Amer­ica’s best enemy

The U.S.S.R. was a wor­thy ad­ver­sary for the United States, un­like to­day’s bad ac­tors

Baltimore Sun - - COMMENTARY - By An­drés Martinez An­drés Martinez is the ex­ec­u­tive ed­i­tor of Zócalo Pub­lic Square and a pro­fes­sor of jour­nal­ism at the Cronkite School of Jour­nal­ism and Mass Com­mu­ni­ca­tion at Ari­zona State Uni­ver­sity. This es­say is part of a Zócalo In­quiry, The Russian M

In­ever stood a chance against Rus­sia. It was the early 1980s and Robert Massie had just pub­lished his riv­et­ing “Peter the Great” bi­og­ra­phy; War­ren Beatty had pro­duced his mag­is­te­rial “Reds”; and the ABC TV network broad­cast “The Day Af­ter,” a movie about a Soviet nu­clear strike that mil­lions of high school­ers across the land, my­self in­cluded, were en­cour­aged to come to­gether to watch.

All this was some­how sup­posed to turn me against our great enemy, but in­stead, I was se­duced. Rus­sia — this land of despotic czars, earth-shat­ter­ing rev­o­lu­tions and mis­siles tar­geted our way — seemed a pretty hap­pen­ing place.

Back then, ev­ery­thing about Rus­sia ap­peared mas­sive, ex­treme and epic, con­tra­dic­tory and opaque. Rus­sians had with­stood cen­turies of unimag­in­able hard­ship to find them­selves the im­prob­a­ble stan­dard­bear­ers of a global cause that promised uni­ver­sal re­demp­tion, but de­liv­ered in­stead a rather grim ver­sion of pur­ga­tory on earth. Com­rade, gu­lag, Siberia — sin­gle words drip­ping with vivid as­so­ci­a­tions con­veyed the price in­di­vid­ual Rus­sians had paid to pre­side col­lec­tively over one of two global power blocs: Team Red. The Rus­sians had de­feated Napoleon and Hitler; given hu­man­ity the gifts of Pushkin, Go­gol and Dos­to­evsky; launched the first satel­lite in space; and kicked ass at ev­ery Olympics.

So nat­u­rally I said yes to the op­por­tu­nity to visit the Soviet Union for two weeks while still in high school, as part of a cul­tural ex­change. It was a trippy voy­age to an al­ter­na­tive re­al­ity. Gen­uine rev­o­lu­tion­ary zeal had been long ex­tin­guished by decades of liv­ing un­der the soul-crush­ing dic­ta­tor­ship of the pro­le­tariat, mak­ing Moscow, Len­ingrad and Minsk feel like kitschy to­tal­i­tar­ian amuse­ment parks. Al­most. There was noth­ing faded or fake about the pal­pa­ble fear of or­di­nary Rus­sians you’d meet with late at night un­der the statue of Yuri Ga­garin to trade a Sony Walk­man or jeans for KGB Bor­der Guard hats or coats.

Col­lege deep­ened the se­duc­tion. I was com­pletely in awe of the troika of Yale his­to­ri­ans who brought the Sovi­ets’ dra­matic back story to life: Firuz Kazemzadeh, who spiced his telling of the Ro­manovs’ three-cen­tury-long soap opera with vivid im­agery of the empire’s Cau­casian bor­der­lands; Paul Bushkovitch, who handed out shots of vodka on Lenin’s birth­day at our Russian Rev­o­lu­tion sem­i­nar; and the ev­erthe­atri­cal Wolf­gang Leon­hard, the for­mer East Ger­man com­mu­nist in­tel­lec­tual raised in Moscow who had turned on the DDR regime he had helped con­sol­i­date in its ear­li­est days. As if the his­tory weren’t enough, there was the bril­liant lit­er­a­ture and the chal­leng­ing lan­guage, with all those de­clen­sions and the funky blend­ing of those sh, ch and jr sounds, and the elon­gated mix of vowel sounds play­ing like a string quar­tet.

Best of all, none of this in­tox­i­cat­ing im­mer­sion in all things Russian could be dis­missed as an eso­teric in­dul­gence. Rus­sia mat­tered. Couldn’t you see the breath­less cov­er­age those Rea­gan-Gor­bachev sum­mits were get­ting on TV? Knowyour enemy and all that.

Don’t get me wrong. No other power has since re­placed the U.S.S.R. as a proper an­tithe­sis to the United States. China is a com­mer­cial com­peti­tor and a wary rival for in­flu­ence in Asia, but its am­bi­tions aren’t ex­pan­sive enough to turn the en­tire globe into a bipo­lar zero-sum face-off.

The Sovi­ets were for­mi­da­ble in a way that our more amor­phous all-out en­e­mies to­day — a shift­ing amal­gam of un­sta­ble regimes and loosely af­fil­i­ated transna­tional ter­ror­ist groups — can never be. Ex­trem­ist Is­lamist groups aren’t com­pet­ing head-to­head with our best and bright­est to ex­plore space, to cure cancer, to win over hearts and minds in Western Europe, East Asia and Latin Amer­ica.

Yet to­day’s less wor­thy op­po­nents are more dan­ger­ous be­cause they lack a su­per­power’s ra­tio­nal­ity and in­vest­ment in a bipo­lar sta­tus quo. You don’t need a Russian-sized nu­clear arsenal to pose an im­mi­nent threat to our way of life. There was much to ab­hor about our Soviet neme­sis dur­ing the Cold War, but deep down, its lead­ers never wanted us all dead.

The for­mal demise of the U.S.S.R. in 1991 ended the cold war, but now the Rus­sians are back, in time to mess with our pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. It’s hard to imag­ine a more cold war-ish form of bel­liger­ence than the hack­ing of our electoral process and our lead­ers’ pri­vate com­mu­ni­ca­tions. No one gets phys­i­cally hurt, but the mere pos­si­bil­ity of these hacks wreaks havoc on our nerves, and in­cites waves of in­se­cu­rity and para­noia, as well as calls for re­tal­i­a­tion and es­ca­la­tion.

That’s both mad­den­ing and com­fort­ing.

CAROL T. POW­ERS/KRT

In the mid-1980s, me­dia and the pub­lic were trans­fixed by the sum­mits between U.S. Pres­i­dent Ron­ald Rea­gan, right, and Soviet Pres­i­dent Mikhail Gor­bachev.

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