|Fri, Sep 19, 2014 09:55 AM
|Issue of September 17, 2014
July 16, 2014 | 11:32 AM
Don and I just returned from a remarkable trip. The tour book described it as a glimpse at the splendor of the Baltic capitals and St. Petersburg Russia. What we experienced was the real-life struggle in today's world between individual freedom and communal responsibility.
In booking our tour, we had chosen to add the pre-trip extension offered. It promised a chance to see the "gold-domed cathedrals and historic churches of Kiev, Ukraine." But, as we watched the news of Russia's recent movement into the Ukraine, we saw angry demonstrations and heard accusations of illegal activity and military intervention. The inevitable happened; the trip was canceled and a visit to the country of Moldova was presented as the alternative.
I had been to Moldova many times before on mission trips and was eager to revisit old friends and to see what a tour company chose to highlight. Our reservations were kept intact, and we headed out for an adventure, a little nervous about the political scene but with camera in hand.
Indeed, we did see opulent palaces and ornate churches. We traveled for a month using all kinds of conveyances and, most of all, our own walking skills. We visited private homes of a humble nature and walked grand city gardens and rutted rural roads. We listened, viewed and discussed the landscape, the people, their architecture and their history. However, no matter where we were, the core message was that small nations had been conditioned to being pawns in a world of aggressive big forces.
Whether it was the paintings in an exhibition of modern art, the KGB Museum of torture or a conversation with a young person on the street, the theme addressed was the persistent quest for freedom and opportunity and the presumed inability to prevail.
I have written often of my perception of a "victim mentality" that exists within the culture of ex-Soviet and ex-Nazi countries I have visited. I am even more convinced of its power after this recent trip.
Try to get an opinion or a straight answer from someone and one hears a lot of hems and haws in the response. It isn't simply a language barrier, although that does add to the confusion. And more than once during an interview in which someone said a slightly unfavorable remark about the government, it was followed by "I hope no one hears me and I end up in Siberia." That comment was followed by the words, "I was just kidding. It is a joke."
But it is not a joke. The attempt to remove all individuality and uniqueness has smothered the citizens' will to think responsibly. "Stay under the radar and don't try to change things, and one will be OK " is often the standard. In the past, when citizens were not cooperative with the state, there were threats that their families would pay the price.
When I heard that people who had been exiled to Siberia were shunned by family and friends when they returned to their homes, I shuddered. They were suspected of being traitors to the state, and others were afraid to associate with them. With generations of this history, it is no wonder they keep their eyes down and their faces are somber.
Yes, many churches are open to tourists now after being closed or used as museums and concert halls under the Soviet regime. One does have to wonder what is going on here.
Enormous cathedrals have been restored since their destruction during World War II, and some palaces have even recently been re-gilded with gold leaf. There were many resources put into these structures when they were built by Tsars and serfs. And many more resources were spent on the restorations during the very years the economy and citizens were starving, or at least living with limited means.
Who makes these decisions, what are the priorities and what is the propaganda message being delivered here?
A St. Petersburg guide leading our group through an overly adorned castle said, "Look at all of this! It is all about show! Catherine the First and her daughter, Elizabeth, were trying to impress their countrymen and foreigners that their reign was powerful and the country strong."
Does this sound like the same commentary we heard during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia? The Russian Federation, reeling from a loss of prestige and power after the breakup of the Soviet Union, puts on a show of splendor for all the world to see and then appeals to the nationalistic nostalgia in the Ukraine and Crimea before stirring things up.
Years under totalitarian governmental control leaves people zapped of their individuality and hope. Losing one's will to think and reflect independently sets the stage for yet another triumphant takeover by a person or group who thinks they should run the show.
To quote Mark Twain, "History may not repeat itself, but it sure does rhyme."