Averyell A. Kessler
In two short days, I saw for myself the stark reality of life in a communist country. This eye-opening adventure began on a cruise beginning in England then crossing the North Sea, with stops in Norway, Sweden, and Finland. We had knowledgeable guides who spoke many languages, and I learned a lot about the Nordic countries. Next, St. Peterburg.
There I saw palaces of the tzars, the Hermitage, the Neva, and St Basil’s Cathedral’s glorious onion domes. All magnificent remnants of the past, now reduced to selling admission tickets to tourists as well as souvenirs. But something was wrong. I didn’t see it at first until a powerful realization seeped in. The routes of our tour buses were carefully planned, edging around the city so that we saw little of St. Petersburg in its current form. That changed when cruise ship passengers were invited to an evening performance of Bolshoi Ballet. Late on a warm afternoon in August, I boarded a tour bus and watched with interest as we headed into the heart of St. Petersburg. As in any large city, the sidewalks were crowded, teeming with people who looked very much like Americans. The streets were filled with folks riding bicycles, and women pushing strollers. There were very few cars, and the ones I saw were unidentifiable hulks. As the tour bus rumbled on, we passed once elegant buildings left over from the Romanov era, now abandoned and dejected. Most were completely shuttered, some covered with plywood and chained shut. Others covered with scribbles of graffiti and decaying posters. I saw no shops, no offices, and no restaurants. In some places, only charred timbers remained. When the bus stopped at the theatre, were we rushed inside by our Russian guides. No walking around allowed. Although the theatre was a bit disheveled, the ballet itself was marvelous. Vodka shooters were served at intermission, as well as a collection of sweets.
Our ride back to the cruise ship was revealing because the show wasn’t over. Not yet. Daylight had vanished. The night was dark with storm clouds rolling across the sky. There were only a few streetlights. As we passed a series of apartment buildings, I saw that the windows were wide open because there seemed to be no ceiling fans or air conditioning. Many of the rooms were dimly lit by a single lightbulb dangling from the ceiling on a thin wire. These were the lucky folks. The less fortunate resided in government apartment buildings which looked like upside-down cheese graters or high-rise prisons. During that ride, I passed only one modern building, a newly built structure, with massive display windows and bright interior lights. What’s this, I wondered. Then I recognized it, the orange and black logo of Harley-Davidson, an American company.
The next day, our ship docked off the coast of Estonia. A different scene altogether. This time we were bussed into Tallinn, the capital city of this small country which in 1991 declared its independence from the Soviet Union. I knew little about Estonia, but on the way, we passed thriving farms with abundant gardens full of flowers and vegetables. The barns and homes of autonomous people making their own way and doing well. We were dropped in the center of Tallinn for a tour and an afternoon of wandering. The city itself was as busy as a stepped-on ant bed. Ancient buildings had been restored and renewed by the proprietors of thriving businesses. I saw shoe shops, bakeries, doctor’s offices, and Saint Nicholas’ Orthodox Church, a beautiful and active Orthodox cathedral. Bless their hearts, the folks in Tallin even a red light distract, and it also seemed to be doing well.
When I found my way into the massive town square, I saw a crowded open-air market. Walking was difficult because the ancient cobblestones remained. As I strolled carefully through this tent city, I saw diverse vendors offering natives foods, hand knit shawls and scarves, paintings, toys, and a plethora of hand carved Christmas ornaments. The square was also ringed with busy shops. I sat with friends at a small beer garden, watched the activity, and enjoyed a taste of Estonian brew. That’s when I saw him, a handmade doll in dark blue winking at me across the way. He had a placid face, elfin shoes, and a five- pointed hat resembling a star. On his arm, he held a tiny bag covered with sequins. His creator, a young Estonian woman, and I spoke as well as we could with hand motions, pointing, and a few English words. She said that he was hand sown and patterned after a well-known Estonian clown. The bag he carried was his trick bag. I named him Alexander. I purchased him and carried him to his new home on long flights back to Jackson. That was over 30 years ago. I still have Alexander. I moved him into my writing room as a reminder of the stark difference between a government of free people and another that proclaims, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” A government that will starve its citizens, imprison them for dissent, and force sacrifice for the needs of a jealous state.
I am also reminded of words spoken by our Estonian tour guide. “For many years,” she explained, “Estonians would wake each morning and walk outside to see whose flag was flying in the center of town. Now, it is our flag! We are proud of that.”
As a fortunate child growing up in America, I have never imagined a time when our flag would not fly over this country The last verse of our national anthem speaks this truth. I passed this fluttering flag every day as I walked into Power School, then Bailey, and later Murrah High School. During the last year, we’ve endured pandemic, hurricanes, ad hominem arguments, vicious political fighting, silly disputes about which pronouns are permitted and other demands of the easily offended. Now we are witnessing the scourge of war. I am fully aware of what’s at stake when power crazed autocrat takes control, installs a fear-based government then hungers for more. I’ve been there, I’ve seen the results. It’s the decline of a once proud city, of tightly controlled lives, and an absence of basic rights. It is the curse of a single lightbulb.
I’ve also seen the end products of freedom and opportunity, and the strength of a government reliant on the consent of the governed. Make no mistake, America is in the crosshairs. We are the supreme prize, the ultimate model of democracy. We are the shining city on the hill. We will stand by our creed “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” ” We will speak softly, but never abandon our big stick.”