A NATION OF DRONES
By Nicki Kenyon
When I was a kid, my dream was to be an astronaut and be the first woman on the moon. It didn’t matter to me that I was a Jew in the Soviet Union, and Jews in the Soviet Union just didn’t achieve such heights. I didn’t care that my birth certificate duly noted my Jewishness, and every potential employer would see that both my parents were Jews, thereby limiting my career options. I wanted to go to the moon.
Inspired by one of the books I’d read by Soviet children’s author Nikolay Nosov entitled “Neznayka na Lune” or “KnowNothing on the Moon,” I had decided that this was an adventure I wanted for myself! After all, the novel explored friendship, devotion to one’s mates, the benefits of living together in harmony in communes, and sharing everything you have with your closest comrades. Everyone was equal, despite their abilities – or lack thereof. What’s not to love, right?
It’s only now, when I look back on the story, I realize that it and others like it, were part of a pretty elaborate brainwashing campaign that for most Soviet kids began in kindergarten and continued through adulthood.
Neznayka is a tiny little person who lives in a commune of tiny little people (I now see them almost like the Smurfs) in a “city” amongst regular-sized plants, fruits, and vegetables. If you imagine the Smurfs living in mushroom houses, that’s pretty comparable. Each member of the commune has his or her own function. Neznayka or KnowNothing is basically the village idiot, Znayka (from the Russian znat’ or to know) is the town brain and leader, and Vintik (small bolt) is the town mechanic. There’s a doctor, a builder, an artist, and the town grouch (think: Grouchy Smurf), among others. Everyone in their city has a function. Everyone is equal. Everyone has their function in this happy society. Take note, social justice warriors: IT’S A FAIRY TALE!
Neznayka became an iconic figure in the USSR, and Nosov was one of those didactic children’s authors, who pushed the communist ideology into kids’ malleable minds from a very young age by making the concepts fun and appealing. I was one of those kids. Thanks, in part, to Nosov’s story about Neznayka accidentally launching a rocket to the moon, stranding him and his buddy Ponchik (little fat dude, whose name literally means “donut”), in an evil capitalist society that existed in the moon’s core.
And by evil, I mean EVIL!
The moon society is a corrupt capitalistic state, controlled by millionaires, who own and control all means of production, while squandering their earnings on frivolities. Everyday little guys struggle to survive, while being exploited by the evil factory owners and the corrupt, violent police.
Neznayka meets a couple of street thugs, along with a naive, innocent gentle, worker type named Kozlik (little goat, which is generally reserved for someone stupid… I see what you did there!) He tries to start his own business of growing giant (normal sized for earth) fruits and vegetables, like his commune enjoyed on earth, and his enterprise starts to enjoy some success. But the evil capitalist businessmen cannot allow his business to succeed, because it might cut into their profits, and pay off the thuglings to steal all the money from the business.
Nezkayka and Kozlik are poor again – so poor, that they have nowhere to live. They get nabbed by the corrupt police for being indigent and sent to an island that feeds, clothes, and cares for its inhabitants at first, allowing them to get fat, dumb, and happy, but then gradually turns them into sheep for this evil capitalist society to sheer!
This and other Nosov stories promoted the ideals of communism in a fun, innocent childlike sort of way, while condemning the evils and excesses of the West at a time when information was heavily censored, and the Iron Curtain prevented even a glimpse into the world outside the grey, heavy, destitute existence in the Soviet Union. We all thought we were happy and patriotic, because we didn’t know any better.
My parents somewhere have old black and white photos of me, reciting a patriotic poem at a kindergarten ceremony with a huge portrait of Lenin, covered in flowers, behind me. The only acceptable game outdoors was “Reds versus Whites” – a tribute to the great Communist (red) defeat over the Germans in World War II (the whites) – and violent war games were the norm. Even though, I was never allowed to play with the other kids, because I was a Jew, I watched them as they chased each other around the playground, built forts, and beat the snot out of the enemy whites.
Today, I often wonder if they realized that by intentionally excluding the Jew and beating and abusing her on a daily basis, they were imitating the hated World War II German “whites.” I wonder if they remember those days. I know I do.
In first grade, one of the first questions the teacher asked the class was, “What is the greatest country in the world?” The correct answer, and the only one that was acceptable, was, “The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.”
Embedded in my math book were pearls of drooling adulation about the glory of all the bales of hay an agricultural commune could gather for the fall harvest, and how the hardworking, well-managed Soviet states could produce X more tractors than the capitalist one.
