USA vs. USSR arcade hockey.

✎GUEST POST: American Perspective on the Soviet Union

Understand Russia is thrilled about having the first guest post from friend and colleague from the business school Andrew, who writes the blog about wise investing, Today Andrew shares with us his impressions of the Soviet Union from the time, when he was a kid, growing up in California. Let’s dive in this exciting time-travel adventure!

Soviets as the enemy

American patriot

My first-grade picture. You’ll notice the patriotic “USA” shirt.

I was born in 1977 and grew up in Southern California. My first impressions of the Soviet Union, formed when I was about 6 or 7 years old, was that it was the enemy. I never had any distinct concerns regarding the USSR—I never seriously feared the idea of them launching nuclear missiles at us or a Soviet invasion—but it was just a general feeling. As a little boy I obviously “knew” the US was the best country in the world, and the USSR represented the opposite of that.

As so often is the case, many of these perceptions where formed by television and movies. Top Gun (1986) had faceless Soviet fighter pilots (you never saw their faces because of their helmets) attacking Maverick and the Americans “unprovoked”. War Games (1983) and Project X (1987) were based on the premise that the Soviets would attack, probably with nukes, and we had to be ready. Red Dawn (1984) and Rambo: First Blood, Part II (1985) showed that it was always the Soviets who were ultimately behind the evil plots.

When we played “army” it was always the Soviets that we were fighting. On the playground if you wanted to insult a classmate, you’d call him a “communist” or a “Soviet”. A lot of the video games had us playing the character of an American freedom fighter taking on the Soviet Union.

In Red Dawn, Soviets invade America and take over our McDonald's.

In Red Dawn, Soviets invade America and take over our McDonald’s.

I went to a pretty diverse elementary school, and as kids are always competitive, we would argue about which of our ancestral countries were best. The Hispanic kids bragged about Mexico, the Asian kids about China and Japan, the black kids about Africa, and the white kids about European counties (my heritage is Dutch so I fought hard for the Netherlands). But there were no kids who confessed to their Russian heritage or bragged about the Soviet Union. Of course, there were plenty of kids with Russian heritage living in Los Angeles, but that was just something you would never acknowledge on the playgrounds in the early 1980s. No sense needlessly exposing yourself to the unrelenting ridicule that would surely accompany admitting your family was from the Soviet Union.

But if you asked me why I felt the way I did, I wouldn’t have known what to say. Our teachers and parents never said anything that specifically bad about the USSR, but they never said anything positive either and you got the sense that by their silence the Soviet Union was “bad news”.

Soviets as the opponent

When I was eight or nine years old, in 1985 or 1986, my impression started to change. The Soviet Union had evolved from being our enemy to be being our competition. I was getting older and had started competing in sports, so the opponent analogy certainly made sense to me. Also, by that time there seemed to be a thawing of relations as President Reagan and General Secretary Gorbachev began the dialogue which would ultimately relieve the world’s fear of nuclear armageddon.

I started training for the Olympics when I was 11.

I started training for the Olympics when I was 11.

The US and the USSR were still competing world powers, and it was our job as Americans to beat the Soviets, be it on the battlefield (which seemed less and less likely) or in the sports arena. As sports became more important to me I quickly learned the story of the 1980 US Olympic hockey team that defeated the Soviets, probably the single most hallowed victory ever in US sports. My dad and I were big basketball fans so it was with great delight that he told me the US Olympic men’s basketball team had never lost before . . . except in the gold medal game in the 1972 Olympics when the Soviets “cheated” to win. (The Americans protested the final play and refused to accept their silver medal. To my knowledge this is the only time this has happened in Olympics history, and it’s a travesty. I hope the 1972 team stops being sore losers and accepts their medals along with the Soviet victory.)

When you played arcade hockey, you always wanted to be the US team in white and not the Soviets in red. When you imagined sinking the game-winning shot, you were always playing in the Olympics against the Soviets.

USA vs. USSR arcade hockey.

USA vs. USSR arcade hockey.

I remember watching WrestleMania III in 1987 when Hulk Hogan overcame the odds to defeat Andre the Giant. Hogan epitomized American guts and winning spirit, while Andre represented the Soviet strength and size that just couldn’t prevail. As it turns out Andre was French, but at the time all I knew is that he talked funny and looked foreign so he must be a Soviet—shows you how perceptive a nine-year-old is.

The Soviets were still bad, but it wasn’t because they were evil or that they were trying to hurt us. It was more that it was us and them, and we wanted to win.

Soviets as a friend

By the time I was 11 or 12, in 1988 or 1989, there seemed to be a major change, and now the Soviets were becoming our friends. It was pretty obvious by then that the US and USSR were never going to go to war. Also, every day it became clearer that in the geopolitical game that the US ideals and way of life were going to “win”.

These events allowed us to start to think of the Soviets as friends, slowly but surely. In 1989 MTV, pretty much my sole source for pop culture, was giving a ton of coverage to the Moscow Music Peace Festival. Some of my favorite bands were playing—Motley Crue, Bon Jovi, Skid Row—so I followed it pretty closely. The Soviets were totally digging the same bands I was into. And they even had a couple heavy metal bands of their own like Gorky Park. Those guys had the same hairsprayed long hair and earrings as the American bands, and I’m sure they freaked out the Russian parents just like my bands freaked out my dad. Maybe these guys weren’t all that different from us.

