Thursday, August 15, 2013

As many who know me are aware, I was totally upended by a visit to the Soviet Union in 1981. I came home with these thoughts:

  1. The Soviet Union was a “shame” society, far more focused upon external compliance than inner life;
  2. Despite its “leftist” and “revolutionary” reputation, the Soviet state was deeply and structurally conservative, more like the reactionary Nicholas I than the reformer Alexander II.

As a child in Berkeley, California, I grew up swimming in a sea of leftist, progressive thought, which was one of the reasons I was interested in the Soviet Union in the first place. Russian literature awoke in me a rich constellation of thoughts and feelings and the elegant society in which I passed my childhood found a sympathetic echo in its pages. So what was not to like about going to Russia?

The best parts of me did not like Russia. But the phoniest, smarmiest, public relations side of my being liked the place just fine.

“Remember,” said our tour organizer, a old Berkeley radical to the souls of his shoes. “You don’t have to put up with any shit from them. You’re free people and don’t forget it.”

Most of the people who were on my tour took his words to heart. Being raised to be gracious, I found them simply impolite, and though free, thought that silence was probably the more prudent course in a country whose customs I did not know.

The tour was a summer university exchange and we spent most of our time as guests at Leningrad University listening to lectures on Russian history and culture from various faculty members. They were interesting, and for the most part were about economic theory and economic development, topics that until that point had not particularly engaged me. But it was in the Soviet Union that I experienced with great honesty the power that money exerts over people’s lives, how having it confers confidence, how having it taken away shatters confidence; in short, how money could be used as a weapon of intimidation.

But while I sat quietly in my seat trying to deal with this onslaught of new information, my fellow travelers were hurtling the insults of “free people” at our Soviet hosts, demanding that they talk about imprisoned poets and slave labor, which, of course, this being a summer vacation, they would not. They did not return the accusations with silence, however; they returned the accusations with tracts so lengthy and so boring you regretted that anyone said anything at all, and it was in the midst of a discourse upon the construction of a dam in some area so remote that most Russians had probably not heard of it that I hit upon an idea.  

That idea was being constructive. Clearly, these guys knew how to deal with disruptions, but what about constructions? So, the next day, I raised a tentative hand. “I realize, thanks to you,” I began, referring to the Marxist ideology upon which Soviet Communism was built, “that ideas can be absolutely perfect. But it has been my experience of human beings that we are less than perfect. So, how do you handle the ordinary difficulties of daily life like traffic tickets?”

Everyone laughed, and one of our hosts, a lovely woman in her sixties who reminded me of my favorite aunt, touched me on the shoulder. “No one is interested in that,” she smiled, “but come over here and I’ll tell you all about it.”

While the rest of the group went on to loftier subjects, I received an incredibly lively picture of daily life in Leningrad, of squabbles between neighbors, small claims court, apartment councils, the sheer complexity of lots of people living in close proximity, the ill tempered ones and the nice ones. It was thanks to this lovely woman that I learned beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Russians knew a lot more than they were telling.

My alarm became not for them; it was clear that Soviet Power was on its last legs, but for us, because, after all, we were “free people,” in the greatest and best society that had ever arisen on the face of the earth, and we didn’t know a thing.

A lot has happened since 1981, but the tension between perfection and disruption continues, and now that we don’t have the Russians to beat up anymore, we are doing it to ourselves.

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