Jack (not a Russian name) explained to me in Moscow that he had emigrated from the United States to Soviet Russia because he was sure that America had it all wrong and Soviet Russia had it all right.
Shortly after his arrival in Soviet paradise Jack was arrested, falsely charged with being an American spy, and spent seven years in a concentration camp. Soviet secret police would not believe that anyone living in the United States would emigrate to “Soviet Russia.”
“Why did you think that America has it all wrong, while Soviet Russia has it right?” I asked him.
Jack was quick to answer by recalling Marx’s “Das Kapital.” In the United States, the owner of a business is a private person, a capitalist, who makes profit from the sale of his product. In Soviet Russia, there is no private enterprise. A state official works for a set salary.
“Yes,” I said, “but the value of a certain output produced by the state may be so small as to be insufficient even to pay the state officials’ salaries.”
We both laughed. Now for both of us Marx was a ridiculously smug hack, whose “wisdom” was part of “Soviet Russia” and will perhaps be, before long, part of other countries as well.
Jack became a frequent guest in our house and enjoyed our family dinners, prepared and served by our kitchen maid.
I remember that once over a dinner I presented my general theory of societies. At times, most societies were based on slavery. Today the words “slavery” and “slaves” have been politically dropped out of use. Yet with these terms, some social explanations would be so simple! All people in Soviet Russia, except for the God-like ruler himself, were his slaves. It was that simple.
After a while, our ironies became too gruesome for us, and Jack and our family decided to try our luck emigrating to the United States!
To Soviet emigration authorities, Jack gave a good reason for his going back: He was born and raised in the United States, was an American citizen, and wished to go back to his country. His ailing mother, who stayed behind in the United States, was waiting for him and needed his support. Soon Jack went back to the United States.
Now, how about me and my family? What good reason could we give Soviet officials for wishing to leave the “Soviet paradise”?
Perhaps one of the Soviet bureaucrats had decided to illustrate how free Soviet citizens were and granted us permission to leave “Soviet Russia.” As luck would have it, that was what happened. My family and I received exit visas, with hundreds of other “Soviet citizens.” That was 40 years ago.
Jack and I met again in the United States, and now we saw eye to eye on both the United States and Soviet Russia.
But I had a mission. In Soviet Russia, I had Jack to rely on for a normal vision of the world, from free countries like the United States, of state concentration camps or of slave states like Stalin’s Russia or Mao’s China. But, of course, free countries had free political thinkers and political institutions, including the free press.
Shortly after we arrived in the United State, I was approached by the editors of the Commentary magazine. They had published four of my articles, after which they stopped publishing me because of my criticism of one of their authors I should not, in their opinion, have criticized.
Jack read my articles and said: “Excellent! As for their latest row, don’t let this upset you! You’ve done it! You said what you had to say! This country needs you to enlighten them about Russia and other such countries. As for me, I am going to Ohio, to stay with my mother.”
When we parted, I saw in his sad eyes that same light I noticed when he had played the piano.
Jack was older than I, and those seven years he had spent in the Soviet concentration camp had undermined his health. Soon we learned of his death. To me, Jack will be alive forever. He proved to me that private association with private people is always more useful, more creative and stimulating than the “cooperation” of Soviet officials I had witnessed.
Also, I understood through his friendship how precarious it is to create the image of two countries on the basis of one person’s impressions tending in the direction of good or of evil.
Yes, people who live in the concentration-camp-like countries are irrevocably horrified. On the other hand, some foreigners believe that their sojourn in such countries will enrich their experience. Their problem is to find out how to get out before they get destroyed.
Lev Navrozov can be reached at email@example.com
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