Jewish World Review May 3, 2004 / 12 Nissan, 5764

Bernadette Malone

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Soviet chic is anything but funny | Saturday being May Day, I received an e-vite for a huge house party, with a cheery bright red Soviet star as its background design. The electronic invitation was cute, ironic, filled with lots of funny "comrade" references, and it was from some sweet, sensitive friends of mine. But it still made me pause. The Soviet government killed between 20 million and 60 million people, depending on whose estimate you believe. The Nazi government killed many millions, but only a sicko would send around a swastika invitation. Why the double standard?

Soviet chic is everywhere these days. Peers of mine, who, out of respect for African-Americans, wouldn't dare hang or wear a Confederate flag, bop around in CCCP jackets and T-shirts. Why? The CCCP had enslaved more human beings than the American South ever did. Yet somehow the CCCP is cute and ironic; the Confederate flag (to say nothing of the swastika) is not.

"Now wait," you might argue. "Russian culture is rich and deserving of celebration; what's wrong with a nod to a former superpower that lost the Cold War anyway?"

Sure, break out the borscht and vodka. But just like there is a vast difference between German culture and the Nazi government, there is a difference between Russian culture and the Soviet government. In fact, the Soviet government was often an enemy of Russian culture - religious Russian culture, peasant Russian culture, intellectual Russian culture, etc. These doomed people were sent to labor camps to die, and buried in mass graves - because they were members of a particular class. Long before there was Slobodan Milosevic and Adolf Hitler, there was Vladimir Lenin.

But the more Soviet, the more sophisticated these days. New York City practically invented "sensitivity to victims" and "historical awareness," yet its elite party the night away in clubs like Pravda in Soho and KGB in the East Village, where Soviet flags and paraphernalia decorate the atmosphere. Would any of these hipsters think it was cool to hang out in a bar called The KKK or The SS?

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Far too many of us treat the Soviet regime as a whimsical, sentimental era. In New York's Lower East Side, a giant statue of Lenin stands atop a new luxury apartment building called Red Square. Its late designer, Tibor Kalman, was famous for paintings of saints in sexual poses and a Ronald Reagan with AIDS, among other offenses. If he had built apartments called Brown Shirt Square, and placed a statue of Hitler on top, New Yorkers would have forcibly toppled it, and rightly so. Instead, Kalman intimates that Lenin is not in hell with Hitler, even though he began a regime that systematically identified and exterminated tens of millions of people.

Again, why the double standard? Aren't we really suggesting that if an entire group of people is exterminated or enslaved for their race or religion, it's a bad thing. . . but if an entire group of people is exterminated or enslaved for their nationality or socioeconomic class, it's kind of funny?

Those of us who point this out are considered a little 1950s-paranoid; a little too-self serious; a little too "Young Republican."

Consider me all of the above, then. There are people who are in my life today only because their parents escaped the CCCP or the countries it controlled. Russian Jews who escaped through Israel and moved to New York. A guy in Miami whose parents escaped Castro. A girlfriend in Philadelphia who, at age 4, fled Vietnam in a boat with her father and siblings. Another girlfriend in Washington whose West Berlin parents happened to wind up on the right side of the street when the Wall went up, but whose poor cousins didn't. A new acquaintance in New York whose father defected from the Hungary ballet when it performed outside the Iron Curtain.

How do they feel when they see college kids wearing "Che!" shirts around campus or the line to get into "Siberia" in midtown Manhattan? And why doesn't anyone care?

Comment on JWR contributor Bernadette Malone's column by clicking here.


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© 2003, Bernadette Malone