28 May Babinsky. Adulthood (1963 – 1967). 2: Sneaking into Communist Ideological Front
Next: Adulthood. 3: Mr. Right?
Sneaking into a Job on the Communist Ideological Front
Evening and correspondence students received paid vacation at work to take mid-terms and finals. I rescheduled the tests and used the off-time to visit my great-uncle Leib and his wife Musya in Leningrad (Read the story in Leib Averbukh (1900 – 1976) .
From one of these vacations I returned with a large avoska holding Leib’s English grammar textbook and dictionaries.
In his sixties, he could not handle a new language but could not bring himself to get rid of books. From the corner of my desk they seduced me into enrolling in a three-year correspondence English program.
Determined to learn all the languages in the world, I enrolled in the last year of a three-year German course then in a Spanish course that I dropped out of; then I bought but never opened a Japanese textbook.
Unless I worked in my field of study by the third year in the university I would face dismissal. I did not expect to find a job: the fifth line in my passport, nationality, overrode all other factors in hiring decisions, particularly in humanities, i.e. the ideological front, where half-Jews were not off the hook, either.
Inside connections helped little: pulling strings for a Jew smacked of Zionist conspiracy. A virtual sign flashing “Jews need not apply” protected the media, educational institutions on all levels, libraries, scientific firms from the devious fifth column incited by Zionists, the leading enemy of progressive mankind.
Lower paying, humdrum employers played sanctuaries for Jews—a socialist society held sacrosanct the principle of one-hundred percent employment. By definition, these companies had few, if any, ideological-front positions. So, tracing drawings would likely remain my lot in perpetuity.
Brought up on the Averbukh’s belief that education and profession was not the same thing, I was not troubled by my outlook. Rakhil was. She bemoaned my obsession with words inherited from the Averbukhs and the workaholism and lack of ambition inherited from Avram.
In October of 1964, Khrushchev relinquished his throne supposedly because of ill health. He was replaced by Leonid Brezhnev who kept a stable of foreign cars but was otherwise an all-too-typical Party functionary.
He immediately laid the reasons for the country’s economic woes at the feet of his predecessor and set out to reverse liberal reforms. My great-uncle Leib remarked that since every new leader exposed his predecessor as unfit there was never a period in the country when things were done right. He said, “the present leader is always perfect, only the former leader is always wrong.”
The same year, the wide net of “do you know a company that hires the fifth line and has jobs for language majors” reeled in a goldfish in the person of the building maintenance supervisor from an engineering firm that designed installations of boilers and burners. It employed documentation proofreaders. The title qualified as work in my field of study.
Subordinated to the lowly Public Utilities Ministry, the firm hired Jews rather liberally but, as there were no openings at that time for proofreaders, I started as a drawing tracer.
Rakhil demanded information about the current proofreaders and zeroed in on a girl who was about to be dismissed from an evening engineering program because, in her third year, she still did not work in a technical capacity. Her boss agreed to promote her on condition that she found her replacement. Thus, I sneaked into the ideological front, by title if not in essence.
Upon learning of a language major in their midst, the firm’s Komsomol cell insisted on my joining its political section to write and present speeches and resolutions. The writings were compilations of clichés. Each resolution ended with a line: “How many are for? How many are against? Unanimous.” (Once, a presenter read through the text without pausing after each choice. No one noticed.) I would feed rubbish to a roomful of dozing coworkers aware of being fed rubbish.
Since aging out of Komsomol at twenty-eight was nine long years away, I negotiated a compromise: I would write but not present; instead, I would join the cultural section and organize dances—in the era of twist and Charleston, a win-win for the Komsomol and me.
Acquiring the Communist Ideology
The history of the Communist Party, political economy, scientific communism, and the Marxist-Leninist philosophy divided into dialectical materialism and historical materialism stuffed the first two years at the university. Plus scientific communism. Plus scientific atheism. Thanks to my school history teacher, the alumnus of the Supreme Party School, my notes sufficed to pass the materialisms with minimum effort.
The professor of dialectical materialism began his course as follows: “Let me clarify the difference between materialism and dialectical materialism: a chicken is materialism, a given chicken is dialectical materialism”—nonsensical but unforgettable.
Some of these subjects extended into the next two years: the ideological-front graduates needed shatterproof breastplates to fend off the motherland’s ideological foes. In the sixth year, a second exam in scientific communism was a prerequisite to the Master’s thesis defense.
The subject concentrated on the third, final, stage of capitalism decay vis-à-vis the blossoming of socialism. With a poker face, the professor injected dangerous comments: “Yes, capitalism will disintegrate. It won’t happen tomorrow but it’s disintegrating, disintegrating;” “Capitalism is certainly decaying but the smell is rather splendid.”
Every March, the humanities department crawled with KGB types. They demanded identifications and looked probingly into our eyes. The surge of vigilance coincided with the birthday anniversary of Taras Shevchenko, an iconic Ukrainian poet. The reverence of his nationalistic and xenophobic views showed no sign of mellowing, in spite of the relentless attempts to reconfigure his legacy into that of a peasant advocate.
The authorities knew to take seriously the longing for Ukraine free of Russians, communists, and Jews. They let the Shevchenko devotees blow off steam publicly once a year. A crowd gathered around his statue in the park named after him on the street named after him across from the university named after him. The KGB men watched and listened.
My choice of concentration was language or literature. The classes in Latin, Polish, German, strengthened my passion for comparative linguistics. Even if that had not been the case I would have chosen language to stay away from the literary opinions issued from above. Except languages, every fact, every topic, including ancient fairy tales and contemporary humorous rhymes, was assigned a political meaning.
(The situation was illustrated by the phrase “I have not read this book but I condemn it” used in the late-1950’s witch hunt of Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago. Everybody from learned critics to dairymaids had emphatically denounced the book banned for publication. In 1958, the author volunteered to decline the Nobel Prize for Literature. His descendants accepted it in his name in 1988.)
The less time I spent at home the more Russian squeezed out Yiddish. Between my mind and my mouth, the latter transformed into the former. It helped somewhat that a student a year ahead of me spoke Yiddish. His grandfather had also taught him to read and write. We spoke Yiddish in the library hallways. His vocabulary was richer than mine. Readers and staff darted by, as though assailed by foul odor—speaking Yiddish in public was taboo.
Career in the Communist Ideological Front
After graduating from the university in 1969 I got transferred to the newly established information department with a title of translator and a raise from sixty to ninety rubles a month. I translated technical periodicals into Russian from European languages; compiled lists of recommended sources; wrote brochures for seminars.
The censor examined each brochure and handout. A forgettable man in a nook separated by a glass wall, he edged the tip of his pencil along, ready to pounce on a politically incendiary description of boilers or burners, or to catch the omission of praise of the Party and personally Comrade Brezhnev for the high performance of that equipment. Or to intercept the Ukrainian nationalistic symbols: colors blue and yellow next to each other and an outline of a trident. He demanded a two-tongue, not a three-tongue, depiction of flame out of burners to remove any association with a trident.
(Ironically, an unrelated factory succeeded in mass-producing water glasses with bottoms shaped like the Star of David that came with us to the U.S. Authorities woke up too late to confiscate the culprits. The negligent designer and the sleeping-on-the-job censor undoubtedly lost their jobs, or worse.)
Next: Adulthood. 3: Mr. Right?