Thursday, February 18, 2016

From Russia With Love (Matt Munro)

When I was barely old enough to walk and not quite old enough to start school, the former Soviet Union fell. The monolithic empire toppled down live on our television screens. It was a bitter sweet magical end for a people enslaved under what the Western World considered evil, Communism. Goliath had been stuck and now he lay death. The Cold War was over.

For years, the USSR, or Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, was the enemy of America. The Ruskies were the hammer and cycle loving red wearing beings. Although a shot was never fired, the Cold War was a vicious battle for world domination and supremacy, between two giants. It was a time the president supposedly had a thing known as the Bat Phone, a line that could go straight from the US to the Soviet Union.

It was a time of intense fear as the Rosenbergs had their jello molds and the traitorous trio sent to the gas chamber for treason. My parents practiced the duck and cover drills in school. Yes, you duck and cover because that is what will keep you safe in the event of a nuclear meltdown. Note, a metal desk has never kept anyone safe from being liquidated. So if they dropped the bomb, with this strategy, we would have all been shit outta luck.

The Soviet Union was akin to the girl you hated in school. Sure, she was pretty, smart, and you never said a bad word. Ya just didn’t like the bitch. Just as she was shady to you, you were shady back. And it’s tough to really say who was shady first. But it all went to a pinnacle when you saw her out with your buddy’s boyfriend and she was holding his hand like she owned him, tramp. She knew you saw her, and she made sure you knew. Either way, from day one, the shade was eternal on both sides.

Flag of the Former Soviet Union

In this struggle, the US was definitely the perky, more popular, prettier than the two and Russia just wanted to establish she saw that she gained weight……in her feet. You could tell by the antics of the notorious Cold War. The space race for instance. The Soviets sent a rocket. Then America sent a rocket with an animal. Take that. Well USSR had another trick up her sleeve. She sent a guy, kiss my ass America. Finally, America sent a mission to the moon. Oh Russia was screaming like a banshee on prom night.

We were merciless with our media as we took jabs at our enemies, letting Russia know we didn’t like her. Boris and Natasha were colorful yet simpleton foes, always duped by Rockie and Bullwinkle, or “Moose and Squirrel.”

James Bond, who was British secret service but worked for the CIA, went to Russia with Love. The Beetles even reached out there too. It was successful but awkward. It was a try though….

Supposedly, the CIA was as crazy as they say it was during that point. J. Edgar Hoover, the conservative, supposedly dressed in women’s clothing while working “undercover.” There are movies where they lampoon the former CIA head, and in one a comedian pretends to be a chair. Oh national security. Oh Cold War. You were quite a time.

The threat of War with Russia was real too. A contact of mine in Vegas, who was an ROTC officer in college and trained South Vietnamese soldiers during Vietnam, learned Russian in high school and college just in case. Mind you, this was during Bay of Pigs. The bungled mission of mercy was followed by an embargo.

In retrospect, we only focus on the wrong Castro did. However, we never discuss the racial segregation that was the rule in Cuba. We never discuss the supremacy the white Cuban landowners lorded over their Afro Cuban brethren. We never speak about how Castro, while an isolationist, created a society where equality and racial integration are the norm.

As I mentioned, my parents were coming of age during this time. There were many peace measures on behalf of the Soviet Union and US. One was a Khruschev trip to the United States. Khruschev made a trip to Mesta in Pittsburgh. It was where my dad’s father and his grandfather worked, as a master machinist and roller turner respectively. The reason for the trip was Pittsburgh was a center of industry. Mind you this was before the mills closed, and although I never met either they always got a kick out of telling this story. 

Khruschev was a colorful character. The Premier’s fiery antics raised eyebrows and made one chuckle. At a UN meeting, he took his shoe off and banged it on the table when he felt he wasn’t getting his point across. The Premier was wearing an expensive watch. At the time there was a man named Earl Stevens working in the mill. He was a half black, half Cherokee Korean War vet who had a drinking problem. Earl saw Khruschev walking through the mill and complimented the Premier on his watch. Khruschev took it off his wrist and gave it to Earl. The blue color guys who had only ever seen someone of Khruschev’s power on television ohhhed and awwwed.

Khruschev of course was making a statement. He had heard all the American talk about how the people of Russia were being oppressed and mistreated. He had heard all the talk about the evil of Communism. Yet he knew a man like Earl who worked and paid taxes was treated like a second class citizen. Khruschev wasn’t stupid. He knew about the Civil Right’s Movement. By giving him his watch, it was Ms. USSR letting Ms. America know she was reading her, and this was instant shade in her direct. This of course was perhaps inspired by Gary Powers and his U2 spy mission gone wrong as well. Oh history.

