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Talking Location With… author Frank Thoms – GORBACHEV’S RUSSIA
22nd October 2020
TalkingLocationWith… Frank Thoms, author of Behind the Red Veil – Gorbachev’s RUSSIA
In the Coda to my book Behind the Red Veil: An American inside Gorbachev’s Russia I asked: “Why bother to write about a society that collapsed more than twenty-five years ago? Why am I telling you this? And why should you care?”
Throughout writing about my seven trips to Gorbachev’s Russia––plus one to the new Russia––I have narrated the joys and trials of my encounters with the people, how they appeared to me, how we interacted, especially with Soviet children in schools where I taught. I suggested, “Unwittingly, I may have been an Aladdin who released each child’s genie, a longing to break out of a restrictive system. Younger students’ right elbows flew off the desks seeking to be recognized. Older students’ responses to provocative questions pushed them into unfamiliar territory, mirroring the urgency of Soviets wanting to breakout of a tired, oppressive system.”
Perhaps that thought may have been arrogant. How could I have had that kind of power? I was an American who came to their country as an official US–USSR exchange teacher of English in two schools in Leningrad. I also taught in two others on my own in Moscow and Alma-Ata, Kazakhstan.
Bypassing the question of my arrogance, in the next sentence I wrote, “Upon reflection, I was the primary beneficiary of my sojourns. As I probed the matryoshka––Russian nesting dolls––in befriending Russians, I was befriending me.” I saw myself having to be vulnerable were I to connect with Russians. Had I comported myself as “the American,” they might have seen me disclosing my “American self,” not the real me. And they may well have responded as their “Soviet selves,” as I might have said in my book, hiding safely behind their “red veil.”
I developed an apprehension about Russians in the fourth grade, the early years of the Cold War, when a massive Soviet Union appeared in deep red (the only color) on the large My Weekly Reader maps. Or was it a fascination in that same classroom when I learned about Alexander Bellsky and Thomas Edisonsky, Russian inventors of the telephone and light bulb? Then in college I became captivated with Professor R. G. L. Waite’s enthralling lectures on Russian tsars. In my second year of teaching in 1963, my department head and mentor offered me a green light to teach Marxism and Communism as legitimate ideologies to unsuspecting eighth graders. From there, I devoted a large part of my first twenty-five years teaching eighth grade in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, returning to Marx, the Russians, and Soviet Communism, each decade a different focus.
By the time Gorbachev became general secretary of the Communist Party in March 1985, I was more than eager to travel behind the Iron curtain. As I wrote in the Introduction to Behind the Red Veil, I wanted “to find ‘real Russians.’…to meet the Russian people on their turf, listen to their joys and woes, discover who they were. I would look for common ground, to connect with them, not to judge but to learn, not to bring America to them, but to be an American with them.”
In retrospect, I lucked out. Gorbachev was offering his people permission to explore the implications of living inside a Communist system. Russians saw me as ‘the American,’ who came with new ways of thinking and living. They were innately curious about my country and my life––and they wanted to tell me about theirs. Children were eager to speak from behind their Young Pioneer school uniforms revealing the realities of their childhood. My new colleagues and friends asked endless questions and shared the trials of their lives. And some took a risk to invite me to their flats.
I suspected luck was in play from my first moments on Russian soil in Leningrad. In the airport, before meeting my group’s official Soviet Intourist guide, a young, attractive Russian mother with wild curls and two small children stepped in front of me. Having ten days of intensive Russian the summer before, I figured out her question. By the time this mother and I departed, I had a scrap of paper with her telephone number. Two days later, I took a metro by myself and found Natasha’s flat where I had lunch with her and her family. On my own the day before, I’d met two black marketers, Alexei and Román on Nevsky Prospekt, the Broadway of Leningrad; we toured parts of the city in Alexei’s car and had dinner in a private restaurant. And again not on the tour, the day before leaving Leningrad I had a lively encounter with children in a primary class and visited the library at School Nº 86 in Petrogradskaya.
By the end of that first two weeks in Leningrad, Moscow, and Kiev, I had had my first taste of life behind the Iron Curtain. I yearned to come back!
Getting behind the Iron Curtain had not been a big deal. Had I stayed with the tour, I would have come home with a “Soviet” impression of life and culture in the USSR. But, as I said, I wanted to meet real Russians away from Intourist’s plans. Years later when writing, I perceived that Intourist had operated in front of a “red veil: the face of Communism that the Soviet Union projected onto its citizens, foreign visitors, and to the world at large. Having formed that concept––and combining it with the matryoshka metaphor––I could see my way to completing my book.
I traveled to the Soviet Union six more times in what were to become its last days––and the last days of the Cold War. Yet the Soviet Union was still on parade for the world to see. I think Churchill’s Iron Curtain admonition, if one can call it that, became a protective device for the Soviet’s relationship with the West. Throughout its history, its people have felt vulnerable. Such a large country to protect having 37,000 miles of borders.
At the time, the world had been listening to endless Soviet propaganda. As I’ve written in Behind the Red Veil, “I was tired of its braggadocio to the rest of the world about its space spectaculars, military might, and expanding nuclear arsenal. And I disdained reading anti-Soviet chapters in textbooks and listening to US pundits take potshots at Russians.” Some friends were weary of my eagerness to engage in the “culture of the enemy.” And one wondered why I traveled to one of the world’s most inaccessible countries in order to know myself better.
In 1987 in my second teacher exchange, I taught in a strict school, which seemed to be living in a time well before Gorbachev. In the book, I express frustration to a Russian friend about how its students spoke with the same voice: “The US is propagating the arms race, inflicting capitalistic oppression, invoking imperial aggression, creating massive unemployment, and putting countless homeless in the streets!’ No matter what age, they all say the same things! That’s so frustrating!” Students had learned this “information” from their textbooks published in Moscow. My friend hesitated briefly and said, “There’s a difference between what we want to say and what we need to say.” A sixteen-year-old getting me to understand what I should have realized.
In Behind the Red Veil readers will learn of a nuanced Russian culture. They will meet people who went to school; worked; shopped; married; had kids; became uncles, aunts, and grandparents; ate meals with friends; laughed and cried; took walks; expressed frustration with the government; stood in bread lines; celebrated the small joys of life; read Russian novels; stood in line to see the dead Lenin; watched State TV and read Pravda and Izvestia, its government newspapers; and attended parades celebrating nine major holidays including Red Army Day, International Women’s Day, and October Revolution Day.
And the Russians I met thirty years ago are still the Russians I know today. My former students have grown up, married, some have children, divorced, and others have emigrated to the US, Sweden, London, and Singapore. Teachers have retired, changed professions, and some have died. Many still live in St.Petersburg, Moscow, and Almaty, Kazakhstan.
And in this time of the pandemic, Behind the Red Veil: An American inside Gorbachev’s Russia will take you to a new country in a former time, meet Russians, savor their joys and hardships, and discover the impressions of this American who mingled with them. Hopefully, readers will shed preconceived notions about a people who lived under Communism, inside the “culture of the enemy.”
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