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theodore M I R A L D I mpa ... editor, publisher, writer. katherine molé mfa ... art director
Upon migrating to the United States many years ago, I embraced my new home and left the past behind. Never could I imagine that, at some point, that past would become relevant.
But now, I am compelled to talk about it again.
In the USSR, we had state-controlled media which shaped the narrative entirely.
Our founder, Vladimir Lenin, was portrayed as a noble, charismatic, and smart man -- the champion of the underdog (the working class), the seeker of equality, defeater of the rich. The humble man with common ideas who was destined for greatness.
Lenin peered at us intently from textbooks and walls. His was the face behind the good intentions that shaped our everyday life.
As a kid, I was largely shielded by my family -- they took the brunt of "adult tasks" in everyday life. They bribed officials to accomplish the most basic of things, they conserved every kopek and piece of bread, they got me the rare medicines I needed, all through means I didn't dare fathom.
Of course, there was nothing special about those medicines, those favors, or anything else that took such effort to obtain -- in America, you can just go out and get it in a corner store. In the Soviet Union, the word "deficit" was commonly used in everyday language.
"This and this product are in deficit." This meant that you couldn't buy them. Maybe for the next three months or maybe forever, unless someone was bribed or the product was obtained via the black market, friends, or contraband. Fruits and vegetables had their "seasons" when they made an appearance in local stores -- we didn't have advanced technology like hydroponic farms.
Instead, adults were herded into collective farms, which were the Soviet antithesis of family -- or individual-owned farms. Under cheerful banners of "accomplishing a five-year plan in four," they usually underperformed and the bureaucrats responsible faked the numbers, which moved up the chain of command.
"Deficit." I heard this term a lot, as I stood in long lines for bread and milk in stores with cheerfully generic names like "Progress" or "Sunrise."
The lines resembled those formed by hipsters in America lining up for the sale of the next iPhone model -- except we stood in them every day.
As much as my family shielded me from their troubles, they couldn't protect me from factors beyond their control. They couldn't raise my level of living above theirs. And they certainly couldn't get me anesthetics for dental visits. Sitting in the gray, sterile corridor for two hours, hearing the sobbing of the kids already in the dental chair as their teeth were drilled without anesthetics, water, or suction, and knowing that your turn was coming -- some handled it better than others.
In the local clinic, needles were resterilized and reused. Ambulances took three hours to arrive, if they came at all.
That was our "free" healthcare.
We also lived in a "free" apartment, which was suffocatingly small by American standards, and it took years, if not decades, for an average couple to obtain such a place. Usually, several generations of a family lived under one roof until the government bestowed upon its citizens another gray five- to sixteen-story building that looked just like its gray neighbor and had the same exact green-painted swings in the yard.
Since almost nobody had cars, people could rarely afford to move to another city or republic.
Public transportation, which we all had to use, consisted of cranky people squeezed tightly like sardines inside a rusty box on wheels. Despite that, when I was eight, I wanted to be a trolley bus driver. Partially because of all the buttons he flipped to open and close doors, but mostly because there was a wall between him and the sardine can.
The walls in Soviet apartments were poorly insulated from noise and cold. Therefore, wall carpets were dominant in Soviet culture. They all looked similar, usually colored red with abstract, curving patterns.
Soviet factories were state-controlled. Variety was not a concept. The color red was all over the place -- it garnished the banners hanging off the sides of gray five-story buildings, with profiles of Lenin, Marx, and Engels fluttering lightly in the wind, proclaiming that "Marxism-Leninism is the symbol of our times." Others stated, "Forward toward Communism!"
Red was splattered on our classroom walls and our school uniforms.
In grade school, you became an "Octyabronok" (named after the October 1917 revolution) and wore a Lenin-faced star on your lapel. You got a free newspaper, the "Young Leninist." Later, you became a "Pioneer" and swapped the star for a red tie. After that, you moved on to "Komsomol" (All-Union Leninist Young Communist League). Those who did not follow the groupthink enough to make it to "Komsomol" lost access to crucial resources and careers later in life.
I grew up with no concept of "brands." If I wanted to get that shoddy water pistol that suddenly appeared in a store, and my parents let me, then that was the water pistol. It broke in two weeks, of course.
Bread in the stores was the bread. Milk was the milk. Kolbasa was the kolbasa. Everything was manufactured by the state to provide the minimum required survivability, and minimum expected functionality. Improvements in design and the manufacturing process did not exist.
When I came to America and laid down on an American bed, it struck me that it was more comfortable than any bed I'd ever experienced. It was the result of evolving design oriented toward customer satisfaction -- a concept alien to my former homeland.
The two famous brands of Soviet cars, Zaporozhets and Moskvich (both named after their places of origin), just... existed. We didn't really have Zaporozhets 1980 followed by a new and improved Zaporozhets 1981 -- now with power steering! No such thing. It was a car, and it required no further improvement. There was no customer demand, because people were poor, the state-controlled prices were very high, and product evolution crawled at snail's pace.