As I mentioned, Earl was a terrible drunk. While oppression proved rather lucrative in this case, booze can be expensive and this watch was nice. So he pawned it.

Khruschev banging his shoe at the UN

After these uneasy peace missions was a decade of more shade. When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, America boycotted the Olympics in Moscow. Four years later, the Soviet Union boycotted the Olympics in Los Angeles and produced The Friendship Games, a rival event. It was a war with no shots fired but jabs taken at each other on both ends. America and the USSR were the party guests who took cheap shots at each other but there was no physical violence. When both left the room someone else uttered, “Okay, moving right along….”

Some of this shade still exists on the part of the Russians today. Years ago, I was selected to do a land bridge because of some of my television exposure. Russians had questions for Americans, and Americans had questions for Russia. The Russians had heard stories of American children being adopted and abused, and they felt the United States was coming to Russia to steal the DNA of Russian children. This made me furious because I have cousins adopted from Russia, 4 to be exact, and all in good homes.

On top of that, the Russians were under the impression that we were a country where homosexuals were abducting children, because LGBTQ people are notoriously persecuted there. Not to mention they thought we dated online because we were always accusing each other of sexual harassment. Some of this was funny, and some of this was sad. This was all a part of the perpetual, no reason shade Russia and America threw at each other. At the same time, it was an education in how sheltered the people still were and how their media warped the perception of America. Mind you, while it is easy to throw stones at Russia, our American media perverts the truth, too.

Mind you, all this confusion and misconception came during the events that precipitated the Cold War. The trigger of course for the war where there was never a shot fired came as a result of Korea. Truman wanted to contain the spread of Communism, and because of the Domino Theory they feared that if one nation fell to Communism others would fall. Thus gave birth to The Marshall Plan.
Harry Truman, a well-intended fellow who had a lot to deal with, wanted to contain the spread of Communism so the Soviet Union couldn’t expand. He sent the US Troops to Korea. Known as Mr. Truman’s War, while he did contain he accidentally and unknowingly started The Cold War. In retrospect, given the feeling on both sides, perhaps this was the best solution with the least amount of lives lost. However, it created more bad feeling and more fear on both sides. It is safe to say Mr. Truman was in a lose/lose situation either way.

Either way, Russia had long since sought a national identity and found one, that of a Communist empire. Because of this, Russia, or Leningrad as it became, became a training center for Communist Revolutionary Trainees. One of the most legendary graduates was none other than Ho Chi Minh. First approaching Woodrow Wilson, Ho Chi Minh vocalized his want of a free Vietnam ruled by the Vietnamese people instead of the French and Chinese repeatedly victimizing his people. Woodrow Wilson dismissed the little Asian man, a move Americans would come to regret.

Hi Chi Minh, a true son of the revolution and hero to his people. Stop making him a monster, Western World. 

Ho became the champion of the peasants, their savior. For centuries, they had been at the mercy of landlords who oppressed them, demanding higher taxes, rent, and a share of their crops. These landlords feasted off the flesh and bones of their peasants, not caring that they and their families starved. So when Ho rose to power, he sought retribution on the demon landlords by starving them. When Vietnam fell to Communism, it was finally a free Vietnam devoid of Chinese and French influence.

While American history teachers do nothing short of making Ho Chi Minh akin to Satan, he was more or less a benevolent dictator who truly cared about the people he served. He was a true son of the Communist Revolution. He still has a postage stamp in his homeland, and you are penalized for trash talking the man.

All and all, because we were busy giving international dirty looks to the Soviet Union, we sent our boys to die in the jungle. And for what? Because we feared what might happen, and didn’t? Or we wanted to prevent the inevitable in a place where we had no business? Or we wanted to stick our nose in a place where Communism may have improved the lives of the peasants? And in the process, the generation that did not die was destroyed for a point that was never proven. Oh Russia and America, you have both behaved so badly here.

My father feels in retrospect Vietnam was a wise move. That if not contained the Soviet Union would raged out of control and a record number of countries would have fallen to Communism. It’s useless to debate about what did not happen, but history is never black or white, neither is war. Rather, it is a miasma of gray.

As an AP European History student in high school, I had an instructor by the name of Miss Garber. She was easily one of the brightest people I have ever come into contact with. A true genius and eternal, dedicated messenger of the record of events, I often wondered why she was wasting our time with us and not teaching in college. Unlike many history teachers in America, lazy because of time, she refused to give us a one dimensional, simplistic view of why the world was the way it was. For that, I will always be grateful.

