A few nights ago, I had the privilege of sitting next to a former Ambassador to the U.S. from an Eastern European country. He now lives in the U.S. with his wife and family. Beginning with some small talk about music, he began to reveal his basic love for everything American from early childhood while living in a censored society. He talked about his love for Rock and Roll born from hours of secretly listening to Radio Free Europe, his dreams of eventually coming here, and all of his imaginings of what life would be like here as opposed to his experience.
As I listened to him, I was reminded of my experience growing up in a completely different society, free to speak and listen to whatever and whoever. And, how I understood the difference between freedom and censorship after my first contact with such a society.
My parents came from a pleasant town in Russia, called Zaslav. My mother came with her family but my father came later (he was madly in love with her and followed her even spending a year in Cuba!). Doing so, he left his Mother and Sister behind. His Mother did eventually come to the U.S., but he never saw his sister again.
He stayed in touch with them through regular correspondence and when he died in 1963, my mother picked up with the correspondence until she died, six months later. Knowing how important this relationship was, I immediately found a translator and began writing.
Now I am getting to the point of my story. Because of my own total naiveté and insatiable curiosity, I began asking what life was like for them — in detail. Several letters were exchanged without any answers and then they stopped coming. At first, I thought they were just too preoccupied with everyday life and I continued to write and continued to probe.
But there were no more letters.
After a period of time, I finally guessed what had happened; I realized what I had inadvertently done. I was pressing them for information that they knew would be read by the censors and they were unwilling to take any chances.
They were not willing to get into trouble because of the stupidity of their American relative.
I simply could not conceive of living with that kind of fear, having grown up in the U.S.
Fast forward to 1989. We now have a hockey team; we travelled with the team to Russia for exhibition games. But I had more on my mind than hockey. I was still searching for my Aunt and her family.
Then I found her. She was in Zlobin. We excitedly went to visit her and when she saw me, she hugged me, and with tears running down her face, called me, “Irinichka! Irinichka!”
I had finally closed the loop that I had left dangling twenty-two years earlier. And by this time I had traveled in the 70’s to Communist China and Russia.
I now understood her fears that had kept her from writing to me.
Listening to my dinner partner the other night, I understood completely what he was telling me about his childhood dream of living in a free society, his joy of having his children enjoy a freedom that he had dreamed about…. as he was secretly listening to American Rock and Roll.