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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

America Isn't Much Better Than U.S.S.R.

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For a while in the mid-1970s, whenever I met an American, I would typically be the first person from the Soviet Union they had set their eyes on. I gladly practiced my English by relating to them the horrors of Communist oppression and lamenting the lack of freedom in the country that I left behind.

Their usual reaction to my stories was sympathy for my plight. This is why I was taken aback when an older African-American college classmate didn't shake his head in chagrin after I rattled off my usual catalog of woes. On the contrary, he cut into me.

"Why do you people allow this to go on?" he asked sharply. "Why don't you go down into the street and protest? We do."

To my objections that Americans, either black or white, risk little by protesting, he told me about the civil rights struggle in the South and the kind of murders and police brutality that occurred during that period.

"Sure, we don't have the KGB," he concluded. "But that's because we keep our government in line. The KGB provides an excuse for you to stay apathetic. If you don't stand up for your freedom, you don't deserve to have it."

I wonder what he thinks about the situation in the United States now. Unlike the war in Vietnam, which divided the country and led to violent student protests, the war in Iraq has Americans largely united. Although nearly two-thirds believe that it was the wrong thing to do and disapprove of how U.S. President George W. Bush has been handling it, anti-war protests have been, at best, lukewarm.

The nation expressed no objections at all to such a remarkably un-American establishment as Camp X-Ray in Guantanamo Bay. Reports of torture, detention of obviously innocent or mistakenly arrested persons and outright war crimes committed in violation of treaties signed by the U.S. government go uninvestigated by law enforcement authorities. U.S. citizens accused of terrorism have had their civil rights stripped before they have been found guilty.

These practices don't reach the extent of Stalinist terror, but they are surely not much better than what went on in Leonid Brezhnev's Soviet Union. Sure, there are brave lawyers defending detainees on their own time and commentators writing about the situation, albeit mostly on the Internet and not in the mainstream media. The general public remains apathetic and meek -- much like the Soviet public was in the 1970s and 1980s.

In fact, the bravery of a handful of Soviet dissidents looks even more impressive in retrospect, in comparison with the current U.S. apathy. Establishment figures who cast aside government-provided privilege and spoke out against injustice in the Soviet Union included decorated General Pyotr Grigorenko and scientist Andrei Sakharov. In 1968, following the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, Brezhnev's version of the coalition of the willing, eight very brave souls came out to Red Square to protest. Despite severe oppression, the underground journal Chronicles of Current Events had plenty of dissident activities to report in each of its issues.

The United States' origins are grounded in a violent protest against tyranny. When the people of Massachusetts objected to taxation without representation, they dumped English tea into the Boston harbor. The founding fathers created a superbly flexible, well-balanced political system, but I wonder whether they would have objected if modern Americans had rioted in the streets after they elected Al Gore by popular vote only to have Bush be declared president by the Supreme Court.

We in the United States are now putting our faith in the political system, hoping it will give us back our freedom next January. Let's hope this hope is not misplaced and that even those who don't seem to care about freedom enough to demand it can still go on enjoying it.

Alexei Bayer, a native Muscovite, is a New York-based economist.