This was a gift I received from a friend in Ireland. We used to work together when I lived in Ireland, and he is ethnically Russian,1 grew up in Azerbaijan in the Soviet Union, but eventually became a Polish citizen after the Soviet Union fell. When I worked in Ireland, he and another Russian friend would often tell me about life in the Soviet Union, the good and the bad. My friend talked about being in the Soviet Army and doing a lot of menial construction work (or not doing any work sometimes).
Growing up in the US in the 1980′s, I was always afraid of the Soviets and the Red Army. I remember being about 10 years old, and learning about nuclear war. I was really scared the Soviets would one day destroy us.
Thinking back, I bet a lot of Russian kids my age felt the same way about the Americans.
But meeting former “Soviets” in person is such a different experience. In the 1980′s there were a lot of anti-Soviet American movies like Red Dawn, Rocky 4 and if you watch such movies, the Russians seemed like sinister “robots” ready to destroy American freedom, etc, etc. Meeting real Russians and hearing about their life in the Soviet Union really deflates the Cold War hysteria. It shows how much of our perception of the world is just our own limited interpretation based on limited information.
Life in the Soviet Union wasn’t great. As my friend explains it, life in the Soviet Union was a slow, agonizing death by bureaucracy and political incompetence, not the wicked socialist machine bent on conquering the world, as American media used to imply. Other Russian friends felt that life in the Soviet Union wasn’t so bad, but they lived in the more prosperous Baltic States.
But in general, my impression is that life in the Soviet Union was more or less like life everywhere else: people raised families, worked jobs they probably didn’t like, and tried to make the most of what they had.
Anyhow, I am really happy that Russians and Americans can be friends now, and that the old Cold War hysteria is just history. I was so happy to get this little gift recently when we met for lunch for the first time in 2 years. He explained to me that in Polish culture, these little sculptures are made of hard-packed flour, and the little statuettes are often taken to a Catholic church during Easter so they can be blessed. Once blessed, they’re often used as a centerpiece for Easter dinner.
But to me, the fact that I am sharing gifts with someone whom I was taught to fear through media as a kid means that times are changing for the better.
P.S. Decided to post this a bit earlier than planned after seeing this post on Twitter by Astronaut Sunita Williams (@astro_suni).
1 I’ve learned that during the Soviet days, a lot of Russians were encouraged to settle in other parts of the Soviet Union. Thus, I’ve met Russian people from Azerbaijan, Latvia, Moldova and many other places that were former Soviet states. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union though, this causes problems in each country as “natives” sometimes resent the Russian immigrants.