Monday, February 16, 2015

Communism as Explained to a Seven-Year-Old in 1989

Adults lie, as a rule, and adults often lie to kids. I realize that many of these lies result from the kids not being ready for greater, larger truths. That’s why storks bring babies until children become old enough to learn that no, actually, they explode out of mommy’s tummy, and that’s why you can’t subtract a larger number from a smaller number until yes, actually, you can by delving into the sick, sad world of negatives.

Lately, however, I’ve been thinking back to things teachers told me. I went to Catholic school, and even the best ones present kids with a whole weird set of educational challenges. For example, I had an otherwise good teacher who once explained to the class that the Garden of Eden not only physically existed but also still exists today — we just haven’t found it yet. Isn’t that a weird thing to tell a classroom full of kids to whom you also teach science and history? That there’s a magic garden hiding somewhere in old Mesopotamia land, guarded by an angel wielding a flaming sword?

One of these conversations I can remember especially clearly, because I, a dumb child, took the teacher’s word and subsequently let what she told me linger unchecked, shaping my understanding of communism. Last night, I was watching The Americans — a show where adults lie, as a rule, and where adults often lie to kids. The series shows very little about the Russian spies’ lives before they arrived in the U.S., so an invested viewer like me has to imagine Philip and Elizabeth before they took those names. Even as a college-educated adult who reads the papers and sometimes even books, it turns out, my mental version of Soviet Russia is still informed by what my teacher told me twenty-six years ago.

Here is the conversation, not verbatim because I somehow lost my notes but with the gist intact. I don’t remember what prompted discussion of the Cold War in class. Probably nothing. I was a “My cat’s breath smells like cat food” sort of kid.
Me: What is communism?

The teacher: Communism is how people live in Russia.

Me: But what is it?

The teacher: It’s the way the government works there. It’s different to how it works here.

Me: How is it different?

The teacher: We have more freedom here, and freedom is good.

Me: What can’t they do there?

The teacher: In America, you get to do what you want. In Russia, the people in charge tell you what to do. You never get to decide what you do, because someone is always telling you what to do, every minute of every day. Doesn’t that sound terrible?
[Note: Please observe the irony of a schoolteacher touting American freedom to a child to whom she dictates what to do all day.]
Me: Yes.

The teacher: Also, in Russia, you’re not allowed to own anything. The government owns everything. So if the government decides that you shouldn’t have the books you own, they would take them from you, and you wouldn’t be able to do anything about it. Is that something you would like, Drew?
[Note: Please observe the irony in a schoolteacher, who forced books full of math problems on me, explaining how it would be bad if the government showed up and took those books away.]

Me: No, I wouldn’t like that.

The teacher: Also, in Russia, you can’t just go buy anything like you do in America. You have to stand in line to buy it. And you stand in line all day, in the cold. If you wanted to buy a potato, you’d first have to stand in a long line to get a piece of paper that says you can buy a potato, and then after that you would have to a second long line and wait there until it’s your turn to get your potato.

Me: What if you want to buy two potatoes?

The teacher: Then you’d have to wait in the first line all over again.
[Note: Please observe the irony in my teacher’s description of communism also being a somewhat abstracted description of an economic system in which people earn wages to buy goods, just with longer lines.]
The teacher: And the Russians think that the whole world should work like this, and they’d like it if they came here and made us wait in lines to get potatoes. And that’s why we don’t like communism. Do you understand?
I understood what she wanted me to understand, but mostly I just felt saddened by the idea of my mother having to stand in line all day just to get the four potatoes that she, my father, my brother and I would eat. That seemed pretty miserable, and at the time that seemed like reason enough to justify the Cold War. Who would be home to feed the dog if my mom is stuck in the potato lines? Hell, what if the government took the dog away? How unimaginably long would the lines for fish sticks be? What if the government came for my Nintendo? Obviously, this communism stuff was bad news.

This, then, shaped my understanding of communism. I took at class in college on the history of the Cold War, and I’ve read books about communism and life in the Soviet Union. I get how what I learned in second grade was a less than full explanation of how communism works, and I maybe even understand how the full scope of it would have been beyond the understanding of even the most inquisitive seven-year-olds. Still, there’s a part of me that watches The Americans and tries to imagine what Soviet life would have actually entailed and has to catch myself reverting to my 1989 understanding of how communism works. Those connections are hard to shake, it turns out.

I wonder if image it all better if I’d delayed the “What is communism?” conversation until I was smart enough for a bigger, deeper definition. I wonder if this teacher had any idea her explanation would stick so well. And given how a different teacher at the same school thought the Garden of Eden was an extant location that modern humanity had just somehow missed, I also have to wonder how much her actual, adult understanding of communism differed from what she told her class.

Off subject, technically, but also not really: Did you know that the Tetris “Type C” music is an arrangement of an actual composition by Johann Sebastian Bach? I didn’t until today. That’s neat. That’s something, right?

A funny story, previously:


  1. In high school economics our (christian) textbook said that "Communism is the economic system of hell."

  2. And the 'Type A' music is based on a Russian folk song!