I never stood a chance. Of course Russia would seduce me.
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. Because that really could happen. And so, the adults wanted to know, how did that make us feel?
Well, it made me feel like this Russia, land of despotic czars, earthshattering revolutions and missiles targeted our way, was a pretty happening place.
Back then, everything about Russia seemed massive, extreme and epic; contradictory and opaque. Russians had withstood centuries of unimaginable hardship to find themselves the improbable standard-bearers 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. With any genuine revolutionary zeal long extinguished by decades of living under the soul-crushing dictatorship of the proletariat, Moscow, Leningrad and Minsk felt like a kitschy totalitarian amusement park. 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 backstory 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 ever-theatrical 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? Know your enemy, and all that.
Don’t get me wrong. No other power has since replaced the USSR 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-to-head 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, or to win Olympic gold.
And yet today’s less worthy opponents are more dangerous because they lack a superpower’s rationality and investment in a bipolar status quo. In our age of asymmetrical warfare, you don’t need a Russian-sized nuclear arsenal to pose an imminent threat to our way of life. No enemy we face again will likely have at its disposal the destructive force the Soviets could command, but plenty of enemies we face today and will face in the future are far more likely to unleash whatever destructive force they can muster. 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 USSR in 1991 ostensibly ended the Cold War, and historians will long debate the extent to which the ensuing few years constituted a missed opportunity on Washington’s part to recast U.S.-Russian relations on far friendlier ground. But whether you believe the fault lies primarily with our missteps or inevitable Russian yearnings to remain an antithesis to the West, the fact is that the Cold War antagonism is back.
That’s both maddening and comforting. Russia is less of a global player than the Soviet Union, more of a “normal country,” and it must now share the other end of the proverbial seesaw from us with other U.S. antagonists. So the stakes may not be quite as high, but Vladimir Putin is doing his darnedest to play the part.
The Russians are back, in time to mess with our presidential election, both as a befuddling topic and a devious protagonist. It’s hard to imagine a more Cold War-ish form of belligerence than cyber warfare, and the hacking of our electoral process and of our leaders’ private communications, with an eye towards their public dissemination. Such attacks are a sophisticated technical challenge, no one gets physically hurt, but the mere possibility of these hacks wreak havoc on our nerves, and incite waves of insecurity and paranoia, as well as calls for retaliation and escalation.
The seductive chess match is back on.
This essay originally ran as part of Zócalo Public Square's Zócalo Inquiry, The Russian Menace in the American Imagination.