Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Surprise for a Soviet Tourist: A Conscience

To Our Readers

Has something you've read here startled you? Are you angry, excited, puzzled or pleased? Do you have ideas to improve our coverage?
Then please write to us.
All we ask is that you include your full name, the name of the city from which you are writing and a contact telephone number in case we need to get in touch.
We look forward to hearing from you.

Email the Opinion Page Editor

Soviet children born after the Revolution, particularly in the cities, were raised as atheists. The moral laws of the Bible were replaced by the moral code of the builders of Communism. We believed what we read in the newspapers without question, and we regarded Communist slogans and the pronouncements of our leaders as the purest truth. At the same time, we experienced few pangs of conscience when justifying our own lies.

One of my mother's friends, the wife of a high-ranking military officer, once invited us to dinner. I was about seven years old at the time. The hostess' daughter began whining as soon as the pea soup was ladled into her bowl. Her mother knew that the girl always liked to come first in everything, so she proposed a race to see who could finish their soup first. The girl agreed. I wasted no time in grabbing my spoon and wolfing down my soup before the girl had finished.

"Well done, Vladichka!" the girl's mother exclaimed.

"To catch up and overtake -- that is our task," I bellowed, remembering a political slogan I had seen on the street not far from our building.

Everyone had a good laugh, but I was genuinely proud to have come up with such a fitting slogan on the spur of the moment. Later I learned that Stalin had uttered those words at a party congress.

When Soviet citizens began to travel abroad, they found much that seemed strange to them. When a friend of mine went to the United States to visit his niece, he was introduced to a Russian ?migr? professor who had left Russia back in 1917. A young woman, whose family had emigrated much later, had applied to the college where the professor taught. The entrance exam included an essay to be written in English. Her essay was filled with spelling and grammar mistakes. When he reviewed the young woman's application, the professor cleaned up the mistakes in her essay, and she was accepted.

A few months later the professor told her parents what he had done, and they in turn told their daughter. She burst into tears and declared that she could not enroll under false pretenses. "I have to tell the dean," she said. Her parents reminded the young woman that this would put the professor in a difficult position and probably get him fired. She was unmoved. "I have to do this. I couldn't live with myself otherwise," she said.

Only after her parents convinced the young woman to speak with the priest and to confess her sins in church did she agree not to go to the dean.

I don't know if this behavior is typical of Americans or not. But I am convinced that no young person in Russia would think twice about enrolling at an institute dishonestly. And it would never occur to them to confess to the dean.

Vladislav Schnitzer is a pensioner and journalist living in Moscow.