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A Father's Conviction to Freedom

A Father's Conviction to Freedom

By Cathy Young - June 19, 2011

This is my first Father's Day without my father, who passed away last month after a brief battle with lung cancer at the age of 75.

My father was not a famous man. But his life, as a Russian Jew born in the darkest hour of Stalinism, was truly a slice of an era -- and, for me and many others who knew him, he was a remarkable example of perseverance and integrity under the most challenging circumstances.

Born Alexander Jung in Moscow in 1935, my father was 12 when both his parents were imprisoned in the Gulag camps. It was an all-too-common plight -- though, unlike millions arrested on utterly trumped-up charges of subversive activities or opinions, my grandparents had actually committed the offense of which they were accused: trying to escape the "workers' paradise" and go to Israel. My father and his younger brother were spared the nightmare of Soviet orphanages because their older sister was old enough to be their guardian; but the three had to fend for themselves, with close relatives avoiding all contact for fear of being compromised.

In those days, even victims of Stalinist terror often retained a blind allegiance to the Soviet regime and to Joseph Stalin himself, dismissing their own persecution as a tragic error. My father, at 17, barely bothered to conceal his lack of grief at Stalin's death; my mother, who met him in music school and became a near-outcast for dating him, still remembers how scandalized some classmates were by his demeanor. The tyrant's demise set in motion changes that eventually led to my grandparents' release. Nonetheless, my father's loathing of communism, with its ruthless trampling of individual freedom, thought and conscience in the name of "the collective" and the state, became a lifelong conviction.

It was a conviction he passed on to me. When I came home from school at the age of 7 and started talking about how lucky I was to live in the Soviet Union rather than under the capitalist yoke, my father decided to take matters into his own hands. Plenty of educated Russians in the 1970s were closet dissidents, but not many of them spoke frankly about politics in front of their children. My mother would often remind me to be discreet at school, and I would earnestly answer, "I know -- or Daddy will go to jail."

My father's candor was not limited to home and family. To him, one of the worst things about the Soviet regime was that it forced most of its subjects to live a lie; and that was something he tried to avoid as best he could. He told risky political jokes at work. He could start a chat with a near-stranger at a social gathering about ways to get forbidden literature, or berate a colleague for joining the Communist Party. Ironically, this earned him a few people's suspicions of being a KGB stooge: it was hard to believe that a man could be so reckless unless he was safe and trying to provoke others into voicing disloyal thoughts.

Perhaps Dad was very lucky, or perhaps fortune favors the brave. Somehow, he managed to get away with his anti-Soviet outspokenness. Despite having two strikes against him as a Jew and the son of former political prisoners, he managed, by dint of talent and hard work, to have a fairly successful career in the Soviet Union as a sound producer and violinist. He was repeatedly encouraged to join the Party with promises of further advancement. He consistently refused (though his candor was not so suicidal as to admit that he was refusing on principle).

After my family came to the United States in 1980, my father became, for the first time, a patriot. He could be harshly critical of many aspects of American life, with his ire directed at both liberal and conservative targets, from the overreach of the welfare state to excessive entanglement of religion in public life; but his love for his adopted country never wavered. The idea of America as a haven from tyranny and a beacon of freedom and human dignity may seem corny to some; for my father, it was intensely real. He often worried about democracy's ability to survive, particularly about the free world's will to defend itself from ruthless and relentless foes such as Communism or Islamist radicalism. But even when he waxed pessimistic, it was a pessimism born of love.

While my father took a lifelong interest in political debates, his real passion was for art and ideas. Classical music was both his vocation and the love of his life, but he also had a vast knowledge of painting, literature, and film, and was a voracious reader of history and philosophy. He cherished the opportunity to travel, something that was once virtually off-limits to him as a Soviet citizen.

When Dad was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer last February, he remained as brave in the face of devastating illness as he had been in the face of totalitarian power. He was probably more optimistic about his chances than was warranted; but he also said once that, if the worst happened, he was happy to have had 75 years on this earth -- and "a wonderful life" for the last 31 of them.

As it turned out, the time left to him was very short. Eight weeks after starting chemotherapy, my father suffered a stroke, its effects compounded by sepsis. Yet, weak as he was, he retained his mind, his self, and his sense of humor to the very last. In his hospital bed, two or three days away from slipping into unconsciousness for the last time, Dad wanted to know what was happening in Israel and how my work was going. He quoted lines from poetry. He still expressed the hope that he would recover and see his best-loved modern artist, Berlin Philharmonic conductor Sir Simon Rattle, in concert again.

We did not always see eye to eye. Sometimes, Dad thought I was too wishy-washy in trying to see both sides of an argument; sometimes, I thought his approach was too black-and-white. Yet our core values and principles, I think, have always been fundamentally the same. Looking back, I realize how in how many ways he has influenced my thinking. Because of my father -- who was an involved "New Dad" before the concept existed, and whose marriage to my mother was a true partnership of equals -- I could never embrace any form of feminism that downplayed the importance of fathers or denigrated men.' Because of him, I could never embrace any form of conservative populism that denigrates high culture and intellectual pursuits as "elite."

My father took a dim view of conventional religion. Yet he sometimes said that if there was one reason to believe in God, it was the divine spark in humans -- the spirit that creates great art and drives great acts of courage and generosity. I think he, too, shared in that spirit.

Cathy Young writes a weekly column for RealClearPolitics and is also a contributing editor at Reason magazine. She blogs at http://cathyyoung.wordpress.com/ and you can follow her on Twitter at @CathyYoung63. She can be reached by email at CathyYoung63@gmail.com.

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