“Lenin, Partiya, Komsomol!”
It was so unlike me to be yelling in public – and somewhat disrespectfully at that - particularly in a crowded public place. In 1989, I was a quiet, polite, rule-abiding straight-A student doing a semester abroad in Moscow, Russia. At least I had been, until I met Vlad. I was with him and some of his friends celebrating May 9, WWII’s Victory Day, in Sokolniki Park. He told me how as children they had been forced to join komsomol groups and participate in official holiday rallies. When he described to me how they would prance along in their white shirts and red kerchiefs, chanting “Lenin, Partiya, Komsomol!,” I couldn’t resist yelling out the mantra myself. Soon the five of us were all reciting it, marching along with our arms linked until I had to stop to catch my breath from laughing so hard.
Some of the more elderly passers-by gave us disapproving looks, but that only made me feel more emboldened. I had grown up during the Cold War, and my patriotism was flowing in full force. Communism was wrong, a failed policy; everyone could see that Gorbachev’s initiatives of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) were much better. America had won; Capitalism and Freedom were superior to a Soviet system that did not allow for honest discussion or choice, and to my 19-year-old naïve eyes, evidence of the victory was overwhelming. The 13-year-old version of me who had kicked herself for not writing a letter to Andropov before Samantha Smith did had been right - the Soviet people were just people, like Americans, and they hated the Communist system as much as the West did.
My convictions were backed with solid proof – the problem of dandelion fluff, for example. The white puffy pollen floated through the city, sticking to sweaty faces and catching in curly hair, eventually settling curbside like snowdrifts. I never thought to ask anyone about it, assuming the problem was the tall, bald dandelion stalks poking out of untrimmed greenery around the city. I actually loved the overgrown, ungroomed vegetation around Moscow; there was texture and soul in its unbridledness, even in its poverty and decay. Yet I couldn’t help but think that a city that couldn’t organize timely grass cutting to prevent pollen overload was not much of a threat. Surely better city scenery maintenance proved that the American way of life surpassed the Soviet one.
Years later I learned that the white fluff was actually pukh, pollen from poplar trees that Stalin had allegedly ordered planted all over the city after he admired them in another country. Planting pukh trees all over Moscow was not a good idea. I’m rather fond of the puffy stuff myself, but it creates nightmare conditions for people plagued with allergies, and clearly, it is not easy to clean up. So even in my ignorance, I was correct – a democratic system was preferable to a dictatorship in which a misinformed leader could force his ideas, plans, or tree preferences on an innocent population. Another one for the U.S.!
And so I went, chalking up minor victories like goals in a hockey game, as if cultural superiority could be determined by a bunch of pluses and minuses. Sure, Russia had a fantastic, colorful history (check) and historical sites well worth the trouble of the pilgrimage (check), as well as geniuses in just about every aspect of the arts and sciences (check). But Communism had brought Russia down, betraying its own people with the ridiculous ineptitude of Soviet government systems. I thumbed my nose at all the symbols of Soviet authority (now that security was relaxed, and I could), and I even got Vlad to surreptitiously snap a picture of me flipping off the official plaque of the KGB building. I laughed at all of the Soviet incompetence, some real, some perceived, without giving full weight to the fortitude of the people who had survived it all.
I didn’t understand the significance of Victory Day that first time in Sokolniki Park. I was moved by the old men in their uniforms and medals and impressed with the level of respect shown to the veterans by the public. I didn’t understand much of the proclamations, but several veterans wiped away tears as they took the flowers handed to them. Russia lost about 27 million people in WWII – about 14% of its population at the time. In comparison, Germany lost 6 million, or 9% of its people. The U.S. lost 418,500. How could I begin to understand the strength born out of suffering like that? How could I ever comprehend the depths of such pain, passed on through the generations?
Once in the restroom at a restaurant, my roommates and I were chatting away in English, and the elderly attendant asked us where we were from. When she heard we were from the U.S., she launched into effusive praise of Americans and America. She explained that she and her family had been near starving during the war when they received shipments of food that had been dropped from a plane. The packaging had “USA” stamped on it, and she was so grateful that she took both my hands in hers, eyes tearing. “You saved our lives. America saved our lives. We never cared what the government said. To me America was not the enemy.” All I could do was nod, and let her hold my hands that lay awkwardly in hers.
I suppose the atmosphere of one-upmanship that I felt in the late eighties was natural given the East vs. West rivalry of the time. Did the U.S. win the Cold War? Maybe, but at what cost? For me the victory is the possibility of personal contact that was not present before. To have learned to loosen up a little and break some rules with Vlad or to come to appreciate a time before the Cold War when Russia and the U.S. were allies – those lessons were priceless, and had all the signs of absolute victory – for me personally and for humankind in general.
This weekend I honor the millions of soldiers and civilians who sacrificed their lives to preserve the way of life I have today. Victory is for the survivors – those who live through war must remember, to prevent it from happening again. As I reach out to people of all different cultures in the colorful land of Los Angeles, I see May 9 as a tribute to the human spirit.
A ceremony to honor veterans of WWII will be held in West Hollywood’s Plummer Park (7377 Santa Monica Blvd) at 11 am on Saturday, May 8.
Last year my friend Michael and I did a short documentary on the sculptor Mikhail Naruzetsky who designed the Plummer Park monument honoring Soviet soldiers who died in WWII.