Only the solitary seek the truth, and they break with all those who don’t love it sufficiently. -Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago.
My co-author and frequent podcast co-host, W.F. Twyman, Jr. and I did something totally nuts. It wasn’t that we were being flippant, we just didn’t realize the magnitude of the task. And so, we took on the 1619 Project, essay-by-essay to create the Alternative 1619 Project Reading Guide (with an accompanying daily reading challenge). We write and read on Critical Race Theory all the time, so surely this exercise would just be a simple “plug & play”.
The world is nuanced and complex. Finding just the right essay to pair with each 1619 piece, with just the right words to promote critical thinking, was a daily struggle. We wrote a lot of it ourselves so we could find the appropriate words when there were none already in print. We wrestled both within ourselves and even with each other. We were exhausted.
What we never struggled with was our decision to pair Izabella Tabarovsky’s essay The American Soviet Mentality with the centerpiece essay in the 1619 Project, Nikole Hannah-Jones’ The Idea of America.
As we read the 1619 Project, we were struck by the accusatory tone, a judgmental gaze upon the land and ideas of the Founding Fathers. It is as if all falls away over the centuries and only collective demonization matters. Jefferson and Washington, Adams and Franklin, reduced to caricatures of race and sex. The universal is transcendent. The tribal transcends nothing. And so, what better rejoinder to the centerpiece essay of the 1619 Project than the words of a Soviet immigrant who can see the blessings of liberty with fresh eyes, who knows the scars of “collective demonization of prominent cultural figures,” and who offers us not accusation but a cautionary tone, an introspective gaze upon the depths of collective hounding and the greatness of the human condition.
Izabella, like Orwell, reminds us that words matter. The literary choice to frame all of black history as slavery and oppression seeps into the soul, oftentimes without our knowledge or even approval. Slogans are powerful. They are simple and catchy, even though they only capture a sliver, nay, a second, of our realities, if at all. But the lyrical repetition of slogans blankets our memories with the cold truth that collective demonization captured in catchphrases is a powerful tool for a revolution.
Despite the parallels that Izabella makes between the Soviet Union and what is unfolding in the United States, she remains hopeful. She tells us our Perestroika and Glasnost will come. She reminds us that the answer to all of our troubles can be found in our Constitution and in our Declaration of Independence, both of which include values that left her awestruck upon her arrival in America.
As Izabella remembers now in her writing,
All of us who came out of the Soviet system bear scars of the practice of unanimous condemnation, whether we ourselves had been targets or participants in it or not. It is partly why Soviet immigrants are often so averse to any expressions of collectivism: We have seen its ugliest expressions in our own lives and our friends’ and families’ lives. It is impossible to read the chastising remarks of Soviet writers, for whom Pasternak [Boris Pasternak, author of Doctor Zhivago] had been a friend and a mentor, without a sense of deep shame. Shame over the perfidy and lack of decency on display. Shame at the misrepresentations and perversions of truth. Shame at the virtue signaling and the closing of rank. Shame over the momentary and, we now know, fleeting triumph of mediocrity over talent.
Izabella’s words framed our deepest thoughts as we created a counter-narrative to the 1619 Project. Two roads diverged in the woods and in our Alternative 1619 Project Reading Guide, we chose the path of purpose and meaning, not the path of slogans and grudges. And that has made all the difference.
In the Hold my Drink — navigating the news and politics with a chaser of civility — and Counterweight podcast, Episode 28, we speak with Izabella Tabarovsky. Izabella is a Russian-Jewish immigrant whose article, The American Soviet Mentality (among many others), was paramount in framing our ideas on the current American experience. The collective demonization and polarization that has captured our country has frightening parallels to Izabella’s experiences behind the “Iron Curtain” in the Soviet Union. Join us as we discuss black American consciousness, viewpoint diversity, and collective mentalities. All discussed with a chaser of civility, of course, and an herbal tea, bourbon, mimosa and watermelon vodka.
Hold My Drink welcomes all people with all kinds of beverages to join us as we discuss what it takes to imagine a new American identity, together.
What Izabella is reading
Get Out, Tablet Magazine, Liel Liebovitz
The Hate that Can’t be Contained, Tablet Magazine, Blake Flayton
Has American Liberalism Abandoned Free Speech? Interview with Thomas Frank, TKNews by Matt Taibbi
I Refuse to Stand By While My Students Are Indoctrinated, Common Sense with Bari Weiss, Paul Rossi
What Jen is reading
The American Soviet Mentality, Tablet Magazine, Izabella Tabarovsky
Hijacking History, Tablet Magazine, Izabella Tabarovsky
How Did Jews Become the New Privileged Class? Jewish Journal, Thane Rosenbaum
Free Black Thought: A Manifesto, Persuasion, Erec Smith
Izabella Tabarovsky is a senior program associate with the Kennan Institute (Wilson Center) and a contributing writer at Tablet. She was born and raised in the Soviet Union and came to the United States in 1990. She tweets as @IzaTabaro
To read more of our posts, follow us on the Truth in Between Medium publication, on the Hold my Drink Substack publication, subscribe to our newsletter on the Hold my Drink website, or click on the most recent stories below.
The Dangerous Journey Beyond the Binary
The complexity of human relationships is never simple to follow; it is like intricate lacework, but lacework made of…