Paul Greenberg

In the fall of 1983 in Moscow, we came in from the cold. Ending our tour of what was then the Soviet Union, a group of editorial writers from across the United States stepped on American soil for the first time in three weeks. Our reception that night was at the U.S. Embassy. We were free. Back home. Oh, Freedom!

All we'd seen from Irkutsk in Siberia to Yerevan in Armenia was an evil empire already beginning to crumble, but still a police state. And a nuclear power.

And then: Light. The walls of the brightly lit U.S. Embassy were decorated with signs from old New England inns. The first one I saw in the foyer said Live and Let Live. Which was the exact opposite of all the official exhortations, party slogans and looming billboards we'd encountered at our every stop for the past three weeks.

I went to sleep each night listening to my wife sob as she went over in her mind what she'd seen during the day -- the empty shelves in the state stores, the burly KGB types watching our every move, the outward subservience of Soviet subjects to their masters and their inward resentment, the whispered requests for help getting out, the occasional bursts of vodka-fueled truth deep in the night ... such was life in the workers' paradise.

But tonight we were free, and the next morning we would be leaving. At the airport, I tried not to look nervous thinking of the messages I was carrying in the hidden pocket of my parka. Messages from refuseniks, Jews who'd been denied visas, that I'd agreed to get to relatives in America.

Luckily, the man in front of me, a tourist from Red Wing, Minn., was acting as if he were already home. He was demanding some books that Customs had confiscated from him when he entered the country. By the time he got them, I'd squeezed past and was on my way to the West and freedom. I was surprised that my sigh of relief wasn't audible.

I thought of my mother stepping foot on American soil for the first time February 10, 1921, shaking the dust of Europe from her feet and never looking back, except with relief. She couldn't say the word America without gratitude. On her lips, it sounded like prayer -- of thanksgiving. A psalm. She'd made it! And the look she reserved for anybody she heard badmouth this country ... it would melt iron. What could they know of real poverty, real injustice, real oppression, and real war and revolution?

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Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.