World of Difference: Sergey Merinov
“I will always love America. It made me pro-American for life.”
Sergey Merinov, 1988 WPI Fellow from the then-Soviet Union. He is now Foreign desk editor, Rossiyskaya Gazeta in Moscow.
by Frank Jossi
When Sergey Merinov learned he could have a week-long internship at a major media outlet as a WPI Fellow, the Russian journalist knew where he wanted to spend it: at the conservative, rabidly anti-Communist Washington Times. Merinov wanted to meet the enemy.
The Times’ editor, Arnaud de Borchgrave, was more than a gentleman, wining and dining the Russian while introducing him to Washington elites. The editors of a sister publication, Insight Magazine, even interviewed Merinov.
But when he returned to Moscow, “I had a call from the central committee of the Communist Party, which has people who monitor the [U.S.] press and publications,” recalls Merinov, who had not seen the published interview. “One of these people asked me about that interview. They quoted me telling an anecdote about Gorbachev. It goes like this: ‘What’s the difference between Gorbachev and [the deceased] Khrushchev? There is no difference. The only difference is Gorbachev doesn’t know this.’
“I did not say this, but Insight put it in the text as if I did. The central committee of the party didn’t like it at all, and I had to explain myself. So they [the Washington Times] really were anti-Soviet — friendly enough but not enough to be friends of me.”
The interview caused Merinov no further trouble, but even today he marvels at the Communist Party’s surveillance apparatus. All that would end in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed.
Blessed with a dry sense of humor, Merinov became nostalgic as he talked about his time as a WPI Fellow during a recent telephone interview from Moscow, a feeling no doubt accentuated by the harsh economic times his country is enduring. He was 36 when he came to the U.S., with a knowledge of America derived mainly from his work on the foreign desk of his newspaper. “It was my first trip to the United States and I think it may be my last,” he said with a chuckle. “It was like the Frank Sinatra song, ‘It Was A Very Good…Half A Year.’ I cannot be quite objective in talking about that experience back 10 years because with the years passing, it looks more and more like a paradise. What’s left in my memory is only the good.”
Merinov recalls staying in the trailer home of a farm family near Rochester, Minn., with a patriarch who loved hunting, of spending a week after the program with WPI founder Harry Morgan in Salinas, Calif., and of interviewing U.N. Ambassador Vernon Walters. He became a news event himself while visiting a small Louisiana town with his colleagues.
Unable to sleep, he dropped in at a bar and made quick friends with several Creoles who had never seen a “Soviet.” Merinov had to spend 10 minutes convincing them he was the authentic article. “They knew the name of the country but had no idea where it was or anything,” he says, remembering how his newfound friends took him on an all-night tour of bars before he returned to the WPI group at sunrise. “There were rumors in that town the next day, people talking and saying, ‘There was a Soviet here,’” he says with a laugh.
Despite the effects of the lingering Cold War, Merinov in 1988 never experienced any hostility from Americans. “Never did I feel any neglect, any negative attitude toward me or my country. It was very good.”
Just two and a half years after Merinov returned, the Soviet Union dissolved into separate and independent states. “Maybe I am an imperialist by nature and by education, but I still feel sorry for that because I grew up in that country, that big country, and I got used to it, in that shape, in that size. It was my motherland—the Baltics as well as Crimea, Ukraine, Central Asia. Everything was for everybody. Now it’s different. I understand it was maybe historically inevitable, but still I think maybe there were some other ways to do it. Maybe life and the reforms wouldn’t be so miserable for Russians and other nations.”
Now 46, Merinov says he never expected the transition to capitalism to tear so tragically at the fabric of life in Russia. He believes it will probably take decades to turn his country around. He remains reluctant to criticize the U.S. because “we can’t manage ourselves, our country and our life properly, so we’re in no position to say anything about America.”
Meanwhile, as foreign editor of Rossiyskaya Gazeta, he wonders about the country’s relationship with the U.S. and points of difference over NATO’s expansion into Eastern Europe and the Kosovo situation. Though he disagrees with the U.S., he says that because of his WPI experience, “I will always love America. It made me pro-American for life.” Noting that he managed to send his two daughters to high school in Tampa, Fla., Merinov says: “In my family, the only one who isn’t pro-American is my wife, who hasn’t been there yet.”