In 1979 I spent six weeks in the Soviet Union. I had taken Russian for three years and could speak the language passably. I was with a group that was unique for the time: instead of traveling in enormous tour buses, staying in tourist-only hotels and eating at tourist-only restaurants, with every waking moment completely controlled by official “Intourist” guides, my group drove ourselves in VW buses, camped in campsites outside of the major cities, and spent the days on our own in the cities (in my case, Leningrad, Moscow, Kiev, and Odessa).
It was a phenomenal experience. I was 21 and the Cold War was raging. I spoke to hundreds of ordinary Soviet citizens, and not one of them had ever had the opportunity to meet an American, much less an American who spoke Russian.
The most common question asked of me was, “Why does your country want to have war with us?” I was floored by this, because of course I was certain the Cold War was entirely the Soviet Union’s fault. I would reply, “My country tells me you want to have war with us!” This exchange, that happened multiple times, is one of my strongest memories from that summer. It would always end with the two of us, Russian and American, reassuring each other that the last thing in the world we wanted was war.
As I traveled around the country it was shocking to me to see the wounds of World War II still evident. Some beautiful palaces, bombed by the Germans, were still in the process of being rebuilt. There was a name for an entire generation that had no fathers—so many men had been killed in WWII. It was easy to believe that the Russian people had no appetite for war.
This trip opened my eyes to the propaganda of my own country. It was a defining moment in my life: I realized I had been lied to by my own government. I started questioning everything I had been told.
Just recently I watched a documentary called “My Perestroika,” that to my delight is partly about Soviet life in exactly the time I was there. The film is made up of interviews with five Muscovites (filmed in 2009 or so, film was released in 2010); they were students in the same Moscow middle school in 1977. Their interviews are intercut with one man’s home movies of his childhood, Soviet propaganda films from the late 1970s and early 1980s, and news clips of the changes that perestroika brought.
The people interviewed in the film were in college during the collapse of the Soviet system, so they are old enough to have strong memories of the Soviet system; they were young enough to participate in the demonstrations and activities of the early 1990s; and now as adults they are dealing with the changing economic circumstances of post-Soviet Russia. One has become a successful businessman and is the most American-like of the five, but the other four all mourn what they see as a loss: the increasing Americanization of their culture where the only thing that matters is money.
After watching it, my husband Arthur said, “I never could understand what you meant when you said that some Russians want to go back to the Soviet system. But after watching this I could see why.”
There’s also a chilling warning about Vladimir Putin. Two of the interviewees are history teachers (they’re also married). They both talk about how challenging it is to teach the last seven decades of their country’s history. At the end of the film they are watching Putin talk at a conference about releasing new history textbooks, and you realize he’s talking about a 1984-type scrubbing of the past. You can see on the teachers’ faces the horror that they’ll be the ones required to carry this mission out, mixed with the disappointment at realizing that their experience of (relative) political freedom is maybe about to be snuffed out; authoritarianism is not only their past, it’s also their future.
If you’d like to learn more about Russia, in particular the events of the last twenty-five years, this film is an excellent place to start.