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Friday, October 07, 2022

Freedom’s spirit bowed, never broken

comment, opinion,

In 1979 with a small suitcase, a passion for Tolstoy and a giant crush on Tchaikovsky I went to Moscow, Kiev, Leningrad and Minsk. I was 20 when we crossed the Russian border from Finland. The first thing we noticed was the amount of guard towers along the potholed highway. There were soldiers instead of police. Through no-man’s land and to customs, everything in our vehicle was emptied and dogs put through our belongings. Our passports were confiscated, along with a cassette of Boney M … they didn’t approve of the single Rasputin, the big disco hit of 1979. The Soviets owned all of Eastern Europe. It was called the United Soviet Socialist Republic, run by Leonid Ilich Brezhnev from Moscow. In the tenth century, Russia was known as Kievan Rus. In 1979 the USSR stretched south from Iraq, east to Germany, north to Finland. We were in the last years of the ‘Cold’ War. Strange. We were raised in the constant shadow of a nuclear holocaust. Do you remember? We went to see the USSR for ourselves. In ’79, Russian rye bread was filled with sawdust. We had to queue for ages to buy a single bread roll. The most substantial meal I ate for three weeks was borscht. We drink vodka like water. (A drunken population is easier to manage?) I lost my only jumper in Kiev and remember how desperately poor and unkempt every street, every building, was. Shops were non-existent, except for rare, large Russian-owned general stores. Kiev’s parks were unmown – their grasses long and dark summer green, giant mosquitoes filled the hot air. Even in the summer heat and discomfort, large family groups gathered on every patch of green to picnic. We made our way west to the Polish border, where we were mysteriously reunited with our passports and Boney M. In 1979 the then-Poland People’s Republic was also very much a part of the USSR. The Poles hated the Russians. Later, in 1989, the bravery of the Poles, led by trade unionist Lech Walesa, forced elections and a democratic government was eventually elected and a free Poland emerged in 1991. In 1979 every, single building in Warsaw was painted light yellow. We learned that all the ‘other’ colors were used in Moscow and Leningrad, leaving only yellow paint for the unfortunates – Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, Bulgaria and the rest of the Soviet Union. In Poland I became seriously unwell, and we visited a pharmacy at the Warsaw train station. The pharmacist said I needed to see a doctor and a helpful taxi driver told the doctor I was his cousin, visiting from Australia. The great beauties of Russia and the former Eastern ‘block’ – their literature, music and people, were sustained, despite poverty that was State imposed. Today, Putin lives like a tsar. Even the briefest glimpse of Russia’s history tells the same story – back to the 10th century – it has always been the elite few who impose mass suffering on the people. Whether Tsars or Communists, the ordinary people have been the fodder of power and influence. Through all their suffering, there has always been music, literature and an appetite for life that makes us, in the West, look tedious and disengaged. This brutal rape, where Russia has forced itself into Ukraine, must have the Polish quivering because they know history has a habit of repeating itself. Tsar Putin is ambitious. This war will be televised. Not for information; for ratings to fill the 24-hour news cycle. Remember, those brave Russians who are protesting and resisting, represent another Russia and pray for the Ukraine.

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