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.