“By our trust in the divine beauty in every person we develop that beauty in ourselves.”
– Hazrat Inayat Khan
In Circle and Spear’s short life, it has already hosted readers from 88 countries. After the USA, Canada, and Europe, the subsequent largest readership is in Russia and Saudi Arabia. Today, after receiving 1000+ Twitter followers from Russia, Turkey, Kuwait, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, memories of my trip to Russia, 24 years ago, and subsequent thoughts stirred up this essay.
World history teaches us that the way to begin creating an enemy is to convince the People that another group is different. This tactic combined with forging a strong sense of nationality and establishing that the opposing group is a threat, is the way to get young people seeking meaning and purpose in their lives, and who also have a need to identify with something larger than themselves, become united combatants for a cause.
Often, that cause has been manufactured and manipulated by greedy, power-craving-self-serving politicians who have the backing of a powerful and wealthy few who can potentially reap windfall profits and gain increased power from the call to arms. These leaders almost always rise from the ashes of an impoverished nation that identifies and attributes its economic recovery to the leaders in power.
Are the people of these distant lands the enemy? Or, is the enemy devious, manipulative politics and general gullibility, ignorance, loss or lack of meaning, and the need for identification with something larger than one’s self?
Who is this enemy that these leaders claim? Often, they appear differently, speak differently, worship differently, do things differently.
When it comes to those things that matter most, those qualities that make us human, how differently are they?
The terror of the Cold War and Russian Communism loomed over my generation’s childhood. We lived in the wake of McCarthyism and the Red Scare. In grade school, we endured regular air raid drills sounding by the ominous and haunting siren, familiar in World War Two bombings of London, echoing for miles. We were instructed to cower under our desks; shielding our heads with our arms. Yes, we believed a missile attack could happen at any moment.
The “Godless Russians” with their dour wintry faces adorning dead animal hats and coats, wielding hammers and sickles, wanted to destroy us. They were the enemy. We accepted that Communists were among us, in America; infiltrating our society. Many believed the Vietnam Anti-War campaign was instigated by Communist agitators whose added purpose was to undermine all that was good about the America we loved.
The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, one of our favorite childhood cartoons, pitted the cunning, evil Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale speaking English with thick Russian accents against our innocent do-gooders Rocky and Bullwinkle. As children, we assumed all Russians wore dark colors and resembled those same cartoon characters.
Years later, as a young man, I was playing a swing-jazz gig at the General Electric Plant in Schenectady, NY. Russian diplomats were in attendance. Days later, I was informed that they loved the music and invited us to Russia as official guests of the government. They would provide for all the arrangements. It was to be an adventure of a lifetime.
So excited about this invitation, I threw myself headfirst into learning Russian and the Cyrillic alphabet. The language was surprisingly elegant; flowing with mellifluence and ordered syntax. My misinformed opinion changed. This tongue made English sound harsh and difficult, rather than the other way around!
Fascinated and eager for the trip, I prepared enough Russian to participate in general conversation, nothing too intellectual. I could converse about sports, music, weather, order food, ask for directions, etcetera.
In March of 1991, we flew to Saint Petersburg on the Aeroflot. Upon landing, the Beatles song, “Back in the USSR” came to mind. Then, I recalled, years previous when my father stormed into my room and smashed the record into bits. The Red Scare was alive and well!
Back to the visit…
Once we got through customs, we were assigned a family to stay with, and then separated. My host was a conductor and teacher at the Children’s Conservatory. He lived in a tiny apartment with his wife and daughter, within a larger government built complex. It had no grass, few trees, and a lot of concrete.
I was perplexed. This was not the powerful country that we were raised to fear. The dilapidated streets had potholes large enough to break any axle. The nearby nuclear reactor was covered in soot. All the grocery store shelves were empty. The occasional bakery would have lines in the hundreds. These scenarios were reminiscent of photos of our Great Depression.