During one class she posed the question, "Is Russian European or Asian?"

Since it’s land mass was so large, we came up confused for the most part. Some of the class said Europe. Others said Asia. I was in the group that said it was both. "The question is unanswered, and it is a question that people have been asking for centuries." Ms. Garber replied, half smiling.
Yes it was true, Russia was a country who, up to Communism had lacked a national identity and was desperately seeking one. As to whether it was European or Asian, it wasn’t even sure. When one thinks of it, because of Russia’s vast makeup, it’s more ethnically varied than the US could ever be. In the European part of Russia, they are all fair haired and fair skinned. As you go farther East, however, skin gets darker as do the eyes and hair. Finally when you reach the Asian part of the county, the people are very Asiatic looking.

Mind you, the people also live differently. In the European part are the cities and the universities. It is where the art and culture occur. When one gets to the Asian part, the people are more or less nomadic. They herd sheep and live in huts. They are of Turkic descent, having migrated in the Middle Ages. They are products of Mongul invasions and all that occurred there. And then there were the Korean migrants who came for work in the 19th century and just stayed.

To give you an idea, both Olga Korbut and Nellie Kim, both Soviet gymnastic stand outs and teammates at various points in time, are both Russian. And both women could not look more different.
Olga Korbut

Nellie Kim

Also, as I mentioned in Europe are where the big cities are. Once you leave the cities and hit the plains, you hit arid wasteland, and can drive for days at a time without seeing a soul. The winters are long and miserable and this is why Checkov was a hit. And then the winters are severe, and some places are near artic and uninhabitable such as Siberia. However, in other places, wheat can be grown rather successfully. As a matter of fact, Russia used to export wheat quite a bit.

Around the 15th century, the confused country began to take steps in forging a national identity. Peter the Great, destined to be Czar, decided to take a pilgrimage before ascending to the throne he was divinely destined to according to the principal of divine right of kings. He made his first trip ever outside of Russia and saw how the rest of the world lived. During his trip to Germany, he saw cuckoo clocks, and no such thing existed in Russia. He also saw boats and had never seen one let alone been on one during his time working with his hands in a shipyard. Growing fond of the work, he became an expert with knots.

Peter the Great also saw men were beginning to shave and also mixed socially with women. He also witnessed people eating with utensils. This was not even fathomable in Russia. Peter the Great took his discoveries home. Soon there were cuckoo clocks keeping time. Men and women mixed socially. Males shaved. And the steps began to found The Russian Navy. Thus he has gone down in history as the father of modern Russia.

Mind you, like all other countries in Europe, Russia wanted to emulate the Roman Empire. Thus the Russian ruler was known as The Czar, and the German ruler the Kaiser in reference to Julius Caesar. And both nations were grappling for a national identity at the very same time.

Russia’s quest for a national identity got a big break when the serfs were freed around the same time the slaves were freed in America. It was all irony and no planning. While not slaves in the technical sense, the serfs were part of the feudal system. They were forced to work for the Lord of the Manor and give him a portion of their crops, even if it meant they starved. Granted, they could technically leave if they wanted to, but could not afford to do so.

Around this time, Marx and Engle began to write. Their first words were, “Workers of the world unite.” Enter VI Lenin.  

Although Communism has gone down as destructive and proven unworkable, let’s talk about how the world became this mess in the first place, especially Russia. Yes, as the nobles feasted on the work of the middle class and peasants. These were people sick and tired of being sick and tired. Sick and tired of the "divine right." Sick and tired of not having the class mobility and sick and tired of working hard and still being poor. Actually, this is almost, ironically, what America is becoming now.
Sure, Lenin and Stalin may have been power hungry and evil. But perhaps the real bad guys are the rest of the world for ignoring the plight of these people as long as they did.

Around the time their national identity was coming to fruition, Russia was a strange bedfellow with the rest of Europe. While it was far away and sometimes distant, the Czar's grandmother, much like the Kaiser's, was Queen Victoria. However, there was also racial tension between Russia and Germany. For centuries, the Germanic people had long believed they were superior to the Slavs, and that the Slavs were inferior in every way. Hitler even said as much in Mein Kampf. However, this was nothing new. If anything, the Germanic feeling of racial superiority helped pull the Princip trigger that killed Archduke Ferdinand.

Yes, it can be said that it is a bad habit of the German people.

