Tag Archives: Soviet Union

Red Square to Temple Square

11 Oct

Obama’s economic policies will transform us into a Latter-Day Soviet Union.

This poster says it all.

Hammer and sickle squeeze out stars and stripes.  Uncle Joe (Biden?) lurks in the background.

The prospect horrifies, even though more and more of us have no memory of the Soviet Union.  Still, we are afraid of an amorphous red menace.

We may be right.

But, there was more to Soviet Russia than lousy universal health care.

There was also a lousy official culture.

That culture began with an unswerving devotion to the mythology of the origin of the state.

Here, for instance, is Lenin at the Finland Station.  We see him upon his return from exile in 1917, greeted by crowds singing the Marseillaise.  There is a solidity, an inevitability to him and the revolution.  With outstretched arm, he declares: “Long live the worldwide Socialist Revolution!”


“This is the Place!”

This image produces discomfort; the discomfort is my Russian immigrant husband’s birthright and I have perversely adopted it.

When we moved, sight unseen, to Salt Lake City in the mid-1990s, we were greeted by a strangely familiar Brigham Young, no less solid and no less inevitable than Vladimir Ilyich.  He, too, towers above us, arm outstretched.

Perhaps, after all, this is the place.

Did you notice, a local whispers to us, that Brigham Young stands with his back to the Mormon Temple and he gestures toward the bank.  Wink.

Now we feel comfortable.  There is a dissident movement here, too, and we, before even uttering the password, have been inducted into it.

Next stop, the liquor store for more fringe camaraderie.

During our seven years in Utah, we encountered, for the first time, that “if you’re not behind us, get in front of us” variety of American patriotism that we had previously thought was peculiar to the Soviet Union.  No room for equivocation; no room for discussion. There is a right way and a wrong way, in religion and in politics.

And there is a right way in art, a kind of Mormon Realism, I suppose:

“We’ve decided,” said our Salt Lake neighbor, “that any movie that is inappropriate for our children, is inappropriate for us, too.”

Only wholesome, uplifting messages, please.  Chaste love stories; artistic renderings that affirm the goodness of our leaders:

I hasten to add that I admire and feel affection for many aspects of Mormon life, as I got to know it while I lived in Utah.  At home, we joked that it was like living in a foreign country without the benefit of a language barrier; but that was friendly kidding.

Still, those years in Zion were our first inkling that the danger of cultural Sovietization of America may come not from the left, but from the religious right.

Not for the General Reader

12 Jul

I do not believe that butterfly-chasing, literary superstar Vladimir Nabokov worried much about what people thought of him.

And, yet, Nabokov’s memoir (Speak, Memory), a lyrical conjuring of a very privileged childhood in pre-revolutionary Russia, snaps out of its reverie in Chapter 3 with this aside:

The following passage is not for the general reader, but the particular idiot who, because he has lost a fortune in some crash, thinks he understands me.

My old (since 1917) quarrel with the Soviet dictatorship is wholly unrelated to any question of property.  My contempt for the emigre who “hates the Reds” because they “stole” his money and land is complete.  The nostalgia I have been cherishing all these years is a hypertrophied sense of lost childhood, not sorrow for lost banknotes.

And finally: I reserve for myself the right to yearn after an ecological niche:

…Beneath the sky
Of my America to sigh
For one locality in Russia

The general reader may now resume.

I love this passage.

I love it because we are all, in fact, robbed of the ecological niche of our childhood, bolsheviks or no bolsheviks.  (The house I grew up in is now rented to a bunch of college students.  Or, here’s an example a little closer to Nabokov’s ancestral estate:  There’s an IKEA store on the outskirts of Moscow today.)

I love this passage for my own selfish purposes also.

For years I have tried to imagine how I might reserve for myself the right to yearn after my own particular ecological (and temporal) niche in Russia: a dilapidated student dorm in Leningrad just before Perestroika.

It’s unseemly to love those last crumbling, corrupt years of Soviet rule.

Unseemly because we, American students, were just visitors, not permanent inmates.

Unseemly because Americans were in deficit (to put it in Soviet terms), and we enjoyed a wholly unjustified popularity everywhere we went.  We had the right jeans, the right backpacks, sturdy (and stylish!) boots and coats.  With western currency in our pockets, we were like billionaires.  We had access to everything, and Russians wanted access to us.

Getting a date was a cinch.  You didn’t have to be particularly pretty, particularly witty, particularly smart, particularly anything.

But those are just the banknotes.  You must not confuse me with those Westerners who returned again and again to Soviet Russia to bask in that sort of easy attention.  My contempt for them is complete.

My old (since 1991) regret at the opening up of Russia is unrelated to any question of property.  I regret the loss of a wretched, shabby, peculiar moment that happened to be mine.

The nostalgia I have been cherishing all these years for Leningrad in 1983 is a hypertrophied sense of lost youth, not sorrow for lost banknotes.

The general reader may now resume.