Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like
I remember feeling anxious and not entirely prepared when I went to the Soviet Union in late 1977—I was 20. It wasn’t just that historic Russian mystique. The USSR and USA were at the height of a thirty-year Cold War at the time, and talk of nuclear war breaking out, purposely or accidentally, was always in the air. Misunderstandings carried gigantic risks.
I’d borrowed someone’s backpack for the trip. It was a big red one with the U.S. flag plastered on the large pocket in back. Doh!
Fortunately, I traveled there from London on a tour that was designed to give younger people a look at socialism up close, so I think others on the trip, mostly young British Marxists and the Lenin-curious, cut me some slack for the backpack. In every other way I probably resembled more of a Dickensian shoeblack than an Ugly-American student. My experience in Europe that year was on the cheap.
It had been snowing in Moscow when we landed on the icy runway. Expert Aeroflot pilots found it a piece of cake to land on a glazed tarmac. My knuckles were still white when I found myself in the customs line, a grim, robotic man in the olive green uniform with red, such red, piping, flicking his index finger at me and saying whatever the Russian word is for “Next.”
The only thing I was nervous about in my backpack was a copy of Proust’s Swann’s Way, borrowed from a London library. It was probably on the Western Decadence list and would be confiscated, I thought, and then I’d have to pay for it when I got back. Fortunately, the stern pale robot took a cursory look at my things and waved me on. My name appeared in Cyrillic lettering on the newly stamped visa: Кэвин Брэнан.
Me and my tourmates were taken to all the usual spots in Moscow and Leningrad (now St. Petersburg, again): Red Square, St. Basil’s Cathedral, the Hermitage. What struck me more than anything, though, was that Russia was full of normal human beings. They walked along the broad boulevards. They rode the Metro and went to plays and concerts. They sat with their children and dogs in the park. They bought ice cream from street vendors. They didn’t seem evil or even irrational. They were just the innocent victims of circumstance, having been born in a place that had broken away from Western, capitalist norms.
In the same way, today’s Russians live in a society that was hijacked after the fall of the USSR by oligarchic forces that installed a kleptocracy and allowed a narcissistic former KGB man to consolidate power around himself. It looks like they are not happy with the war in Ukraine. They have friends and relatives there. It’s probably obvious to them that Putin is playing a dangerous game with Europe and the U.S., but because he is a ruthless dictator it’s hard for them to express their resistance. Risky, yet thousands of them are protesting in the streets—and getting arrested.
Putin isn’t Russia. Stalin wasn’t Russia. Brezhnev wasn’t Russia. Yet the people have never been able to claim their own country’s identity because of the political structures and the cost of activism.
But I was riding the subway in Moscow—a foreigner and rhetorical enemy—and a man and his little daughter smiled at me.