I am an immigrant. Over 30 years ago, I fled Soviet socialist Russia and came to America, fulfilling the dream of my mother, who inspired me since I was a little girl to study hard, learn English and go to America, because this is the best place on earth. I don’t know how she knew. Traveling out of the totalitarian U.S.S.R. was nearly impossible, and she only visited America after I was here.
Today, my sister and I still thank God every day we are here in America. On Thanksgiving Day, we say special prayers. We are thankful for the simple things, most of which many Americans perhaps take for granted.
I am thankful for my home being warm in winter. Growing up in a small town close to Siberia, even though we had heat in the apartment, it was never warm enough. Since the government owned everything under socialism, it has full control of your living conditions. In winter, the authorities kept the heat on in apartments at a bare minimum and in summer, they turned off the hot water and sometimes both hot and cold, to save some rubles so they could keep their corrupt Soviet machine going.
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Even inside the apartment in winter, we wore jackets, warm boots and sometimes mittens. My sister and I laughed at the sight of our dad wearing a big furry Russian hat, ushanka, even to bed. Today, when I come from the outside in winter, into my 72 degree warm house, I still get a feeling of surprise when warm air instead biting cool air hits my face. I get a bit of flashback, though not a trace of nostalgia.
Every aspect of your life in the U.S.S.R was controlled by the government. You couldn’t just move to another city to live or study – you needed to show residency, a stamp in your passport called “propiska.” But you couldn’t get a propiska in another city because you didn’t have an apartment, and you couldn’t just buy an apartment because the government owned everything. Renting was illegal because there was no private property. My mother rented an apartment, technically illegally, for me and my sister when we came from the provinces to study in Moscow. We had a joke back in the Soviet Union that you couldn’t get out of bed without breaking a dozen laws.
Every bureaucrat took advantage of his position, charging bribes for everything. The policeman would hand you a fake traffic violation to get a bribe. Medical care was technically free and so there weren’t enough supplies, and the doctor would take a bribe to give you a painkiller or other medication. The manager at the grocery store would save groceries for her relatives and friends. The rest of us were often greeted by empty shelves.
In America, I marvel at the ease of being able to get a driver’s license, establish a business, buy clean glowing red delicious apples in any grocery shop, even in winter, and get Novocain when the dentist drills my teeth. You can practice a religion. Back in the U.S.S.R, worshiping God was outlawed. Socialism and communism was the state religion. My sister and I were secretly baptized by our grandmother. In America, I adopted Judaism as my faith.
Peace and stability is a privilege in America historically denied to Russians, especially now that Russia is waging a brutal war against Ukraine. Thousands of Ukrainians and Russians are dead or injured, millions have fled their homes. A friend who also fled Soviet Russia recently shared with me that she feels blessed living in America, especially for her son. He would have been drafted in the military and sent to fight in Ukraine. With no war on American soil in modern history, Americans don’t realize that historically, peace is an exception, not the rule. Russians, Ukrainians, Syrians, Afghanis, and many others know it all too well.
This holiday season and always, I am counting my blessings for being an American and having the big things — like freedom, opportunity, peace, and stability — and little things, like a warm home and running water.
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