If it’s true that education is wasted on the young, it must be doubly so for educational field trips. My first trip overseas was to Russia in the summer of 1986, a high school graduation present from my mother. She fretted when, just a few weeks before we left, the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl dominated the evening news. Not to worry, I assured her, our chaperones have assured us that as long as we don’t drink milk or eat eggs, we’ll be fine.
I had learned exactly two words of Russian that I recall, the word for “thank you” and, inexplicably, the word for “appetizers.” What concerned me more than learning Russian vocabulary was to get my hands on a correspondent’s field jacket I had read about in the Banana Republic catalog:
“Classic bush-jacket styling with epaulets, and bellows pockets with room enough for notebooks, tape recorder, and a flask of brandy for the chance icy encounter.” Alan Arkin wrote this endorsement: “The Correspondent’s Jacket has given me, at last, an air of mystery. I can leave places early, and no one asks me where I’m going anymore. They’re all sure I have important planes to catch in half an hour for secret meetings in the jungle. It also gets me good tables in restaurants.”
So I drove from Pasadena down to Hollyood to buy the jacket, and along with it a t-shirt emblazoned with a cheeky emblem for the “Ministry of Propaganda.” I’m pretty sure the chaperones didn’t let me bring the t-shirt. Along with the correspondent’s jacket, I packed a white linen jacket in the style worn by Don Johnson. (When I passed Lenin’s glass-encased body at the Kremlin, the guard motioned for me to button my Miami Vice jacket out of respect.)
I turned 18 years old in Russia. What I wanted most at the time was to be a journalist. The jacket and the trip to Moscow seemed to be an auspicious start. Immediately after high school I went to work in the editorial department of the Worldwide Church of God, famous or infamous for its widely circulated magazine, The Plain Truth. I landed a job as an assistant editor for the church’s magazine for teenagers. They issued me a laminated press card just in time to declare my occupation as ‘journalist’ on my first passport.
When I wrote about the trip for the student newspaper at Cal State L.A. it was full of snark and posturing. I had a costume, and I struck a pose. I was a worldly correspondent, like Mel Gibson in The Year of Living Dangerously. I had even secretly snapped a few photos from the roof of our hotel in Moscow, a transgression that could have had serious consequences. In my imagination I was a true journalist, not like the propagandists at Pravda or Izvestia.
But even then I was embarrassed by my employer. I was an unquestioning believer in the doctrine of the One True Church, but I hated the name of our flagship publication. For me, the The Plain Truth was too cheesy, too on-the-nose. Not worldly enough. (I might have noticed that Pravda means Truth in Russian, but I didn’t see the irony then.)
A decade later, as I lived through the collapse of our cult, the educational field trip to Russia began to offer some lessons, a lens through which I could frame what was happening. As I understood it, reform in the Soviet Union began small, with a bit of openness to the world, a little glasnost, a little letting in of some light from the outside. There were deep social and economic forces underneath, but that new openness gave people a taste of intellectual freedom that couldn’t be contained. It would lead inexorably to a complete restructuring of the state, and then to the state’s collapse.
Herbert Armstrong died a few months before our trip, on Thursday, January 16, 1986. He was the unquestioned, absolute leader of the flock, the Apostle that God raised up to restore the final era of the One True Church in 1933. He was “the voice crying in the wilderness,” Elijah and John the Baptist rolled up into one, the faithful servant whose radio, television and publishing empire would at last preach the gospel to the nations, paving the way for the return of Christ.
There were stories of abuses, some of them well publicized. In a divorce case, Herbert Armstrong’s son accused him of molesting his daughter for years. Mike Wallace found enough financial and moral scandal to devote an episode of 60 Minutes to the church in 1979. But inside we had a word for people who made unpleasant accusations. They were “dissidents,” a word usually associated with authoritarian states. To label someone a dissident was to discredit and dismiss them with a single breath. My mother was a dissident.
When Armstrong died, his appointed successor began to let in just a crack of light. He lifted restrictions on women wearing makeup and no longer forbade the use of medical doctors. I’m certain he never realized how far most people would go when given just a little taste of freedom. I’m sure he had not the faintest idea how new technology, the internet, would open a flood of ideas and conversation that could no longer be centrally monitored and controlled.
. . .
On HBO this week, the miniseries Chernobyl is telling the story of the nuclear meltdown. LuAnne says she would’ve been with my mother, she would never have wanted me to visit Russia while the Number 4 Reactor was still smoldering. She asks, as others have before, whether I think my leukemia had anything to do with traveling to Russia in 1986.
The Chernyobl disaster is good television. It’s been long enough now that the scariest stuff can be watched with some detachment. The history and moral warnings add a bit of gravitas to what might otherwise be just another escapist disaster movie or political thriller.
But there’s one scene that feels like a personal outrage.
Gorbachev, in a room filled with toadies and apparatchiks, declares that “our power comes from the perception of our power.” Never mind the loss of lives, what matters is the reputation of the state. “The official position of the state,” another character says, “is that global nuclear catastrophe is not possible in the Soviet Union.”
In a society ruled by fear, the perception of power is the absolute good.
And so a newspaper called Pravda once upon a time told lies for generations in order to preserve the perceived power of the state. And a magazine called The Plain Truth covered up the abuses of its church to preserve the power that church had over its people.
But truth is powerful and relentless. This week an article of news made its way through a WCG survivors forum on Facebook. Even as a high school student, I heard rumors of abuse by our school superintendent. One of my best friends told me that a classmate was ‘having an affair’ with him. I dismissed it as nonsense. It wasn’t. After several years as a fugitive, the man personally appointed to the position of overseeing children by God’s Apostle has just been sentenced in Georgia to 40 years for child molestation.
Looking back, there were warning signs. There were things that seemed off. But still. You know, such things don’t happen in God’s true church. And besides, as someone might as easily have said in a board room on the fourth floor of a certain administration building, “our power comes from the perception of power.”
Sometimes education takes a long time.