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October 5, 2007

Our Non-Enemy Enemy

Roy Meachum

Moscow - For much of my long life, the people I moved through on this latest excursion to the former Soviet Union were the enemies of my country. That's how Americans viewed Russians until the Iron Curtain fell almost 20 years back on the day the Berlin Wall tumbled.

Let us make clear the wall was not really a wall; it consisted of buildings' windows bricked in and barbed wire fences, sometimes supplemented by debris from the Red Army's assault that smashed the Nazis and led directly to Adolph Hitler's suicide. The astonishing Russian feat accomplished in Europe what the atomic bomb did in the Pacific.

Most lingering opposition to Moscow because of its socialist government was brushed into the corner by appreciation from men, women and children who feared the potential slaughter of American GIs by the German panzers. In the first couple of years satisfied by the blood revenge exacted in Nuremburg and Tokyo, the world wallowed in the false opinion there could not be another war.

The professionals whose job it was to keep this country alert and vigilant whistled in the wind of convinced apathy born of the belief theirs was an antiquated calling. Serving within the Army during those times, my teen-age heart was saddened by the realization I could not have the war that Hemingway said all young men need.

Winston Churchill warned otherwise. But very few paid attention. I didn't, not even when his famous speech that coined Iron Curtain was delivered a short distance from Camp Crowder, the Missouri base where I was stationed at the time.

But the Americans' vision of Josef Stalin as "Uncle Joe" fell totally apart when his iron fist came down on Berlin creating a blockade intended to grab the former imperial German capital behind Mr. Churchill's envisioned curtain. The Airlift cost Moscow the prize, which resulted in a greater display of his ferocious inhumanity.

Reading had already put me past the point where I might believe every Russian echoed Stalin. From 19th century literature I was aware there existed a wide gap between the government, any government, and the country's people. I knew he spoke only for his loyal followers.

Furthermore, at Berlin's Red Army World War II memorial I saw real Russians who looked neither menacing nor mighty. The memorial's lone sentry possessed an enormous pair of ears, a very youthful face and an overcoat that threatened to swallow his slight body.

His ceremonial rifle was topped by an enormous bayonet that easily topped the helmet that threatened to blow off his small head.

To add to the moment's comedy, when I threw my sergeant's stripes in the semblance of a salute - saying simultaneously the only Russian words I knew for the occasion - the pair of touring officers bolted and ran; on later thought I came to realize my "dobra utra" (good morning) could have been taken that I meant to begin a conversation. The practice was strictly forbidden by orders from both former allies.

That single experience made it impossible for me to view Russians as monsters intent on bending the universe to their will. The communists were something else, but represented chiefly themselves. As is true of all nations, most Muscovites and other peoples wanted to be left alone to follow their dreams of a good life.

The string of meeting Russians that followed Berlin seemed to prove the point. They confirmed my feeling that no one else was more like Americans. We are both rather large, very generous and possess a spirit that springs from the fact we are both on Europe's frontiers: Russia minds Asia as we do the Pacific. We are, more than most human beings, the result of intermingling and intermarriage between people who started out having nothing in common with anyone else.

That is not true today. As the rest of the world, the Russians tend to divide in urban categories; their biggest cities - Moscow and St. Petersburg - are surprisingly like other metropolitan centers: New York, Rome and Paris. Their young women, to use a simple example, compete with dresses that are in all cases an urban uniform: skirt lengths that defy modesty, dazzling richly decorated blue jeans worn with boots contrived to be like no one else's.

The casual observer might say they are trying hard to be like Americans, but look again and you will discover what our young have adopted as uniforms have become cries and manifestations of individuality.

The single aspect of this trip compared to my three earlier visits is the evidence that Russia has become so much wealthier; their vast fields of oil doubtless contribute. Unlike 2000 when I first saw the Kremlin, there is literally no respite from steady traffic jams, except late night and very early in the morning.

The obvious prosperity could be taken to preclude, as in 1945, any and all wars. In any case, Russian troops packed it in after trying to pacify Afghanistan, in 1989; they failed like the 19th century British armies before them. Muscovites justifiably scoff at today's American wars. They find nothing funny, however, in the self-afflicted wounds by the world's remaining superpower.

What poet Kipling characterized as "the white man's (civilization's) burden" could easily be left in the dust; under present circumstances; the world's population could easily descend into clans and tribes, causing much of humanity's accomplishments to dwindle into nothingness. I could be wrong, of course.

But the fear is there and nothing seen these 10 glorious days in Russia makes my worries less.

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