What About the Russians? Personal Encounters
What About the Russians? Personal Encounters
By Ernest Partridge
The Crisis Papers
June 27, 2006
Along with all Americans, save the generation now in high-school and younger, I grew up and lived under the shadow of the Cold War, and behind it the ever-present threat of nuclear annihilation. We all remember it well.
But I also dimly remember a time when we thought well of the Russians – our allies in World War II, a war against the stereotyped "Japs" and "Krauts."
All that changed a mere ten months after the surrender of Nazi Germany when, in Fulton, Missouri, Winston Churchill spoke these enduring words:
From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia, all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere...
Many historians mark that speech as the beginning of the Cold War.
A year later, in March, 1947, President Harry Truman requested and received from the Congress an appropriation of $400 million to aid the Greek and Turkish governments in their struggles against Communist rebels – or "insurgents," as we would call them today. This policy became known as "The Truman Doctrine," the effect of which was an open-ended commitment to fund anti-communist regimes around the world.
Concerned that the American public might resist an increase in military appropriations so soon after victory in the World War, Truman was advised by Arthur Vandenburg, the Republican Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, that in order to succeed with his confrontational policy, the President would have to "scare Hell out of the American people."
And so we the people have lived in fear, up to the fall of the Berlin Wall in November, 1989, and that of the Soviet Union in December, 1991. After a hiatus of a mere decade, the fear resumed on September 11, 2001, to once again captivate the American people and their government.
Though constantly preoccupied, like all Americans, with "the Soviet Menace," in the early days of the Cold War, I rarely encountered a "real live Russian," much less a Russian communist. On one occasion, while enrolled in some graduates course at Columbia University, I happened to meet a young correspondent from Radio Moscow, and seeing an opportunity to get better acquainted, invited him to lunch for an extended conversation. "Be careful, he’s probably KGB," my parents warned. Then, for the next three decades, I had no further personal contact with any Russians. Throughout that time, the dark, abstract specter, "the Soviet Threat," chilled my consciousness, as it also dominated the news and public policy.
It is noteworthy that for the vast majority of Americans, "the Russians," like "the Germans" and "the Japanese" earlier, and "the Arabs" and "the Muslims" today, are perceived abstractly, as a collective gathered under a label, without faces or individual personalities. All the better to serve as "targets" in a war, either cold or hot.
Even so, for several decades I wondered, "Just who are these people, as individuals, whom we are prepared to annihilate by the millions, as they are equally prepared to annihilate us? Surely, they too have families that they love, and friendships, joys, griefs, aspirations, and traditions, just as we do. And they must also have ideas to challenge us. Is our common humanity less important than the mutual antagonisms and mutual threats that separate us?"
I was to have my first answer in June, 1989, when I was invited to participate in a summer seminar on "Global Security and Arms Control" at the University of California, Irvine, sponsored by the University of California’s Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation. As it happened, the seminar convened less than three weeks after the massacre at Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Assigned a dorm room with a visiting Chinese scholar, I saw in his face and heard in his voice his personal agony at the repression of his friends and colleagues "back home."
Also at the seminar were four articulate, intelligent and personable Russians, whom we soon came to call "the gang of four." In the discussions, it soon became clear that these individuals were not "the enemy," but rather like ourselves, victims of the shared insanity that had befallen our respective governments.
A sample of that insanity was distributed to the members of the seminar for their critical analysis. It was the 1988 edition of the US Department of Defense report, "Soviet Military Power: An Assessment of the Threat." Primarily directed to the Congress, it was, in effect, a wish-list and a sales pitch in behalf of the Military Industrial Complex. After the fall of the Soviet Union, and the subsequent inspection of the Soviet military capability, the report was found to be, by and large, a fraud. Of special interest was the report’s assessment of the Soviet government, three years into the Administration of Mikhail Gorbachev and the advent of "Perestroika" and "Glasnost:"
Gorbachev’s "new thinking" primarily reflects a change in style, while his diplomatic initiatives embody new tactics. By cultivating a less threatening international image, Moscow aims to deflect attention away from Soviet militarism and adventure in its foreign policy. In Moscow’s view, the consequent international climate will improve Soviet prospects for maintaining an advantageous "correlation of forces: worldwide, especially in an era of economic stagnation. At the same time, Moscow will aim to expand its power and influence... (31. See also, my: "If Peace Were at Hand, How Would We Know It?" ).
