by Serge Morrell
I was born in Russia when the Soviet Union still existed, lived through the collapse of the Soviet Empire and moved to America (or better say, New York) when I was 11. Inthe year when I was born (1988), the Cold War officially was pronounced dead, but unofficially it still went on.Then, after 1991, a miracle happened. The cold war ended indeed and we all fell in love with Americans, whom no one of us has ever seen in our lives. Then came hatred and love, fear, the feeling of rejection, the feeling of betrayal, in the middle of the 90-s. And then I came to live in America, and was able to see the same events from a different shore.
Editor’s Comments: In this insightful Op-Ed piece, Serge Morrell, a Russian immigrant, compares the conditions in the Soviet Union at the end of the Cold War with conditions in America today.
My late aunt Mary Sanders used to tell me a story of the biggest fear of her childhood. It was a story of how a Red Bomber was flying to destroy New York City. Mary would wake up in the middle of the night, in her cramped Brooklyn apartment, seeming to hear a whining sound, obviously a foreign one, half-sound half-shadow crawling across the dark sky towards the sleeping city. The Red Bomber never made it to New York City. Russia and America became allies. Mary moved to Russia, lived there for ten years working for CBS, and then about a year ago suddenly died from cancer. As a matter of fact, Mary never seemed to be afraid of cancer. She never seemed to be afraid of many other things that made most people panic. She was a fearless woman indeed. The day before she died on the Holy Sunday of Russian Easter, we all knelt at her feet, benumbed by the fact that suddenly we had run out of all possible words of consolation. She gave us a weak smile and whispered, “Everything will be fine. No need to worry. It’s not scary any more.” It looked like she, unlike we, knew what she was talking about.
Our generation, born after the end of the Cold War, is not acquainted with fears of nuclear apocalypses that used to terrify little Maries on both sides of the Atlantic, that routinely used to deprive them of sleep at night and made them shiver during the day when they were hiding under their school desks after the air raid warning alarms blared. This historical trepidation might still be found in our genes by some meticulous researcher, but it is obviously not in our blood any longer. When W. Bush scares us with a nuclear bomb in Iraq, we are not scared. Our generation – of sixteen year olds – does not have fears, does not believe anyone, and especially does not believe politicians and their daily lies. Our parents call us cynics. They say, “You must at least believe in something and at least be afraid of something!” .
My school is located a couple hundred yards from the WTC site. Stuyvesant students were among those few people who really witnessed the events of September 11th. They saw the first plane flying low before it hit the north tower. They saw it flying towards the school – and it was not crawling, on the quiet, like in Mary’s nightmares –no, it was flying in the open, in the midst of the clear day, across the very blue sky, under the very bright sun – confidently and inevitably. Everybody knew right away that it was not a normal plane, but not being trained to hide under their desks, the students stood at the windows and watched. They watched how the second plane crashed into the south tower. And then they watched how people jumped off the roof after they had lost all hope. They kept watching till the first tower collapsed, till the humongous dust cloud covered the school and it got dark. And only then did they run.
After September 11th, many adults, especially those who had not witnessed first hand the real events on the southern tip of Manhattan, developed severe depressions. On plausible pretexts, they sold their expensive hard-to-get coops and abandoned Manhattan. Authorities hung out orange banners of fear, scaring everyone, but mostly their own selves. The orange warnings would often turn red but we still kept riding the subway to school, even when the fearless inhabitants of nearby Wall Street temporarily switched to a water-taxi. In the midst of the anthrax “epidemics”, when the Ukrainian home cleaners refused to go down to the mailbox without gloves and masks, we did not even bother to wash our hands.
Recently a new scare came to America. Some maps of some American schools were found on some computers in Iraq, and some twenty five Chechen terrorists were spotted freely wandering around America itself. All of a sudden, the word Beslan, so distant and foreign before, became familiar and close. Last Monday my baby brother Kevin spent his math Regents class period in the closet. A magnet science school which he attends, like many other American schools, set up a tactical exercise to prepare for a possible terrorist attack. In the evening, Kevin briefed me on some details of the maneuvers. By disclosing a military secret in the times of war, he might have committed a serious crime. But let us forgive the young Kevin who is only 13 years old, because the story he told me is really fascinating.
At 9:45 a.m. the voice on the school loudspeaker, one with a Chinese accent, broadcasted a secret phrase, a sort of code, which required all the personnel to promptly report to room 5001. Needless to say, there is no such room in Kevin’s school. There is no such room not only in Kevin’s school, but most likely not in any other school in America no matter how gigantic it is. After the announcement was made, the students formed up and marched to their designated foxholes. Each of these modern-day post Cold War shelters was much smaller than the tiniest cave in Afghanistan. One by one, the students, most of whom have already entered the exciting age of puberty, squeezed themselves in and got ready for the final battle. The closets, where students normally hang their coats and hats, turned out to be a real jewel within the school’s defensive infrastructure. Of course, they are not completely bullet-proof since they are made of inexpensive Chinese plastic, but their cunning location does prevent a direct line of fire through the window or from the corridor. The only thing which the soldiers (the children) must do is to conceal themselves inside and freeze.
In the meantime, hypothetical enemies (represented by younger teachers and selected eight graders) screaming “Allah Akbar!” rushed in desperate search of room 5001 which could not be found anywhere. Mad terrorists also checked the other classrooms only to discover that they were empty. A chaos among attackers occurred. We might suggest that they started to blame each other (that’s what terrorists always do). At this very moment the glorious NYPD arrived to the site, quickly disarmed all the bad people and thereafter the young heroes quickly emerged from their defensive installations into the sunlight. The battle was over, the victory was ours. By the way, my brother shared with me some interesting details of the drama that was developing in the closets during the course of the defensive operation, some very specific details of interaction that naturally might occur between 13 year old boys and 13 year old girls if they are locked together in the dark closet. But for reasons of propriety I’d better omit these details.
You might ask, what is the major difference between these exercises and those of thirty years ago, when moms and dads of contemporary inner city students hid under their wooden desks and sat there quietly while hypothetical atomic bombs were falling on New York City rooftops? What is more real and what is more surreal? Is the world itself closer today to the apocalypses than it used to be twenty five years ago? Only Mary knows the precise answer to this rhetorical question. But she is not anywhere here right now to answer it for us.
Fyodor Dostoevsky once said that a human being gets used to anything. Indeed, we easily get used to the sinister in a way that it no longer seems to be sinister. Every day when I look out of my school window, I see a huge pit in the ground left after the collapse of the twin towers. I have been watching this picture for three years now, it’s been an eternity. This spring all of a sudden it occurred to me that now I can’t get used to the thought that soon an iron skeleton of a new super skyscraper will start growing here, the one designed with two purposes: to re-implant a hope in the dim hearts of peaceful citizens and to make Osama’s blood creep.
We do not have a trust in the Government, we are not afraid of either god or devil, and I personally miss only Mary who once knowingly said, “Everything will be fine. No need to worry. It’s not scary any more.” Please, Mary, if you can hear me now, please, tell me what you really meant by that.