Barry Goldwater and Me
How did Barry Goldwater turn the life of a Soviet student upside down?
In my youth, I studied for ten years at an elite school in Moscow. It was sort of a French lycée. We were unlike other school kids in the old Soviet Union. Their curriculum was confined to subjects that glorified Mother Russia — and hailed the achievements of the Soviet economy.
In contrast, we were also taught the French language from an early age — and studied French literature and history. Among my classmates were children of the Communist party bosses as well as of Foreign Ministry diplomats.
However, at our exclusive school we got no more information about the West than at other schools throughout the Soviet Union.
Whatever little we were told about ‘capitalist’ societies was ideologically skewed — and uniformly horrible. The United States was always cast as the ultimate villain. But this was done without much detail to explain what its "villainy" consisted of.
Needless to say, all the school kids in the Soviet Union were curious to find out more. And, as kids everywhere, we were rebelling against our parents’ authority.
Naturally, we developed admiration toward the United States. Everything that came from the other side of the Atlantic — music, literature, news magazines, gadgets — was deemed wonderful.
Let me give you an example of how ignorant the Soviet public was of realities in the United States during the Cold War. In the early 1970s, a Russian publishing house managed to publish Robert Penn Warren’s great novel All the Kings’ Men.
The book was loosely based on the rise and fall of populist Louisiana politician Huey Long. It originally appeared in the United States in 1946. The Russian edition became an instant best-seller.
Even though the events described in it were years out of date — harking back to the 1930s — we all read it as if it were an up-to-date description of the U.S. political system. There was even a Russian TV mini-series based on the novel, something like the Soviet version of Britain’s Masterpiece Theater.
Russia had little trade with the United States, so everything that came from America had to be brought in by the few lucky ones who actually got to visit the country. Everything American was at a premium. At our school, however, we were luckier than the rest.
In fact, the father of my classmate was a KGB foreign intelligence officer stationed at the Soviet embassy in Tehran. His job allowed him to travel around the world on his spook assignments, and he brought back lots of wondrous things. His son once gave me a great present: A 1964 presidential election pin of somebody named Barry Goldwater.
While we got a better education, the ideological controls at our exclusive school were even stricter than elsewhere. Still, I personally didn’t know anything about Barry Goldwater, his run for presidency — or his election platform.
In fact, I knew very little about the 1964 U.S. presidential election, since it had taken place almost 10 years before, when I was only eight years old. But the ideological watchdogs at our school certainly knew about Mr. Goldwater. And in Soviet eyes, wearing his pin made me the equivalent of a "CCC" — or card-carrying capitalist.
In next to no time, I was hauled before the principal and declared to be a subversive. I was charged with publicly expressing my support for a sworn enemy of the Soviet Union, whose only desire was to nuke our peace-loving country, the school officials said.
Of course, there was no longer a place for me among the children of the Soviet elite. I was promptly expelled and sent to get my high school diploma at a night school. Worse, had I stayed in the Soviet Union, my record would have been blotted forever and my career would have probably been wrecked.
Fortunately, a year later, in 1974, my family was allowed to emigrate — and we moved to the United States. The fact that I had been expelled from school for innocently wearing a campaign button was one of the deciding factors that prompted my parents to leave the Soviet Union.
When I came to the United States, some of the people I told this story urged me to write to Senator Goldwater. At the time, he was still a ranking Republican in the Senate — although too old to make another run for President.
Specifically, these folks thought that he could help me get into a good university in the United States. After all, it was because of him that I lost my chance of getting into a good university in the Soviet Union.
But in the end, I chose not to write. I wasn’t really a Goldwater supporter. After all, it was nothing more than a 1964 presidential election pin, smuggled into the USSR by a KGB agent that linked Barry Goldwater and me.