Monday, October 04, 2004

“Why I Miss the Cold War” and Other Russo-Requiems

It always jolts me each time I realize that not everyone my age remembers the Cold War the way I do. It was without question the most powerful non-religious influence in my life—and to some people it was religion. I distinctly remember (and I do not exaggerate here) that I began having nightmares about Russian fighter pilots around the age of three or four. I knew they were Russians because they wore furry hats instead of helmets. The only nightmares in my repertoire that predated this one were the “monster-troll” one (spawned by "The Three Billy Goats Gruff") and the one where this tall German dude and the man and woman who were with him threatened my father in an elevator with a lighted match (never fear, my psyche killed those bast- . . ., Um, scurvy knaves long ago). The fact is, until the age of twelve there was nothing more certain in my future than that I would someday die fighting Russians. Here are some things I miss about the Cold War as I experienced it as a young boy in Japan:
1. American F-16s from Misawa Air Base buzzing our school everyday at altitudes so low that we could sometimes make out the shape of the pilots’ helmets.
2. The posters warning people to report “whales” because they would probably be Soviet submarines.
3. My teacher explaining to us every other day how “one push of a button” and we could all be swept away in a fiery nuclear holocaust.
But most of all I miss the moral certainty it afforded my pre-teen mind in the arena of world affairs. "We" were locked in a gigantic struggle of “good and evil” against Russia’s colossal “Evil Empire.” Life seemed as simple as the Animal Farm refrain: “four feet good, two feet bad!” Bad, bad communists! Our only enemy . . . . This world view began crumbling down around my ears in March of 1989 when my family took the long road back to North America. After visiting Tiananmen Square just two months before the massacre, we entrained on the Siberian Railroad.

This is my father reading to us four older kids in the second class carriage. Our youngest sister Sarah shared a first class cabin with our parents.

My great paradigm shift was facilitated in part by the Russian diplomat’s family with which my family became friends (being good communists, they ALL stayed in first class). Before this trip the only Hollywood movie I had ever seen was Back to the Future, so it was a real treat when the diplomat and his son Paul (who was the same age as me) took me down to the movie car to watch Red Heat. I had never heard of Arnold Schwarzenegger and I thought that we were watching a Russian movie, so the whole thing confused the doohicky out of me.

So here I was with my family in Red Square, under the shadow of Evil itself: the Kremlin. I knew I didn’t want to kill Paul or his family, so that kind of put a big question mark on my future role in the expected WWIII. Over the course of the next year I watched the world turn upside down as the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet block collapsed. In the summer of 1992 I sat glued to a tiny black and white TV at Tak and held my breath as President Yeltsin stood on a tank and faced down the hard-liners’ coup. Would I someday die fighting Russians after all? But Yeltsin won. Fifteen years later, when I was a lieutenant in the Canadian Army Reserves in Toronto, fully 20% of the men in the platoon under my command were Russian speaking sons of Soviets.

This is my sister Mary (centre) with part of her Russian host family. Go figure. When I returned to Japan two months ago I thought that for the first time in ten years all five Elliot children would be living on the same continent, in the same country. But noooooo. Leta took off for Canada two weeks after my arrival, and now Mary is doing a semester abroad in Siberia. Her major is Russian.