Hinges of History

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    Twenty years ago this month the Soviet Union broke up. Russians are restive again, though the entrenched oligarchy (having gone from communism to capitalism, from putsch to Putin) will be very hard to dislodge.

    On one hand, it seems like several lifetimes ago. On the other, memories of my time in the USSR are as vivid as if they happened yesterday.

    After two weeks in a warm bubble, staying with my powerful host and his family, my business trip to the Soviet Union in January of 1990 came to a terrible pass. At one point, I thought I’d never get home again.

    Foolishly, I had asked my hosts what would happen if I weren’t cocooned by their connections. To demonstrate their control, and because they saw they couldn’t control me, they showed me.

    The deeper details are too incorporeal to recount here, but suffice to say that on both the physical and metaphysical levels there was an abrupt reversal of fortunes, and I was thrown onto the streets of Moscow.

    For nearly two weeks before the crisis, I was feted everywhere I went. Many stereotypes had been shattered. Empty shelves? I had the best food and champagne I’d ever tasted, including platters of caviar. Bleak conditions? I saw splendor in the Czar’s summer palaces around snowy Leningrad that I could have never imagined.

    Atheistic people? Everywhere I went Russians asked me if I was religious. ‘Religious without a religion’ I’d reply. They liked my response, and I even learned it in Russian—“религиозный без религии,” which they said translated well.

    Listening last night to one of James Taylor’s best songs, “Carolina in my Mind,” I thought of my existential crisis in Russia. There’s an emotional echo in the song’s denouement, though imagination offered me no escape: “With a holy host of others standing around me/ Still I’m on the dark side of the moon/ And it seems like it goes on like this forever/ You must forgive me/ If I’m up and gone to Carolina in my mind.”

    On that miserable winter’s night in Russia, my gaggle of hosts dropped me, so that I’d see what it was like to live in the Soviet Union without their network of support. Returning by train from Leningrad with my interpreter (who had been head of the under-40 communist league until she grew disillusioned with Gorbachev), she exclaimed, “You don’t understand; if you don’t have people helping you in this country [under communism], you don’t eat, you don’t have a place to stay, you don’t live.”

    I rudely came to understand what the phrase “on the dark side of the moon” really means. I was 37 at the time, and too young for my age. Then again, if I had any inkling of what I was in for, I never would have gone. But I have a hard time uttering our mission statement now: “To provide a model for ethically and ecologically sound cooperation between former superpower enemies.”

    The previous week, as I walked along the wall of the Kremlin with my hosts, they pointed down at a tombstone set into the frozen ground. “Jack Reed,” my interpreter said with an inscrutable intonation. I knew little about him beyond the movie “Reds, and didn’t know he was buried there. But here he was, entombed near Lenin’s mummy, an American apparently still revered in Russia.

    My mother, a fervent anti-communist, had often said as I was growing up, “When the Russian people throw off the chains of communism, we Americans will be there to help them.” Seizing an opportunity, I met a man in San Francisco touted as a leading example of perestroika. When I flew to Moscow on his invitation that winter 21 years ago, I heard the same thing from Russians, in one form or another. But they came to feel it was a cruel joke.

    Having grown up in the world’s automobile hub during the car’s heyday in Michigan, I watched my ‘homeland’ become the center of ‘The Rust Belt.’ So the economic idea was simple: The Russians needed everything; we Americans build markets, and need to restore our manufacturing base. (Later, Robert Reich, Secretary of Labor in the first Clinton Administration, wrote me back during the transition, saying they had decided to go global rather than bilateral. And here we are.)

    Russians at the time were the angriest people I’d ever seen. I recall riding in a car in Leningrad driven by a former golden gloves champion turned cultural director (there are many such types in Russia). He was giving me a tour of the incredibly opulent and ostentatious palaces of the Czars. I made what I thought was an innocuous comment comparing Americans and Russians.

    “THEY HAVE STOLEN OUR LIVES!” he bellowed. So loud was his explosion that I thought, ‘Is it possible for a human being to blow out the windows of a car with his voice?’ Often I experienced such depth of anger, and not just from men.

    At one point, in an expression of Russian exuberance, I blurted out to a group of newfound friends in Leningrad: This city will be St. Petersburg again within a year! Eleven months later, it was. But I was long gone, divested of American optimism and fighting off Russian fatalism.

    For some reason I had to go through the whole experience, though to this day I still don’t know whether things could have swung the other way at that ‘hinge of history.’

    Now America has become ‘the dark side of the moon.’ And we’ll see in the next election whether denial still reigns supreme.

    The question at this time is: Does humanity as a whole stand at an ultimate hinge of history, or have things rusted shut?

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