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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Society Without Smiles

I did not expect much from my fust trip abroad: I had read so many books, seen so many films that at times I had the feeling that 1 had already seen it all with my own eyes. But the shock of my contact with the world beyond the iron curtain was severe. and I can tell you exactly what it was that shook me the most. It was the smiles.


I will remember the first one forever. I was walking down a wide street in Brussels, empty at that hour, on my way to the metro. I was still quite a distance from the entrance and an elderly woman, smiling brightly, held the door for me, waiting until I got there. Her action was so unbelievable to a native Muscovite that I turned around to see who it was she was smiling at. The street was empty. There could be no doubt about it -- the smile was meant for me!


The simple, plain face of this elderly woman in Brussels in an instant became tor me the face of Europe. Her face was wonderful to me, because it was lit with a completely natural, instinctive, almost automatic smile, directed at a stranger.


There were so many of them later, these instinctive, automatic smiles, whose aura I never got used to -- not in Brussels, Paris, Amsterdam, Boston, San Francisco, in so many large and small cities and towns in Europe and America. Good Lord, how much teasing I took from my friends living in these cities and towns! People would exclaim over my naivete, saying that there was nothing behind such smiles and that to be so touched by them was absurd.


My kind friends, let me argue with you. I have no doubt: In some ways you are right, and the smiles which bring me such delight are superficial and are not a sign of a kind heart or a responsive nature. But you cannot imagine what they mean to us, to people who have grown up in a society without smiles. You can complain all you want that the windows in a house are small or that the glass is dirty. But you cannot fail to be cheered by a window if you have spent your whole life in a house without sunshine.


In Soviet songs the word "smile" figured prominently. In Soviet films radiant smiles filled the screen. Columns of smiling citizens filled the main squares of the capital on holidays, while triumphant smiles on bright posters were plastered on the sides of buildings.


But on ordinary days on the streets, in the stores, on public transportation, even in movie theaters and sports stadiums, we were surrounded by frowning, tense and impersonal faces, and we constantly felt that suspicious and disapproving glances were directed our way.


This should not be interpreted as a national characteristic: Russians have been known for centuries for their kindness, their responsiveness, their hospitality, their ability to sympathize. The glumness on our faces is not a Russian, but a Soviet characteristic. It was cultivated by the government and was one of its victories.


The infection spread to other countries, along with the tenets of communism. Soon these nations as well were characterized by frowns. State borders corresponded exactly to the smile and non-smile areas.


So there is something behind the standard smiles of Americans and Europeans. It is a healthy society. Health is always tied to smiles -- this is human nature. A healthy child is cheerful for no particular reason, but when he starts to whine, it is time to take his temperature.


We have forgotten how to smile at each other, because for many years we were a sick society. Of the symptoms (and causes) of this illness I would put fear in the first place.


As a result of the painstaking work of the government, Soviet society was split into two parts: informers, and those they informed against. The border between these two groups was secret; it could extend through a family, it very often cut through a group of friends, it was always a factor at work. The natural ties between people were distorted by constant fear -- some were afraid that they would be informed on, while others trembled that they would be exposed as informers.


As a result, everyone looked at everyone else with distrust, they avoided meeting another person's gaze, and everyone -- acquaintance or, even more, stranger -- was seen as a secret enemy.


The end of 1991 was unbearably gloomy in Moscow. The clocks had been set back, and it began to get dark at 2 P. M. There was no food, not even the most basic, and we stopped inviting friends to come round, since there was nothing to serve them. We also stopped going to visit, since we had nothing to bring with us.


On one of these dark afternoon-evenings I climbed the icy steps of a store, with the almost forgotten word "Milk" displayed on a sign. The door swung open, and a young woman came out.


"Don't bother going in, there is nothing there", she said to me. But instead of disappointment I was happy. I could not figure out why right away. Only a few minutes later did I realize that a great event had taken place in my life -- in my own city a stranger had turned to me and smiled.


The smile of this unknown Muscovite was no different from that of the Belgian woman: It was a normal human smile. and it meant that normal human relations were beginning to bind us together. So we are living in a poor, destitute, but normal society.


It has been a year since then. By now, I think, everyone has noticed; smiles have appeared on the streets of Moscow. There are not too many of them yet, but the spring grass does not cover the whole meadow at once. Fear is receding from our lives, and society is recovering from a long illness. We can only wish it a speedy recovery.


Sophia Bogatyreva is a writer and literary critic living in Moscow