”

29 thoughts on “Partly Russian”

  1. Bonnie Dear, such a wonderful post. Thank you for giving us so much of Isabel Wilkerson’s work, and also exposing us to your radically practical third-grade mind. LOL. But really, lovely writing and profound sharing.

    1. Thanks so much, dear Be! Really, truly, I thought that at the time — but I kept those thoughts to myself then. It’s taken me all this time to confess to my innate cynicism. 🙂

  2. Dear Bon,

    I have noticed that the younger generations do not view Russia as I do. My childhood, like yours, took the red menace very seriously. Nothing I see now has changed that early impression.

    I am eager to read both of Wilkerson’s books. I’m familiar with her because we read a section of TWOOS in our curriculum.

    I am fascinated by your DNA test. I want to have mine done, but I’m slightly afraid of having that information out there. I am curious what the results would be.

    It was so cold here today, but when I read your column, I feel bathed in the warmth of your sun.


    1. Thank you, as ever, for your loving words, dearest Paul. (BTW, it’s 86 degrees F. here this afternoon — hot, for even me!) My guess is your DNA test would prove you’re 100 percent Italian! Yes, you’ll love both of I.W.’s books. They’re perfect examples of Creative Nonfiction writing. — Warm hugs from SMA, BB xx

    2. A recent episode of The Daily( NY Times podcast) took a deep dive into the various commercial DNA saliva tests. It turns out that the percentages of ancestry reported are not truly individually based, but rather based on the geographic estimate ( using each company’s data base and their unique algorithm) of where “your people” lived 500-1,000 years ago( before rapid migration happened). The bottom line is that these tests, though cool, are less than accurate in accessing ancestry.

    1. Thank you, dear Vanessa. I know you’ll love her new book (as well as her previous one, if you haven’t yet read it). I hope you’re doing well. You’re often in my thoughts and always in my heart.

  3. I also grew up with the ‘Better Dead than Red’ message. In NYC our drills for the bomb were to hide under the desk with our heads away from the window. I always wondered if my dress was covering my little butt. Fast forward to adult and I discovered that we would have been atomized where ever we were hiding and worse, our government lied to us. Now, my son a nurse who has been working in one of the field hospitals for Covid patients says to take ANY vaccine that is offered, and my Naturopath says the same and adds that the Sputnik vaccine might be superior because it has two vector points, i.e., ways of protecting against the virus. Mexico is distributing the vaccine to the elderly first but going to the poorest communities, something not happening in the US so much, although my home state of NY is making an effort to reach communities identified as “under served” because we don’t have a caste system. And with all of Mexico’s problems they consider receiving a vaccine a Human Right. Everyone will receive one which includes foreigners and the migrants as well. And those vaccines will come from 5 different countries. We live in interesting and rapidly changing times.

  4. Very interesting, la Bonnie! Bueno, growing up in Cuba the Russians, or Soviets, as we used to call the, were “the good guys.” Lots of Russian food then, I remember some kind of canned meat that people said was “carne de oso,” bear meat! It had a very strong taste.

  5. Another wonderful post that hits home. I, too, remember those elementary school drills and the fear they instilled in us. I hope to see you soon, Bonnie!

  6. Another great post, Bonnie. You should know that Cuba, a major force in biomedical innovation, has three vaccines ready to go, one of which they’ll start to innoculate the local population next week and another that they’re testing in Mexico, for release there and elsewhere in Latin America. Medical aid is Cuba’s #1 export (that of the USA is military/industrial harware.)

    As for your Russian heritage, even though you’re a granmother you are more Verushka than babushka.

  7. Wouldn’t it be funny to have the facility for speaking Russian after getting the Russian vaccination?!?!

    1. Yes, it’s fascinating to learn, Annette, what our ingredients are! I only did it because my grandson sent me a kit from for Christmas. He wanted to know more about our ancestry.

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