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    Posted April 3, 2014 by
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    First Person: Your essays

    Cold War Then and Now

    During the Cold War (or should I say the last Cold War) I was a naïve Soviet schoolgirl. Like everyone else I sang songs about how much we all wanted peace. There was this particularly famous one – “The Sun’s Circle” – with a chorus that translates into something like this: “May there always be sunshine! May there always be blue sky! May there always be mama! May there always be me!” Easy to learn even in pre-school. It is amazing how much of that “We Are For Peace!” rhetoric was everywhere. All while giant missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads crept across the Red Square during every holiday parade – two or three times a year. Oh, but we needed those - because of THEM. THEY are not for peace and THEY want to destroy us because THEY don’t like our way of life. THEY were mainly Western Germany, England, France, and of course the United States.

    As Soviet paratroopers were descending on Afghanistan, we were memorizing a poem about children writing the words “We don’t need war.” The poem went on to generously proclaim that we want peace for all nations of the world and that there is room for everyone on our planet, before self-righteously declaring that this is how OUR Soviet kids learn the language.

    As early as the second grade we were shown images from Hiroshima and explained in quite a bit of detail what an atomic bomb does to people. It scared the living daylights out of my 8 year old self. The subject was brought up countless times throughout my school years. We were told about radiation and how bomb shelters that existed under every building would not help much with that, and how if THEY hit us and we hit THEM back, everyone would die because of nuclear winter. So, all those peace songs, for kids and adults, made perfect sense. It was like we were pleading.

    When the Iron Curtain fell, it became clear that THEY didn’t need to fear that their people might want to adopt our way of life (hey, that’s what we were taught), because even we didn’t want our way of life anymore. With its ideological reasons gone the Cold War seemed over for good and with it the threat of it becoming a real nuclear war. Maybe I was naïve, but I know I wasn’t the only one thinking that or Europe wouldn’t find itself depending on Russia for 30% of its energy.

    I could never imagine that some 25 years later I would find myself reading about a Kremlin mouthpiece threatening to turn my adoptive country into “radioactive ash”. That would be the same radioactive ash that terrified me since second grade. Only now for me THEM and US are switched. Only now, having lived in the United States for over 20 years, I know enough about Americans to think that they probably didn’t make those kind of threats to the Soviets, at least not without being threatened first. The civilized world seems to have finally learned that it is never justified to intentionally target civilian populations. Russia, however, appears to still have a World War II mindset. Sure, Reagan called the USSR “The Evil Empire”. But I don’t think the West ever referred to us Soviets as “cockroaches”, which is what some Russians call Americans now. I don’t know if Americans ever really hated the Soviet people. And I don’t think ordinary Soviets really hated ordinary Americans in my time. But these days, from conversations with acquaintances and Internet comments I have a misfortune to understand, it appears Russians hate Americans with such intensity it is mind boggling.

    I remember watching the Opening Ceremony of the Sochi Olympics and getting an eerie feeling that the last 30 years somehow never happened. The history presentation stopped around 1980 and the content of it was closer to what they taught us in school in the early 80s, than to the truth we learned later.

    Can Russia roll itself back in time far enough to be able to survive economic sanctions the way Soviet Union did - for decades? For example, the USSR was able to keep up technologically, in the arms and space race if nothing else, at least in part because it had world class scientists and engineers. It also had a very good education system – both primary and secondary. Now many of the world class scientists and engineers from Russia choose to live and work elsewhere in the world. And higher education is nowhere near what it used to be. There is anecdotal evidence that some professors accept (and even request) bribes from students in exchange for good grades.

    For the average citizen the most noticeable effect of sanctions was a persistent shortage of everything from food to clothing and shoes. Despite its vast territory and low population density, Russia was never very good at producing enough food for itself. In my time the government routinely took students from schools and adults from their work places and sent them to communal farms to help out– mostly with vegetable harvest. I wonder if they can bring back that practice. Either way, it may not have been enough because in the early 1980s, when the sanctions got particularly tough, even food items that used to be generally available disappeared from the stores. I remember that change very well, even though I was barely a teenager. But people were used to that kind of struggle, and even though they joked that by the time we built Communism, people won’t know what food was, the Soviet system offered enough good things to keep them content. We had free healthcare and free education. Everyone was guaranteed a job they could keep for life and, after certain age, a pension that was enough to cover at least basic needs. We even had free housing and despite shortages and long waiting lists, nobody went homeless. Besides, even with all the food shortages, it wasn’t like we were starving. It is my understanding that now any decent healthcare requires money, many of the pensioners don’t get enough to buy food, and nothing is guaranteed.

    And they have an entire generation that doesn’t know what it’s like to stand in long lines on almost daily basis to buy food, and not what you crave, but what is available. Will they rebel? Or will they, like so many generations before them, continue to worship their modern day Tsars and blame everyone else for their woes?
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