Oh, to be 18! tTC

Joe Patrick Bean

September 06, 1991|By Joe Patrick Bean

HOW I envy my freshmen!

As these young college students, most of them 17 or 18 years old, arrived on campus for a week of orientation activities, Soviet reactionaries were attempting to overthrow President Mikhail S. Gorbachev and halt political and economic reform.

By the time my freshmen began classes a week later, they had watched that putsch fail ingloriously. They had seen it unwittingly mobilize a popular desire for freedom so contagious that it could no longer be suppressed. They had witnessed a democratic revolution that loosed a great nation from communism's dying grasp.

What an astonishing and hopeful time! As the English poet William Wordsworth wrote of another powerfully hopeful time two centuries earlier, "Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive,/But to be young was very heaven!"

My freshmen are that young, too young to remember the building of the Berlin Wall that imprisoned millions. Instead, they watched as jubilant East and West Berliners joined together to breach that hated wall, tear it down, then reunify their divided city and the country whose capital it will once again become.

My freshmen are too young to remember how the United States and the U.S.S.R. almost went to war during the Cuban missile crisis and repeated confrontations over Berlin. Instead, they saw the superpowers cooperate to thwart Iraq's military conquest of Kuwait and to plan a long-overdue Middle East peace conference.

My freshmen are too young to recall the explosion of the first hydrogen bomb, nuclear brinkmanship, civil defense drills and backyard bomb shelters. Instead, they witnessed Presidents Bush and Gorbachev signing the START treaty that effectively ended more than four decades of Cold War confrontation.

My freshmen are too young to have seen Soviet tanks rumbling through the streets of Budapestand Prague. Instead, in the week before they walked into their first college classes, they watched as Soviet tanks rumbling through the streets of Moscow were turned back by thousands of defiant Russians waving freedom's tricolor.

"And some people say that/We shouldn't cross this line," the popular Leningrad (soon to be St. Petersburg again) rock singer and dissident Boris Grebenshikov wrote a few years ago. "But there is no line,/Only the sky."

What an exhilarating time to come of age! How can I fault my freshmen if the astounding events of the past two years, especially the Soviet Union's democratic revolution, have convinced them that the sky truly is their limit?

For them to grasp the magnitude of what is now happening in the U.S.S.R., though, they must learn its complex background. They also need to understand that the Soviet Union's diverse people still face almost overwhelming obstacles as they reach for their future.

These challenges may yet prove to be insurmountable. There may be much violence along the way. Human history, I will warn my freshmen, is not an unbroken record of progress. One step forward, two steps back -- that is more often than not its pattern.

My freshmen must also learn that freedom's price can be brutally high. They should not forget the names of the three young men who died defending the Russian Republic Parliament: Vladimir Usov, a 37-year-old economist; Ilya Krichevsky, a 28-year-old architect; and Dmitri Komar, a 23-year-old forklift operator.

My task as a history teacher is to instill in my students a sense of the past, about which they know so little, both to explain the still-troubled present and to provide a prologue to an uncertain future.

But as I thus temper their optimism, I also hope that it may yet be fully justified by a future that could prove to be even more astounding than the dramatic events they have just witnessed. Would that I had been 18 in such a time as this!

Joe Patrick Bean is an assistant professor of history and journalism at Concordia Lutheran College in Austin, Texas.

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