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Russia 2007: Up Close and Personal

Oligarchs! Socialites! Petrodollars! Cosmonauts! Sixteen years after the fall of communism, the country is still in the middle of a radical transformation.

The place is Bleecker Street, New York, September 1941. I am seven years old. My dad has tacked a large map of Europe to the closet door and he's using a black pencil to shade in the white space of a country called the USSR. As the pencil moves eastward, black dots with names like Riga and Minsk and Smolensk recede into the shadows. The dark wave draws closer to two large dots, Leningrad and Moscow. "Look at this and remember what I tell you," says my father. "The black is the Germans. They have conquered most of Europe and now they want to conquer the Soviet Union, but they will never take Leningrad or Moscow. Do you want to know why? Because socialism is invincible. Everyone is predicting the Soviets will fall in a month or two, but mark my words: Russia will win this war."

It was my first session of political in­­doctrination, probably one of the most pow­er­ful, and my father was proved right. In early 1943 I again stood in front of the map, this time watching him use a thick red pencil to draw broad swathes of crimson over the black, as the Red Army launched a devastating counterattack, chasing the Wehrmacht from Moscow.

"Didn't I tell you?" he asked.

Yes, he did. And that's when I became a true believer.

In the following years I grew terribly proud of my Russian name. I told everyone that I was Russian (even though I didn't yet speak the language). As the Red Army refused to fold at Stalingrad and the world acknowledged Russia's role in Hitler's defeat, my belief in the Soviet system became a gauge by which I measured all things political, social, and economic.

Then the U.S.–USSR relationship spoiled and I began to get into fights with the kids at Stuyvesant High who called me "Commie" and "Redski." My father, who worked for a subdivision of MGM, was fired and blacklisted because of his outspoken pro-Soviet views. We were forced to move out of our Fifth Avenue duplex, which we could no longer afford, and our phones were tapped. Just about all our friends were frightened of being seen with us—after visits from the FBI—and my belief in socialism became my moral backbone.

I fashioned myself into the Soviet's number one propagandist. In the eighties I tried to justify its policies to Americans through appearances on Nightline, Good Morn­ing America, The Today Show, Cross­fire, Larry King Live, and other shows. (I remember a news­paper headline that read he-e-e-e-e-r-e's vladimir!)

Even then I had doubts. I've lived a long life, so I can't take you on the painful, torturous trip from true believer to…what? I don't exactly know. But I repeat: It took a long time and a lot of things. It took a move to the Soviet Union at the age of 18, where I saw the unbelievable poverty of the people who had won the war. It took being denied entrance to Moscow University because of my Jewish name and my "bourgeois" background. It took learning about the Gulag from those who had spent the better part of their lives there. It took Nikita Khrushchev's de-Stalinization speech and the Hungarian uprising of 1956, the trials of Yuli Daniel and Andrei Sinyavsky and other dissidents, the Prague Spring of 1968—it took all this and more.

One of my father's closest friends, a man who spent 17 years in the Gulag and was like a second father to me, once said, "Do whatever you want, but heaven forbid that someday, when you wake up in the morning and start shaving, you should want to spit at who you see in the mirror." I came very close to doing that.

I will never again be a true believer in any government or party or movement or policy. Never again. —Vladimir Pozner, 73, hosts a show on Russia's Channel One. He is completing a documentary about the United States called Anywhere, U.S.A.