In November 1932, when I was twelve years old, my parents decided to return to what was then called the Soviet Union. They had emigrated, separately, to America in 1917, when both were about seventeen years old, my father from near Minsk and my mother from Odessa. They met several years later at night school in the Bronx, where they were learning English. My parents were both quite radical, in complete sympathy with the Russian Revolution. Had it occurred just a few months earlier, they probably would have remained in Russia.
By 1932 the Depression had settled in with a grimness that was keenly felt by almost all the families in the East Bronx, where we lived. My father, a skilled restaurant worker, could find no employment. At this propitious moment he discovered a group that had been recruited to install an Americanstyle mass kitchen for a huge factory on the outskirts of Moscow, and he gladly joined it. The Russian government was generous in its offer. In addition to paying my father’s salary, it would supply an apartment in a new housing development and would send my sister and me to an English-speaking school in the heart of Moscow. Carrying some shiny copper vats and other restaurant equipment, the group traveled to Moscow via ship and train, arriving just in time for the famous Russian winter.
Sometime after our arrival my mother got in touch with her sister, who now lived in Kiev, and arranged to visit her. My sister and I went along for the ride, and so we witnessed first hand Stalin’s battle with the Russian peasants, the kulaks, who were resisting collectivization of their agricultural system. Their attachment to the land ran completely contrary to Soviet ideology, and when they stubbornly refused to form socialized collectives, Stalin’s response was blunt and straightforward. He destroyed their crops and refused to allow food to be shipped into the Ukraine from elsewhere. We now know that millions of Ukrainians died of starvation during precisely this period.
Our trip from Moscow to Kiev started out normally enough. We traveled in a first-class compartment in a train that was obviously left over from czarist times, elegant if a bit shabby. When we arrived in Kiev, I was stunned to observe what appeared to be an entire city starving. Children were walking around with swollen bellies. One of the first things I saw was a dead child lying in the street; a policewoman was removing the boots from its body.
Apparently forewarned, my mother had brought food with her, and we shared it with my aunt and her son, Volodya. The trip back to Moscow was the reverse of the trip out: We left a city in starvation and arrived in a city that was normal for the time —dreary and colorless but without hunger.
The experience had a profound impact on me. What kind of society could have two cities, easily connected by rail, with such different food supplies? Why didn’t the communist authorities send some food from Moscow to Kiev and the rest of the Ukraine? I simply couldn’t understand this, but it did jolt me into a feeling that the so-called workers’ paradise was not living up to its promise. This was one of the many shocks that led me eventually to jettison my last vestiges of communist belief.
To this day, whenever I hear about the Soviet society not living up to its promise, I think back to that dead child in Kiev. The workers’ paradise was doomed from the beginning.