Living Through History with a Historian—Witnessing Monumental Societal Change in the Soviet Union from the 60s to the 90s
American diplomats and their families abroad become accustomed to living through exciting or harrowing events; but occasionally their lives provide them a unique window into historical transformation of great import. In this “Moment in U.S. diplomatic history,” we get a first hand perspective of monumental societal change in the Soviet Union from historian Naomi Collins and Foreign Service Officer James (Jim) Collins, who lived in Moscow four times during its darkest and its most hopeful days, allowing them to witness some of the most momentous events of the twentieth century.
Naomi and Jim Collins traveled to the Soviet Union for the first time as newlyweds. Wedding vows like the ones they pronounced to one another are all based upon trust between the wedded, then a contract is signed to solidify the union. On a larger scale, a similar relationship exists between the people of Western societies and their democratic constitutions; everything is based upon the idea that the governed trust their leaders to work in their interest and hold them accountable through free elections. The USSR was different. The couple arrived in Soviet Russia in 1965 to spend one year at Moscow State University as a part of the U.S.-Soviet bilateral exchange. In this, their first trip outside the United States, what they found was an alien society governed by leaders that lacked trust, controlled virtually all aspects of people’s lives, and imposed an alternative world view alien to nearly everything we took for granted in the West. They were also surprised to find that Soviet youths, contrary to nearly all portrayals in the Western press, were utterly cynical about Marxist ideology; no one believed the official storyline. Personal relations were also alien. The Collinses always suspected some apparent friends to be involved with the KGB, and understood others would have to report to the authorities if they maintained contacts. Beyond these strange realties, the couple was stunned at the relative poverty they saw in rural Russia and many parts of the cities they visited: homes without indoor plumbing, rural dirt roads that turned to slush in the Russian snow, and drug stores without basic medicine like penicillin. The USSR just did not meet the expectations Americans had for a strong competing superpower. Leonid Brezhnev had taken power away from Nikita Khruschev, and there was a prevailing mood of a return to the heavy hand of control over society and little hope for an opening to the West.