Monday, July 9, 2012

Brush with Communism: Part 1

When I was ten, I started taking piano lessons from literally the lady down the street.  She ended up retiring a year later so we asked her to recommend someone.  She told us of a woman who recently immigrated from Russia (this was before the fall of Communism so more like USSR) who lived across town.

Her and her family lived in a tiny house with their youngest daughter.  Their oldest daughter and her husband had also immigrated.  My Russian teacher, who we'll call Mrs. Ivan, had a black upright Russian piano.  We sat on two dinning room chairs and I took lessons from her for several years.

Over time I learned a number of things about Mrs. Ivan and her family.  Mrs. Ivan told me when they immigrated that they were told not to take any furniture or dishes.  She lovingly talked about her hand crafted bedroom set, but I understood that it meant more to her to come to US, land of democracy, then to continue waiting in the bread line in Russia.  They literally had clothes, some momentos, and some books.  She felt lucky to get out with her piano.  She feared that they would consider it furniture rather than an instrument.  They let her take the piano but the bench, well that was furniture.  Which explains why we sat on dining room chairs for years.

She also talked about what life was like there as a piano teacher.  She told me that at the age 5 or 6 parents would bring their children to be given a test.  She said the test involved imitating the teacher: rhythms and sounds etc.  Those children that passed would be enrolled in the school.  Those that failed never could learn the piano.  In Russia, music wasn't a hobby or something you could just teach yourself or get a teacher for.  It was systematic.  She said parents would try to bribe her and the other teachers to get their children selected for the program.  To be a musician meant a better life (contrary to the basic principals of communism).

After you were enrolled, there was no private education like here in the states.  You were in a class.  Each of the children learned the same concepts and then would try them out individually on the piano.  It was state run.  And they expected you to excel and perfect your craft.  I suppose you could call it a strict magnet school with failure not being an option since the state invested in you so much.

Mrs. Ivan never specifically told me why they left.  I'm guessing that her and her family were not treated very well despite her status as a music teacher and her husband's status as a construction worker.

I did learn later that they had no religion (being forbidden in Russia) and they had to look back at their family history to discover that they were Russian Jews (which they eventually became Jewish, again).  Perhaps that was also the problem.  I'll never know.

But there had to be some good reason that Mrs. Ivan gave up her handcrafted furniture and fine china for a starting life of poverty in the states, in a country where she had a decent, but not well grasp of English.

It's for this reason and many other stories that I have that I've never supported communism.  I don't think the government dictating the lives and businesses of individuals is right.  The idea behind communism is to help the poor.  The problem as you can see from my story is the communism breeds a more insidious hierarchy based on a crazy skills assessment test given to you at age 6.  How this helps people out of abject poverty, I don't know.  Communism doesn't work.  It just enslaves.

And in case your wondering, I would have probably failed that assessment test.  I got to be the musician I am today because I worked hard at it.  Luck and natural talent, I don't have.

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