Russian Culture and Me (II)

Armando Chaguaceda


Cold winds blew at the end of 1989, a particularly biting spell for Havana.  The sensation of loneliness gripped us all…a sensation that would last —in the sense of its newness and depth— for at least three more years.

With apparent speed, one by one the governments of Eastern Europe fell, sending Cubans into shock after their having read cheery news items only days before from a press seeking to hide the unavoidable “collapse.”

The US invasion of Panama and its criminal bombing of the Chorrillo neighborhood, the forced ebb of guerrilla wars in Central America, the electoral defeat of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, the cowardly flight of Mengistu from Ethiopia, and finally the bankrupt coup d’état against Mikhail Gorbachev and the negotiated end of the USSR, were episodes of a long tragicomedy.

Here on the island we learned of the painful firing squad execution of national hero General Arnaldo Ochoa, accused of drug trafficking.  We were also in the grip of the endless “Special Period in a Time of Peace” – a name given to the most punishing socioeconomic crisis in our history as an independent republic.

As the few exceptions to those disastrous times, I remember the fiesta-marches championed by the former head of the Young Communist youth, Roberto Robaina; and the fleeting stimulus of the 1991 Pan-American Games in Havana, as well as my first love affairs of adolescence.

I also remember several things about the departure of the “bolos” (what we called anything or anyone from the Soviet Union). The wives of Soviet technical workers, who resided in our neighborhood of Alamar, adopted the business mentality of that time more quickly than anyone else.  Thanks to their privilege of making purchases from “diplo-stores,” they were able to buy canned goods and other products that started becoming scarce, which they sold to their Cuban friends – my mother included.

Their children, one of whom was my good friend Roman, were (once again) indoctrinated and seduced, but this time by status symbols and capitalist consumerism. They went away without even leaving us an address of where to send their left-behind kites or a chance to recall playing soldiers.

But, being a “weird” and restless 14-year-old, I would continue browsing through the Sputnik magazine to read about the history, culture and daily life of the “sister country.”  I remember one afternoon, when arriving at Mandarria Park in my native community of Regla, I found out at the magazine stand that they would no longer be selling that magazine (nor Novedades de Moscú), since “their revisionist propaganda contaminated the ideas of socialism defended by our people.”

Without knowing it, I almost lead my first freedom of speech protest, along with several hippies and trova musicians in the neighborhood, who —like me— were making offers to buy the last remaining issue from the confused salesperson.

The other sad and spine-chilling memory of those years compelled me to collapse in front of my TV, a color Soviet Electron 386.  I recall hearing the news of the suicide of Marshal Sergei Akhromeyev in August 1991.  Laconically, the announcer read us the official note left by the deceased: “I cannot continue living while my motherland dies, and while everything I believed in —the sole objective of my existence— is being destroyed. I struggled until the end.”

I will never forget those words, which convince me still that even at the to of the bureaucracy, despite the privileges and corruption, there are people who know how to live and die with ideals and honesty as authentic communists.

“The years to come will be very, very hard,” my parents told me, after sitting me down on their bed one Sunday afternoon.  Maybe they don’t recall that moment, but it is engraved in my mind. Perhaps this happened because I was at that stage where we’re like sponges for ideas and become cemented in public-spiritedness.  In any case, nor will I forget my tears —innocent and beautiful— when the flag of the sickle and hammer was lowered before the cameras for last time, on December 31, 1991.

I still delayed some time in burying the USSR.  Upon entering high school in Havana, I became part of a circle of friends (rockers and artists) who walked around with Lenin pins and reading the last magazines saved from Perestroika.  We were accused by the school’s Young Communists of “ideological problems”…. despite our defending socialism in heated and valuable discussions with a group of young liberal poets, followers of the dissident Maria Elena Cruz Verela.  That we did, but without joining in “acts of repudiation,” whose violent intolerance disguises cowardice and opportunism.

Years later, in October 1993, backed by canon fire the catastrophic Boris Yeltsin dissolved the Congress of People’s Deputies (parliament), along with the vestiges of the last (and sole) democratic election of the Soviet period.

With the complicity of the West, hundreds of Russian citizens were slaughtered and the finest legacies of socialist reform were thwarted, encouraging an oligarchic authoritarianism that gave rise to neoliberal mismanagement and privatization.  Only then I did I have the certainty that the Soviet era was water under the bridge.

Now, amid so many honors paid to Russia at the Havana Book Fair, I wanted to dedicate these lines to all Soviets who struggled for decades against repression and despair…to make a better society a reality within the framework of that great country and its outstanding culture.  I’m not following the fashions – I just refuse to forget them.