I’m sure I was not the only one who responded to Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine with the thought, here we go again. Yet each one of those four words started to raise its own question in my mind. This essay is an attempt to articulate just what the heck has been happening in my head all my life regarding Russia. This thing between Russia and me — it goes deep.
I’ve been fascinated by Russia for as long as I can remember. In elementary school in the 1980s, we got introduced to national flags. The flag of the Soviet Union stood out — the shockingly bold red, the strength of the hammer and sharpness of the sickle, the solitary yellow star expressing a navigational unity. At that time, around age 5, I don’t remember being taught that this was the flag of the enemy of the USA, but I do remember ascertaining the adversarial relationship between “us” and the Russians by age 10. One of the first movies I saw on our brand new VCR was The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming. I think I was between 8 and 10 years old.
In 1980s cartoons, or dumb action movies, the Russians were the enemy. No one explained what was so wrong with the Russians, although clearly, they lacked something because I heard about people wanting to leave Russia and hardly ever heard of Americans wanting to move there. When my parents would drive my brother and me to the homes of our grandparents on Chicago’s far north side, we would pass several synagogues that prominently displayed signs for Operation Exodus. The banners were signs that Jews needed to escape the land of the hammer and sickle.
So the question in my mind grew and grew: what is going on in Russia? Then, when I was in 6th grade, the Berlin Wall came down. This is perhaps when I first became conscious of the idea of living through a historical moment. I remember watching the excitement on the TV news. About 12 months later, the USA would claim a tremendous victory in the Persian Gulf War. Boris Yeltsin stood on the tank outside the Parliament in Moscow on August 19th, 1991. Some of the other pro-democracy leaders on that tank held up a different flag, a tricolor white, blue, and red. The next week would be my first week of 8th grade. I became addicted to the TV news, particularly the NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw, but at that time the news…