The impending Capitalist attack was just one of countless threats a Soviet child had to be prepared for, even in the waning years of the Soviet Union. There were the standard rules for surviving a dictatorship: Don’t trust anyone but family, never attract the attention of the police, always be patriotic. There were rules that applied only to Jews: Don’t utter words like “synagogue” in public, don’t share family stories with non-Jewish neighbors. Anti-Semitism waxed in accord with overall social anxiety; by 1989, it led my family and thousands of others to flee.
Myriad don’ts permeated Soviet life. There was little difference between dangers visible and invisible, real and superstitious. Play with a knife and you’ll get cut; hand a friend a knife instead of placing it down on the table for him to pick up, and your friendship will wither. You were exposed and vulnerable in public, in your apartment, in your head. The evils, the omens, the Americans working on secret weapons and the K.G.B. looking for traitors were all part of the same malevolent atmosphere.
The only relief came in the form of scathing, cynical satire called anekdoty, or anecdotes — anonymous jokes that arose with baffling speed, often in response to current events, much like memes today. What’s the difference between an optimist and a pessimist? A pessimist believes life will get worse; an optimist knows it will. “Obe khuzhe” (both are worse) was a typical reply when asked to choose between two things; the answer could be sincere or sarcastic, or both. It was a dark coping mechanism, but it helped.
I’ve always found this fatalism hard to explain to Americans, at least until 2016.