My host family had a small two bedroom apartment. Their daughter had a tiny room. They insisted I sleep in the master bedroom, despite my emphatic protest. Eventually, I succumbed; not wanting to insult them.
For the most part, most were working on a barter system. Food, in a limited selection and supply, was obtained at the outdoor Black markets. We never went hungry. Borscht and cabbage were the usual fares. There was never a shortage of vodka, no matter how much we consumed.
This family and everyone else I had met were friendly, kind, and generous. Many Russians we met, even the most common laborers, were versed in Russian classical music and fine art. One day, we were riding a city bus. The driver was listening to Muddy Waters on a small cassette player. I mentioned my love for his music. He said that he had hundreds of Blues recordings. I gave him my Yankee cap.
In general, there was a considerable value placed on art, music, literature, and overall culture among many of the people I encountered. It was in stark contrast to most American’s cultural values. How many Americans know who Aaron Copland is?
I was impressed with how many spoke English. Most seemed more surprised and impressed that I spoke enough Russian to understand them.
You could find in the icy cold, damp, and muddy parks large groups of unemployed men playing chess on plastic roll-up boards. It’s an encouraged national pastime. They all studied the game in school. The famous matches of Boris Spassky versus Bobby Fischer came to mind, recounting that it represented a peaceful battle of Axis versus Allied Powers. Today, Chess Grandmaster Gary Kasparov lives nearby us, in NYC. We see him all the time.
Everywhere we went, plain clothes KGB were tailing. Our guests had fun pointing them out. Shadows of the Old Regime were still present.
Times were so difficult that normal citizens used their autos as taxis. (Hmm…sounds like Uber.) For one dollar a ride, a man waited outside my door, 24/7! If he dropped us off somewhere, he would be waiting for our return. (In hindsight, maybe he was KGB, too?) It was 200 rubles to the dollar.
No one seemed interested in politics. For most, they didn’t care what political system they functioned in. Most churches and Mosques had reopened. They were optimistic about the idea of freedom. There was a New Frontier feel to the times. These people were more interested in surviving, music, culture, family life, their friends. Most were surprisingly upbeat, despite their poverty and the inclement weather.
Listen to Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky. They are like their music; a passionate people with whom I could identify.
I remember lying in bed, my fourth night there, thinking about all the experiences I had already had, all the wonderful people I had met, and suddenly being overcome with emotion. Through all this suffering and hardship, these people had kept their spirits high. They were persevering.
All they wanted was to have some peace, provide for their families, and enjoy the right to live and enjoy each other’s company. These people were NOT the enemy. These were my new friends!
Yesterday, our daughter had her classmate, a Muslim from Bangladesh, over to play. Her friend is a beautiful, creative, intelligent, vivacious little girl who comes from a loving, hard working family. They are a credit to our community. How could anyone hate this family?
Reflecting on the recent Charleston Church shootings and racist comments I’ve heard about “Blacks.” I think of John Coltrane’s sad ballad entitled “Alabama.” It was composed in the wake of African-American children being killed in a Baptist church, 50 years ago. That we still have this lunacy in America is distressing.
I’ve played in countless jazz, Latino, and R&B bands where I was the only “White” musician. Once, an old jazz musician said that I was “Gray.” I remembered that there were white jazz musicians during the 50’s, like my teacher JR. Monterose, that were referred to as Grays.
I’ve played in the poorest neighborhoods of the Bronx and Brooklyn, and on the “other side of the tracks in Dallas.” I was always treated with kindness and respect. Anyone who thinks that when it comes to what matters, African-Americans, Latinos, or Middle Easterners are any different from anyone else have lived secluded lives in ignorance.
When are we going to stop distinguishing each other by color, nationality, or religion?
The world is changing. With the internet and social media affording people from around the world the opportunity to read this post and others like it, there is an opportunity for the advancement of a global consciousness. Change is happening. The world is becoming more educated and informed.
We are all tired of rhetoric using US versus THEM.
Let us live in Peace. We have a right to love and enjoy happiness with our families.