How far down the slippery slope are we going to go? -Amanda S. Green
The other day, Sarah had a post that created a lot of discussion, both in the comments and elsewhere, about the reality of living in Communist Russia. The result of those discussions had me thinking back to a time when, it was still the USSR, that I happened to spend close to two months behind the Iron Curtain. Until then, I had read as much as I could about communism and Soviet Russia (I’m a history buff, what can I say). I had also done extensive research on those countries in Eastern Europe that had been given to the tender care of the Soviets at the end of World War II.
This was the time of the Carter presidency. Moscow, and the rest of the USSR and much of the Eastern Bloc, was preparing for the 1980 Olympics. What we didn’t know at the time was that just a few months after that trip, the Soviets would invade Afghanistan and Carter would order the boycott of the Summer Olympics. But that is another story.
I was younger then – weren’t we all? I wasn’t nearly as jaded by life as I am now. So I left on that trip with a sense of adventure and the desire to learn as much as I could about a part of the world I had never before visited. I had heard all the stories about the zero unemployment and the wonders of communist economics. Sure, I’d heard the about the evils as well but I wanted to make up my own mind.
And that didn’t take long – not only when it came to making up my mind about Communism but about the role this country and Great Britain, as well as others, when they basically betrayed those countries of the what would become the Eastern Bloc.
I’m not sure anyone who hasn’t been in Prague or other parts of the Czech Republic or Slovakia, two countries forced to form Czechoslovakia after the war, or who haven’t talked with people who were there at the end of the war can understand how many of the Czechs feel about that happened to their country. I certainly didn’t until our first night in town when some of us were on our way to a club one of us knew. Due to some of the construction going on in Prague, we had to take a way he wasn’t familiar with and we stopped to ask for directions. Now, we were far off the normal tourist routes. So my friend asked for directions in flawless Russian. Suddenly, we found ourselves not talking with one man but surrounded by half a dozen men, ranging in age from old enough to have served in World War II to their sons and grandsons. The friendly atmosphere turned decidedly antagonistic. Russian, you see, was the worst possible language we could have spoken. They had no love lost for the country that had laid claim to it in 1945 and strengthened its claim in 1968 when it invaded and quashed the Czech uprising.
Even then, I put down their reaction to the Soviet occupation of their country since 1968. That view was modified a few days later when we were in Plzen (Pilsen). There we met people who had been in Plzen in 1945. Their city, which had seen 2,000 or more Jews “deported” in 1942 by the Nazis, was liberated by part of Patton’s command. Plsen was the exception when it came to Czech liberation. Other cities and towns watched as American or British troops camped outside of their city limits, waiting for the Soviet troops to arrive to “liberate” them. What they didn’t know as that liberation would lead to yet another generation of occupation, this time by Soviet troops. Was it any wonder so many Czechs felt betrayed by the British and Americans?
Then, after seeing much the same in Hungary, which had its own Soviet invasion in 1957, and Romania, we entered the Soviet Union. Over the course of the next six or seven weeks, we visited Kiev (Ukraine), Moscow, Leningrad (once more called St. Petersburg), Soviet Georgia, Vilnius (Lithuania), Riga (Latvia) and Tallinn (Estonia). We learned to check for the cat or dog we saw hanging around the hotel or hostel we were staying at before eating meat. We dreamed of fresh fruit and real toilet paper. We learned what a true black market happened to be.
We also saw some of the worst medical conditions inside of supposedly modern hospitals any of us had seen outside of combat conditions. In a visit to what was lauded as one of the Ukraine’s newest and most advanced hospitals, we saw nurses treating patients, changing dressings and the like, without washing their hands before moving on to another patient. One of our members, a doctor, came back to talk about surgeries being conducted with minimal to no anesthesia. The infection rate was horrid and no one who has been in a room with someone with a seriously infected wound would have missed the smell in parts of the hospital. Without looking, you knew wounds had gone septic.
