Alexander Dolitsky: What is freedom?

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By ALEXANDER DOLITSKY

Recently, I had a conversation with an American in her late 20s about current events in our country. Let’s call her Rebecca in order to protect her anonymity.

“What is freedom?” Rebecca asked.

“What is it for you, Rebecca?” I responded to her rhetorical question.

“For me, freedom is the ability to exercise my wills, wishes and desires without boundaries, restrictions and limits,” she answered proudly without any pausing.

“Well, what you just described is an anarchy rather than freedom,” I responded. “We live in a complex society, with well-established public institutions, laws, rules, regulations and norms of behavior. Your definition of freedom will, most definitely, collide with the traditional principles and values of contemporary complex societies.”

“Okay, fine, then, would you elaborate on your understanding of freedom?” Rebecca insisted. 

“Well, perhaps in the context of my experiences in the former Soviet Union, in order to understand and appreciate what freedom is, let me share with you some instances of a lack of freedom or no personal freedom at all that I encountered in a society with a totalitarian, socialist regime,” I suggested. 

Rebecca nodded in her consent and looked at me attentively.

“Many topics of our discussions—especially related to politics, creative writing and dissident literature—were forbidden and harshly punishable by Soviet authorities. Indeed, everyone realized the danger of our involvement in these freedom–spirited activities. A complete compliance to the Marxist-Leninist ideology was firmly seated in all public institutions, including schools, academic and research institutions, military, governments, arts, sports, music, etc. There were no exceptions.”

“So, people could not express their own political and ideological views?” asked Rebecca with obvious curiosity.

“Occasionally they could, but consequences would be very grim for them,” I responded. “For example, one of my classmates at the Kiev Pedagogical Institute wrote an essay required for a class in which he suggested that economically, politically, and socially Ukraine could be better off as an independent and sovereign country, separate from the former Soviet Union. As a result of his writing and open-minded thoughts, he was expelled from the Institute in no time, virtually next day.” 

Rebecca’s mouth was open in “O” shape as I shared this story with her.

I continued, “In the 1970s, in my early 20s, I was employed as a research assistant at the Institute of Archaeology of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences in Kiev. The Institute was located in the 11th Century Vydubychi Monastery—a remarkable historic monument protected by UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization). 

“One of the leading research programs of the Institute was a study of the origin and history of the Slavs (i.e. Russian, Ukrainian and Belarus nations). Researchers at the Institute were directed to follow and comply with the Moscow’s theory on the northern origin of Slavs. According to Moscow’s most common theory, the West Slavs (Poles, Czechs), the South Slavs (Serbs, Bulgarians), and the East Slavs (Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians), all originated from the vast swamp-lands, called Pripet Marshes, that can be found in current Belarus and Northern Ukraine.

“In the late 1960s, in spite of the directive from Moscow, several courageous archaeologists in Kiev, including Yevgeniy Chernenko, a research fellow at the Institute, and Vasiliy  Shevchenko, then a Director of the Institute of Archaeology of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences in Kiev, proposed a novel hypothesis (i.e., undefined theory) of possible genetic and cultural links between Scythians, nomads of the Ukrainian steppes, and already settled indigenous population of the same steppes.”

Rebecca was silent and continued to listen attentively. 

“The Scythians originated in Central Asia, but evidence of their nomadic lifestyle reached into India and showed a westward path into Armenia, Ukraine, Hungary and even eastern Germany from approximately 1000 BCE to 400 CE, or nearly 1400 years of their existence. Eventually, they ended their nomadic life style and finally settled in the steppes of today’s Ukraine, as evidenced by the large number of Scythian burial mounds (kurgany or mogily) found on this territory. In fact, in the early 1970s, I took a part in several archaeological excavations of the Scythian kurgans in the vicinity of the middle-Dnieper River.

“While no conclusive evidence has been provided to indicate a racial or genetic bond between the ancient Scythians and contemporary Ukrainians, there can be little doubt that the language of the indigenous population of the today’s Ukrainian steppe was affected by contact with the Scythians, and they, most probably, adopted some of the Scythian customs, traditions and ideas.

