My 5 cents: Thoughts from a Russian immigrant

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I was asked to write this column, and truthfully, I have been seeking a way to tell people my views before it is too late. So here it is - hopefully worth a little more than 2 cents.

These past 20 years in the United States proved that the fairy tale land I've heard about is still the land of opportunity. This is the country where everyone has a chance for a good living, if they work at it. In the country I came from we worked hard, but to no avail. The system did not reward the hard work, it favored those who sought well-being by becoming a part of the system, manipulating the system, or becoming Communist Party members.

When I came to the United States in 1991 I couldn't wait to get my "green card" to be able to start working. Neither my lacking English nor my inability to drive could stop me from getting a job. I walked! With my master's degree I was proud to get my first job in America at McDonald's. But this letter is not about me, it is about my concerns about the direction this country is heading.

Since most of my life I lived in a country where socialism was at a very mature stage of 70 years, I experienced, firsthand, the way of living under such a system. Young American people have no idea how unfair and inefficient it is. They hear these loud slogans of fairness and sharing, but they do not take time to learn why the idea DOES NOT work. I experienced it on my own skin for 26 years.

I am not here to talk about politics and advantages or disadvantages of one economic system over another. I just want to share some of my memories of growing up all the way to my adulthood in Russia.

Looking back through a prism of 20 years in the United States I am starting to understand the reasons why those colorless pictures with gloomy faces flash through my memory.

Working hard in Russia was a way of living; it was necessary for simple survival. There were no opportunities for government assistance unless one was totally disabled. Actually, it's not true. The whole country and every citizen was on a "welfare" hand-out, only we still had to work to get paid. The amount of our wages was just enough to barely make ends meet. We would not get paid, if we did not have a job. Obviously, all jobs were government jobs with standard low wages. One could achieve a slightly higher wage by obtaining some kind of higher education and hopefully getting a job as a manager somewhere. However, all good positions with "benefits" were taken by Communist Party members and people who knew people.

Important to understand that due to standard wages across the board as there was only one employer - the government - people usually tried to look for jobs with "benefits" to better their lives. Benefits in Russia implied opportunities to bring home something extra besides low wages, like a gallon of milk if you worked at a milk factory, or a loaf of bread if you worked at a bakery. So, when I was making my decision about my career, I chose to stay in the food industry and pursued a degree in Management of Public Catering.

My family lived in a small Siberian town, more like a village. Everyone in the village had to grow fields of potatoes and different vegetables that we preserved in large amounts for the winter. In the summer we also lived off the forest. I loved picking berries and hunting for mushrooms.

Twice a month, if we were lucky, a truck with supplies would reach our village. We always knew what everyone would have for dinner that night. Not many people owned a refrigerator those days. So, if the truck brought chicken, we had to enjoy it that night. Every family in the village had a fair share of the sausage, sugar, apples or popular condensed milk cans according to their family size. Often we had to give up our portion as we could not afford to buy it.

Other items we were looking forward to arrive were shampoo, socks and underwear. Yes, shampoo was in deficit. Not a certain type of a shampoo, but just a shampoo of any kind. As for socks, I learned to knit socks, when I was 12. Our old neighbor lady knew how to make yarn, so I groomed our fluffy dog and gave her the wool. I had socks for everybody in the family, but it did not work so well for us in the summer. Eventually I learned to knit almost anything. It was much harder to deal with the underwear situation, as we had no stretchy fabric to make it from.

The reason I share these memories with you is to show what kind of life can be, when government controls every aspect of your life. Since there was no competition to produce more or better, or less expensive goods, industries had little concern in producing quality or a variety of products. They had to produce quantity, however, to keep their workers somewhat in shape. When I first came to America I was overwhelmed to the point of frustration with selection of vegetable oil brands, for example. Later I understood why it is so great to be able to have a CHOICE.

When my father, at age of 36, had a stroke and after a few weeks in the hospital we were told that he needed to go home, as he was incurable, we were dumbstruck but had no choice, nor did we have the right to seek another opinion. We had to accept the fate, as we were assigned to the only clinic in the area according to our residence. After suffering for eight years, my father passed away at 44.

The socialistic regime did collapse, proving that it does not work. You might ask why people did not stand up for themselves sooner?

Well, first of all, they could not rebel due to the fact that Russian people have never had the right to bear arms and therefore they all were totally defenseless. All we could do is scream out our frustrations at a kitchen table.

The other reason is Russian propaganda machine was state of the art. People knew about the outside world only what they were supposed to know; they have been fed lies for 70 years and our children were raised by the government, brainwashed with images of baby Lenin since birth.

There was an important celebration in first grade, when each student was presented with a special star that had a face of Lenin when he was a child. We were proudly called "Oktjabrenok" after the October Revolution. At age 10 we all were honored with a red scarf that we could proudly wear from that point on and call ourselves "Pioner" (a pioneer). At age 14 we had a chance to become a Komsomol Party member, a necessary step, if you plan to become a Communist Party member later on. It was highly encouraged and presented as a high privilege to achieve it. Komsomol was the Communist Party's child.

If we continue the route set about four years ago, the life I briefly described above will be a reality in America. It won't happen very fast and won't be in such a severe form. The government in Russia had control over all industries right after the 1917 Revolution. Here, in the United States, the control will be taken peacefully through a number of steps, like raising taxes on businesses, implementing regulations to the point of making environment so unfriendly for businesses to exist, that people will stop any kind of entrepreneurship. They will be looking for government jobs. But the result will be the same - deterioration in each and every way of living.

It's heartbreaking to see how unaware people are willing to give their freedom away for government hand-outs, which lead to dependency, cripple people, kill their spirit of reaching for the stars and eventually annihilate the sense of responsibility for their own lives.

And the last point I need to make: There obviously is a need for some social programs in a society. Any civilized society needs to provide support for the less fortunate, like people with disabilities, who cannot provide for themselves. And this country has an abundance of such programs.

What is admirable about people in this country is how compassionate and giving Americans are. Not because they were told by the government to give, but because they want to help. How many nonprofit organizations, not subsidized by the government are in the United States? Think about it. And I am not saying that Russian people are not compassionate or not giving. It's not true. But when we are all equally poor, we have nothing to give.

Luba Wold is a Coeur d'Alene resident.

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