What do you know?
And when did you know it?
Many people think that living abroad is learning about a new culture. Actually it has more to do with learning about yourself. Not so much if I had gone to Italy because I was culturally predisposed to the place. I remember that surprise feeling when I walked the streets of Rome for the first time: “I belong here. I am home.” When living or staying in a new place or country, you know that the transition is complete when your sense of “belonging” no longer catches you unawares.
Arriving at that stage is more complicated the older one is and if there are distinct civilizational differences between the old and new domiciles. That’s how it’s been for me in Moscow.
When one comes to Russia from America, you bring with you a long history of disenchantment - to say it mildly. I remember when Russia was once valued as an ally against Hitler’s Germany and Tojo’s Japan. And beyond that was the vision of Franklin Roosevelt and Henry Wallace in which the great powers were joined in a “pax Americana” through a new international organization (the United Nations).
In the end, Winston Churchill’s last gasp defense of the British Empire won out over the liberal vision and Soviet Russia was sealed off behind an Iron Curtain. When Russia’s Communist Party lost control and the Soviet Union was dissolved, there was a moment of hope that the US would come to the rescue before erstwhile oligarchs could carve up the people’s assets. Now we are back at square one with Russia being considered a geopolitical, military and cyber adversary.
Relocating to Russia for me was just a backdrop to the main event: seeing my wife rejoin her family. Having already inhabited several versions of myself, I felt that I had one more in me at the age of 84. I had come to Moscow in the late 1980’s as travel editor of Baltimore’s Catholic Review . I noticed the jockeying between our KGB guides and the nascent mafiosi. Those were the wild days when a small private plane piloted by a West German flew under Soviet radar, buzzed Red Square, and landed on a nearby overpass. (see video below).
Returning to Moscow 30 years later, I find a city with a New York vibe. Buildings flooded in dramatic lights. Museums and parks the foci of a constant bustle. Dozens of taxis at the ready. Burger joints, KFC and pizza ubiquitous. Led billboards hawking concerts, ballet and sporting events. The place never shuts down, as those who came here for the 2020 World Cup found out - some of whom had to be forced to leave the party months after.
Because of my frequent visits I was well aware of the disconnect between the reality of this vibrant city and and the image dished up in the US by our media. But now that I have been locked down here for a year, I feel a growing anger because I have learned what life was like in the Soviet days, especially after Stalin, and it was totally different from the drab gray propaganda splashed across our media. I am angry at over 80 years of deception. Brainwashing serves the interests of those who need a Russian bogeyman to justify their own crimes.
I am not going to make the arguments and present the facts to counter anyone’s opinions or presumed knowledge about the state of the world. That requires more than the time I have left to hammer out a legacy. Let it be of note that an 86-year-old of sound mind, strong morals and expanding intellect now regrets that he did not use the powers at his disposal to discern the Truth and act on it. I am beginning to explore the origin and depth of my cultural deafness.
I have always been someone who saw the hand of fate in my life choices. Now I know why Russia has been ordained as my last stop.
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