My father, Nate Fein, died in 1988, mostly of emphysema. He’d smoked most of his life, since he was 7 years old.
Before I was born, he was a writer, often of political satire. And perhaps because his parents had gotten out of Odessa in 1905, along with Trotsky, he became a scholar of Russian politics.
He was a Kremlinologist. Indeed, one of his published satires–which, like all great satires was so near the edge of actuality a number of smart people bought it whole and publicly went nuts–was called something like “The T Formation in the Kremlin.” In it, he “exposed” a theretofore secret aspect of Stalinist strategy and apparatchik power involving, well, a football T formation.
Hard to say but it’s possible I eventually came to adore and write about football because I knew my father had once knowledgeably and effectively mixed football terminology into satirical spydom. (He also mixed batter for gingerbread men and bread loaves, including challah, although once he insisted I do the braiding of the dough. Because he didn’t know how and couldn’t figure it out.) But although I do write satire, all my football writing has been deeply serious. Make of that what you will, Dad.
Since I’ve become fascinated with the crude and klutzy Russian intervention in our political campaign, and Putin’s apparent effort to take Hillary Clinton down–which, if you think about the implications and ramifications, should by itself be turning every voter to Hillary–I have recalled a brief conversation with Dad, just before he died, which was just before the Berlin wall came down.
Gorbachev was in the news, as was perestroika and glasnost. I for one was pretty thrilled. It seemed to trumpet the end of Soviet totalitarianism, the awakening of some sort of democratic spirit in that huge, dark country. Even though the Russians had virtually no history of anything other than rule by tyrants (I think there was a moment in 1917, but I may be wrong), I was hopeful. Because it was my father who many years earlier had given me the single rule by which we could evaluate whether the public, the demos, the voters were really choosing their government.
He supplied the lesson in reference to Castro’s Cuba: “If he really is the choice of the Cuban people, let him hold open elections in which anyone who wants to can run.” That was, Dad said, the only way to delineate dictators from elected public servants–who could, of course, during the next open election get themselves unelected if the voters no longer wanted them.
And he was especially contemptuous of the dogmatic sophistry offered by leftist friends of mine. “People who had lived in tyranny for thousands of years couldn’t just be given the vote. They had to be taught by their wise leaders how to exercise their right to choose their government, it couldn’t be just handed to them overnight.”
“The withering of the state,” indeed–whenever that would come, don’t sit up for it.
One weekend, I took care of Dad when my stepmother was away. It wasn’t difficult. He sat in a wheelchair with a glass of what looked like water but was actually vodka (it quelled the panic) at his left hand. He took frequent naps.
I wheeled him around, made us meals, and read newspaper stories to him (the steroids he was taking had dimmed his eyesight to virtual blindness). Talking was difficult for him. With his emphysema, while he could draw in a breath, he had severe difficulty expelling one. I asked him what it felt like. He, once an athlete in a number of disciplines, said: “Like running but when you stop, you can’t get your breath back at all.”
Probably it was something in the news about the loosening of tyranny in the Soviet Union that caused me to say to him, “Gorbachev is remarkable, isn’t he? After all these centuries of tyranny. It’s really something, isn’t it?”
Dad said one thing only: “Don’t trust them.”
He was right.