In 1996 I was a college student in Ukraine. One day, we were sitting in class, the professor was speaking, the students were taking notes. Suddenly, an irate secretary from the Dean’s Office burst in. Interrupting the professor in mid-sentence she screeched,
“Everybody, get up and go out. You will be sweeping the alley outside. Now! You, too!” pointing at the professor.
The professor, a youngish guy we thought was very cool because he had traveled the world and spoke an almost fluent English blushed and started stuffing papers into his bag. Everybody got up. Except me.
“What’s going to happen if we don’t?” I asked. “This isn’t the USSR any longer. You can’t make us.”
“Get up and go sweep now!” the secretary bellowed. “Do what you are told!”
“No,” I said. “I’m a student, not a street cleaner. I’m not going to sweep. What can you do to me?”
The secretary looked apoplectic. The other students started shooshing me down.
“It’s OK, we’ll go, we are going right now!” they piped up in mousy little voices.
“You will go because you want to volunteer,” the secretary said. “It’s the right thing to do. The alley needs sweeping. You will go now.”
Everybody went to sweep including the professor. I strolled around them in a fedora hat, delivering a lecture on freedom and human dignity. Then I got bored and went home while they stayed to
get vaccinated keep sweeping.
I thought they were like that because they had been beaten down by a totalitarian regime. After several more events of this kind, I decided that I couldn’t wait for them to get over their totalitarian upbringing and that I needed to move to a place where people understood the importance of freedom and dignity. That’s how I ended up in North America.
Last year I shared this story with students.
“It looks like you can’t escape from totalitarianism, professor,” one student said. “It comes wherever you go.”