We were taught on a daily basis that becoming part of the Communist party was the greatest honor you could hope to achieve. When we were issued little red star pins with depictions of Lenin in the middle, I wore mine proudly on my school uniform – a splash of red on an otherwise all black or all brown field of drab, scratchy fabric. We were Oktyabryata – “little Octobrists” in honor of the October Revolution. We were so proud to wear those stars, that when one boy – a Jew, incidentally – dropped his star on the floor, he was beaten bloody by several of our classmates. We looked forward to getting our red neckerchiefs in a couple of years and becoming Pioneers – the precursor to the Komsomol (Communist Youth Union).
All this was normal.
After years of indoctrination with no access to outside information, everything was normal.
Wiping with pieces of newspaper, because there was no toilet paper? Normal.
Taking a bath in dirty water that your parents brought in buckets from the machine factory across the street, heated, and poured into a bathtub, after all other members of the family “bathed” in it? Normal.
Sharing your one-bedroom apartment with another three-four person family, sleeping on the floor, or on a makeshift bed in what used to be a living room? Normal.
Getting your tonsils removed without anesthesia while you were tied to a chair with a sheet, gagging on bloody chunks of flesh as the doctor cut them out of your throat with scissors, and hearing them plop juicily into a kidney dish she held under your chin? Normal. Too bad the anesthesia didn’t take. You got your share.
Getting beaten up by your classmates on a regular basis for being a Jew? Normal.
Eating rancid soup, throwing it up, because your stomach couldn’t take it, and then hurriedly slurping up the vomit for fear that your mom would scold you for wasting food? Yeah… you guessed it. Normal.
We never thought to question it. We never considered that there was a brighter future somewhere out there. We never imagined that there were shoes that didn’t fall apart after a month, dresses that weren’t a drab brown or grey, or store shelves full of food somewhere out there. We never knew. We lived our normal, and we were brainwashed into believing it was glorious and honorable, because we all lived that normal together.
Even when my parents and I escaped the Soviets and wound up in Ladispoli, Italy for a while…
Even when I saw that a store had food, that we could live in an apartment that had running water and electricity, and that we could wipe with toilet paper…
I still went outside to play one sunny day, and upon finding crude swastika graffiti scrawled on a stone wall, I grabbed some chalk, coal, or something similar from the ground (can’t remember what it was now), and assiduously worked to cross out the swastikas and draw big Soviet stars in their place!
When I grew up a bit, I realized that I was merely replacing one symbol of tyranny with another, but back then, it didn’t occur to me.
Now, I wasn’t a dumb kid. I thought things through. I started reading books when I was three years old, and newspapers by the time I was five. But I got sucked in – by Soviet literature, by Soviet culture, by Soviet media, Soviet books, Soviet newspapers, and Soviet school pressure. One of the first novels I’d ever read was “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” in Russian. It sure painted America as a scary place, where people were bought, sold, and beaten. I’d read Bradbury’s short story, “The Other Foot” in Russian, and I was terrified of the discrimination it described, as it reminded me of my own experiences. I didn’t consider that those experiences reflected badly on my “great” nation, and that it was there – in the USSR – that I was abused, discriminated against, and lacking in basic necessities.
That’s how you create a nation of zombies, who abide by every assertion of said nation’s greatness despite all the evidence to the contrary.
That’s how you build a compliant hive of senseless automatons, who mindlessly repeat declarations of Soviet greatness, even as they observe empty store shelves and a lack of basic staples of life.
That’s how you produce a country of unquestioning, loyal patriots to whom living without joy, without access to information, and without the ability to challenge authority is a normal way of life.
You develop patriotic, nationalist pride in the citizenry from a young age. You condition people to accept privations for the sake of their great nation. You convince them that suffering is virtue – especially suffering for the great ideal that is communism. You tell them that alone they are nothing, and that collectively, they are part of a great whole, and you develop, nurture, and encourage those tendencies, without allowing any shred of light to penetrate that cocoon of shared misery you’ve created. You persuade them that shared wretchedness brings you closer together, and the closer together you are, the stronger you are – for the glory of the nation.
Why do you think that Vladimir Putin enjoys such high approval ratings, even as he has tanked Russia’s economy, burned food imports in front of the starving people, and stole state assets to make himself one of the richest men alive?
Why do you think he and his closest oligarch buddies live like royalty, while regular Russians starve and sing his praises?
Putin has awakened a sense of national pride in the people. They once again believe that the more you suffer, the stronger you are, and that Putin is bringing back the glory of Russia.
Russia is once again a nation of drones, and I’m so glad I escaped!