Tales told by the old communists

Robin Miller

November 11, 1991|By Robin Miller

LOS ANGELES was once a minor-league haven for czarist Russian refugees. By the time I came along in the 1950s, their tales were old and had been told many times, but were still thrilling.

One of the best storytellers among them was Nicolai, who owned a fruit stand at the old farmer's market on Wilshire Boulevard. When I was 5 or 6, my grandmother would leave me with Nicolai as she shopped at other stalls, and he'd tell me of the Russian revolution, of the crowds in the streets and the workers who deposed the czar. His memories were bittersweet; though a socialist, Nicolai had grown up among the nobility and watched the revolutionaries slaughter his family. He was the only one who escaped.

All around me as a child, sitting on park benches, working as hotel doormen and waiting tables in restaurants, were the old Russians, all willing to talk to a small boy. I was probably the only one who would listen to them. I'm glad I did. History is nothing but memories of events told to willing listeners. To me the Russian revolution wasn't something that had happened only in history books. It was real, and it happened to my friends. The connection between my friends' stories and what I read, more than anything else, made history a living thing for me.

This was an experience I thought my children would never have, until the recent "second" Russian revolution. I know, the purpose of the revolution, of glastnost and perestroika and heroes jumping on tanks to give brochures to soldiers within, is not to provide storytellers for American youngsters, but it is an inevitable result. The new Russian refugees will tell tales, no doubt, of elegant dachas that, like the palaces described by old czarists, were probably never as elegant in real life as they are in memory.

The new refugees, like the old, will come to America with tales of heroism and death, of hope and fear, of hunger and pain, of separations and reunions, of love and hate. They will carry these stories with them as they move through life in their new country, forever bitter about how they have been humbled, always a little angry that although they once operated factories or commanded mighty armies, they now drive taxis or make sandwiches. This tinge of tragedy, of power once held and now lost, is what will make their stories fascinating to children. Whether the tellers are former czarist nobles or former Soviet commissars, tales of forgotten glory have a special appeal for young listeners.

Do not doubt for a second that we are about to be deluged with a new wave of Russian refugees. The communists have been deposed and, like former tyrants before them, will want to come to the United States.

Why shouldn't they? We have efficient telephones, cable TV and political freedom. We will let them come and they will enrich our lives. Alone, the tales they tell our children will make their presence worthwhile.

Russia is not the only country that will send us old communists. One day, we can hope, ancient Chinese party functionaries will also grace our park benches, sharing their pigeon-feeding chores with former members of the North Korean regime and former bureaucrats from other once-communist countries. The bunch of them will gather, pulled together by their common condition, and as they age the arguments over who betrayed the revolution and how they did it will grow in rancor. Only the age of the debaters and the futility of the debates themselves will keep the old gentlemen from becoming violent. Our children will listen. What they hear will make their geography and history lessons come alive.

The panoply of old communists will not be complete until the second revolution comes to Cuba. Fidel Castro holds a special place in the hearts of Americans. For most of our lives he has ranted about the evils of America. Others have ranted as finely, but Castro is so close to our country that he is special. He is the one I long to hear telling stories to my children more than any other. I'm sure his stories will be excellent, full of muddy half-starved revolutionaries crawling through the jungle, laying ambush to Batista's fat soldiers.

The day Castro sits on a park bench, talking to a group of American children about the revolution he led, will be the day communism is truly gone from this world. The children will listen, and will ask innocent questions. A few of them will go home, and read, and learn more than what they heard from the old man in the park. Like me, they will learn that old men often forget that their lives were not blameless, and that one person's happy memories may have been another's living hell.

We have run out of czarist Russians. Yes, we have leftovers from the 1956 Hungarian revolt among us, and refugees from Iran, Lebanon and other smaller conflagrations to remind our children that the beast of communal violence is part of human nature, but we are sorely in need of a new legion of former oppressors who can tell us why they did what they did, and how they "did it all for the people." And we are about to have them. Will our children listen to them? I hope mine will, and that they will learn from what they hear.

Robin Miller drives a taxi in Baltimore.

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