As for the so-called zero unemployment, well, I guess you could say that was true. If you count someone walking down the trolley tracks with a stick to make sure there was no dirt between the track and the street work. Or if you call work sitting in a chair in a room in a museum sleeping work. No, they weren’t what we would call docents. I knew enough Russian at that time to ask and these people were doing their “jobs”. The sad thing was, there was no pride in them, as a person or for the job they were doing.
That is what struck me the most during that trip. Most of those I saw, the people in Eastern Europe and those who were old enough to have somehow managed to survive Stalin and some of the rest of the more interesting times in Soviet history, were beaten down. It was as though all they could do was put one foot in front of the other and pray to live another day. Trust had been broken, by the State and by those politicians from the West who had so easily signed their lives away to living under Uncle Joe Stalin’s thumb.
Once back in the States, one of the first things I did – after eating my fill of fresh fruit and beef I knew was beef – was talk with a woman I knew who had fled Soviet Russia. She and her family had managed to survive living in the Ukraine during World War II. Some of the family had been sent to the camps where they died. Others had managed to hide from the Nazis and had fought in the Resistance, some in the Ukraine and others elsewhere in the Soviet Union or Eastern Europe.
They had managed to survive Stalin, barely. But the life of a Soviet Jew was not one they wanted for their children. So they did what others before and after them did. They begged, borrowed, bribed and who knows what else was necessary to get out of the country. They paid the price, both personally and financially. For years they would not be allowed to return to the Soviet Union to visit family who had remained behind. They were forced to leave behind most of their belongings and finances. But they were free.
Now, as I look back on that trip, as I remember the conversations I had then and later, I can only shake my head when I hear someone talking about how wonderful the Soviet Union and/or Communism happens to be. It is the killer of souls. In a system where there are more equals among equals, there is little to encourage independent thought, much less freedom. When all you feel from those around you is an air of resignation, that isn’t freedom. It is the slow collapse of a society.
I know I’m not doing this topic justice. It is difficult to put down in mere words the feelings and impressions I had during those days and weeks behind the Iron Curtain. The best analogy I can give you is this. While in Moscow, we were taken to where a new apartment building was being constructed. The material, at first glance, looked similar to cinder blocks. Not the best for long term construction but adequate, right? Wrong. The Soviet version could – and sometimes did – crumble in your hand. Yet they were erecting building after building with this sort of material and workers did their best to stay one step ahead of disaster, both as the buildings went up and after.
Gone, at least for a generation or three, were the proud people of Eastern Europe and Russia. In their places were people who had learned, often in the most difficult way possible, that the best way to get along was to simply go along. Keep your head down, don’t make eye contact and never, ever say anything against the government.
Now I look at our own country and I fear we are starting down that same road. Colleges are banning words, even removing names from their history, because they might hurt someone’s feelings (a college has removed a memorial of sorts to a man named Lynch because of the negative connotations to the word). We are raising an entire generation without knowing what it means to have consequences for their actions. Worse, they are such delicate flowers that they can’t handle reading or hearing a word that might hurt their feelings. So they have to be protected, even if it is at the cost of someone else’s right to express themselves.
The government is keeping track of our online activity and imposing more and more “checks” on what we can do. It has turned its back on our allies in order to appease those who want nothing more than our destruction. Our president, not satisfied to work within the framework of our government and the separation of powers, uses the power of the executive order like his own personal magic wand. The only thing we can be glad about where executive orders are concerned is that no president has tried to imitate FDR with his more than 3,000 executive orders (if I remember my history right).
But that’s not all. We are being encouraged to become our neighbors’ keeper and report them if they do anything we think is “suspicious”. Writers are having their livelihoods threatened because they don’t bow down and accept they should write only if they are going to embrace the cause du jour. Failure to comply will have you labeled sexist, racist, misogynist, and more – and usually without an ounce of truth in the accusations.
How far down this slippery slope are we going to go before we either stop and say “ENOUGH!”? Or are we going to let ourselves be so beaten down that we become like those I saw in the Soviet Union – or like those you can find in any number of other countries today?
*Amanda’s Honor From Ashes is available for preorder on Amazon:
This has been a commercial break from #IAMWRITING Sarah A. Hoyt*