The Russians returned the favor. Because the Czarina was German by birth, they believed she was a traitor by default. They believed she was disloyal, a spy when the war broke out. They also believed she felt a comfortable superiority. While it has never been confirmed, one can ascertain based on European politics at the time they  were probably closer to correct than not.

For the first part of WWI, Russia fought as an Ally to UK and France. However, Germany wanted Russia out of the picture. Lenin, who was exiled, was put on a train by German officials and given a ticket back to Russia. A professional revolutionary and effective speaker, he would do what they wanted, rid Germany of Russia. Hence the Revolution began.
VI Lenin, in some Revolutionary action shot

It was a whole complicated mess, and no blog would do it justice, only a book. Russia began to invade neighboring countries and absorbed them. While it was cruel in some ways, these citizens had come to Russia for economic opportunities to begin with. Also, with the Russian system in place, people had academic and athletic opportunities they did not have previously. A gifted person's athletic and academic achievements could get their family a house from the state, something they may have never had.  Granted, it also meant being taken as a child, which was emotionally and mentally scarring for these proteges. Plus they had universal healthcare. So in many ways better, in many ways worse.

Any progress was at the expense of these states losing their individuality and national identity. Russian, a language hated by the former Republics in freedom, was spoken in schools. Religion outlawed as both a measure of national identity and security. Or as Karl Marx said, "Religion is the opium of the people." Now the identity was complete. Everyone was Russian.

Just as Russia was that shady acting girl, the United States was the high school cheerleader that loved to stir the pot in the girl's locker room by throwing shade of our own. During WWI, as Russia had exited in order to contend with the Communist Revolution, American troops marched into the USSR. Thus they were captured. Woodrow Wilson, rather than bargain, refused to do so because it meant recognizing the Soviet government. Thus we left 5000 of our troops to parish, all just to thumb democracy and capitalism into the nose of our Communist foe.

Around that time, Oliver Wendell Holmes, a well-known Supreme Court Justice, ruled that it was constitutional to sterilize  a mentally disabled young woman. In his decision he wrote, "One generation of imbeciles is enough." (Germany would later cite this, word for word). Also, conversely, there were studies about a family called the Kallikak’s in South Jersey, supporting eugenics.

Russia, long before Germany got the idea, began a long campaign of Jewish persecution because the Jews did not match the Russian ethnic picture. While Germany hated Jews, their Jews lived on the outskirts of town but worked and generally did not clash with their neighbors, they were just alienated. Russia passed anti-Jewish laws long before Germany. Russian Jews were not allowed to own land let alone go to school. When he got a chance, Stalin set up concentration camps of his own to exterminate them as well as anyone else who opposed his iron fist rule. However, because they were our Allies in WWII we swept this under the rug. Hitler was the big Jew killer. Meanwhile, Stalin killed more Jews and even more of his own people.

Mind you, just as Germany and Russia were desperate to find a national identity, so was America. After all, we had only just wizened the tiara of World Super Power.  Like three annoying college students with snot noses and big mouths, and so our journey's began.

While WWI ended, the Germans and Russians hated each other and with a passion. Many thought this would foolishly be the war to end all wars, but it only caused more conflict. When Europe was reworked, Czechoslovakia was created. It was a territory composed of Germanic and Slavic peoples. The Germans detested their forced countrymen, and likewise. During a census, a region of the country was classified as Slavic and their was a riot were several people were killed.

When Hitler rose to power, he wanted Germany to have it's chance to shine. He wanted to merge all the Germanic people's of Europe into one. However, it must be known that while the German's had a superiority complex, they also had a chip on their shoulder. During the days of the Ostrogoths and Visigoths, they had fought the Roman Legion many a time and had never been defeated. They fought until the death, refusing to retreat then, and continued this practice until WWII. (Because their descendants settled in the Alps of Northern Italy, this is in part why Italy was an Axis Power). Despite the fact the Romans feared these people who even had their women fight, they were never able to achieve the level of greatness let alone organization that Rome did. The Kaiser had promised and failed. Now Hitler swore to make this dream come true, domination for the Teutonic peoples.

