Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Soviet Spring

As I said in my last post, I'm slowly adjusting the shock of living in suburbia.  There's a lot to like about the suburbs, and a friend once said that I was a "suburban tourist" because I seemed utterly entertained and delighted by the simple pleasures of the suburban lifestyle, including easy access to shopping malls, safe playgrounds and schools, enormous basement storage areas, and neighbors who, although frequently inebriated, do their best to look out for one another.

I'm still amazed by the suburban house I've purchased.  When I walk into the garage, I stand in wonder, thinking that my car has never had it so good:  having spent the better part of its life sleeping on the streets of Woodlawn, my car must at times ask itself if it has not taken up permanent residence in a spa, padded slipper, or cocoon.  When I walk outside my new home, I'm stunned by the fact that I can see stars in the sky, although I can hear almost nothing.  In all my life, I've never lived in such a remorselessly quiet environment.  Suburban life is no doubt much inevitably more quiet than urban life. When I lived in Lakeview, the whole apartment building shook as the trucks drove by, and television shows were often interrupted by car accidents or screaming matches that spontaneously erupted around three a.m. at the transvestite bar across the street.  When I lived in Woodlawn, the neighbors talked to one another right outside our windows, involving me, quite against my will, in the most intimate details of their lives.  Now, I live in silence, surrounded by silence.  With only one entrance to my subdivision, my home isn't even exposed to the fleeting noise of random traffic.

I experience suburban life as a form of exile and estrangement.  I lived an urban life with my first wife, got divorced, got engaged, then moved to the suburbs.  The difference in lifestyle underscores the difference between my pre-divorced and divorced selves.  Living here in this place, another byproduct of divorce, I wonder how people decide to get divorced in the first place.  One dreads separation from one's family, but when it comes it's much worse than one could have imagined.  If people knew how bad it would be, how hard it is to live apart from one's children, would they proceed with the rupture?

With apologies for the strained and awkward transition between my personal life and my passion for Soviet history, I see a connection between the decision to divorce and the decision to dismantle a country.  The decision to embrace the pain of separation and exile may have its analogy in Soviet history. I think of Gorbachev.  How was it that the statesmen, and men like him, finally decided to pull the plug on the Soviet system?  The decision can't have been an easy.  Taking the plunge would ultimately lead to the end of an empire, the loss of economic stability, and the misery of millions.  The decision to reform Russia led to consequences which, in the short run at least, were even worse than the  problem of communism.

Of course, Gorbachev and his supporters could not have known exactly where they were headed when they decided that "things can't go on like this."  They were even determined to salvage something good from the wreckage of Russian communism. Even so, these Soviet reformers knew the country was sick, mortally sick perhaps, and they eventually decided to risk killing the patient in order to move forward.  They wanted to see around the next corner of history.  

I wonder how long people like Gorbachev waited they made even the first tenuous moves to upset the status quo.  Notwithstanding the myriad indications of Soviet malaise, Soviet would-be revolutionaries or reformers must have trembled as they contemplated undermining the system they knew so well.  Like the decision to divorce, people have a good reason to pause before pursuing radical change.   Change in a deeply flawed system--whether that system be a regime or relationship--breeds pain and suffering, almost in direct proportion to the degree of malaise that permeates the system.  

My fiancee is Tunisian.  When we first met, she was excited about the revolution that was overtaking her country.  She knew her people deserved freedom and change.  But the pain of that change is already evident.  The Soviet experience of revolution wasn't irrelevant.  Somewhat cynically, I told her that the Russians had also been excited about the prospects of radical change in their corrupt society.  This was true both in 1917 and 1989, but in both cases the revolution brought about an enormous harvest of bitterness.  My fiancee was not deterred:  the future could certainly be better than the past.  How could things not get better?  Sadly, Tunisia is now threatened by religious extremism and a strong measure of violent anti-Americanism. Probably the future will be better than the recent past.  Probably the Arab Spring was worthwhile.  And yet one can at least sympathize, if only for a moment, with those moderates who hesitated, if only for a moment, before throwing in their lot with the future.

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