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