November 25th, 2009
11:09 PM ET

A Thanksgiving journey from Moscow

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2008/TRAVEL/getaways/11/12/moscow.nightlife/art.moscow.cathedral.cnn.jpg]
Igor Krotov
CNN International Assignment Editor

We were sitting at a Thanksgiving table in Moscow, at my American friend's house when my three-or-four-year-old son asked me, "Dad, what is Thanksgiving?"

The question was very appropriate.

Thanksgiving, I replied, is when Americans sit around the table, eat turkey and thank God for being Americans.

Funny, I did nail the concept – more or less, being thousands of miles away, not having ever visited the US before.

Looking back, we do have a lot to be thankful for.

In the Soviet Union, where I grew up, the Jews were allowed to apply for exit visas to leave the country – a rare opportunity. And like with everything else in the Soviet Union, there were two realities: official and actual.

Officially, Soviet people enjoyed basic human rights, including the right to travel. In reality, only members of two ethnic groups could materialize that right: the Jews and the Germans.

And even then, there were exceptions to the rule.

Let’s look back almost 40 years.

1970’s: my father and grandfather glued to their short-wave radios, catching single words (phrases if they were lucky) from BBC, Voice of America, Deutche Welle Russian-language-broadcasts that managed to get through the aggressive thudding of Soviet jamming devices.

President Nixon’s first visit to Moscow in 1972. It was almost summer; I was 13, enjoying a beautiful sunny day in the center of the city instead of attending school seemed like a no-brainer. I was taking a walk toward the Kremlin when I saw huge crowds of people holding Soviet and US flags. I remembered: president Nixon was due to visit Moscow. I did succeed in making my way through the official “cheering crowds” to the very front. And there he was: arriving at the Kremlin in an American limousine. I saw the president of the United States arriving at the Kremlin!

I became very well aware then that although all people in the Soviet Union were equal, some were less so. Some of the hundreds of ethnic groups populating the biggest country on earth enjoyed equal rights only on paper. Jews for example were not discriminated against officially, but the fact remained: if you were Jewish, the number of jobs you could apply to was limited. But… Jews were the only ethnicity officially allowed to leave the country. And leave they did. Officially, they were leaving for Israel, but many headed to other Western countries – the US in the first place. The beginning of 1970’s marked the early stages of the huge tidal wave of Jewish emigration that lasted until the very end of the Soviet Union. The Soviet government issued exit visas reluctantly, refusing some permission to leave. Therefore, the people who were denied the right to emigrate were called “Refuseniks”.

By that time, I knew very well that we were somehow different. Often, I was reminded of my “otherness”: a matter-of-fact “Jew” remark on a metro train; my PE teacher used to tell me, “Krotov, behave yourself or you will end up in Israel”. And the idea seemed more and more attractive. My grandfather Kalman whose brother Jacob had somehow ended up and later managed to stay in New York after the Second World War, was the single most “corrupting” influence on me. He would get packages from his American brother with all kinds of imaginable (mostly unimaginable) luxuries: Gillette razors, Parker pens, chewing gum. I asked my grandfather what gifts he would send from the Soviet Union back to his brother Jacob. He looked at me, shrugged his shoulders, threw his arms around, as if pointing to the world around him and said, “Who would need this stuff?” I never asked the question again. I eventually realized my grandfather was right.

The decision to leave the Soviet Union took another 15 years to materialize. But here I am: I have been living in the US for 18 years. My son’s first language is English. But I will never forget the word “refusenik”. And I will always remember the conversation with my grandfather.

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