I am an immigrant. 30 years ago, I fled Soviet Socialist Russia and came to America to fulfill my mother’s dream, who encouraged me from childhood to study hard, learn English, and go to America, because it is the best place on earth. . . I don’t know how she knew. Travel outside the totalitarian Soviet Union was almost impossible, and she only went to America after I came here.
Today, my sister and I thank God every day that we are here in America. On Thanksgiving Day, we pray special prayers. We are thankful for these simple things, which most Americans probably take for granted.
I am grateful for my warm home in the winter. Growing up in a small town near Siberia, although we had heat in our apartment, it was never hot enough. Because the government owned everything under socialism, it has total control over your living conditions. In the winter, the authorities kept the heat in the apartments to a minimum and in the summer, they turned off the hot water and sometimes both the hot and cold water to save a few rubles so they could keep their corrupt Soviet machine going.
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Even inside the apartment in winter, we wore jackets, warm shoes and sometimes a dhakka. My sister and I laughed at our father wearing a big cute Russian hat, an oshanka, even to bed. Today, when I come into my 72-degree house from outside in the winter, I’m still surprised when warm air hits my face instead of biting cold air. I get a bit of a flashback, though no trace of nostalgia.
In the Soviet Union, every aspect of your life was controlled by the government. You couldn’t just move to another city to live or study – you needed to show residency, a stamp called “propeska” in your passport. But you couldn’t get Propesca in any other city because you didn’t have an apartment, and you couldn’t just buy an apartment because everything was owned by the government. Renting was illegal because there was no private property. When we came from the provinces to study in Moscow, my mother technically illegally rented an apartment for me and my sister. We had a joke in the Soviet Union that you couldn’t get out of bed without breaking a dozen rules.
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Every bureaucrat abused his position, took bribes for everything. The policeman will give you a fake traffic violation to get a bribe. Medical care was technically free and therefore not very well-stocked, and the doctor would take a bribe to give you a painkiller or other medicine. A grocery store manager used to save groceries for his relatives and friends. The rest of us were often greeted with empty shelves.
In America, I want to be able to get a driver’s license, start a business, buy bright red delicious apples at any grocery store, even in winter, and get Novecin when the dentist pulls my teeth. But I wonder. You can practice any religion. In the Soviet Union, the worship of God was outlawed. Socialism and Communism was the religion of the state. My sister and I were secretly baptized by our grandmother. In America, I adopted Judaism as my faith.
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Peace and stability in America is a privilege that has historically been rejected by Russians, especially now that Russia is waging a brutal war against Ukraine. Thousands of Ukrainians and Russians have been killed or injured, and millions have fled their homes. A friend who also fled Soviet Russia recently shared with me that she feels blessed to be in America, especially for her son. He would have been drafted into the army and sent to fight in Ukraine. Without a war on American soil in modern history, Americans do not realize that historically, peace has been the exception, not the rule. Russians, Ukrainians, Syrians, Afghans, and many others know this all too well.
This holiday season and always, I’m counting my blessings for being an American and for the big things like freedom, opportunity, peace and stability — and the little things, like having a warm home and running water.
Click here to read more from Rebecca Koffler.