My Robin Williams Story; The Making of CAPITALISTIC PIG by Vitaliy N. Katsenelson, CFA
I was showing my eight-year-old daughter, Hannah, who Robin Williams was. She knew him as the voice of Ramon in Happy Feet (listen here) but had never seen his movies. We were browsing through YouTube videos and stumbled on a clip from a movie that brought back a lot of memories. Before I tell you about the movie I have to share with you a short excerpt. It is from the autobiographical preface I wrote for my book Active Value Investing. In that preface I told the story of how my family immigrated from Russia in 1991.
After the glasnost reform (transparency, openness) of 1985, the decades of brainwashing were slowly supplanted by the truth. In the late 1980s few people could afford VCRs, but little VCR movie theaters were popping up in basements of apartment buildings everywhere, comprised of several TV sets hooked up to a VCR. Unlike state-owned theaters, they were not censored and had the freedom to choose their repertoire. Picture and sound quality were terrible, as VHS tapes were copied dozens of times before they made it into a VCR. Movies were dubbed by one monotone voice that translated all characters.
But none of that mattered; we were hungry for variety, and American cinema was it. After watching hundreds of these flicks, it became painfully obvious that America and capitalism were not so rotten after all, and despite what my camp teacher told me, Americans did not really have any intention of poisoning little kids.
Moscow on the Hudson, starring Robin Williams, was one of the first movies I watched in one of those VCR basement theaters. Robin portrayed a Russian musician who came to NYC from Moscow and (almost by accident) defected. It showed his life as newly minted Russian immigrant in the Big Apple. For all of us watching it in basement movie theaters, it was an eye-opening movie. In just two hours it sanitized decades of Soviet propaganda about the US.
Robin Williams was flawless – we could totally relate to his confusion over how the real America was so different from the one painted by the Soviet brainwashing machine. Most of us were confused. We expected Americans to be evil, greedy, hamburger-loving Russian haters. We found them to be … well, people. Not so different from us. This movie had an enormous impact on me and on millions of immigrants who were blessed with a chance to come to the US.
Here is a great clip from Moscow on the Hudson.
I have shared “The Making of a Capitalist Pig” story with my readers in the past, but I am attaching it just in case you hit the delete button before you had a chance to read it.
I spent my youth in Murmansk, a city in the northwest part of Russia, located right above the Arctic Circle. Murmansk owes its existence to the port that, due to the warm Gulf Stream, doesn’t freeze during the long winters, providing unique access to Russia from the north. During the Cold War, Murmansk’s coordinates must have been on the speed dial of the U.S. military, as it is the headquarters of the Russian Northern Navy Fleet. Fans of Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October may remember Murmansk as the home base for the submarine Red October
The city revolves around its port, and its academic institutions are geared toward producing a workforce for the fishing and merchant marine industries. It was always assumed that I’d attend either the Marine College or the Marine Academy. Both were semi-military schools where the students (cadets) had to reside in dormitories, wear navy uniforms, follow strict military-like rules, and take orders from navy officers (and ask no questions).
Russia has a draft army. It is not concerned about recruiting and thus treats its soldiers very poorly (an understatement). The pay is only high enough for soldiers to afford the postage to write home asking for money. Russian youth look at serving in the Russian army as akin to a two-year prison sentence (at least when I was there). The army avoidance in the late 1980s was not about fear of death, as the war in Afghanistan was over, but came from the dread of losing years of one’s youth and the dismay of humiliation, as the older soldiers commonly abused the younger ones. My very sane friend entered a psychiatric institution and faked mental disease just to avoid serving in the army.
My father and both of my older brothers graduated from the Murmansk Marine Academy. My father, a PhD, also taught electrical engineering at the academy for 27 years. Neither my brothers nor I had any dreams about being seamen. Quite to the contrary, my oldest brother could have been a philosopher (now he is a technology engineer); my other brother wanted to be anything but an electrical engineer (he is now a successful real estate broker in Denver). Our choices were limited: either attend one of these two semi-military schools or join the Red Army.
By the time I was finishing eighth grade, the law had changed: Cadets from the Marine Academy lost their draft exemption, but college cadets were spared. I enrolled in the Marine College and dreaded every moment I spent there, but the alternative was even worse.
Aunt in Siberia
My father has two younger sisters; one lived all her life in Moscow, while the other moved with her family from Moscow to Siberia in 1979. For a long time I wondered why my aunt and my cousins in Siberia never visited or called us. It seemed so uncharacteristic of our family, who were always very close. In the summer of 1988 my father finally told me that my aunt did not really move to Siberia — she immigrated to the United States of America. My immediate reaction was resentment toward her. The first words out of my mouth were “traitor” and “spy.”
It sounds a bit silly now, but you have to understand I was a child of the Cold War. A couple of times a month my class walked to the movie theater (this was before VCRs) and watched propaganda documentaries about decaying capitalistic America, infested with the homeless, where black people are lynched, the poor are exploited by the rich, and people are poisoned by hamburgers (later, of course, I learned that the part about hamburgers was not a complete lie).
Russian movies showed Americans as evildoers, usually spies whose single goal in life was to destroy Mother Russia — the whole country was brainwashed. When I was nine years old, I attended a pioneer camp and went on a field trip. A foreign tourist, mesmerized by my smile and internal beauty (okay, that is just a wild guess), gave me bubble gum. My camp teacher, in horror, took it away, yelling that I was lucky to be alive as it was probably