The very concept of "customer convenience" did not exist. We didn't have bottles sculpted to fit the shape of your hand, nor did we have polite cashiers, for they were under no obligation to please anyone -- they worked for the state. The abacus was still in common use in our stores while American stores had electric change machines, credit card readers, and sliding doors.
Like most things, clothes were in "deficit" and thus traveled from older to younger siblings in every family over time. Broken things weren't thrown away but repaired.
Our giant lamp television was carried in the family since about the time I was born. It received three channels -- all State-controlled. On our evening news program, the Chernobyl disaster announcement was calm and lasted fifteen seconds. Our state papers, such as Pravda and Izvestia, were not read but used as invaluable sources of free toilet paper. This is not a joke.
Our propaganda put the big focus on the noble working class and how there was no such thing as a "lower" profession. Much emphasis was made on the nobility of simple working man, and certainly there is something to that.
But when the janitor receives roughly the same salary as a teacher who is paid roughly the same as a surgeon who is paid roughly the same as a programmer, all of them surrounded by peers who get paid the same no matter how well or poorly they perform, some people start carrying the team, and then they just give up. Everyone performs poorly in the end.
It was painfully obvious to everyone just how low the desire of the average person is to produce goods for other people. Without competition or opportunity to get ahead, with the state controlling production and paying equal salaries to workers regardless of their contributions, we had no concept of abundance.
With our "free" services, we regularly experienced water and electrical outages and sometimes went to a nearby forest to get water. Once you fill that bathtub with water, you can't use it for anything else.
The first time I entered an American food market at the age of seventeen, I froze.
Older Soviets who visited American stores for the first time, got hit harder -- all the lies they were taught from childhood through the decades of their lives -- until that last moment, they expected them to be at least partially true.
Sure, they heard stories from overseas, but come on, those were just the Potemkin villages, mirages created to make the Soviets jealous. How can one imagine the unimaginable?
"They told us in Odessa, that in San Francisco it's hard to find milk."
This is the typical Soviet mentality, and they were used to it, and they bought into it, and then they entered that American supermarket and saw the rows upon rows of milk of different brands and kinds and fat percentages.
This is where some have been known to cry. It is the realization that their lives were stolen from them by the regime. A realization of what could've been, if they had been lucky enough to be born in this place which, from everything they knew, could not possibly exist.
I now live in Northern California, in the heart of the Bay Area, thousands of miles away from my homeland.
And yet the poison of Soviet propaganda seeps through college dorms just as it did in Soviet classrooms.
Stop a random youth on the street and you'll find out what he thinks about capitalism (bad!) and communism/socialism (good!). Their favorite news programs are the "Daily Show" and the "Colbert Report," where comedians reinforce their brainwashing via short, catchy clips.
Walk through Berkeley and you will see wall graffiti of the same hammer and sickle that adorned the big red flags of the Soviet era.
This doesn't extend to just youths. People of all ages, even acquaintances that I otherwise respect and admire, are like this. They support the "progressive" leader Barack Obama, worship the nanny state, and believe in equality of outcome rather than equality of opportunity.
They badmouth capitalism and complain that only one percent of the American population has the "American dream." They buy into the class warfare rhetoric hook, line, and sinker. They want artificially raised minimum wage, government handouts, and believe that Obamacare is the greatest thing since the invention of pockets.
I look at them and the red ties materialize, familiarly, around their necks.
There are "academic" speakers now who advocate that having too many choices is "bad for you." Too stressful to choose, you see.
Living in the Soviet Union, being bombarded with similar nonsense, we had nothing to contradict it. When we walked outside the school, the everyday reality had no traces of the wealth afforded by capitalism. We lived in the grayness and that grayness was all there was.
Americans leave school to go home and they drop by a mall to buy something from an incredible selection of wealth and choice afforded by capitalism. They drop by a small corner store, which could probably feed a savvy Soviet village for a month (dog food is food, too, you know), and they pick up some "entertainment food" that did not exist in the USSR, in quantities that weren't affordable for an average Soviet family.
Then they go home and write essays on their expensive iPads about how they don't have the American Dream.
Now, most American news sources are no different than Pravda and Izvestia. Now, the government used the IRS to stifle political opposition. Now, ObamaCare is a wealth redistribution platform disguised as a common good. Now, Obama is being portrayed in academia and the media alike as a charismatic, messianic, "progressive" figure, fighting for the "underdog." He would feel right at home as the General Secretary of the Communist Party. Now, Obama Youths are me, from decades ago. Leninist academia has had its way with them. Now, just like Soviet leaders, American leaders give lip-service to "social justice" while stocking up on personal wealth for their families.
There's nothing new under the sun. I'm hardly the only ex-Soviet to point out the parallels. But some things matter enough to bear repeating.