FREEDOM: SO FRAGILE

by David Sisler

Katherine Marydale is a gifted historian. In her new book, Night of Stone: Death and Memory in Russia, she studies the mentality and the perception of the Russian people. In one vignette, she writes about an 18 year old married woman who received a letter from her father. Nothing untypical about that, until you learn that the father vanished into the Gulag along with millions of other Russians when the girl was nine.

The father wrote, "I've been a prisoner of the government for nine years. And the only way I have been able to survive is because of my intense love for you, my daughter. I have lived for the moment when I would see you again."

The young woman wrote back and said, "I thought you were dead. Please do not contact me again."

Joseph Stalin is reported to have said with vicious cynicism, "One man dying in a traffic accident is a tragedy, but a million dead is just a statistic." The number of the dead depends on who is telling the story. Estimates vary, but always the total is in the millions, double digit millions. Under the Bolsheviks, then the Communists, continuing until the time of Mikhail Gorbachev, people all over the Soviet Union disappeared into the prison system popularly called by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago. For millions more there was a simple shot to the back of the head.

Then Communism collapsed. Ronald Wilson Reagan's greatest achievement was overseeing the end of "The Evil Empire."

I started traveling to Russia in 1993 and within days of my first arrival I knew it was not the people of those lands who were evil, but their rulers who kept the population in virtual slavery. I sat with a group of health professionals and casually told the story of "Duck and Cover." It was an exercise I learned as a boy in elementary school the air raid siren would shriek its warning and we would duck under our school desks and cover our heads, practicing for the day when the missiles were really incoming. One of the doctors grimaced and I thought I had committed a terrible social blunder. Then he smiled a knowing smile and said, "We did the same thing."

Equality was the alleged watch word under Communism. But some were more equal than others and they made the rules and killed or imprisoned those who broke the rules. Repression was the actual watch word.

Less than one year ago I visited Moldova for the first time. Established in the 15th century, Moldova was quickly swallowed up by the Turkish Empire and has a long history of foreign domination. In 1991 the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic declared its independence from the Soviet Union and held its first free and democratic elections in 1994. Yesterday they may have held their last free and democratic elections. Election results in from Chisinau, the capital, show 50.2 percent of the nation voting to return the Communist Party to power. It took only ten years for the majority of Moldova to forget the repression, persecution, murder and other crimes committed against them by the Communist Party.

Moldova's march to the past actually began on November 26, 2000. That was the day they held their presidential elections. Vladimir Voronin's Communists received the largest number of votes, but not the required majority. After three unsuccessful attempts, Parliament was dissolved, new elections were ordered, and the results are now final.

Moldova is landlocked. Russian troops continue to be stationed inside of their northeastern border occupying the Transdniester region. The country has no natural reserves of gas or oil and entire cities, indeed parts of the capital, have been without heat for three successive winters. The economy has staggered. There are no large industries. Shortages of needed supplies have increased. The last ten years have not been easy years. But there was freedom. And a chance.

The vote to return the Communists to power is a tragedy, reminiscent of ancient Israel when the people said, "We should choose a leader to take us back to Egypt. It is better to live as slaves with full bellies than to die of starvation as free men." Under the last decade of Communism, starving people stood in endless lines hoping for a single loaf of bread.

Freedom, so fragile, is consistently attacked, and inconsistently defended. How quickly we forget!

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Copyright 2001 by David Sisler. All Rights Reserved.

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