Fidel, Monica and me

Khrushchev's great-granddaughter on her dreams of marrying Cuba's mysterious leader -- and the lessons that Monica Lewinsky offers our so-called democracy.

By Nina Khrushcheva

Published March 1, 2002 9:00PM (EST)

I nearly went to Cuba once, with a group of American journalists, but the Elián González affair got in the way and the trip was canceled. I kept trying; it was my life's dream to interview Fidel Castro, a man whose small country has been stirring debate around the world for 40 years. As an unknown journalist, I didn't have a prayer of getting Castro's attention. But as a great-granddaughter of Nikita Khrushchev, Castro's former political mentor, I might have a serious chance.

That interview was merely a pretext. I am all for meritocracy and think it the essence of professional ethics in the New World. Doing things and succeeding on my own -- and not on the basis of my last name -- was why I moved from Russia to the United States 11 years ago in the first place. (No one did nepotism better than the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.) But secretly I wanted to approach Castro the old-fashioned way: Arrive for an interview, use my female charms, seduce and marry Fidel and forever fix for myself -- well, what? A great career, perhaps? Notoriety? Scandal? Something big, no matter what.

A Khrushchev-Castro marriage? Modern history holds nothing to match it. After coming to America I could, perhaps, have found some way to marry a Nixon or a Kennedy (there is no shortage of the latter, it seems), but to do so, I knew, would be a betrayal of my grandfather. Enemies of the people, and their children, after all, make very bad spouses. Besides, marriage to Castro would have made me more than a Beltway or Wall Street trophy wife. I would be in the big time of spouses, something akin to Jordan's Queen Noor (no disrespect to the queen): I would give interviews, discuss world politics with Larry King, hang about with the grand poohbahs at Davos (whether the Switzerland or Manhattan versions) and generally swan about in Prada and Gucci due to my famous and important husband. Moreover, there would be a hint of danger in my glamour.

I even dreamed once that Fidel finally agreed to meet me, but had to cancel at the last minute; his duty to suppress some anti-socialist demonstration called. In my dream I was not all that disappointed because I am familiar with all this socialist devotion to duty. Indeed, I once started writing a book about Russian first ladies, from the Empress Alexandra to Naina Yeltsin. Studying their lives I was preparing myself for my own imagined grand future.

Then I heard that Monica Lewinsky had been invited to dine at All Souls College, Oxford, and I canceled my plans to marry Castro. I was happy to follow the graceful example of Queen Noor, the energetic Mrs. Roosevelt and Mrs. Clinton in her transformation from "I don't do teas" first lady to junior senator from New York in trading up from the spousal position. But now it seemed as if Monica was setting the standard for how a girl gets ahead and, frankly, I hadn't left Moscow behind for the route she was taking.

That the woman who almost brought down an American presidency with her tongue was invited to dine with the great minds of one of the world's most prestigious universities hit me hard. How much more would I need to write on Russia, the media and political culture before anyone at Oxford would even consider inviting me to speak? For I had no chance of getting there the way Monica did.

I felt cheated by the claims of American democracy, which was supposed to educate women in the equality of genders. Not every woman can be an Amelia Earhart, Madeleine Albright or Condoleezza Rice, creating their lives on their own terms. Some do need the traditional career of attaining advancement through a man. But doing it that way does not mean abandoning all class. My problem with Monica is not that she had an affair with President Clinton. Good for her! I am a big Bill fan myself. My problem is that in losing her last name in the scandal and becoming a plump sex symbol -- the "Monica" of global paparazzi acclaim -- she hasn't done anything in the three years since to get it back. She failed Jenny Craig's slimming program, her pricey handbags seemed to be hawked as receptacles in which to stuff semen-stained dresses and even the psychology courses she takes at Columbia University are for no credit.

No credit, no credibility. But perhaps my problem is not only with Monica. Not everyone can be strong and fix their life the way they want it, at least not on the first try, and especially not after shocking a puritan country with a sex scandal. She deserves sympathy and understanding. My problem is with America and why it creates Monicas. The U.S. self-righteously denounces nepotism, gender discrimination, political connections and the like and then makes Monica (who benefited from all three) a celebrity. She has appeared on "Saturday Night Live," continues to attend movie premieres and other celebrity gatherings and is the subject of a new HBO documentary that airs Sunday night. Larry King still calls, snapping his suspenders as he takes one more call about fellatio in the White House.

Promoting her HBO film in Pasadena in January, Monica said, "I've sought balance in my life. I never wanted to be a celebrity." That statement, however, doesn't correspond with the fact that "Monica in Black and White" was her idea. She obviously values her celebrity status, even if it's a trashy one, and her usual self-portrayal as the victim of reporters and photographers who won't give her a moment's peace has gotten a bit campy.

Contemplating Monica is one of the few things that can make me regret that I left the world of the Russian elite and came to the United States to test myself in the world of individuals who get ahead on their own. I even regret my more traditional daydreams of getting ahead the old-fashioned way through a marriage to the caudillo of Cuba. Instead, I know that I have to do it all myself and that it still may not matter. And that no one will care why there is a dress stuffed in my purse.

Nina Khrushcheva

Nina Khrushcheva teaches international affairs at New School University in New York.

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