At about the same time, George Will put it more succinctly: "Gorbachev is Brezhnev with a tailored suit and a thin wife." It is instructive to recall these words in the light of events in the Soviet Union subsequent to the release of this DoD report on "Soviet Military Power."
That following November (1989) I was invited to present a paper at a conference on "The Ethics of Non-Violence," sponsored by the Soviet Academy of Sciences in Moscow. This was to be the first of seven visits to Russia, during which I presented five papers at scholarly conferences. My most recent visit was in the Summer of 1999. I devoutly hope that it will not be my last. To this day, I remain in close contact with many Russian friends and colleagues.
In June,1990, before my departure to a conference at Lake Baikal in eastern Siberia, I happened to pick up a copy of the New York Times. There I found an article by Bill Keller: "Ex-KGB Officer, Speaking Out, Asserts Spy Agency is Unchanged." The article profiled Oleg Kalugin, a retired KGB Major General, who was speaking candidly, critically and publicly against the agency that he had served for thirty-two years. The KGB, he proclaimed, has no place in the reformed Soviet Union. This was an extraordinarily audacious and courageous act, and soon thereafter, Kalugin, who had resigned from the Communist Party, was stripped of his rank, his pension, and his decorations. He might also have lost his freedom or even his life, but for his candidacy and election to the Soviet Parliament, and a subsequent intervention by Mikhail Gorbachev.
Oleg Kalugin is the Radio Moscow correspondent that I invited to lunch in New York City, some thirty years earlier. And, yes, he was in fact a KGB agent at the time.
Soon after the fall of the Soviet Union December, 1991, Kalugin moved to Washington, DC where, ironically, he became a close friend of his previous adversary, William Colby, former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Called to Congress to testify, he was as a result tried and convicted in absentia in Russia for treason. This means, of course, that he can never return to Russia.
I sent a letter to Kalugin in 1993, reminding him of our lunch thirty years earlier. We have been in frequent contact ever since. When I last spoke with him a couple of months ago, he told me that he had become an American citizen. (Kalugin’s amazing life story is told in his 1994 book, "The First Directorate").
As I relate these personal encounters, I can readily anticipate a retort by my critics on the right: "Why all this fascination with Russia? Aren’t you aware of the horrors of the Soviet regime? What are you, a Communist?"
I reply that I am not now nor have I ever been a Communist (under oath, right hand raised). If I had ever entertained the idea of endorsing communism (which I have not), it would have been permanently banished by my encounters with Russia and the Russians. I have seen Communism, and it doesn’t work. And if you want to meet some individuals who, more than anyone on the far right, hate communism, visit Russia. Yes, I am aware of the horrors of the Soviet regime, but not as much as my friends in Russia, who hang on the walls of their apartments, pictures of relatives who were exiled and murdered during Stalin’s purges.
I am fascinated by Russia precisely because of the endurance of the Soviet people (less than half of them ethnic Russians) through seven decades of Communist despotism, followed by their eventual overthrow of that evil regime. No, Ronald Reagan did not defeat communism, the peoples behind "the iron curtain" defeated communism: the Poles, the Czechs, the Slovaks, the Hungarians, the Lithuanians, the Ukrainians, and of course, the Russians.
Ronald Reagan used to say that "the Russians do not understand freedom, in fact they don’t even have a word for ‘freedom.’ in their language." Had he bothered to pick up his Oval Office phone and call the State Department, he would have been told that the Russian word for "freedom" is "svoboda."
"No concept of freedom?" Tell that to the Soviet dissidents of the sixties and seventies, many of whom paid for their defiance with prison sentences or incarceration in psychiatric hospitals. Tell it to Elena Bonner, the widow of the great Andrei Sakharov. Tell it to families and admirers of Daniel, Sinyavsky, Solzhenitzyn, the Medvedev brothers, and others too numerous to mention. Tell it to the valiant Soviet submarine captain, Alexandr Nikitin, who was imprisoned for publicizing the nuclear pollution of the Barrents Sea. Tell it to Judge Sergei Golets, who defied Putin’s government and overturned Nikitin’s conviction. And tell it to the thousands of ordinary Soviet citizens who jammed the streets of Moscow, St. Petersburg, Vilnius and elsewhere, some putting their bodies in front of the Red Army tanks, to defeat the Communist Party counter-coup in August, 1991.
