I grew up the midst of the Cold War. Although I never had to "duck and cover", we were constantly aware of the Soviet nuclear threat. I was intrigued by the Soviet state. What made this nation so culturally, scientifically and mathematically advanced? And so, when I hit high school, I enrolled in Russian 1. It was taught by Elena Vasilovna (Baskin) who I remember to this day. My chosen class name was "Sergei". And I was a horrible student.
But when I arrived at Revelle College, I had to pass foreign language proficiency. That meant reading a text and conversing about it with native language speakers. I thought I knew next to no Russian, so enrolled in Russian 1 again. This was a mistake I quickly rectified: I had actually learned something in high school. It took me two quarters (and a bad grade) to pass the proficiency exam. To celebrate, my parents took me to a Russian Restaurant in San Francisco where I spent the whole dinner speaking Russian with the staff.
In the intervening years, my Russian was covered over in layers of French, Italian and a bit of Japanese. I discovered I wasn't so bad in languages, I just had to pay attention and listen. (Not my strong point in high school).
In 1984 I made my first trip behind the "Iron Curtain" by going to a workshop in Budapest. It was fascinating but mainly because my grandparents were Hungarian Jews. The stores were stocked with goods and the cafe life was alive. And everywhere the sound of Hungarian being spoken reminded me of my grandparents.
The real revelation came in 1990 when I went to Latvia to visit my wife's relatives. First, there were the visa documents in quadruplicate (with carbon paper!). Second, when we landed, the baggage carousel was clearly hand-built. And the toilets were, to put it nicely, smelly. The relatives had to borrow a car to pick us up: While parked, the windshield wipers had to be removed because they might be stolen. And we came bearing gifts: Cartons of Marlboros to use as barter.
The Latvians referred to the Russians as "The Occupiers". This indicated to me that perhaps it wasn't as nice as the Russians would like one to believe. But, as part of this trip we took a trip to Leningrad (Now renamed [again] to St. Petersburg). Shockingly, my former Russian language skills were useless. I had forgotten nearly everything. When I was ticketed outside the Hermitage for jaywalking, I could barely talk with the Policeman. I did get a chance to visit "Dom Knigi", the "House of Books" -- which was a place mentioned in our Russian language textbooks. In order to buy a book, I had to deal with 4 people.
Food and other commodities were impossible to buy: At the summer palace I lined up to buy an ice cream but when I got to the front of the line, it was sold out. The relative was laughing uncontrollably: "Congratulations!" he exclaimed --- "You've had the true Soviet experience!".
Leaving the Soviet Union was also educational. We thought one could just show up and buy a train ticket. Not so. Not when the office issues 1-2 tickets per hour. Unless, of course, you buy the clerk a blouse from the foreign goods store. When we reached the Finnish border, Soviet guards came on the train and searched it from stem to stern. While the locomotives were switched, we could explore the little store on the Finnish side. Already commodities were available. And when we arrived in Helsinki, it was if the world had switched from Black and White to Color.
In the intervening years, I have not returned to Russia. I've never seen Moscow. But now, it seems I will never see it. I always wanted to take the Transiberian Express to Vladivostok. Again, that's out of the question.
With Putin's murderous rage, it seems that Russia has again returned to the Soviet era. They will try to be an autarky but will fail. Once again, their citizens will thirst for what will lie on the other side of Iron Curtain (take 2). And the intelligentia will flee --- if they can.
Stephen Kotkin puts his finger on why Russia is always in a fix: "The West is not a geographical place and gives the following syllogism: Russia is European, but not Western. Japan is Western, but not European."
Kotkin establishes the critical distinction between European and Western. And to understand Russia better, one must realize why Russia is not Western (as much as the middle-class would like to be).
Russia could be a great nation if only they could free themselves from the notion of total top-down control. It was so under the tzars, it was the same under the communists and now, once again, it is the same under Putin. And therein lies part of their problem.
Watching this war, I am witnessing not only incredible carnage intentionally inflected on civilians (Bucha) but also the total conversion of the Russian state into a Stalinist state.
And this makes me depressed and beyond sad.