The Iron Curtain...it sounded daunting in 1972, but still I had always longed to visit the USSR. Revered acting directors Stanislavsky and Chekhov had been members of the Moscow Art Theatre, and their contributions to "the method" and experimental techniques in acting intrigued me. Then there were the Russian Ballet, the Russian circus, and the Russian gymnasts. All had perfected their art forms to the four qualities of artist creation: ease, form, beauty and entirety.
My opportunity finally came when I was living in France during 1971-72. A two-month study program was announced that included meeting and working with the artistic community in Latvia, the USSR, and Poland. I signed up at once.
The trip turned out not to be a lesson in freedom of expression as I soon found out, but a study of manipulation and indoctrination. The United States at the time was involved in the Vietnam War, a full-fledged, undeclared atrocity that was killing young Americans and scarring the minds and emotions of those who survived. Although I loved America, I was against what we were doing in Indochina. Like many teenagers at the time, I believed it was unfair to require young people to die for their country before they were allowed to vote. Many Americans were loudly protesting their government's policies, a luxury that I soon learned was unavailable behind the Iron Curtain.
Our plane landed in Leningrad, and we all went to claim our baggage. I had covered my backpack with small flags, mementos of each nation I had visited on my journey. But when I retrieved my luggage, all the flags of the non-Communist countries had been cut off. Whether someone had taken them as souvenirs of countries they had little chance of visiting, or whether an official had cut them off for political reasons, I never knew.
We were taken to a holding room where we were searched by armed guards. Two of my fellow students had made the mistake of taking a photograph in the airport. They were quickly arrested and taken away as spies, their cameras and film confiscated. When they were returned to the group two days later, they were exhausted and bedraggled from intensive interrogation.
Our polite but timid tour guide collected our passports "for safe keeping." Actually, the authorities feared we might sell them to local citizens, then claim they were lost and apply for new ones at an American embassy. We were told we must convert a specific amount of cash into rubles at the official moneychangers and spend it all. No giving money away, and anyone getting the much more favorable exchange rate from black marketers would be severely punished. Actually, it hardly mattered. We soon found there was nothing to buy with our rubles except propaganda posters, Lenin buttons, those stacking Russian dolls, and vodka.
In the USSR, where the Russian Revolution had ousted the Czar in 1917 and installed a communist regime, there were few people left who remembered a country called Russia. Not that life under the Czars could be called freedom, but at least art, music, and beauty had been encouraged. The only beauty I now witnessed was pre-1917. Now, the cities were gray, the sky was gray, the clothing was gray, the sugary tea was gray. Life was dismal and gray. People cued in long lines for everything. Everyone appeared forlorn and beaten down. It appeared that anything pleasurable was forbidden to the common citizen. Gray seemed to be the national color in the USSR, with an occasional welcome flash of a fuchsia babushka.
My fantasy of artists working in harmony and with a free spirit was quickly crushed.
We went to the museums, circuses, theater, ballet, and gymnastic competitions, but the happy exchange of artistic ideas was nonexistent. The artists could speak to us only in hushed tones when the attention of our tour guides was elsewhere. As they spoke, their eyes rarely met ours as they scanned the area for any clandestine agents. They were eager to know what we knew, and what it was like where we came from. What were the popular songs, films, plays? How did a hamburger taste? I felt a strong sadness and a sense of their being prisoners of time. Yet, their instinctive freedom was expressed in their creativity, their internal beauty, and their art forms.
One day, as I was walking in the rain, I found a huge rusty broken padlock on the ground. I picked it up, and, instinctively looking around to see if anyone was looking, hid it in my coat. This, I decided, would be the memento to remind me of the value of my own freedom.
When we reached Latvia and Poland, the atmosphere changed. These countries had only recently been annexed by the Soviet Union, and some people could remember a time before World War II when life was different. Everything was more colorful, and people still had some spunk in them. Confrontations between citizens and police occurred regularly in the streets, and black market trading was brisk. I had the feeling that these people would die to restore their freedom. Latvians and Poles were openly friendly to us, asking many questions. Remember that in the 1970's, it was forbidden for them to see Western films or magazines. Information crossed the borders only via the Black Market. (I even got offers to buy my passport and my backpack.) The energy exuded from the citizens in these countries indicated a great desire for more personal freedom. I got quite chummy with our tour guide and gave her a pair of my Levi's when I left. To her, they were a priceless gift, a symbol of hope for the future. She secretly begged me to write her and to send her a bottle of French perfume. I did as soon as I got back to France. Just as my flags had been ripped off my backpack, the perfume was stolen from the package. I received several letters from her, all with parts cut out. The last one read, "In my dreams I am a butterfly." She had achieved freedom, if only in her mind.
After two months behind the "Iron Curtain," I knew how appropriate the name was. It was impenetrable. Human emotions and ambitions were crushed in the name of an ideal. Life might have been egalitarian, but it was miserable, merely existence. Citizens performed the jobs they were assigned at preset wages and could not move around or leave the country.
The dissolution of the old Soviet Union has brought a sort of "democracy," one fraught with crime, corruption, violence, and starvation. It will take time for the government and its people to work out a system of equality and freedoms, but at least it is a beginning.
There are countries all over the world that hold their citizens hostage, that repress women and children, that don't allow freedom of religion and expression. People are still persecuted on ethnic issues, and many people are denied a basic education. The fabric of civilization is so fragile.
When I returned to America, the first thing I did was kiss the ground. Those two months behind the Iron Curtain felt like years, and there were moments when I was not sure I would make it back home. But I had kept my personal freedom alive in my imagination, and that's the lesson I brought back. Since then, I have become very good friends with several people, now American citizens, who grew up in Communist countries. They love their heritage, their faraway families, and their culture, but it was only when they arrived here that they realized the true meaning of "freedom."
Perhaps no one is ever truly free on every level. No matter what our circumstances, though, we can hold the illusion of independence when we believe we are free. The ugliest caterpillar can dream of the day when it will be a butterfly.
I appreciate the complexities of the gift of freedom. America may not be perfect - no country is. America is great because it is a work-in-progress, a country constantly struggling to balance rights with responsibilities and to maintain a level of freedom and justice for all. I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to be born in a land that allows me the ability to travel the world, witnessing the cultures and lifestyles of other nations, and then to return to a country that welcomes my expression. Yes, I am proud to be an American! The rusty padlock stands guard on my desk as my reminder that freedom is never free.
Having even a limited sense of autonomy is better than having none at all. Studies of prisoners of war indicate that those who never lost hope under the most brutal conditions did so by focusing on internal freedom. In difficult situations, mental and spiritual freedom may be your only options.
Here is an exercise I give my students to help them visualize a life of release. Imagine a butterfly is landing on your open palm. Admire the beauty, the fine details of the wings. Feel the way it tickles your hand with its wings. Stand quietly and see this magnificent creature, knowing that not long ago it was trapped in a cocoon. Let the butterfly symbolize all your unmet wants, needs, and desires. Mourn for the sadness you have known and for the times you have felt locked up in a world of misunderstanding. Now watch the butterfly fly away and feel the exhilaration of letting go of your own trepidations. Release fear, and breathe in freedom.
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“Freedom in never free. Believe you are free, and your chains will be broken.” Cynthia Brian
For more chapters on Gifts of, read Be the Star You Are!® 99 Gifts for Living, Loving, Laughing, and Learning to Make a Difference and Be the Star You Are!® for TEENS, Simple Gifts for Living, Loving, Laughing, Learning, and Leading. Available at http://www.bethestaryouare.com.
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