Leon Cogan's story

Leon Cogan was a Russian Jewish émigré who worked as a computer programmer at Kronos, Incorporated, where he told me this story.

He had arrived in the US in the seventies, with his wife and seven-year-old daughter, several years after he had applied to the Soviet Union to be allowed to emigrate. At that time, people who wanted to leave the country were not looked upon fondly by the Russian government. Thus, upon announcing his intentions, he immediately lost his job and his apartment. He and his family had been living for several years in poverty, surviving with the help of friends.

Eventually, though, his application was approved, and he was brought to the United States. There, with the help of the agency HIAS (the "Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society"), he was settled in the community of Lynn, Massachusetts, a northern suburb of Boston.

He had the great fortune to arrive at a time when the United States economy was doing very well. As a result, he and his wife, both computer programmers, immediately found work. They didn't speak English, but that didn't prove to be an impediment to employment. At the time, there were entire buildings, owned by companies like ComputerVision, in which everybody spoke Russian.

With two decent incomes coming in, Leon and his wife transitioned from poverty to what was, in comparison, great wealth. They had not heard good things about the Lynn public schools, and they decided that they had enough money to put their seven-year-old daughter into a private school. At that point they ran into reality:  their daughter spoke only Russian, and private schools don't have to deal with students who don't speak English. No private school would accept her.

Public schools, on the other hand, have to take all comers. Well, they reasoned, at the age of seven, children learn languages very quickly. We'll put her in the public school in Lynn, and by next year, her English will be good enough to transfer to a private school.

Leon and his wife were, of course, very busy. They were dealing with their jobs, their own English classes, and adapting to a new life that was different in very many respects from their old one. Note 1 Thus, although he spoke with his daughter regularly about how she was doing in general, a couple of months went by before it occurred to Leon to ask her specifically how she was doing in the language department. As he and his wife had surmised, at seven years of age, children learn languages very rapidly. So in very little elapsed time, his daughter informed him, she already spoke pretty fluent Spanish. To which Leon said,

Spanish !!??!! (in Russian)

Which means, "Spanish !!??!!" (he was speaking to his daughter in Russian, after all). "Why Spanish?", he asked her.

Well, she explained, since she didn't speak English, she was put into a classroom of children who spoke other languages, and the majority of them were Hispanic. Thus, all her friends at school spoke Spanish. She spoke Spanish with them in the classrooms, and on the playground. She spoke Spanish all the time, except in her classes (which included classes in English). But although her Spanish was improving by leaps and bounds, her English was not progressing very well. It seemed that speaking Spanish with her friends on the playground was making more of a dent in her linguistic education than her formal classes in English. Note 2

Indeed, by the end of the school year, her Spanish was excellent, but her English was still pretty poor. Leon and his wife had an idea. They researched summer camps, with their primary criteria being that nobody there spoke Russian (that one was pretty easy) and nobody there spoke Spanish (that was much harder). They did find one that met their requirements, and they sent their daughter there, although it was quite expensive. And (being seven and all, and pretty smart to boot), she came back from the summer with sufficient English to enter a private school.

Years later, in middle school, the time came to select a foreign language to study. What did she select? Spanish, of course - her gift from the Lynn public school system. She was very good at it. I think she continued studying Spanish through college.

The last I heard of Leon Cogan, he had returned to Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, to try to take advantage of capitalist possibilities there. I don't know how that worked out, or where he is now.

June 14, 2017 note: I translated the above into Spanish,
and posted it as El relato de Leon Cogan

The Cogan family's difficulty getting out of the USSR reminds us that totalitarian countries have a habit of trying to keep their citizens from leaving. I can understand their motivation, of course. In the summer of 1966, I crossed through Checkpoint Charlie into communist East Berlin for a one-day visit. While there, I entered into a discussion, half in English and half in German, with a couple of East German students. They made it clear that their sealed border was for their own economic protection. Without it, their most talented people would flee for the more prosperous west. So I could understand their point of view, but that didn't make it right. It meant that East Germany was no different than a prison. A very large prison, with forests and lakes, but a prison nevertheless. The same is true to this day of China and Cuba.

When I first read The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, it struck me that there was a major flaw in its logic: the notion that one can change human nature by changing the economic system. This seemed like an incredibly naive idea - that you could make people less selfish, for instance, by eliminating capitalism. After all, human beings evolved long before there were any formal economic systems, and that evolution must have largely determined the basics of our personalities. Of course, my opinion was informed by the theory of evolution, as first revealed in The Origin of Species, which was not published by Charles Darwin until 1859. But The Communist Manifesto pre-dated that work, as it was published in 1848. The history of communism since then seems to confirm my suspicions. After generations raised under communist indoctrination, are Russian citizens any more altruistic than citizens of the United States? If anything, they may on the average be more cynical.

Communist theory has another problem. In trying to plot a trajectory that could arrive at a communistic end point, Marx and Engels suggested that a society needed to go through a dictatorial phase that they called the "dictatorship of the proletariat". However, they believed that a society could ultimately emerge from that phase and become truly communist, practicing the philosophy of "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need". The trouble is that in practice, once a dictatorship has been established, it never wants to let go. As I write this, Fidel Castro has been in power in Cuba for over 50 years. So even if the idealized communist state could actually exist, you'll never get there. The "dictatorship of the proletariat" is where it ends.


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© 2010 Lawrence J. Krakauer   Click here to send me e-mail.
Originally posted August 12, 2010

Footnotes (click [return to text] to go back to the footnote link)

Note 1:   I very much enjoyed the motion picture "Moscow on the Hudson", about a Russian defector's arrival in New York City, and the life he leads there (he's wonderfully played by Robin Williams). One Russian who immigrated to the US told me that it presents a pretty good portrayal of what his early days in the US were like. In one scene, on a trip to the supermarket to buy coffee, Robin Williams's character is overwhelmed by the choices offered, fifty feet of shelves offering dozens and dozens (if not hundreds) of different coffee selections. He is overwhelmed by the decision required, passes out, and is rushed to the emergency room (an early scene in the movie showed a supermarket in Moscow, with largely empty shelves). My Russian friend said he had actually heard of that happening to people.

Actually, even American men can find supermarket choices stressful. The great American humorist Dave Barry (I own all his books) once wrote, "When I go to the supermarket, I always wander the aisles, trying to locate the items on a grocery list made by my wife. For guys, this is a stressful task. This is the Scavenger Hunt from Hell. Say the list says 'detergent.' What you want, as a guy, is an aisle with a big sign that says DETERGENT, underneath which are 1,000 identical bottles, all labeled DETERGENT."   [return to text]

Note 2:   This whole episode recalls an old joke, usually told in Yiddish, about a man who returns to his favorite Jewish restaurant in New York City after having been away on vacation. He finds the restaurant has a new waiter, who is clearly Chinese, and who is speaking with all the customers in excellent Yiddish. The man calls over the owner, and asks him where he found a Chinese waiter who speaks Yiddish. "Shhh", says the owner, "Not so loud! He thinks he's learning English." (In the melting pot of New York City, that could have actually happened.)   [return to text]