When my father penetrated the Kremlin wall. Twice
My father, Nate Fein, died in 1988, mostly of emphysema. He’d smoked most of his life, since he was 7 years old.
Before I was born, he was a writer, often of sharp political satire. And perhaps because his parents had gotten out of Odessa in 1905 — along with Trotsky, another Russian Jew — he became a scholar of Soviet politics.
To give it the proper term, he was a Kremlinologist. Indeed, one of his published satires — which, like all great satires was so near the edge of actuality a number of smart people bought it whole and publicly went nuts — was called, “The Kremlin’s Bitter T.” In it, he “exposed” a theretofore secret aspect of Stalinist strategy and apparatchik power which adapted, well, a football T formation.
Hard to say but it’s possible I eventually came to love and write about football because I knew my father had once knowledgeably and effectively mixed football terminology into satirical spydom. (He also mixed batter for gingerbread men and bread loaves, including challah, although once he insisted I do the braiding of the dough. Because, I realized, he didn’t know how and couldn’t figure it out.) But although I do write satire, all my football writing has been deeply serious. Make of that what you will, Dad.
Since I’ve become fascinated with the klutzy Russian intervention in our current political campaign, and Putin’s apparent effort to take Hillary Clinton down — which, if you think about the implications and ramifications, should alone be turning every voter to Hillary — I’ve recalled a brief conversation with Dad, a few months before he died and just before the Berlin wall came down.
Gorbachev had been in the news, with new words “perestroika” and “glasnost.” I for one was pretty thrilled. It seemed to trumpet the end of Soviet totalitarianism, the awakening of some sort of democratic spirit in that huge, dark country. Even though the Russians had virtually no history of anything other than rule by tyrants (I think there was a moment in 1916 or ‘17, but I may be wrong), I was hopeful.
Because it was my father who many years earlier had given me the single rule by which we could evaluate whether the public, the demos, the majority of voters were really choosing their government.
He supplied the lesson in reference to Fidel Castro: “If he really is the choice of the Cuban people, let him hold open elections in which anyone who wants to can run.” That was, Dad said, the only way to delineate dictators from elected public servants.
And he was especially contemptuous of the dogmatic sophistry offered by leftist friends of mine: “People who have lived in tyranny for thousands of years couldn’t just be suddenly given the vote. They have to be taught by their wise leaders how to exercise their right to choose their government. The vote couldn’t be just handed to them overnight.”
“The withering of the state,” indeed — whenever that would come, don’t sit up for it.
One weekend, I took care of Dad when my stepmother was away. It wasn’t difficult. He sat in a wheelchair with a glass of what looked like water but was actually vodka (it quelled the panic) at his left hand. He took frequent naps.
I wheeled him around, made us meals, and read newspaper stories out loud (the steroids he was taking had dimmed his eyesight to virtual blindness). Talking was difficult for him. With his emphysema, while he could draw in a breath, he had severe difficulty expelling one. I asked him what it felt like. He, once an athlete in a number of disciplines, said: “Like running but when you stop, you can’t get your breath back at all.”
Probably it was something in the news about the loosening of tyranny in the Soviet Union that caused me to say to him, “Gorbachev is remarkable, isn’t he? After all these centuries of tyranny. It’s really something, isn’t it?”
Dad said one thing only: “Don’t trust them.”
He was right.