Victoria Smolkin is associate professor of history at Wesleyan University and author of “A Sacred Space Is Never Empty: A History of Soviet Atheism.”
One November night in 1988, I crossed the Soviet border with my family, leaving behind friends, relatives, property and life as we knew it — forever. I was 8, traveling with my parents and 4-year-old brother. Between the four of us, we had refugee exit papers out of the U.S.S.R.; four suitcases and $360 ($90 per person), which was all that we were allowed to take with us; and our much-coveted tickets for the night train to Vienna, the first stop on the journey to our new life. We did not know what lay ahead, but we had no way back.
We said our goodbyes to my grandfather, who had come to see us off, and prepared to board our train in Chop, on the western border of Soviet Ukraine. The border guards went through our suitcases, delighting in turning our meager remaining possessions inside out, and then — suddenly — pulled my mother away. My mother, they informed my father, had tried to smuggle an antique diamond broach out of the country. My father protested that the broach was just crystal, a worthless family heirloom with only sentimental value. The guards didn’t care; they said they would conduct an investigation and that if the broach was diamond, she would be arrested. If not, they would let her go. They told my father to take the children — us — and go on without her. Then, when they cleared things up, they’d send her along.
My father refused. We spent the night at the train station, waiting. My father ran around looking for new train tickets. Somehow, somewhere, we slept. When I woke up, I saw from the expression on my grandfather’s face that something was very wrong.
The hair on the right side of my head had fallen out, leaving a huge bald patch — a symptom of intense nervous stress, I learned later. My mother was released the next day. I don’t remember much of the rest of that trip, or of the next several months. In fact, I’ve been trying not to remember for the past 30 years.
Certain episodes flash by, disconnected, from our journey to Vienna, Rome and finally the United States: how someone played a sick joke on us and the other refugees traveling to Vienna on the train, not telling us that our compartment would be disconnected in Bratislava, in then-Czechoslovakia; how we got off at an abandoned train station in Poland in the middle of the night to switch cars, and my father pulled the conductor of the wagon out and told him that he could either let us back on the train for a bottle of cognac, or stay on the platform with us. I remember the immigration interview at the U.S. Embassy in Rome, and arriving at John F. Kennedy International Airport on a gray, dreary January day, thinking it didn’t look like paradise. Eventually my hair grew back — but for the next two years I wet the bed.
Most people who know me have never heard this story. And most people who meet me would not know that I am not just who I appear to be: a professional, middle-class American woman, secure in her life and in charge of her world. Somehow, in the 30 years since that night on the Soviet border, I made a life. I became a naturalized citizen, an annoying teenager, a precocious liberal arts student. I went to graduate school, got married, had a child and got a job as a professor of history. By the looks of it, my life is a success. But I am also, always, that immigrant child whose life came to a stop at the Soviet border, and has never felt quite like it started again.
As a historian, I have spent the past 15 years studying power. I have told myself that this is a largely intellectual project. But looking deeper — as the events of the past few months have forced all of us to do — I think it is more than that. For me, trying to figure out how power works, who has it, how they use it and why has been a project of self-preservation, a search for meaning and safety among danger and chaos, and a fight for knowledge and understanding — the weapons I would need should chaos and danger once again threaten to swallow my life.
So, as we think about the policy of separating families at the border, let’s not get distracted by illusions. This is not about law and order. This is about power, and the abuse of power — because if, in the collision between border and body, no one protects the body, the border always wins.