“This novel hypothesis contradicted the regime’s theory on the origin of Slavs and it was not received well in Moscow. As a result, in 1969 a director of the Institute Vasiliy Shevchenko was dismissed from his position and replaced by the Moscow’s protégé and loyalist, Ivan Artemenko,” I explained.

“I thought that science is about discovering the factual truth and natural laws,” commented Rebecca.

“Yes, of course, you are correct,” I concurred. “But it is only true when the science is not a ‘servant’ of the political and ideological elites or progressive activists; as it is evident in today’s radical far-left and neo-Marxist reality in our country and around the world,” I responded.

“Indeed, freedom of speech was suppressed and dissent was punished in the former Soviet Union,” I declared. “Independent political activities were not tolerated, whether these involved participation in the labor unions, private entities, independent religious institutions, or opposition political groups. 

“The Soviet totalitarian government (e.g., KGB—Committee for State Security and MVD—Internal Police) blocked western media and radio broadcasts, employing sophisticated (for its time) electronic devices called ‘zaglushki’ (blockers)—setting up tall antennas designed to intercept and block western radio transmissions unwelcome and ‘offensive’ to the socialist regime. Many courageous people, however, secretly and at a great personal risk for themselves and their families, constructed a self-made radios consisting of an antenna (i.e., long wire) attached to a long-wave radio and connected to a tall tree or building in order to catch forbidden transmissions that were coming from the Voice of America, BBC, and other western news agencies in Russian language for the Russian audience.”

“So, it was a censorship and social environment similar to today’s North Korea, Cuba, or Venezuela,” Rebecca remarked.

“Yes, just about,” I concurred. 

“Well, when for the very first time you experienced freedom, a real freedom?” Rebecca asked.

“When I first arrived in the West, my very first day in Vienna, Austria,” I answered without hesitation. “Then, for the first time in my adult life, I observed on the streets so many cars of different colors and models: blue, yellow, red, green, black, white—a complete prism of rainbow. In my former socialist country, that I had left just a day before, the cars were mostly black, white and navy and there were only few domestic models—Volga, Mosckvich, Zhiguli. 

“During my first days in the West, I walked the streets of Vienna, enjoying street musicians, freely performing classical, jazz, pop, rhythm and blues music. I also enjoyed street artists, mastering their skills openly and without any fear of being arrested for their artistic expressions. People were polite, smiling and looked friendly and happy. Everything and everyone around me in Vienna, smelled, sound and looked free. Yes, I could smell, see, hear and feel freedom; and, finally, I was free.

“America was my next destination to freedom, liberty and prosperity,” I told her.

When I finished my stories, Rebecca was silent and thoughtful. 

I sincerely believe that there is a hope for all Rebecca-like Americans—a hope of striving for freedom with respect to speech and expression, a hope for personal liberty, and a hope for living a life of dignity.

Alexander B. Dolitsky was born and raised in Kiev in the former Soviet Union. He received an M.A. in history from Kiev Pedagogical Institute, Ukraine, in 1976; an M.A. in anthropology and archaeology from Brown University in 1983; and was enroled in the Ph.D. program in Anthropology at Bryn Mawr College from 1983 to 1985, where he was also a lecturer in the Russian Center. In the U.S.S.R., he was a social studies teacher for three years, and an archaeologist for five years for the Ukranian Academy of Sciences. In 1978, he settled in the United States. Dolitsky visited Alaska for the first time in 1981, while conducting field research for graduate school at Brown. He lived first in Sitka in 1985 and then settled in Juneau in 1986. From 1985 to 1987, he was a U.S. Forest Service archaeologist and social scientist. He was an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Russian Studies at the University of Alaska Southeast from 1985 to 1999; Social Studies Instructor at the Alyeska Central School, Alaska Department of Education from 1988 to 2006; and has been the Director of the Alaska-Siberia Research Center (see www.aksrc.homestead.com) from 1990 to present. He has conducted about 30 field studies in various areas of the former Soviet Union (including Siberia), Central Asia, South America, Eastern Europe and the United States (including Alaska). Dolitsky has been a lecturer on the World Discoverer, Spirit of Oceanus, andClipper Odyssey vessels in the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions. He was the Project Manager for the WWII Alaska-Siberia Lend Lease Memorial, which was erected in Fairbanks in 2006. He has published extensively in the fields of anthropology, history, archaeology, and ethnography. His more recent publications include Fairy Tales and Myths of the Bering Strait Chukchi, Ancient Tales of Kamchatka; Tales and Legends of the Yupik Eskimos of Siberia; Old Russia in Modern America: Russian Old Believers in Alaska; Allies in Wartime: The Alaska-Siberia Airway During WWII; Spirit of the Siberian Tiger: Folktales of the Russian Far East; Living Wisdom of the Far North: Tales and Legends from Chukotka and Alaska; Pipeline to Russia; The Alaska-Siberia Air Route in WWII; and Old Russia in Modern America: Living Traditions of the Russian Old Believers; Ancient Tales of Chukotka, and Ancient Tales of Kamchatka.

