The first thing I saw after getting off the plane in Kazan was an advertisement for McDonald’s. A quarter pounder with cheese looked smugly out from a banner hanging above the baggage carousel. I was bleary-eyed and vaguely depressed after a full day in transit from Toronto, and nothing captured the unreality of arriving in the Middle Volga quite like this reminder of where I’d just come from.
It wasn’t a surprise, of course. I’d just spent two hours waiting for a connecting flight in Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport, and aside from the fact that the signs were written in Cyrillic, the ads and shops could have been the ads and shops in Frankfurt, or Toronto, or any other airport in the world. It just felt a little on the nose for it to be the first thing I saw out of the gate.
It’s a bit of a truism to say that in the twenty-first century, every place is increasingly like every other place. We don’t talk about globalization for the same reason we don’t talk about the money economy: it’s just a stupid, obvious fact, nowhere more undeniable than in the anonymous hubs that serve international travel. But for some reason—perhaps because airports are linked, at least in my mind, to the promise of the new—I found myself taking the quarter pounder personally. I had just spent eighteen hours in the air, to be greeted by this? How far do you have to travel to not have to see the same shitty ads for the same shitty burgers?
Naturally, I thought of Trude.
Trude is one of the fifty-five places described in Italo Calvino’s experimental novel Invisible Cities. Framed as a series of dialogues between Kublai Khan and Marco Polo, Invisible Cities is ostensibly a record of Marco Polo’s travels to the far-flung reaches of the Great Khan’s empire, but the places he describes under headings like “Trading Cities” or “Cities and the Dead” aren’t anymore historical than Marco Polo and the Great Khan’s philosophical debates. The Italian traveller’s descriptions are fundamentally existential: the novel is an exercise in fantasy that explores the paradoxical diversity and sameness of human life. In the last section, under the title “Continuous Cities,” he tells the story of an eerily familiar urban landscape.
If on arriving at Trude I had not read the city’s name written in big letters, I would have thought I was landing at the same airport from which I had taken off. The suburbs they drove me through were no different from the others, with the same little greenish and yellowish houses. Following the same signs we swung around the same flower beds in the same squares.
Marco Polo questions why he bothered coming to Trude in the first place, only to receive the following answer from his unnamed hosts.
“You can resume your flight whenever you like…but you will arrive at another Trude, absolutely the same, detail by detail. The world is covered by a sole Trude which does not begin and does not end. Only the name of the airport changes.”
Calvino wrote that in 1972, long before there was a McDonald’s anywhere near the Kazan Airport. I wondered what he would have written had he lived to see the fall of Communism.
I mentioned the advertisement to my partner while we were waiting for the train into the city. She was born and raised in nearby Yoshkar-Ola during the brutal economic shock therapy that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, and we were planning on spending a year in her hometown so she could finish a book and I could learn Russian. At this point, she has spent roughly equal parts of her life in the Middle Volga and in the West, so I was interested in what, if any, insight she had into the matter.
“Yeah, I noticed that, too,” she said. “The advertisement was celebrating the twentieth anniversary of McDonald’s in Tatarstan.”
As the train started off through the golden-green fields stretching south and east toward the Kama River, I was reminded of my mother’s complaint, frequently voiced in the early nineties, that the first Westerners into Russia after perestroika were fast food moguls. She’s hardly a communist, but she does have a pronounced anti-materialist and anti-American streak. Nothing in her mind exemplifies the degeneration of Western culture so much as McDonald’s. Whatever the moral failings of the Soviet project may have been, at least they were able to keep the fucking Big Macs out.
When Calvino describes Trude, he is, of course describing the end of history as the victory of neoliberal capitalism. And as we all know, this is exactly what is supposed to have happened in the early nineties with the fall of the USSR. What better epitomizes the soulless, homogenizing grind of the global market than McDonald’s, with its grotesque production-line approach to food, its childish combination of salt, sugar, and fat, its hideous labour practices, and its frontline assault on the environment? The Big Mac index has become an international standard for measuring purchasing-power parity, for Christ’s sake. It would be easy to take the advertisement for McDonald’s in the Kazan airport as evidence that whatever politic differences exist between Americans and Canadians and Russians, where it matters—on the level of consumption, on the level of material culture—we’re all living in Trude.
But after we arrived in Yoshkar-Ola and started settling into life in the Mari El Republic, this simplistic picture of victorious capitalism was troubled by another anecdote related to fast-food. As it turns out, there is a McDonald’s in Yoshkar-Ola; it stands on a prominent corner off the central park, not far from where Victoria Boulevard meets May Day Street. The building wouldn’t look out of place in any North American city but for one minor detail: the iconic M sign seems lower than it should be. There is, as my partner explained, a reason for this. When the McDonald’s was first built, people complained the towering M distracted from the monumental pillar commemorating Russia’s victory in the Great Patriotic War that dominates the entrance to the park. The sign was shortened to a more modest height so as to show proper respect for the fallen.
To fear Trude is to fear the erasure of particularity, the swallowing of cultures and cuisines and languages into a vast yeasty similitude. Trude doesn’t grow, it spreads. Its horror lies in its bland mindlessness, the fact that it seems impossible to blame any individual person for it. But while it is good and right to criticize the destructive spread of capitalism across every inch of the globe, it has become increasingly clear that we are not, in fact, facing an apocalyptic flattening out of difference. Eating Big Macs has not made Russians (or Tatars, or the Mari) any more like Americans. If anything, the world is less stable and more prone to political and cultural divergence than it was when that first McDonald’s opened its doors in Kazan back in 1999.
For Trude to be fully realized it must overcome time itself; it must become mythical (which is to say, completely outside of history), because history reminds us that the world we live in is the product of decisions and inventions, the often myopic exercise of power by agents who are always, finally, constrained. And what has been made can, of course, be made anew. The extent to which people are outraged that a fast food restaurant could detract from the dignity of a memorial, or remember that the arrival of McDonald’s in Tatarstan happened at a specific moment in time, for specific political, social, and economic reasons, is the extent to which Trude can be kept at bay.
There’s an old joke a former editor of mine used to tell about visiting Jerusalem. If you go for one week, you’ll want to write a feature essay about it. If you go for two weeks, you’ll want to write a book. But if you stay for a month, you’ll start to understand just how complicated the place is. You’ll realize you’d need to do years of research before writing a word. I’ve only been in Russia for a week, so it’s entirely possible I’m going off half-cocked; but regardless of the shops stocked with products I recognize and the streets filled with selfie-taking teens, I’m starting to grasp that underneath the patina of familiarity lies a world of difference, of cultural particularity and historical complexity I will, in the coming year, only begin to comprehend.