Monday, November 09, 2009

The Wall

I remember when it fell down. It was sort of a shock, even though a very pleasant one.

Nothing much happened to the Soviet system during my childhood, at least not as far as I could see. Brezhnev was the fearless leader when I was born; Andropov and Chernenko and the Gorbachev succeeded him. The adults could see subtle differences and occasionally pointed them out, but they were potentialities, not anything immediately obvious, especially not to a child. The only thing that was obvious was the stuff disappearing from the stores: when I was 5 or 6 there were occasional long lines for salami and toilet paper; when I was 10 or so the lines disappeared completely along with the salami and the toilet paper (you could still find both if you knew the right people, but there was none in the stores).

One more thing that we didn't have was immigrants. I'd never seen a single one during my 16 years in Russia. There were tourists, lots of them. I heard there were students from Africa and Vietnam, and I heard that sometimes they stayed, but I'd never seen any that stayed. There were people on business trips, diplomats, and sometimes exchange teachers for a few weeks of months. Probably exchange students, too, but I'd never met any. I'd heard there were some Communist immigrants from the West in the 30s and 50s, I'd heard what had befallen them after arriving in Russia, and didn't wonder why didn't get any new immigrants after that.

The closest I'd ever seen to immigrants were the folks who were born in Poland and didn't manage to get out when Russia annexed their part of Poland, and Laura. Laura was an Italian woman who was married to a Japanese man who was stationed as a representative of some company in Leningrad and Helsinki for a couple of years. The man commuted between the two cities all the time; Laura chose Leningrad because she was a student of Russian and wished to practice; needless to say, she wasn't planning on staying there, wasn't eating what normal people ate, or using the local public transportation, or standing in lines for anything, but she was the only actual live foreigner sitting in the yard of my grandparents' apartment building and talking to us, ever.

I never wondered why we didn't have any immigrants. In fact I'd have been very surprised if we had, considering what kind of a shithole the place was. (OK, now I know there is also North Korea, but at the time I was unsure of exactly how bad it was, and in any case suspected that all the evil countries probably return the defectors to each other.)

One thing I didn't quite understand was the existence of Communists in the West. I knew there were some because they sold the newspapers printed by the Western Communist parties in Russia; the newspapers were not in my opinion proper Communist newspapers; I suspected the whole thing was some kind of a money scam (people getting money from Russia to print newspapers that occasionally praised it).

We left Russia in April. One week later, on May 1st, we saw a small Communist demonstration in the streets of Vienna. The realization that those people were there entirely voluntarily, without anyone threatening them or offering them toilet paper or an extra day off work was stunning. "They are insane," offered an older neighbor for an explanation. I was a innocent young girl then, at least in some ways, and wondered why they don't move to Russia. "Not that insane," suggested the neighbor.

In the US we had a history teacher who was a Communist. He often used to tell the five Russian students in his class how we don't understand in what a great country we used to live. We usually responded with a suggestion what he should move there and find out how great it is for real. Strangely, he never did.

I was not entirely sure at the time why Western people become Communists, and in fact am not quite sure of it now (I do have some idea though), but one thing I firmly knew by the age of 16 was that not a single one of the fuckers ever moved to the thrice-befucked workers' paradise! (At least not after the Communists killed the last crop of movers. See? Even Communists can learn!)

But anyways, the Wall. It was sweet. God, it was so sweet. I felt a slight pang of regret at not witnessing its fall in person, even though by that time I was quite aware that historical events are best observed at a safe distance.

The teacher (who was not our teacher that year, but anyway) was absolutely livid. I probably shouldn't be mean to him, but at that moment I lacked other Communists to be mean to (life was terrible before the Net). The man looked like he was about to personally run to the Home Depot for building materials to keep that wall up.

I don't think he ever did that either.

No comments: