Russia and the Great Forgetting

In the summer of 1985, I spent two months in the city that used to be called Leningrad. Along with several dozen other American college students, I stayed in a shabby Intourist hotel. Sharp-eyed old ladies sat at the end of every corridor; curiously unemployed men hung around the lobby. Every day we went to Russian-language classes at the university, where we also assumed we were being carefully observed. But in the afternoons and evenings, we were free to wander the city and to attempt to make friends.

Which we did—although, in retrospect, these were often odd and constrained friendships. Even the process of introduction was fraught. Before leaving for the USSR, one collected the names of Russians from other Americans who had been there, or from friends of friends, usually Soviet Jews who had recently emigrated. Once inside the country, one called up potential acquaintances, using a pay phone to avoid detection, and arrived bearing gifts. Someone had told me to bring a Russian-language copy of Jack London’s Call of the Wild to his Leningrad relative. I still remember the look of disappointment that crossed her face when I presented it. “A book for children,” she murmured with regret.

The Russians I met didn’t want Jack London. They wanted newspapers, magazines, anything with photographs of the United States. They also wanted to talk about the United States—a lot. The intellectuals would ask about politics, or about literary trends, or whether there was really a Communist party in America. Others wanted to know how much our cars cost, and whether working-class people in America really owned houses. None of them had ever been abroad, and in those pre-Internet, pre-satellite-television days, even sophisticated Leningraders could be effectively cut off from the outside world. There were some exceptions: An underground rock musician asked whether I’d met David Bowie, because he already had. But most people only knew the outside world from television. They suspected that much of what they had been told was false, but they weren’t absolutely certain.

Some preferred not to know. Russians who were not refuseniks or rock musicians were often afraid to talk to us. When I asked for directions on the street, people would sometimes look startled by my foreign accent and walk away. Waiters, hotel staff, and university professors kept their distance. In Stalin’s time, people had been arrested for having foreign friends. Although the system was much softer by then, a distinct uneasiness remained.

If fear was in the background, poverty was in the foreground. Leningrad was crumbling. The faint smell of sewage hung over the canals. Shop shelves were empty. Queues formed rapidly whenever there was a delivery of shoes or sausage. There were no interesting books in the bookstores, and there was nothing but stiff party jargon in the newspapers. Television was boring. You had to have special clout to get theater tickets. Toward the end of my stay, one of my friends asked if I would consider marrying his cousin in order to help him escape. “You’ll be saving someone’s life,” he told me.

I didn’t do it. But as it turned out, it wouldn’t have been necessary. When I arrived in Leningrad, Mikhail Gorbachev had just become general secretary, and the Cold War was still very much alive. But almost as soon as I left, things began to change. Any American who made her first trip across the Iron Curtain even three years later, in 1988, would encounter a completely different world and a different vocabulary—glasnost, perestroika, reform—from the one I had found. Which also means that anyone of any nationality who is more than a decade younger than I can’t possibly have any adult recollection of either the USSR, or the Cold War, or what we used to call “real existing socialism” at all.

Recently, this has begun to seem significant to me. Not because my own experience was significant, but because it means that the living memory of the USSR is now truly fading and the nature of the USSR—its peculiar awfulness, its criminality, its stupidity—is becoming harder and harder to explain. The sense of being surrounded by lies; the underlying anxiety that someone might be listening or reporting on you; the constant, screaming, inescapable propaganda; the sullenness of the crowds on the Metro; the memories of mass terror just below the surface; the useful idiots and the cynical sycophants who supported the whole thing, both in Russia and abroad; all of that is now absolutely impossible to convey.

This does have some amusing consequences. Certainly I never thought I would live to see the day when Stalinist architecture, once thought to be a sinister embodiment of political terror, would acquire a kind of retro chic. In a recent book, a young British author, Owen Hatherley, waxes eloquent about Stalinallee, a monstrous collection of concrete blocks in the heart of what used to be East Berlin. Though the street once stood for all that was alienating and strange, Hatherley now finds it “hugely exhilarating,” representing “socialism with real generosity and grandeur, all its hierarchical features subordinated to the rule of the public’s footsteps.” Admirers of the grim Stalinist skyscrapers in Warsaw and Moscow have multiplied, too.

Somewhat less amusing is the resurrection of old Marxists like Jeremy Corbyn, the newly elected leader of the British Labour party. For many years Corbyn has been writing for the Morning Star, the newspaper of the British far left, proffering anti-American, anti-NATO, anti-Semitic, and even anti-British sentiments. These views no longer alarm a generation that can’t remember who sponsored such views in the past, or why. His conservative opponents have accused him of pushing policies that were last heard in the 1980s, but what does that mean to people who were born in the 1980s? To them Corbyn sounds new and fresh.

Still, the resurrection of the Western far left or the return of forgotten British comrades is not what I worry about the most. My concern is the revival, with amazing speed, of a belligerent Russian state, one led by men who were taught and trained by the Soviet state and are thus prepared to use a familiar blend of terror, deception, and military force to stay in power. One might argue, of course, that such men never really went away. But their level of aggression is rising just as our once formidable ability to counter them seems to have vanished altogether. Instead, we have trouble simply recognizing them for what they are.

This became patently clear in March 2014 just after the Ukrainian revolution, which saw the ouster of the Russian-aligned Victor Yanyukovich and the restoration of the country’s democratic constitution. On Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, “little green men,” as they later came to be called, suddenly appeared. Equipped with guns, wearing unmarked uniforms, and driving unmarked military vehicles, they began methodically taking over local government buildings and television stations. In almost every major city, local “politicians,” some of whom had previously been leaders of criminal gangs, seemed primed to welcome the little green men, almost as if they had been warned.

The Western reaction was one of confusion, amazement, consternation. What was happening? Was this a local uprising? A civil war? Were these unidentified men Russians from Russian? Were they Russians from Crimea?

I knew exactly who they were: Russian special forces. I knew it because they looked, spoke, and acted exactly like the Soviet special forces—then known as the NKVD—who had entered Poland in 1939, the Baltic states in 1940, then all of Eastern Europe in 1945. Like their modern descendants, those Soviet interior ministry troops wore unmarked uniforms or sometimes Polish or Hungarian uniforms, even if they didn’t speak Polish or Hungarian. Like their modern descendants, they also claimed to be coming to the aid of local forces—oppressed minorities, local Communist parties—which in some cases hadn’t even existed until they arrived.

There was nothing unusual about this in the Soviet era. During the whole of its existence, the USSR never invaded another country; no, it merely came to the aid of oppressed minorities or fraternal parties. But it never left without imposing—or, in Afghanistan, trying and failing to impose—its own totalitarian system. When the NKVD, later known as the KGB, crossed any border, it always arrested potential dissidents, took over the media, shut down civic organizations, nationalized companies, and created the fear and poverty I’d later see in Leningrad.

And this is exactly what Russia, under the leadership of Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer, did after coming to the aid of the “oppressed Russian minority in Crimea” in 2014—though instead of nationalizing companies, the Russian occupiers stole them from Ukrainian owners and gave them to Russians. Time moves on.

Since the Crimean invasion, the Russians have advanced into eastern Ukraine using similar tactics. Adding a twist to the narrative, they have now entered the Syrian conflict too, in order to come to the aid of the fraternal Assad regime. Not only the United States but all of what used to be called “the West” has been flummoxed by these moves, even thrown into strategic disarray. And no wonder. In the quarter-century since the fall of Communism, we’ve forgotten what a cynical, unprincipled, authoritarian Russian regime looks like, especially one with an audacious global strategy and no qualms whatsoever about sacrificing human life. Let me say it again more clearly: Almost all of the men who currently rule Russia (and they are all men) were taught and trained by the KGB. Their teaching and training shows. Why would it not?

This is not to say that Russia is the strongest authoritarian regime in the world, or the one that, in the long term, poses the greatest threat to global order. But it is the one that, again thanks to its KGB-trained leadership, has a special fixation on us: our political system, our media, our financial markets. Iran may want to dominate the Middle East, and China may aim to dominate Southeast Asia. Both might eventually try more directly to undermine the United States and Europe as well. Certainly they are watching Russia’s efforts with great interest. But at the moment, only Russia is focused hard on undermining the institutions of the West, among them the European Union, NATO, and the various treaties that have stitched together the post-WWII and post–Cold War order. A few people in a few Western capitals do recognize what Russia is up to. German chancellor Angela Merkel probably has a pretty good idea. She’s reluctant to draw all of the necessary conclusions, but I’m sure she understands Vladimir Putin’s tactics, if only because she grew up with them in East Germany.

These tactics are not exactly the same as the ones Putin learned in the KGB in the 1970s and 1980s, but neither are they entirely different. In the past decade, for example, the Russian regime has reconstructed a state-run media machine far more sophisticated than anything the USSR ever invented and yet similarly blinkered. Although there are dozens of domestic news outlets, entertainment channels, and magazines, they all toe the same political line, with only a tiny number of exceptions. There is an appearance of variety but a unity of messages. Among them: The United States is a threat; Europe is degenerate; Ukraine is run by Nazis; Russia, unfairly deprived of its role in the world, is finally becoming a superpower again. To anyone who remembers how Communist ideology once sought to express all of history and all of contemporary politics through the lens of one giant conspiracy theory, this is nothing new. But who genuinely remembers?

Abroad, Russian-funded television, websites, and Internet troll factories make similar points in multiple languages. Russia also backs—in some cases financially, in other cases ideologically—politicians, businessmen, journalists, and “experts” who give out similar messages. They include Marine le Pen, the leader of the far right in France; Gerhard Schroeder, the former chancellor of Germany; Vaclav Klaus, the former Czech president, who is now associated with a think tank created by a sanctioned Russian oligarch. Members of the Hungarian and Austrian far-right parties have traveled to Crimea to support the Russian occupation. Syriza, the far-left party in Greece, has deep links to Russia, too.

Fake research institutions, “peace movements,” fictitious political groupings, useful idiots, and agents of influence, both paid and unpaid…We’ve been here before, too. True, the ideology has changed. These days Russia supports whoever is willing to promote its interests, whether far-left or far-right, and whoever can help undermine the established European order. Instead of attempting to foster an international Communist revolution, the primary goal is to keep Vladimir Putin in power and make the world safe for Russian corruption, Russian oligarchs, and Russian money. Which might, in fact, prove a lot more appealing than the dictatorship of the proletariat.

The American president likes to say that this isn’t a new Cold War, and up to a point he’s right. But the conflict we unwillingly find ourselves in isn’t entirely unfamiliar either, and even if we don’t want to see that, the Russians do. Again, this should be no surprise to anyone. Russia is run by men who are deeply attached to the Soviet system, the collapse of which was the most shattering and disorienting experience of their lives. Most Western countries, by contrast, are run by men and women who thought that the collapse of the USSR meant that they could finally move on and think about something else.

Perhaps this is why we in the West haven’t leapt on some of the obvious solutions. We could, for example, seriously reinforce the Western alliance, as we did in the past. We could build up a military deterrent designed to prevent the Ukrainian and Syrian escapades from being repeated in Estonia or Sweden. We could finally take the “information war” seriously. We could fund organizations that debunk Russian disinformation, support credible Russian journalism, and undermine their vast efforts in social media and political patronage. We could worry a lot more about Russian spies and hackers.

We’ve done some of these things, it is true, but without much conviction. And that, I am guessing, is because we just don’t remember how they worked in the past.

I am willing to accept that because I write books about Soviet history, and because I spent that summer of 1985 in Leningrad, I may be a little too inclined to see old patterns in new Russian foreign policy. Although it’s hard to have once written about the Soviet “liberation” of Poland and not now to see the parallels to the Russian “liberation” of Crimea, especially when some of the same language is being used, I do know that there are limits. Putin is not Stalin or even Brezhnev.

But while I might be biased by my experience with the Soviet past, I think it fair to conclude that many people who do not have that experience might be biased in the other direction by the lack of it. Because those younger than 40 don’t remember the USSR, many of them in positions of power and authority and influence are insufficiently inclined to see these same patterns. Because they don’t remember the KGB, they are unable to recognize the tactics it has used in the past. And because they don’t remember how we undermined the KGB, they aren’t yet prepared to resist the KGB, who are once again dedicating themselves to undermining the rules of the civilized world.