AP European History
March 7, 1979, started out just like every other day in the womb before it. My world was a tiny bubble of warmth and coziness, blissfully devoid of all external stimuli. When suddenly (what horror!) I was dragged, kicking and screaming, into the big, confusing, cruel world, of whose existence I was completely ignorant before. The universe as I know it came into being. Et alors, just what kind of universe was it?
Let's see... The end of the 20th century... Dinosaurs went extinct at least 65 million years earlier and stayed safely extinct, much to everybody's comfort. Pangaea had already split into separate continents, the aliens still watched and waited without interfering, and the domestication of the dog continued unabated. Am I forgetting anything? Oh, yes! Human beings existed, and, despite the ever-present menace of heat death and the implosion of the Universe, continued to make history. So, why don't we hop into the time machine and travel to Kiev, Ukraine, as it was on Thursday, March 7, 1979, and begin there a brief tour the world from the viewpoint of one insignificant individual, Lana Lazebnik.
I was born at 4 P.M. Kiev time, or nine minutes to midnight Doomsday Clock time. In Kiev, as in all of U.S.S.R., it was the eve of the so-called "International Women's Day," the Soviet equivalent of Mother's Day, and the doctors at the Zheleznodorozhny Maternity Hospital (the best in all Kiev) wanted desperately to go home... Spring had barely set in. The sun shone brightly through the sparse clouds, melting whatever snow still remained after a relatively mild winter. The political climate, on the other hand, was in a state of deep freeze. The brief "thaw" enjoyed in the 1960's under Nikita Khrushchev came and went, and the late 1970's found the country in hibernation with Leonid Brezhnev planted squarely at the helm of leadership. Even though he was not to die until 1982 at the ripe old age of 75, he appeared ill since the mid 1970's, suffering from gout, leukemia, and emphysema. Some people had already suspected him brain-dead, and told each other so in furtively whispered anecdotes.
Never mind that; the people wanted security, and security they enjoyed, but at what price? While the government newspapers trumpeted unceasingly of dedicated farm workers everywhere exceeding the plan of production, U.S.S.R., the country with the most plentiful natural resources in the world, was quietly buying grain from America and selling its oil and its gold. Regular folks were satisfied with a slightly increased standard of living and relative economic stability. The ability to buy foreign goods was a bonus, nay, even more -- happiness. Not surprisingly, the most memorable event of 1979 for my mom was the opening of a new store for newborns, where she was one of the first customers and managed to procure a great rarity -- an imported German crib. The life of my parents as they expected me, their first child, was perfectly normal, filled with insignificant daily chores and concerns.
And yet, Jews were never made to feel quite at home in the Soviet Union. But while some, like my parents, were content with a minimum of stability, others headed quietly over the border, drawn to the promise of a better life. Some of my mother's close relatives emigrated to America in 1979. When Aunt Rosa came to my grandfather to borrow some money for the road, he gave her the money and told her to get out, swearing off all contact with her forever. My grandfather was a man of old values --sentient already at the time of the Revolution, and a soldier in World War II. Patriotism, if not deep Communist convictions, bound him fast to his country. We stayed, at least for thirteen more years, even though the misgivings which later caused us to pack up were already present.
If misgivings racked the brains of other Soviet citizens, outwardly they betrayed nothing. Those who did were blacklisted, suppressed, imprisoned, committed to mental hospitals, or, in rare cases, exiled out of the country. Dissidents! Stories of them were common in American newspapers at around the time of my birth. On March 1, a group of 2400 American scientists pledged to break all contacts with their Russian colleagues in protest against the imprisonment of two dissident scientists, physicist Yuri Orlov and mathematician Anatoly Scharansky. On March 6, Mustafa Djemilev, a Crimean Tatar activist who wanted to obtain permission for the deported Crimean Tatars to return to their homeland, was sentenced to four years of internal exile. On the same day, a Ukrainian dissident, Mikhail Melnick, committed suicide after his home was searched by the KGB. On March 23, the 83-year-old Vladimir Shelkov, leader of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, was sentenced to five years hard labor on charges of slandering the Soviet State... And yet, this persecution was neither as large-scale nor as spectacular as that practiced under Stalin. The majority of the populace never heard most of these stories, and remained ignorant of the futile struggle and suffering of a few courageous souls against the seemingly invincible Soviet ideology.
Meanwhile, life outside the Soviet Union went on. The Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia and the subsequent Chinese intervention in that region gave Brezhnev the opportunity to call China "the most serious threat to peace in the whole world" in his March 2 speech. In that same speech, he expressed his confidence that the Soviet-American strategic arms limitation talks would soon produce a treaty. He also seemed to take a milder tone towards the U.S. than he did in past months. However, later that year, the U.S.S.R. was to outrage the rest of the free world by occupying Afghanistan in order to protect a pro-Soviet regime there. The Soviet involvement in Afghanistan was to drag on for a decade, and become just as futile, bloody, and unpopular as the U.S. involvement in Vietnam...
So, what other events troubled the unhappy world in 1979? The beginning of that year found Iran in serious political turmoil which caused the Iranian oil production to collapse and exports to the U.S. to cease temporarily. On March 5th, Iran resumed oil exports, ending a 69-day interruption, but this new crisis sent the crude oil prices soaring and hurt the world economy. Elsewhere in the Middle East, strides toward peace were being made. Egypt's President Anwar al-Sadat and Israel's Prime Minister Menachem Begin sealed a historical peace treaty as Jimmy Carter looked on, providing the Soviet authorities with an opportunity to claim that the U.S. role in promoting the treaty was a way of extending U.S. influence in the Middle East after the loss of its foothold in Iran.
And yet, in the face of all these momentous events, regular American folks were not a particularly unhappy bunch. They danced and sang when the Village People climbed the charts with YMCA (#2 hit as of March 7), shelled out their hard-earned bucks to see Superman when it came out in February and cheered when the Pittsburgh Steelers won the SuperBowl a month before. Regular folks in Russia, of course, couldn't care less about the Village People or the SuperBowl. Instead, they listened to the songs of Alla Pugacheva and Josef Kobzon (who, they say, has now become a "businessman" of shady sorts), cheered for the Kiev Dynamo, an immensely popular soccer team, and shelled out their hard-earned rubles to see the excellent acting of Faina Ranevskaya and Innokenti Smoktunovski.
What else can be said about our planet Earth as it was on that momentous day of March 7, 1979? Just as white miners across South Africa were going on strike to protest abolishing segregation in skilled jobs and Chinese troops were wantonly looting Vietnamese villages, scientists announced finding for the first time a thin ring of rock particles around Jupiter, showing up as a long fuzzy streak on a photograph taken by the Voyager I space craft... The implications of this relatively unimportant footnote to the many political, social, and economic events of that time struck me. Voyager I continued the inexorable process of discovery started by Galileo Galilei in the 17th century, when he first discerned the four moons of Jupiter through the imperfect lens of his telescope. Galileo was a dissident of his time, a lone free-thinker waging a futile battle against the seemingly invincible religious ideology. Alone, aging, and weary, he was forced to recant. But maybe, just maybe, as he was standing with his head bowed before the Inquisition, Galileo had a vision of Voyager I hurtling past Jupiter into the starry depths of outer space...
On this note ends the brief tour of the world as it was on March 7, 1979, through the eyes of one insignificant individual, Lana Lazebnik. So, what have we learned? Let's see... The end of the 20th century... Dinosaurs went extinct at least 65 million years earlier and stayed safely extinct, much to everybody's comfort. Pangaea had already split into separate continents, the aliens still watched and waited without interfering, and the domestication of the dog continued unabated.