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STORIES FROM THE OTHER SIDE THE 4TH OF JULY AND THE USSR
Independence Day is a time for celebrating our rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as set forth in our nation’s Constitution. Having come from a military family and having served in the United States Navy, I am keenly aware of the costs of these liberties. But perhaps my most unique perspective comes from my time spent in the Soviet Union, where I witnessed firsthand what life looks like outside of a democracy. Serving in the Navy during the Cold War, I gained a passing familiarity with the Russian language. Part of my job was to listen in to Soviet radio intercepts to keep track of their warships and submarines. Two years later, I got a call asking if I would be interested in signing on with a military subcontractor attached to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. Fascinated by the opportunity, I packed my bags and shipped off to Russia in 1989, two years before the Soviet Union’s collapse. Landing in Moscow, I learned life under Soviet rule was worse than I had imagined. Driving through those bleak, snow-covered streets, I saw endless lines of hungry citizens trying to get into stores with empty shelves. As I spent more time in that desolate city, I learned that standing in lines was the closest thing Moscow citizens had to a pastime. It was not uncommon to get in line without knowing what you were queuing up for; all you knew was that if there was something worth waiting for, you’d better reserve your place before you missed out. Now, when I said I had a passing familiarity with Russian, it was highly specialized. I basically only knew USSR military parlance. Thankfully, I had a knack for the accent and picked it up quickly. In fact, one of the Russian food suppliers I dealt with used to bet strangers they couldn’t guess where I was from. Hearing my accent, they always guessed Kiev and were blown away when they learned I was an American. As my ability to communicate got better, I went out in public more, walking my dog through the parks and plazas of the capital city. While the Russian officials (and KGB agents) I interacted with always regarded me with suspicion, the citizens themselves were always curious to know what life was really like in America. I tried my best to describe the nation of plenty I had come from: a land of opportunity where you could build a life for yourself and find dozens of types of bread in a single aisle of a supermarket. Most of them probably thought I was just spouting
propaganda. Honestly, I wouldn’t believe me either had I grown up in such horrible conditions. Your local Walmart would sound like a veritable heaven on earth to a citizen of the Soviet Union. Part of my duties at the embassy involved getting food for everyone to eat, and we had an arrangement on the gray market with one of the local bakers. Every week or so, I drove a truck around to the back alley of the bakery, gave our contact several hundred rubles (pocket change in USD), and watched while he emptied the contents of his store into my vehicle. One day, the gathering crowd out front witnessed this exchange happening and were understandably enraged. Not only was the baker giving away all of the bread they lined up for, but he was unloading it into an American truck. I hopped into the driver’s seat and drove as fast as I could back to the safety of the embassy. The ensuing protests got so large that they later made headlines back in the United States. This riot was a symptom of a larger problem. At this late stage in the Cold War, the cracks inherent in the Communist system were readily apparent. In 1991, the USSR collapsed, and I was suddenly — and happily — out of a job. As I enjoy the Fourth of July with my family, I keep those experiences in that Soviet dictatorship close at heart. Being able to buy your favorite brand of hot dog bun may seem like a little thing, but in some parts of the world, it’s an unimaginable blessing.
It was a privilege to serve my country. To our readers in the armed forces, homeland security, and NASA, thank you for your service.
–Bra nnon Lloyd
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