Soviet Blues

As I prepared to depart Moscow on August 12th, 1991, I realized (and still realize) that there was so much to consider from the ten days I had just spent in the soon-to-be former Soviet Union. Certainly, my overall impression was one of tremendous sadness, alienation, oppressiveness. These were a people that were imprisoned on several levels because of what the Communist government had wrought in them over the past seventy-plus years. Yet, in spite of the evil they had experienced on so many levels, an undeniable spark of hope, of life, remained. 

“Thank you for coming to share our problems.” These words, spoken by our first tour guide, Lucy, continued to resonate with me as I reflected on the trip. She had made this heartfelt plea four or five times with great emotion. Now, I would be leaving her and so many others with whom I had come to identify. Surely, my years spent agonizing over my career and all that could never be wasn’t of the utmost importance, especially when viewed in the light of the catastrophic changes then taking place right before the eyes of the world. But, still and all, each of us “owns” her own suffering and can find it difficult to step away from that perspective. And yet it’s our own suffering that allows us to develop empathy for others.

As I write these words, it’s from the vantage of many years hence. Little did I know back in 1991 that the demise of the Soviet Union would usher in years of a new kind of struggle for its citizens, making it very difficult for the people there to gain their balance. As oppressive as Communism was, it did offer a form of security and stability. In subsequent visits over the next three years, this sentiment was often repeated. Freedom was arduous, wrought with uncertainty, and presented a new form of suffering for the Sovietized people. The vague notion I cultivated during my first trip, that I could somehow share in the problems and lives of these lovely people, would ultimately have to be given up.

Barbara Van Driel