My parents and I immigrated to the United States in 1977. We were Jewish refugees from the Soviet Union. We spent four months in Vienna and Rome, being interrogated, tested for disease, and processed. We were lucky. Families applying for permission to settle in Australia had to wait an average of nine months. It was a year then for Canada.
My early years in San Francisco, CA consisted of kids teasing, “Communist, Communist, you’re from Russia, so you’re a Communist!”
Dear children of 40 years ago: First, I speak Russian, but I am not from Russia. I am from Odessa, which is technically Ukraine. Second, as a Jew, I was not considered Ukrainian, either. My internal passport, under Ethnicity, listed: Jewish. And thirdly, if I were, in fact, a “Communist, Communist,” why would I be here? I would be there. My family left to get away from “Communists, Communists.” Second graders of yore, your logic is flawed.
Now, because my parents left the USSR to get away from Communists, I grew up with a… less than rosy picture of said political system. In addition, prior to Communism, my family lived under Czars. As Jews, they had no great love for that empire, either. (This reminds me of the way my African-American mother-in-law talks about there being no difference between the main US political parties: “Neither one is going to do a damn thing for me.”)
By high school in the ‘80s, as Samantha Smith (RIP) was writing letters about nuclear disarmament and headlining Soviet propaganda posters hugging Kremlin leaders, I attempted to express the controversial opinion that not all Soviet leaders were huggable. I was chided by a certain pop song, “Don’t the Russians love their children, too?”
Why, yes, Sting, they do. And what exactly does that have to do with anything?
In college in the ‘90s, any suggestion I made that Putin’s new Russia was his old Soviet KGB, complete with free speech repression, minority persecution, assassinations both foreign and domestic, and ongoing spying, was met with patronizing smiles and offers to let me audit a Poly Sci course, so I could get the real, untainted-by-American-prejudice story.
In the 21st century, when memories of the Cold War had dimmed, if I mentioned what life had been like under Communism, I was corrected that socialism was the optimal social system; look how well it worked in England and France and… uh… Argentina. I should get my facts straight.
Eventually, I learned to keep my mouth shut and let people believe what they wanted to believe. Once in a while, I’d still get a direct question, i.e., “You’re Russian, what do you think about Putin?” (Kind of like when, in school, everyone turns to my son when it’s time to get “the Black perspective.”)
When asked directly, I would say I thought Russia was the same it had always been. Not just the lack of LGBQT rights (which briefly got people all atwitter during the Sochi Olympics, then went away with the next news cycle). But also: ethnicities being violently put down, dissidents jailed, businesspeople stripped of their property, and reporters murdered for asking the wrong (right) questions. I said I didn’t think Russia had changed from its USSR days, that it was still spying on the US, trying to undermine the US. That it was still a danger to the US.
Oh, how they laughed at my paranoia. And oh, how those who didn’t laugh, told me I didn’t understand, the US government had everything under control, our security was airtight, there was nothing, absolutely nothing, Russia could do to hurt the US.
Cut to 2017.
Oh, my God, oh, my God, the Russians! The Russians are out to get us! They hacked the e-mails! They fixed the election! They’re spying on us right now and have a secret dossier or two on Trump. They have a submarine bobbing off the coast of Connecticut! It’s the first step to war! Why aren’t you panicking? What the hell is wrong with you? Don’t you understand? Let me explain it to you….
You’d think I’d be feeling smug. Or, at least, vindicated. I’m not. I’m actually feeling frustrated and angry.
Because I know that, like the Cuban Missile Crises and Francis Gary Powers and the Berlin Wall and the shot-down Korean jetliner, this too shall pass. As soon as it’s no longer useful as a battering ram, Russia’s threat will be minimized in the name of some other political objective (the same way that Stalin’s 1930s terror was swept under the rug for our World War II ally, smiling Uncle Joe). And we’ll turn a blind eye to everything that continues to go on there.
So I’m still keeping my mouth shut. Except when it comes to my kids. I never kept my mouth shut around my kids before (and neither did my parents), so they’ve been hearing about Russia and the USSR all their lives. They recently wanted to know what was going on now.
I told my kids, if you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs (hat-tip: Rudyard Kipling), then you’re already ahead of the game when it comes to surviving whatever is about to happen. We made it through Stalin and Brezhnev. We’ll make it through this. Because we’ve had over a century of preparation, no matter what anybody else says.