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Echoes of Soviet Russia in our new pandemic lives

I grew up during the Cold War. Back then, Soviet life was portrayed as a bleak series of deprivations. We pictured people grimly standing in line to get into grocery stores. If the bread ran out before the line did, you'd have to go home and make your own. There was political deprivation as well. Soviets knew that their leaders lied to them, and they knew that noting the truth would lead to retribution. Meanwhile, public gatherings were looked upon with suspicion, and displays of artistic expression were closely monitored. In 1989 the Berlin Wall fell, and then the Soviet state fell as well. The West celebrated “winning” the Cold War, and it was impossible to imagine that the United States could ever resemble that hardscrabble dystopia that was our vision of Russia under Soviet rule.

These days, in my social isolation, I think a lot about this. All of a sudden the caricatures of Russia have sprung up in our daily lives, triggered not by a Communist menace but by potentially deadly strings of RNA. We are virtually locked into homes and apartments that seem to have shrunk to the size of Muscovite concrete-block domiciles. If we do venture out, protected by masks and gloves, avoiding each other like, well, the plague, we encounter some bare shelves. Rumors of toilet paper shortages spur mini-riots. In theory you can avoid the lines and have food brought to your door, but snagging a delivery slot is America’s equivalent of a country dacha.

Our social media reflects the shift from a culture that celebrates capitalistic excess to one where victories come in securing the basics. People who once made you feel bad by posting lavish vacations, courtside seats at Warriors games, and well-plated delicacies at the French Laundry now boast of their sourdough starters. Meanwhile, every day we get a politburo-style government briefing in which our leader routinely tells us that we are enjoying abundance in categories of items that are, in fact, in desperate need of replenishment.

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