Hitler: Evil Nazi Maniac looking like the product of a bad one night stand between Chef Boyardee and The Pillsbury Dough Boy

Stalin had the same dream for Russia. Long since the dawn of time, they had been laughed at and gawked at by Western Statesman. They too wanted their shot at what was the closest they could get to a Roman Empire. Stalin sought to make Russia a great military power, and sought to destroy Germany or anyone else who got in his way. Like Hitler, he invaded countries like Poland simply because he felt like it. Like Hitler, he wanted to expand the living space for Slavic people everywhere. And this dark haired, bushy eye brow possessing poetry loving former safe cracker from the Baltic State of Georgia (a place where he is still regarded as a hero), sought to nationalize all Slavs by making Russia their language. Just like Princep before him, he was tired of the Germanic people oppressing the Slavs. He and his people too had a chip on their shoulder. They too wanted not only vocal nationalistic pride, but also world domination.

Stalin waving, happy after the weekly starving of the peasants

While both are evil and were mad men that slowly dragged their people to the pits of hell, it can be safe to say they were rancid dishes of tuna noodle casserole cooking in the oven of Europe for several centuries.

During WWII, Russia remained impossible to invade because of the land mass and unbearable weather. Due to the fact winter begins early there, just like Napoloen before him, Hitler invaded in the winter and stupidly so. It was a disaster, because the German's froze to death. Winter coats, women's winter coats, had to be expressed dropped, and therefore the Nazi's looked pretty glamorous as they got frost bite. Mind you, nothing is gayer than the goosestep or those uniforms. For a bunch of latent homophobes, this really sealed the deal.

 Russia were allies, but uneasy bedfellows. Churchill especially did not trust Stalin and was vocal about this. Meanwhile, Rommel, aka The Desert Fox, had been especially critical of Hitler. Rommel felt Hitler was a mad man who would drag Germany into the ground. While German troops did not traditionally retreat, Rommel was a career soldier and felt they were losing men unnecessarily. Not to mention he treated the men he captured fairly. A career soldier, he opposed the mistreatment of Jews. He only took the job because as I mentioned, he was a career soldier. While his son joined because all German boys did of age, Rommel was also not impressed with the Hitler Youth movement and said so whenever possible.

Rommell proposed assassinating Hitler, making peace with UK and America, and marching to Russia to invade. His plan was discovered and he was forced to drink poison. Rommel was onto something. Poor guy.

The war ended and Churchill's suspicion grew and he relayed it to Roosevelt, thus the seeds of an unspoken, cease fire conflict began.

While Russia and America never formally came to blows, there has been some Post-Vietnam discourse about POWs that were deserted not only by Nixon, but by the American government not just because it was c but they were impossible to find. There is talk of these POWs having been transported to the former Soviet Union to possibly serve out their prison sentence. While some of this conjecture is regarded as wild conspiracy, there might be some truth to this. The USSR hated us as much as we hated them, and they were looking to screw us as much as we were looking to screw them. Why not?

Either way, this was academic and media painted picture was the only reference I had to the former Soviet Union until I was a teenager. Mind you, there was the labeling of the 15 former Republics in Mrs. Pontist’s class before that, but then as I mentioned I have 4 cousins adopted from Russia. My aunt and uncle, unable to have children of their own, went to Moscow in the dead of winter to retrieve what would be 2 boys and 2 girls. Spectacular human beings, one is a champion fencer, another a science whiz with dreams of becoming a surgeon, another is captain of her silks squad, and the littlest one is a talented gymnast. Either way, these kids who began their journey in Russia have added greatly to the fabric of my family.

As a young comedian, I also did many spots in Sheepshead Bay and Coney Island. I met a lot of people of Russian descent. Blunt, outspoken, honesty, funny, and hardworking, they also proved loyal. Many like myself were not just living the American dream, but trying to live the comedy dream as their family members shook their heads.

These past few months, I have been receiving a lot of international press, and a significant amount from Russia. Friends of mine who speak Russian fluently have proudly translated and we have laughed out loud. Even if nothing comes of all this international press, at least I can say that I got to experience the world in a way many don’t get to, and got to learn a lot about the world I inhabit that I did not know.
The whole family in a Russian paper

Additionally, Laurel of Laurel’s sew shop who made my costume, got featured as well. As did Rik Sansone’s child of SPAZ Comics. Essentially, we all got a free trip to Russia.

A friend told me that puppets are popular in Russia. There is a popular show where a bunny puppet reads bedtime stories to children. Just like American parents, they too want to make sure their children are loved and cared for. Maybe by getting my press I did my part to bridge the gap. Maybe I will even get to be so lucky to perform their someday. My opening line will be, “Ivan, you are terrible…” Just kidding.

Either way, Russia, this history loving, puppet carrying dork who can’t keep a man wants to send you her love. 

May Wilson and I holding 2nd edition of SPAZ. Costume by Laurel of Laurel's Sew Shop. 

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