Liberty is Precious, it Must be Carefully Rationed

“We have it all, yet we have nothing at all.”

Ina Catrinescu

Ina Catrinescu

In 1987, in a small city in the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic, a group of scouts were on the lookout for high-potential gymnasts to join a team of athletes to be trained for the Olympics. I was only seven years old at the time. I remember it to this day, how a chain of shivers ran down my spine when one  of the strangers who joined our physical training class pointed at me. I learned later that day that I had been recruited. My training began the following week. When at the age of ten I got transferred to a new group to start preparing for the Olympics, my mother raised her concerns. This was not the future she had envisioned for me. “My daughter is going to become a chef cook!” she told my coach. To which the coach informed her that I was, “State property” now. 

I felt at home on the mat among the tall, stained glass windows of the new gym. I could never really understand why grandmother berated the Soviets for repurposing churches. They made for beautiful, spacious sport schools. The second half-hour of the class, the splits practice between warm-up and somersaults was my favorite. It was during one of those half-hours that I learned something which I would never forget. The TV, that was always on mute during training, was running a replay of some program. The subtitles that ran across the image of a vigorous, blue-eyed man with thick brown hair seasoned with a touch of gray, read something along the following lines: 

“The Soviet Union denies human freedom and human dignity to its citizens.” For a moment, I thought that I was watching a parody, and couldn’t believe when the newscaster made an appearance, I was watching the news.

I was dumbstruck. What did this stranger – a man who didn’t even speak my language – mean? What was he talking about? We were not unfree. We had a good, peaceful life. My mother had just spent half of her monthly salary (‘zarplata’) on my imported, dark blue jeans and red leather jacket which were in deficit. Our one-bedroom apartment, just on the outskirts of the city center, was covered floor to wall in Persian carpets and we were approaching the end waiting list for a new sleeping sofa. The streets of the city we lived in were framed by lush chestnut trees and concrete light poles. The shelves of the two grocery stores stowed everything we needed: bread, butter, sugar, salt, sun flower oil and even canned foods. Fresh meat was delivered to the stores each Thursday morning and the cues were a great opportunity to properly catch up with neighbors.

I saw the face of that man on TV more and more often after that. People seemed to like him, he was always met with fervent applause. You could hardly watch the news anymore without an image of him and Gorbachev shaking hands. I learned that his name was Ronald Reagan and soon, with the words: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” he announced the apocalypse of life as I knew it; The beginning of the end; The end of the Soviet Union. 

To the outside world, the fall of the USSR on December 26, 1991, represented freedom, the abolition of an “Evil Empire” and declaration of independence for the 15 republics. But if you stepped out into the streets that day you’d see no sounds of triumph. It struck me how solemn people appeared to be. Moldova’s folk, who threw parades even on Children’s Day, were neither marching, nor cheering that day. Just silence among the gaps in the queue for fresh meat. I realized only years later that this was not a silence of disbelief. This was a silence of apprehension. 

My mother’s worst fear that I would become a gymnast did not materialize. The sport school was stripped of springboards, balance beams and rubber mats, and inundated by icons, relics and candles instead. The focal point which was once animated by backflips and handsprings on the vaulting horse, was now occupied by a sedate Altar. Instead of our athletic, pony-tailed, sylphlike, spandex-clad coach, a bearded, solemn and stern, long-robed priest governed the chapel. My evenings were now filled with reading instead. 

The pulling back of the Iron Curtain brought the light in where literature, other than the partisan history of the Soviet Union, written by authors other than “our father” Lenin, started flooding the shelves of our libraries. Being able to choose what we could read felt liberating at first. This is where I learned that the place I believed to be my safe-haven, was in fact the, “Focus of evil in the modern world.” 

The more I read, the more I grew to abhor and detest the Soviets – the very people I once held dear as my leaders. I could regard them in no other light than a band of successful robbers, who had snatched from us our beliefs, language and tradition and reduced us to imbeciles. I loathed them as being the meanest as well as the most wicked of men. 

As I read and contemplated the subject, behold, something I had rarely been inclined to do before, discontentment had come to torment and sting my soul to abominable anguish. My parents were divorcing and a little in denial, so I was left to my own devices to writhe under the weight of realizations. I would at times feel that access to knowledge had been a curse rather than a blessing. My eyes had opened to a horrible pit, but no-one gave me a ladder upon which to climb out. In moments of agony, I envied my parents for their ability to ignore all of this. At times, when they mused with nostalgia about “the good old times” I felt terribly estranged from them. The moat of ignorance that isolated us from truth, remains incomprehensible to their generation to this day. 

The working of the Soviets was nothing short of genius. They didn’t have to whip or shackle us into compliance. They simply infiltrated our brains. Marginalizing and regulating the subjects of our education, they ensured that we started life with a handicap. Not even the brightest of us stood a chance at extricating ourselves from our assigned lot. This form of slavery is subliminal, but bulletproof and maintained the desired measure of social order, peace, and tranquillity for the ruling class. 

At times, I had wished myself a feeble-mind again. I preferred the condition of the ignorant to my own. Anything, no matter what, to deliver me from thinking! I wished to go back to the times when we had it all. But I knew that although we had it all, we had nothing at all. 

It was then I set my eyes out for a distant shore. And, as soon as I was old enough I departed from my estranged home full of hope. The hope of an anxious young girl with a suspicious last name, who believed that free Western Europe had a place for her too. 

The move to a modern and democratic society felt like the silver lining. What better home than The Netherlands could a freedom-starved soul ask for!? With the steadfastness of the pioneer in me, I joined the race to the top of the career ladder full steam. My every jump forward was propelled by a springboard. The cordial Dutch secured my professional backflips and handsprings. “Freedom feels great!” I thought, as I drenched every nook and cranny of my spine in it. 

But, after spending the next decade or more, chasing after the next degree, a more profitable profession, a more rewarding career, after years of perfecting my skill-set and professional experience, I felt more like I was behind an Iron Curtain than ever before. I wondered, how much more liberated are the people from the developed countries than those under Soviet rule were? They aren’t wearing Lenin’s red breast badge pinned to their chest like I was when I was a child; they carry a heavy ladder before them of equal significance. They don’t have one man with a gun who controls 100 without one, but there’s always some man in a leather chair that does. They are not deprived of liberty; their liberty is so precious that it is carefully rationed. They are not enslaved to some immutable dogma; they’re tethered to a rat race instead. Everywhere I looked, from the European Union, the United Arab Emirates to the United States, I found compelling evidence that we were all united. United by a common foible, which I believe may be more of a curse: The single-minded pursuit of wealth which leads smart people to squander the things that money can’t buy. 

The condition of realization which tormented me fifteen years ago, had returned to torment me again. There was no getting rid of it. It was pressed upon me by every job, every promotion, every manager and extra hour of work. I realized that my soul had been roused to eternal wakefulness. Freedom now appeared to be gone again. Only this time, I was wide awake. I looked at nothing without seeing it and I listened to nothing without hearing it. We have it all, yet it many ways we have nothing at all.