A Harvard Son Writes His Memoirs On Mother Russia

After returning from a two-year sojourn in Moscow, friends would always ask Steven C. Schecter '78 and his family about their experiences in the Soviet Union. It got to the point where the family members were interrupting each other so much that none of them could get a word in edgewise. They finally decided to resolve their problem by writing a book that would tell the story from all of their various viewpoints.

The result, An American Family in Moscow, is the seven Schecter's account of their experiences in the Soviet capital from 1968 to 1970 while the father, Jerrold Schecter, was a time correspondent there. Unlike the average American family in the Soviet Union, which retreats into its own artificial Western womb, the Schecter family tried to immerse itself in Soviet life as fully as possible. Now six years later, reclining leisurely in his Claverly suite and surrounded by posters of Lenin and other Russian souvenirs, Steve Schecter reminisces about his days in Moscow.

"When we first arrived in Moscow, everything struck me as a dull gray," Schecter says. He remembers being depressed by "the wedding cake architecture, where you have these big flank wings and one big tower in the middle. A bunch of these buildings from the Stalin era still remain around Moscow." When the Schecters first arrived, the government put them up in a hotel. They remained in these cramped quarters for several months, until the government provided them with an apartment in Yugozapad, a suburb of Moscow.

By Soviet standards, which seem to newly-arrived Americans, Spartan, the Schecters had a luxurious apartment. Workers knocked out a wall between two rooms to give them a gigantic living room stretching from one end of the building to the other. Russian apartments rarely have rooms this large because the country has a severe shortage of apartment space, and most families in Russia must place their children in generally small living rooms. Sometimes as many as four families will share a communal apartment.

It took a while for the Schecters to adjust to the absence of many Yankee creature comforts. A special food store for foreigners stocked many American and European goods that were not otherwise available, but the Schecters often had to make do with Soviet substitutes. At one point in the book, Leona Schecter mentions how her children fell asleep clutching American cereal boxes, a symbol of the culture they had left behind. "Well, I didn't," Steven Schecter confides, laughing.

"They have canned Algerian orange juice there, which is really a drag. But you get used to those kind of things. You learn to tolerate them," Schecter says. although he didn't like some of the food, Schecter says, he cultivated--as a young teen-ager in a strange land--a taste for caviar and vodka while there.

As part of their attempt to blend into Soviet society as much as possible, the Schecters sent their children to an ordinary Soviet school. For their first few weeks there, the children relied on the Russian they had learned in an intensive course that the entire family had taken before arriving in Moscow. "The only problem at first was that we stood out as foreigners because we arrived at school every morning in our Volvo station wagon, which was one of maybe two in all of Moscow. Everyone would stare at us--it was very embarrassing. But after a while, we went to school on the bus, and made friends because everyone was interested in us," Steve remembers. By the end of three months, Schecter says, he was speaking Russian fluently.

Schecter says that his Russian friends reacted to him in different ways. "some were just after the novelties of your life-style," he notes, "such as bubble gum, foreign stamps, and felt-tip pens. Or listening to music and bumming Marlboros off you. It was t(ose kinds of people we ended up parting with, because they weren't true friends. You tolerate this at first because you want to meet people and learn about them." He says that those who remained his friends, although originally attracted to him and the other Schecter sibs by their American luxuries, "weren't our friends solely for that reason"--there were deeper ties.

Most Russian school children wear red scarves to signify their membership in the Young Pioneers, a group which is the first step on the road to becoming a Party member. "All Russian kids were Pioneers," he recalls. "It was a disgrace to have your scarf taken away when you misbehaved." Schecter, who was unable to wear the symbolic scarlet scarf as an American, said that this did not alienate him from his friends.

The Russian children who befriended the Schecters were very curious about them, and life and politics in the land they came from. "Some people just asked about American cars and skis. Others asked about racism, unemployment, the war, and the horrible picture that the Soviets paint of America. And still others would put down America, and say what's wrong with you, what kind of capitalist are you? And then I would argue with them."

The most heated controversy that Schecter had took place over his handling of a book about Lenin. In a class one time, he placed the book on the floor, and an acquaintance warned him to pick it up, because "that book is about our great leader, Lenin." Schecter refused, and the two practically came to blows. "How can you take something like that so seriously? You're just programmed like everyone else into thinking that Lenin and communism are the most important things in the world. Why don't you wake up?" he screamed at his adversary.

