“O chom kolonka?” asked my son on the telephone. We’ve always spoken Russian to each other, he and I, even though Nikolai was born in London and never so much as visited the country of his father’s birth. “What’s your column going to be about?” I must admit I hadn’t known the answer till he’d asked, but then all of a sudden it hit me. “O chom, o chom . . . ” I grumbled. “O Chomskom!”
Noam Chomsky has been making Nikolai’s first year as an undergraduate at Oxford something of a misery, a fact not lost on his paternal grandmother, who now sends him chocolate-covered apricots and other consolations of bourgeois civilization from New York City, where she lives. At 84, Mother is retired in the wake of a long career as a science editor, though not retired enough to miss the chance to call Chomsky a fascist. “A fascist, Mom?” I queried, doubtfully. “I thought that’s what I was.”
She had an answer ready: “No, you’re a feudalist. That’s about as big a difference as there is between Stalin and William Morris.”
At Oxford, Nikolai’s “major,” as we of the land of the free would have it, is called Russian Soul. I kid you not: That is the official name of the subject my son is “reading,”...