I remember the nuclear ‘duck and cover’ drills as a child. As soon as the loud siren sounded, we were to take our books from the top of the desks and slowly place them on floor. Calmly, we were to then lower ourselves to desktop level, and try and slide our bodies underneath the desk. When situated, we then had to fold our hands behind our heads in a protective position.
That’s it. That was the extent of the training we received to held protect us in the event of a nuclear attack from the Soviet Union. Even at the time it felt rather simplistic and naive to believe a wooden desktop would stop 300mph winds from a nuclear blast over Chicago. But that was all we knew. Except of course the fall-out shelters, with the symbol of radioactive posted below those very words, which were on placards that were placed on the outside of libraries and government buildings.
This is one of the experiences that had me wondering about the Soviets themselves and the massive army that supposedly waited to invade Western Europe and destroy democracy. They were the bogeymen of the Cold War, a seemingly invincible army that would march through Europe en-masse to destroy and replace the European governments with communism.
This was the stigma we were taught, and in the Army at the age of 17, it was enforced. We had no idea that the world was going to change 2 short years after basic training, The collapse of the Soviet Union came as a surprise to us, and now the once legendary Red Army ceased to exist.
After returning to the States after spending almost 8 years in Germany, I noticed a change. In addition to the European groups that had planted roots in the Chicago area for almost a century, a new group of people arrived. First, Brighton Beach in New York (also known as Little Odessa), became an enclave of new Russian immigrants to America. Chicago became another attractive area for Russians, especially on the far North Side of the city and northern suburbs. When I began work in the trucking industry in the late 1990s, not only was I dealing with former Yugoslavians, Polish, Lithuanian, Romanian and Ukrainian customers; Russians and people from the other countries of the former Soviet Union were now entering the industry.
These former enemies, the one’s that I was taught to fear and hate during training in the Army, now became my friends and acquaintances. It was no longer only necessary to speak a few words of Polish, Croatian or Lithuanian; it was now almost a given to be able to speak a few words of Russian. And since many of these former countries were part of the Warsaw Pact, they also spoke Russian, helping me learn more of the language and culture.
I am happy that our differences during the Cold War did not lead to a nuclear armageddon, and I am also thankful that I did not carry my stinging contempt for the people of the former Soviet Union into my adulthood. I would have lost out on making lasting friendships, and of learning the true history and culture of the Russian people.