It is the belief in communism that keeps the Soviet Union going, Schecter says. "There are Soviets believe in communism very sincerely. have here," he observes, adding that most Soviets believe in communism very sincerely. As proof, he cites the anecdote about a Soviet child who tries to cross a busy Moscow street in the wrong place. A truck driver grinds his cab to a halt in the middle of the road, and chastises the child for blocking the progress of communism.

Schecter, who has just turned 19, and who finished high school in Washington D.C., mentions that his stay in Russia had a definite effect upon his political beliefs. "For me, in an almost subconscious sense, it affected my ideas about politics, what it means, and who people really are," he states earnestly, running his fingers through hair that has become curly since his Moscow days. "Experiencing individuals who had totally opposite policial beliefs gave me the impression that politics are totally arbitrary. In other words, there are more fundamental things to people than these political orientations."

Schecter eventually grew disillusioned with the Soviet system as he saw it. "Under their system, life is very uniform and almost unexciting. There are no incentives to be creative, to do new things, to do any better than you are doing. If you overfulfill your norm, they'll just give you a bigger norm the next time. It's that kind of mentality you develop." Schecter emphasizes that if confronted with a choice, he would "definitely" prefer to live under the American system because of the freedom it allows.

Still, Soviet society has its positive side, Schecter says, his voice assuming a matter-of-fact, almost exasperated tone, as if he is repeating the answer for the umpteenth time. "Look," he says, "in the Soviet Union, everybody is taken care of. No one is starving out on the streets. People aren't living in slums. There is racism, but that's another problem altogether. Racism is much more complex there than here, because its based on differences between nationalities and republics. That's a lot different than white versus black."

Muscovites look down upon Georgians, he says, and enjoy making Georgian jokes. There is also institutionalized anti-Semitism on the part of the government, which considers Jews to be a separate nationality. Schecter, who is Jewish, says that he never felt the effects of anti-Semitism himself, although he knew that it existed. He noticed that the Soviets also practice the conventional American form of racism. "They are always complaining about our racism, but over there it's just blatant and open," he says. The Schecters made several friends in a special university for African students near their home, who frequently complained about the discrimination practiced against them. Russian women who dated black men were sometimes stoned in public, according to Schecter.

Schecter knew very few American children in Moscow, by necessity rather than by choice. The only way he could meet them was at the Saturday movies sponsored by the American embassy, but the Schecter children had school on most Saturday mornings. "We felt we had a commitment to school and to the Russians. They just didn't give us time for Americans," Schecter says. It was also difficult for him to associate with other Americans because he lived on the outskirts of the city.

Schecter feels that the stay in Moscow had a "tightening" effect upon the family, different from the effect of living elsewhere. The Schecters lived in a foreign environment before--Steve was born in Japan, and the family had lived there for several years while his father was Time bureau chief in Tokyo. The Schecters, Steve says, couldn't immerse themselves in Japanese society and attend Japanese schools because "there was almost a racial problem. We just didn't fit in." The children attended American schools in Japan and led basically Western-style lives.

"In Moscow, we all joined together and were much more dependent on each other than in Japan," he recalls. "To stay cheerful in Moscow is a real task, especially in winter. It gets so cold." Schecter mentions that many other foreigners became seriously depressed during the winter months; in the book, his mother mentions how the family went into mild hibernation as the sub-zero temperatures slowed down their metabolisms. "It's a rough place to live," he laughs. "I think the way we did it was perfect. Having a big family was a great help. If I had to go to school by myself, I probably would have given up because it was so traumatic. Going every day with my brother and sisters gave me confidence."

Steve, who says he has kept up his Russian in courses here, is taking this term off. He leaves next month for Micronesia, where he will put together a documentary film on child behavior. Schecter, who is an anthropology major, first developed an interest in film after attending an ethnographic film conference at the Smithsonian Institute as a senior in high school. In Micronesia, he will be working under the auspices of the Smithsonian's anthropological film center, which sponsored a documentary he had worked on in South America last year. Schecter admits that his Russian experience will seem very remote when he is filming the tribesmen of Micronesia, but hopes to return to the Soviet Union eventually to do a documentary on his hooligan friends. "I think they would make a great film," he says with enthusiasm.