The Book of the Week is “The Courage of Strangers” by Jeri Laber, published in 2002. This autobiography describes the making of a passionate human rights activist.
The author grew up in privileged surroundings in New York City, in the Sunnyside section of Queens, and Jamaica Estates when the wealthy suburban enclave was in its infancy. This was because her Russian father was a multi-skilled home builder with his own business. On the family’s newly-constructed home: “Back in 1936, it was a technological wonder, with central air-conditioning, a built-in room-to-room intercom system, garage doors that opened automatically, and, buried under the steep cobblestone driveway, wires that heated up to melt the snow.”
In the early 1950’s, Laber wanted to study Russian in graduate school, but her father objected partly because it was the McCarthy Era, and because he felt over-education would hurt her chances for marriage. She defied him. In 1954, she got the opportunity to visit Moscow with three other students. Their tour guides tightly restricted their activities, allowing them to visit only tourist sites, and Moscow State University. She recorded her impressions of the people she met, including, “They have replaced God with Lenin and Stalin…These people are healthy and happy, as long as they conform.”
Excuse the cliche, but “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” At that time, there was the “Military-Industrial Complex.” Now there is the “Military-Corporate Complex.” However, world annihilation via nuclear war was the biggest fear in the 1950’s. The continuing increase in global oppression via telecommunications and other underhanded means is the biggest fear in the early 2000’s.
The author was an eyewitness to the different speeds at which different countries threw off their communist yoke, as she visited various countries behind the Iron Curtain in turn. She writes that people in the former Soviet Union had lived under communism for decades longer than their Eastern bloc counterparts. The older ones residing in the latter had known a better quality of life prior to Soviet takeover. “They looked around them and saw corrupt, repressive governments, failing economies, contaminated water, polluted air, alcoholism, and apathy.” The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Read the book to learn of Laber’s career adventures in Eastern Europe, her checkered love life, the difference she made at meetings with top Soviet leaders and others by speaking out against injustice, and Eastern Europe’s radical political and social changes in the 1990’s.