Bon Jovi and Gorky Park showed heavy metal knew no national borders

Bon Jovi and Gorky Park showed heavy metal knew no national borders

Also, during that time the geopolitical narrative changed. It was less the Soviet Union and its people who were our adversaries but its leadership; we started to think that the Soviet people were okay but it was just their form of government that had to go. When President Reagan made is famous speech in West Berlin, he didn’t ask the people to tear down that wall, he asked “Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall” (at 1:34).

It was a sentiment that was even in the movies. In Rocky IV (1985) it turned out that Ivan Drago wasn’t a bad guy after all. He was just wanted to be a boxer like Rocky. It was his managers that were the problem. That seemed like a perfect analogy for all of the Soviet Union. This was confirmed in The Hunt for Red October (1990) which depicted the captain and officers of a Soviet nuclear submarine attempting to defect from the totalitarian regime in order to live a simple life in America.

Soviet Union splits up

After the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 it seemed like just a matter of time for the Soviet Union. Even though I was only 12 at the time, I definitely felt that there were major changes going on in the world. I remember my history teacher talking about the reunification of Germany and saying “this is something that we’ve been waiting for for 50 years. And I bet there are even bigger changes coming.”

In the summer of 1991, I was 14 then and about to enter my freshman year of high school, I remember seeing the coverage of the coup on the news. My dad and I chatted about it, hoping that “everything would turn out okay,” but beyond that I didn’t really know what to think and was quickly distracted by the things that distract 14-year-old boys (14-year-old girls).

When Boris Yeltsin emerged, it seemed everyone wanted to portray him as a new brand of Russian leader (now we were told the country was Russia, not the Soviet Union) who embraced democracy and would “be our friend”. He seemed like a nice enough guy, and everyone seemed to be thinking that the Russians were okay, so that was that.

Plus, Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait the year before, so our American psyche could make Iraq our national antagonist instead of the Soviet Union.

As an adult I did visit Russia, flying into Moscow, climbing Mt Elbrus, and then flying out of St Petersburg. It was an amazing two weeks, and one that I will share on this blog in the near future.

Leave a Reply

  • Kent - 7 years ago

    I was born in 1964 and grew up in Illinois, I can confirm that no one (that I remember) ever directly taught that the USSR was the enemy. They simply created the impressions through propaganda and we filled in the blanks with our own ideas.

    But my parents were taught to fear the USSR. They had what was termed “duck and cover” drills in school. That was supposed to prepare them for a Russian nuclear attack, by making kids hide under their school desks. Silly, but an effective way of teaching through inflicting trauma on little kids.

    One of the main lies I remember was about Russian girls. They were all ugly. There were no attractive Russian girls. There were only sturdy old women that would chop someone with a hatchet at the slightest provocation. Younger girls were simply younger versions of these older women.

    And of course American women were at the pinnacle of femininity and beauty. Yeah, lies lies and more lies. But we didn’t know any better, With the internet, it’s much more difficult for them to try and use any kind of propaganda, even if they still try.

    Another thing I remember was that it was communism’s fault that there was little or no food in Russian markets, What they didn’t tell us was that Russia lost millions of people in that war and that included farmers. Russia lost 2-3X more people in one city, Leningrad, than the US lost in the entire war. We didn’t know this. We were taught that we won that war, and kids believe what they are taught.

  • Mike Goolsby - 7 years ago

    I grew up in Dallas, Texas and I remember being taught the USSR was our enemy as well. In a government class we had a Russian General, so we thought, come in to our class to give a speech, which quickly turned in to him bashing America. By the time he left our class we were almost throwing things at him. Rumor has it that he was not from the USSR but was pretending pretending to be.

  • Brooke Lorren (@Brookelorren) - 6 years ago

    I had similar experiences. I remember hearing about how communism was bad and how, as a result, the Russians had to stand in very long lines for things like bread and toilet paper. And how they didn’t have many choices in the things that were available. Or how the government spied on its citizens. None of it was really directed at the Russian people themselves, as far as I can remember.

    When I was a senior in high school, I was taking Russian, and at the time, the ruble collapsed. I remember going to class and hearing about how the ruble was continuing to deteriorate in value.

  • Juergen Ernst - 4 years ago

    Well, born in 1965, I grew up in (Western) Germany and the Soviets were definitely the bad guys. While we enjoyed freedom and consumerism in the West, our brethren on the Eastern side of the border waited for 15-20 years on a car made mostly from cardboard. People were shot and killed trying to escape communism. Democratic movements in then Chechoslovakia and Hungary were mowed down by Soviet tanks during my lifetime. So, I think it is fair to say that the Soviet Government and the people it brainwashed weren’t exactly who you would want as friends. As a German who had German history cramped down his throat in every single school year, we also realized that it only takes a few bad leaders and some followers to mislead a whole nation and we never believed that all Russians were bad people. When the cold war started to ease up, we couldn’t understand some of the rhetoric coming out of the US. We had already shifted our focus on muslim fanatics that were active at that time but hardly noticed in the US. Just as it took a government and its minions then to discredit a people, it only takes a few to discredit a whole religion today. Raises the question if we need an enemy to focus on in order to keep our own people content and quiet. As far as today’s Russia: there is still a lot to be done. I have friends in Russia who can’t open a link for a youtube music video. Dissidents get shot in bright daylight or simply disappear. I wish the Russian people luck and hope that we will learn from them as much as they have already learnt from us and that they stick with the old saying to have not a 100 Rubles, but a 100 friends.

  • Nobody - 3 years ago

    If you knew kids from the Soviet Union when you were growing up in the 80’s they were probably Russian jews. That’s why you didn’t hear them talk about being proud of their home country or bragging about being Russian.