What’s going on in the world today? Something about it just takes me back to 1983.
Each spring, for the past 30 years, the scent of lilacs has taken me back to sprawling green parks rimmed by blooming lilacs, in Moscow. Moms pushed baby buggies, children romped, lovers cuddled, soldiers posed for photos with their girlfriends, old folks played chess in the sun.
I was 22, my daughter’s age, when I explored then-Soviet republics Russia, Ukraine, Lithuania and Estonia, for a month, with a college group led by two poli-sci/Russian history professors.
The first lesson any world traveler learns is that all people want similar things: love, good health, a decent living standard, safety and a bright future for their children. If they can be proud of their government, all the better. But when average citizens come to believe their best interest is no longer Priority No. 1 of their government, resentment seeps into fissures of society and breaks it apart. Such was the case in 1983 USSR.
It would be another eight years before the Soviet system officially disbanded, but we could already feel the rivets popping off the ship, under the weight of its inefficiency and public dissatisfaction. Non-Russians eagerly embraced us, sharing stories of Russian oppression.
Russians who acted aloof by day warmed to us at night, after our Communist Party escorts went home. People like Zhene, a Russian tutor who earned just $66 per month. As the son of a Soviet celebrity, he wasn’t allowed to join relatives in the U.S. because it would make the USSR look bad.
“It is my tragedy,” he sighed, flicking cigarette ashes onto the carpet. “There is nothing I can do. I wish that they would put me in a cage at the Moscow zoo, by the lions and zebras.” His best friend Basil dealt with challenges differently, by climbing Party ranks. “It’s the only way to make good money,” he said with a shrug.
Our professors didn’t allow us to fly the Russian airline, Aeroflat, because its planes, like so many Soviet products, were poorly made. Soviet employees had little incentive to work hard, much less innovate. This is where I learned to appreciate capitalism, giant flaws and all.
Many young Soviets envied our material goods but didn’t connect the dots between great products and a free society. Still, they knew their own system was broken and casually accepted its greed-driven corruption as a fact of life. Nationalist rhetoric was everywhere, but emotional buy-in was nil. It was hard to comprehend such depth of cynicism in people so young. A hopeless war in Afghanistan had further drained their faith in government. All government criticism was discouraged by the Party, so they couldn’t talk about their feelings openly. It’s hard to fix what you can’t talk about. So they drank a lot.
“At first we had to wonder why a nation that could put men into space couldn’t seem to manufacture a decent toilet – or broom, for that matter,” I wrote in an article for the Bloomington Pantagraph. “We daily encountered broken taxis, broken elevators, broken cash registers.” Three years after our trip, a broken nuclear reactor in Chernobyl, Ukraine, exploded, condemning countless people to early death by cancer and spreading radioactive particles across Western Europe. The Soviet equivalent of a nuclear regulatory agency was broken, too, by unchecked corruption.
Saddest of all were the broken wings of people who really wanted to fly, to achieve, to create. Alexander was a bright Ukrainian college student who taught himself English by listening to American rock music on Polish radio. A very talented artist, he wasn’t allowed to pursue his passion for fashion design; the Party had chosen another path for him. His “impossible dream” was to visit the U.S., but he knew he never would. His “second impossible dream” was to own a Singer sewing machine. I offered to mail him one, but he told me it would only be stolen by Soviet postal workers. Alexander loved Western music, technology and blue jeans, but distrusted Western governments and especially feared American nuclear weapons. Alexander wasn’t allowed to travel, work, shop or live the way he wanted to, but Ukraine’s alliance with Mother Russia made him feel protected.
The Soviet students I met are now middle-aged like me, and running their countries. Alexander’s hometown was near Chernobyl, in western Ukraine. Did he perish or live? I wish I knew.
I remember the relief we felt when crossing out of Russia, by train, into freedom-loving Finland. No more armed guards rifling through our suitcases; no more suspicious eyes upon us. It felt like a physical weight lifting off our bodies. We cheered and passed bottles of champagne. We never imagined we’d someday worry about our own government spying on us.
I certainly “get it” that a democratic capitalist republic is a happier way to organize society than what I witnessed in the USSR; on that point I’m clear. But I don’t get too cocky about it, because I see the U.S. making some of the same fatal errors the USSR made. Can we prevent Big Business and the U.S. government from putting the needs of average citizens behind their own? Do we have the courage to crack down on corruption, both public and private?
As late economist John Kenneth Galbraith quipped,“Under capitalism, man exploits man. Under communism, it’s just the opposite.”
I didn’t worry about the 1 percent that owns 35 percent of America, back in 1983, because it didn’t. Now it does and I do. I see Wall Street criminals go unpunished and a Supreme Court that’s made it impossible to trace the money in political contributions. I see rising tolerance here for corruption, both private and public, and recall the cynical look in the eyes of those young Soviets who came to accept it as a normal way of life.
I worry that U.S. presidents have misled us about their reasons for going to war ever since Vietnam. World War II was the last war the entire public clearly understood. I’m war-wary and tired of rebuilding other nations while our own infrastructure crumbles.
The military-industrial complex funded by deficit spending is well entrenched, just as if Republican President and 5-star General Dwight D. Eisenhower had never warned us against it. He feared it would lead to perpetual war, and it has, even as the distance between citizens and military action expands exponentially. Stop 10 Americans on the street, and half will be surprised to learn we’ve been at war for 13 years. Too few soldiers bear too much burden for the rest of us. The first thing we owe our soldiers is to stay out of unnecessary wars, and no amount of VA reform makes up for getting that wrong.
I worry about outrageous college costs and the inane hyper-partisanship that leads to self-destructive governance. I mourn the anti-trust laws and campaign finance reform that landed in the dustbin. I hate it that we’re buying foreign-made products from multinational corporations instead of from neighbors who make and sell things.
I know. I worry too much. But I fret over our democracy because I love it so much. I think the founders counted on us to fret over it. And we still have the freedom to fret openly. I think.
I thank God every day for this country, its blessings, and the people who’ve fought or died to secure them. We live in a very rare moment of history.
I also thank God for honest politicians who’ve resisted bribes, quasi-legal or otherwise, and stayed true to their electorate. They, too, are freedom fighters. Maybe we should honor them with a holiday of their own. “Honest Politician Day.” The parade and recognition ceremony would be blessedly brief.
To a cynic like me, it’s nothing short of miraculous that our nation works as well as it does, and for as many people as it does. But we do have our work cut out for us. The USSR didn’t perish for lack of guns and rhetoric, and we won’t either.
If we perish, it’ll be from failing to acknowledge and fix all the broken pieces while we still can.