I’ve read of many Americans, and have met a few, who have kindly offered "to teach freedom and democracy" to the Russians. What arrogance! Instead, it is we who are in need of instruction.
Teach freedom and democracy to the Russians?
- Who in our Congress has the courage and integrity to openly criticize the repressive and corrupt regime, as did Andrei Sakharov and Oleg Kalugin in the Soviet parliament? Congressional dissenters put their offices and their convenience at risk; in the Soviet Union, dissenters put their lives on the line.
- What CIA agents will, like Kalugin, stand up and denounce "the system" that they have served. Ray McGovern and Larry Thompson immediately come to mind. But why must they stand alone?
- Why does each and every individual in secret possession of compelling evidence that the most recent national elections were stolen, remain silent and thus passively complicit in this betrayal of our democracy? Why does the mainstream media refuse to investigate this, the most serious political crime in our history?
- What prominent news media personalities will break ranks and denounce the GOP-mainstream media "noise machine"? Tom Brokaw, Ted Koppel and now Dan Rather have retired. Why are they silent? Where is our new Ed Murrow?
- What GOP politicians will at last pause to search their souls and reflect upon our political legacy, and then, putting their honor, their country and their Constitution above their party, join a coalition dedicated to the restoration of the Constitution, of the rule of law, and of our international reputation?
- When the Communist apparatchiki attempted to overthrow Gorbachev, glasnost and perestroika, the people of the Soviet Union filled the streets in protest, and prevailed. So too the people of Ukraine, when in November 2004 it became clear that the presidential election had been rigged and stolen. Why do the streets of the United States remain empty?
"Why this fascination with the Russians?" Because Russia has a rich history and culture that long precedes the seventy-year aberration that was the Soviet Union. Its contributions to science are substantial, and its legacy of literature and music is unrivaled.
To be sure, Russians, like all peoples, exemplify the full moral spectrum, from saints on the one hand, to some truly despicable villains on the other: Stalin (a Georgian, actually), Beria, and the ruthless scoundrels in the "Russian Mafia." But, as I have personally discovered, when it comes to loyalty, integrity, and hospitality, most Russians are unmatched.
Vladimir Putin, who has apparently not rid himself of the bad habits that he acquired during his service with the KGB, is cracking down on the dissenting media and on independent civic organizations. There’s a whiff of the old despotism in the air. Can the Russian people, covetous of their new, hard-won freedom, resist and prevail? My money is on the people.
The history of Russia in the past century offers us a crucially significant lesson; a lesson which the ignorant and arrogant Bush/Cheney administration has ignored, to our profound sorrow, and to the greater sorrow of the Iraqi people.
When the German Wehrmacht invaded Russia in June, 1941, the army posed as "liberators" from the Bolshevik despotism of Stalin. In effect, they expected to be "greeted with flowers." And, to be sure, at first in many regions, they were. Many Ukrainian and other ethnic units defected to join the "liberators." But soon the cruelty of the Nazi invaders was manifest, as it became clear that this was no liberation, it was conquest and occupation. Given the choice between overthrowing Stalin’s despotism by accepting occupation, and defending "Mother Russia," the Soviet people chose the latter.
In March, 2003, as the people of Iraq were suffering under the despotic rule of Saddam Hussein, the American military and its "coalition of the willing," launched "Operation Iraqi Freedom." The American public was assured by the Vice President, among others, that the troops would be "greeted with flowers." In fact, there was much jubilation in Iraq at the overthrow of the despised Saddam Hussein. Unfortunately, the "liberation" soon morphed into an occupation, and today, the occupiers are facing an "insurgency," consisting overwhelmingly of Iraqis who apparently desire nothing more than the departure of the US military forces from their country.
"Greeted with flowers?" As the sixties protest song asks, "Where have all the flowers gone?"
And the song ends with the unanswered question: "When will they ever learn?"
Bio Tag: Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and
lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public
Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of
California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He
publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly"
(www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website,
"The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org). His book in
progress, "Conscience of a Progressive," can be seen at