November 09, 2009

Freedom Fries


[Commentary Aired on Vermont Public Radio, November 9, 2009]

French fries. I will forever associate the fall of the Berlin Wall with french fries.

In 1989, my wife and I were living and working in Moscow. Our friend Bob was apartment-sitting in the American embassy complex; and on November 9 he invited us over for dinner. The meal included what was, in that time and place, a gourmet treat: a cookie sheet full of freshly-baked french fries. They tasted just like home. Better still, the apartment had a live feed of CNN, which was only available in a few places in Moscow back then. We dipped french fries in real Heinz ketchup and watched the amazing events unfold in Berlin, astounded at what we were witnessing.

Just a year earlier, Bob and I had been in graduate school together, studying the long and tortuous history of reforms in Russia and its East European vassal states. We huddled around seminar room tables, cranked up on coffee, postulating various futures for East Germany, Hungary and the rest of the Soviet Empire. But, like the rest of the world, none of us foresaw that this Empire would suddenly and unexpectedly collapse.

We were brought up in a bipolar world populated by John le Carré spy novels, the Red Menace, megaton warheads and strategies of containment. We could not see that our world was less one of concrete and steel than one of tissue paper and balsa wood. We knew that there were things wrong with the world, and we expected cosmetic reforms, implemented slowly. But history had other plans.

When things did collapse, we were in the thick of it in Moscow. It was exciting, exhilarating. But, of course, as expats, we were insulated from the worst aftershocks. The collapse of the Soviet Empire and economy brought more than a decade of human suffering to Eastern Europe and the former USSR, on a scale that dwarfs the current U.S. economic crisis. Russia has witnessed terrible things over the last 20 years, including strikes, Chechnya, devaluation, terrorism, privatization, oligarchs and coups. But it is amazing that we have not witnessed worse, and that, with the notably horrific exception of Yugoslavia, the 1989 revolutions were essentially peaceful.

Yet I also can't help wondering what it would be like to travel back in time to one of those seminar rooms in 1988 and calmly inform the students that, over the next two decades, the Soviet Union would cast off its communist husk and evolve into 15 mostly democratic, vigorously capitalist states; that Russia would become a member of the group of leading industrialized states; that Russians would travel the world freely; that Russian literature and art would be unshackled; that U.S. and Russian nuclear arms would be cut by two-thirds; and that the Berlin Wall would turn out to be more like a structure of tissue paper and balsa wood than one of concrete and steel.

Not a single one of those students, myself included, would believe me.

Like this post? Get a weekly email digest + member-only deals

Some of Our Books

The Little Humpbacked Horse (bilingual)

The Little Humpbacked Horse (bilingual)

A beloved Russian classic about a resourceful Russian peasant, Vanya, and his miracle-working horse, who together undergo various trials, exploits and adventures at the whim of a laughable tsar, told in rich, narrative poetry.
A Taste of Chekhov

A Taste of Chekhov

This compact volume is an introduction to the works of Chekhov the master storyteller, via nine stories spanning the last twenty years of his life.
Maria's War: A Soldier's Autobiography

Maria's War: A Soldier's Autobiography

This astonishingly gripping autobiography by the founder of the Russian Women’s Death Battallion in World War I is an eye-opening documentary of life before, during and after the Bolshevik Revolution.
Turgenev Bilingual

Turgenev Bilingual

A sampling of Ivan Turgenev's masterful short stories, plays, novellas and novels. Bilingual, with English and accented Russian texts running side by side on adjoining pages.
Life Stories: Original Fiction By Russian Authors

Life Stories: Original Fiction By Russian Authors

The Life Stories collection is a nice introduction to contemporary Russian fiction: many of the 19 authors featured here have won major Russian literary prizes and/or become bestsellers. These are life-affirming stories of love, family, hope, rebirth, mystery and imagination, masterfully translated by some of the best Russian-English translators working today. The selections reassert the power of Russian literature to affect readers of all cultures in profound and lasting ways. Best of all, 100% of the profits from the sale of this book are going to benefit Russian hospice—not-for-profit care for fellow human beings who are nearing the end of their own life stories.
Survival Russian

Survival Russian

Survival Russian is an intensely practical guide to conversational, colloquial and culture-rich Russian. It uses humor, current events and thematically-driven essays to deepen readers’ understanding of Russian language and culture. This enlarged Second Edition of Survival Russian includes over 90 essays and illuminates over 2000 invaluable Russian phrases and words.
Fish: A History of One Migration

Fish: A History of One Migration

This mesmerizing novel from one of Russia’s most important modern authors traces the life journey of a selfless Russian everywoman. In the wake of the Soviet breakup, inexorable forces drag Vera across the breadth of the Russian empire. Facing a relentless onslaught of human and social trials, she swims against the current of life, countering adversity and pain with compassion and hope, in many ways personifying Mother Russia’s torment and resilience amid the Soviet disintegration.
The Samovar Murders

The Samovar Murders

The murder of a poet is always more than a murder. When a famous writer is brutally stabbed on the campus of Moscow’s Lumumba University, the son of a recently deposed African president confesses, and the case assumes political implications that no one wants any part of.
Woe From Wit (bilingual)

Woe From Wit (bilingual)

One of the most famous works of Russian literature, the four-act comedy in verse Woe from Wit skewers staid, nineteenth century Russian society, and it positively teems with “winged phrases” that are essential colloquialisms for students of Russian and Russian culture.
Stargorod: A Novel in Many Voices

Stargorod: A Novel in Many Voices

Stargorod is a mid-sized provincial city that exists only in Russian metaphorical space. It has its roots in Gogol, and Ilf and Petrov, and is a place far from Moscow, but close to Russian hearts. It is a place of mystery and normality, of provincial innocence and Black Earth wisdom. Strange, inexplicable things happen in Stargorod. So do good things. And bad things. A lot like life everywhere, one might say. Only with a heavy dose of vodka, longing and mystery.
Faith & Humor: Notes from Muscovy

Faith & Humor: Notes from Muscovy

A book that dares to explore the humanity of priests and pilgrims, saints and sinners, Faith & Humor has been both a runaway bestseller in Russia and the focus of heated controversy – as often happens when a thoughtful writer takes on sacred cows. The stories, aphorisms, anecdotes, dialogues and adventures in this volume comprise an encyclopedia of modern Russian Orthodoxy, and thereby of Russian life.
White Magic

White Magic

The thirteen tales in this volume – all written by Russian émigrés, writers who fled their native country in the early twentieth century – contain a fair dose of magic and mysticism, of terror and the supernatural. There are Petersburg revenants, grief-stricken avengers, Lithuanian vampires, flying skeletons, murders and duels, and even a ghostly Edgar Allen Poe.

About Us

Russian Life is a publication of a 30-year-young, award-winning publishing house that creates a bimonthly magazine, books, maps, and other products for Russophiles the world over.

Latest Posts

Our Contacts

Russian Life
73 Main Street, Suite 402
Montpelier VT 05602

802-223-4955