Often people ask me what was it like to grow up in Soviet Union? What kind of childhood I had and how did it compare to the way they imagined it. They want to know the story behind the story.

Winston Churchill coined the phrase “Iron Wall”. Of course, there was a literal wall in Berlin and largely our borders were impenetrable but mostly it was an invisible but powerful barrier of different kind. Not physical, but ideological one. Like looking at each other through the Looking Glass where the reality appears very different. If not the reality itself, then certainly the definition and meaning of things.

Even children’s stories revealed this. In the USSR, we often had our own versions of famous Western novels. I am sure that some critics would argue but to me one of those ‘revised copies’ was a Soviet fairy tale called “Kingdom of Crooked Mirrors” by Vitali Gubarev which was also made into a popular children’s movie. A Soviet answer to “Through the Looking-Glass” by Lewis Carroll

The plot of each story is different but the main idea remains the same – reality is distorted on the other side. In Lewis Carroll’s story, the main character Alice experienced weird and illogical and confusing things in the strange chess world of power inside the looking glass. But the heroes of the Soviet story, Olya and her mirror image Yalo, were not confused. They saw things clearly. They discovered a world of evil and exploitation and greed and they overcame all the challenges because they came from the “best country in the world” and they were brave little “pioneers”. (Pioneers – a communist youth organization in the USSR. We wore red scarfs which symbolized the Soviet flag)

The evil powers were three plotting characters who wanted to overthrow the king. Their names were spelled backwards (actually in the kingdom everyone’s name was spelled backwards) but they were Kite, Snake and Toad. I saw the movie many times and I quickly figured out that they must be the Western capitalists, imperialists and exploiters.

In the story, Olya and Yalo saved a boy named Friend. He was what you would call a political prisoner because he was imprisoned and sentenced to death for refusing to make the crooked mirrors. The mirrors are everywhere and they show you thin if you are fat, young if you are old, smart if you are stupid and so on. So, the whole kingdom is based on lies and people are turned into either hypocrites or slaves.

I loved the story and I enjoyed the movie. I wanted to be a brave little pioneer like these girls and I wanted to rid the world of all evil and greed and lies.

Then as I was getting older, I started to realize that our own country was full of crooked mirrors and people were making them (think media, education, official history, even literature and art) and people were made to accept the distorted ‘truth’. You did not dare to disagree and those who did… well, they were silenced, sidelined or exiled.

One day the Looking Glass came crashing down. The longer the distance of time the more I start to feel – did I live in a movie? Was it real?

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Photos from the movie “Kingdom of Crooked Mirrors” (USSR)

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