The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
I thought today, the 45th anniversary of that occasion, was a good opportunity to repost an item that I first published in the National Review in July 2002 (with a few minor changes, chiefly to update the timing).
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My parents left the Soviet Union on June 13, 1975, bringing my brother (age 2) and me (age 7). Fortunately, we didn't have to try to cross the Berlin Wall, or cross the Black Sea. As Jews, we were allowed to leave, thanks to America, which more or less bought us in exchange for grain shipments to the Soviets.
But here's the part that's odd to Americans: My parents left having no real idea of what life in the U.S. is like. Imagine that you wanted to move to France. What would you do? Why, you'd talk to some Frenchmen. You'd talk to some Americans who had been to France. You'd read some reliable books about France. You'd visit there. You might even move there for a couple of months and see how you'd like it.
None of this was possible for my parents, or for tens of thousands of others like them. The Soviet Union was a closed society. Travel to the West was virtually impossible. Western tourists were closely guarded.
Western books and magazines were banned. Voice of America was jammed; and when you could listen to it — as my parents often could, albeit clandestinely — you couldn't know for sure whether it was accurate or not. There were no other sources to compare it to, other than the Soviet government's anti-American slanders.
Now my parents were, by Soviet standards, fairly well-off. They had family and friends. They had jobs, including some black-market outside income (my father tutored high-school students in the math they needed to pass college entrance exams, and my mother taught English to her friends' children).
They loathed the Soviet regime, but the alternative was a leap into the total unknown. All they knew for sure about life in America was that my father would have to learn English, and that they'd have to start from the bottom rung of the ladder.
They also knew that though most Jews who applied to leave were allowed to go several months later, some fraction (the "refuseniks") would be held back — often with no rhyme or reason. And the lives of those refuseniks could be awful: All people who applied to emigrate were promptly fired from their jobs (my father was, the day after he filed his application); and if they were refused permission to depart, they remained blacklisted from their professions and consigned to whatever menial work they could find.
And yet somehow my parents had the wisdom to figure out that America really was much better than the Soviet Union, better even to a total stranger. And they had the courage to throw away their safe, settled life and move half a world away, far from everything and everyone they had known.
Courage. We live, by design, generally safe and well-ordered lives. We wisely arrange our affairs so we don't have to make really tough choices, choices where an error can mean disaster. We are fortunate that our society generally secures for us this luxury of safety.
But the one downside is that we may never be really tested — and thus may never know whether we'd pass the test. Do I have the courage to fight in a war? Do I have the courage to risk my life to save my loved ones? Do I have the courage to accept that my plane is going to be used as a bomb, and to bring it down rather than hope for rescue? Do I have the courage to abandon security in order to try to get freedom, for my family and for myself? I do not know, and I might never know.
My parents were tested, and they passed. There were others — Solzhenitsyn, Sakharov, Shcharanskiy, many who are forgotten, many who perished — who showed even greater courage, the courage to publicly dissent against seemingly insuperable odds. But what my parents, and many others like them, did took courage, too, more than any decision that I myself have made.
Would I do the same? If, God forbid, the dark night of repression began to fall on America, would I know when to leave for the sake of my children, at whatever risk and cost was involved? Or would I dither and be consumed, violently like those who didn't leave Nazi Germany, or slowly like those who didn't leave Brezhnev's Russia?
If I were faced with the hard choices that, thanks to my parents' decision, I was spared, would I choose correctly? If I were called to fight a war, a demand that passed my fortunate generation by, would I acquit myself with honor?
I don't know. Many people don't know. We are reduced to small acts of courage, perhaps occasionally voicing a hard truth precisely because it's a bit risky and practically pointless, or otherwise setting aside our normal calculus of risk and benefit.
We know these are poor imitations of the real thing, precisely because the actual risk is so small. But maybe making the tiny courage into a habit might help us when we need the real thing. And maybe remembering the courage of others — the mortal courage of Flight 93, or the lesser but still undeniable courage of the emigrant — might do the same.