The Heritage Foundation’s George Kryvenka realized growing up that communism and oppression have real and dire consequences. As a child in Belarus, a former Soviet republic, propaganda from the Soviet and then the Belarusian government led him to believe the United States was the enemy. But his own country’s harsh government and his knowledge of English led him to reconsider. Today he proudly lives in Maryland and works as Heritage’s facilities manager.
Even as a child, Kryvenka recalls the collective dread of the transition years after the fall of communism. Years of chaos were followed by Alexander Lukashenko’s dictatorship, which persists to this day. One incident in particular left a lasting impression. Lukashenko nationalized many private businesses after consolidating his power in 1996. Those who spoke out against the nationalization of their family’s businesses often “disappeared.” The father of one of Kryvenka’s friends favored free enterprise, and one day he never returned from a lunch meeting. It was understood what had happened to his friend’s father, and no one could ask questions for fear that they might disappear too.
This incident, in addition to an early introduction to American literature, made Kryvenka question the media’s anti-American propaganda. Kryvenka started learning English at age six. At nine, he attended an American book exhibition, and realized American books had an entirely different perspective from the books he was told to read in school. His avid reading opened his eyes to Belarus’ tyranny over its people and to the freedoms protected by the United States.
The first time Kryvenka traveled to the U.S., at age 18, he worked at a girls’ summer camp in Minnesota. After that first temporary job he knew he wanted to stay in the States, but he refused to do so illegally and knew he needed a green card. So, after a summer in the States, and two more brief stints working in Illinois and California, he returned to Belarus knowing he had to leave. He did not want his children to grow up in Belarus, and knew he had to immigrate to the U.S. In 2004, he got his green card and moved with his wife to New Jersey, where they had relatives. Leaving his family in Belarus was difficult, but he was comforted by his godfather, who told him, “If you are happy, then your parents will be happy.”
America, he says, is a free country. He deeply values the freedoms that we sometimes take for granted. For instance, the police here are our friends rather than regime enforcers. Americans can and do speak up when they see an injustice, and hard work is rewarded. That’s to say nothing of the basics of American civic life, like elections. In Belarus, any opposition to the incumbent is often eliminated before the election.
Kryvenka reminds us finally of the importance of family and of remembering the lessons from the past. These are too precious to give up.