A few of Dolitsky’s past MRAK columns:

Read: Is America losing its mind?

Read: Russian Old Believers in Alaska live lives reflecting bygone centuries

Read: Russian saying: Beat your friends so your enemies fear you

Read: Neo-Marxism and utopian Socialism in America

Read: Old believers preserving faith in the New World

Read: Duke Ellington and the effects of Cold War in Soviet Union on intellectual curiosity

Read: United we stand, divided we fall with race, ethnicity in America

Read: For American schools to succeed, they need this ingredient

Read: Nationalism in America, Alaska, around the world

Read: The case of the ‘delicious salad’

Read: White privilege is a troubling perspective

Read: Beware of activists who manipulate history for their own agenda

Read: Alaska Day remembrance of Russian transfer

Read: American leftism is true picture of true hypocrisy

Read: History does not repeat itself

Read: The only Ford Mustang in Kiev

Read: What is greed? Depends on the generation

Read: Worldwide migration of Old Believers in Alaska

Read: Traditions of Old Believers in Alaska

Read: Language, Education of Old Believers in Alaska

8 COMMENTS

  1. Freedom? It’s a rare gift from God most people happily throw away because it’s hard and requires work.

  2. If a law-abiding adult can own, carry and use a firearm without any specific approval, registration. or governmental permission then other freedoms are very likely to be encountered, available and exercised. If the government has the serial number of your personal firearm then your freedom is a fiction. When freedom is abolished they first come for your firearms. They may come for your books, your computer, and to take your life; but first they want your firearm; not much of a mystery.

  3. Personally don’t care for immigrants from the East who come to the West and then want to lecture Americans on the topic of freedom. From this author on back to Ayn Rand.

    If the author truly wanted to understand freedom he would have picked up a rifle and fought for his own family, community and country. That didn’t happen.

    In 1787 Thomas Jefferson wrote this sentence in a letter “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”

    People from the East do not fundamentally understand the origin story of this country.

    Rebecca’s quote is 100% correct and doesn’t need any further context or elucidation:

    “For me, freedom is the ability to exercise my wills, wishes and desires without boundaries, restrictions and limits, . . .”

    That’s the American dream in a nutshell.

    • Dull, Huh, I find both Rand and Dolitsky important reading. Rand especially at this juncture because she aptly describes how the enemy of your freedom operates. Dolitsky’s perspective is equally enlightening given his personal story. As for Freedom, it comes with a price and part of that price is respecting the liberties of others, which requires one to be self governing.
      I am all aboard with Jefferson, probably one of my favorites, but I note that when the shooting started Thomas had to excuse himself. I’m cool with that, not everyone is an Out Law Josey Wales, right?

      • I don’t need to read the writings of Soviet cast-a-ways in order to understand the notion of liberty.

        We put pen to paper in 1776. Read the preamble (and the rest). It’s all in there.

        Your sentence here is garbage:

        “As for Freedom, it comes with a price and part of that price is respecting the liberties of others, which requires one to be self governing.”

        So dumb. Freedom came to the colonists because they shot the red coats in the face with muskets. Freedom did not come to America because some limp wristed political philosopher ran away from conflict in their own country and then wrote some book about their memories in order to promote it in another.

  4. “A hope of striving for freedom with respect to speech and expression, a hope for personal liberty, and a hope for living a life of dignity”
    Well let’s first accept that Trump lost the election, that abortion is a right of every woman.

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