Bye Bye, Lenin

The Cold War passed away 20 years ago. I still miss it.
December 18, 2011 |
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It’s hard to describe, let alone explain, my melancholic reaction to the movie Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy after watching it in a sold-out theater on Saturday. Sure, the film, adapted from the classic Cold War novel by John Le Carré, captures the dread of 1970s London and the wearying ambivalence of Cold War intelligence wars. But I wasn’t expecting to emerge from the theater feeling a sense of loss.

In one scene, an analyst retired from the “Circus” (as Le Carré dubs British intelligence) looks at old photos of colleagues in uniform (during World War II) and tells the protagonist, George Smiley (the mole hunter played by Gary Oldman), that those were the “good days.”

“There was a war going on then,” Smiley gently chides her.

“But it was a real war,” she replies, “Englishmen could be proud.”

That’s just it. For those of us of a certain age, the Cold War was the “good days,” much like the “real” World War II would have been the good days to Cold War long-timers in 1973. In each instance, the nostalgia is for greater clarity, a defining challenge, and the sense of shared purpose imposed by the contest.

This week marks the 20th anniversary of the formal demise of the USSR, which ceased to be on December 25, 1991. That milestone was, first and foremost, a wonderful Christmas present for those victimized by Communism around the world for much of the 20th century. But it was also a milestone that Americans can look back to with a twinge of nostalgia.

I find it hard to sift through the contradictory jumble of associations and images conjured up by that four-letter acronym, USSR, or “CCCP” in Cyrillic, and arrive at anything approaching a coherent portrait. I can close my eyes and order up from memory iconic images of missiles parading across Red Square; the propaganda posters of Lenin in a banker’s suit exhorting Soviet workers to build communism; pictures from Yalta of an enigmatic Stalin, the indispensable ally whose people suffered the vast majority of allied casualties in the war against Hitler; the cult of Yuri Gagarin and the space program. And remember those showdowns at the Olympics that too often ended with the stirring Soviet anthem being played at the medals ceremony?

If nothing else, the Soviet Union was wrapped in seductive trappings. In one of the more powerful scenes in “Tinker Tailor,” a rousing rendition of the Soviet anthem is played at the Circus’ office Christmas party, with many of the English spooks singing along, in grudging admiration. As the English double agent turned by “Moscow Center” nonchalantly tells Smiley upon being unmasked, “It was an aesthetic choice as much as a moral one.” It’s all sport, he seems to be saying, as if choosing to root for Man U or Liverpool. And in Le Carré’s fiction, Moscow Center’s “Karla” and the English “C” come across as spymasters playing the same game by similar rules.

But of course the USSR’s epic trappings were only that. Russia had no business being a global superpower. Only by cajoling, inspiring, depriving, and terrorizing its own people could Russia keep up the global contest, until it couldn’t. The USSR was broke most of the time. It was a hollow empire. Lenin never dreamt his revolution would lead communism’s global crusade. He assumed his backwater uprising would soon take a backseat to a communist takeover in Germany. It didn’t, of course, and Stalin ruthlessly improvised “Socialism in one Country,” as the slogan went.

I was seduced by the Soviet trappings as a teenager—seduced to pay attention, to fret about the threat, and to study the place, its history and its language. I can blame Dostoevsky, Orwell, Arthur Koestler, thrillers like Le Carré’s, and the series of histories George Kennan wrote about the Western intervention during the Russian Civil War for drawing me towards Russia. (See the opening paragraph of the prologue to Kennan’s Russia Leaves the War, written in 1958.) But if I were truly honest, I’d also have to blame Warren Beatty. I was 15 when “Reds,” the sweeping biopic of John Reed, an American journalist who became an ardent supporter of communism and the Russian Revolution, came out, and the movie’s 3 hours and 15 minutes (I said it was sweeping) of Soviet overload shook my world.

Two years later, I was in Moscow on a high school exchange program, and Ronald Reagan called the Soviets an “evil empire.” Everything about the place was exotic and melodramatic, from the intimidating KGB border guards that greeted us at the airport to the soaring propaganda banners everywhere and the red star hovering over the Kremlin. The embalmed Lenin was on display a stone throw’s away from the tomb of John Reed (who died in Moscow in 1920) along the Kremlin wall, and we were welcomed by “friendship societies” whose Soviet students all hewed to the same talking points in chillingly precise English. In Moscow we stayed at the Cosmos hotel and consorted with black marketeers after dark under the adjacent monument to Gagarin to trade our Sony Walkmans for KGB hats and coats. In Leningrad we stayed across from the Aurora, the warship whose guns signaled the start of the Bolshevik uprising (and whose name was on the one decent piece of food I ate the whole time, a revolution-themed chocolate bar); in Minsk we stayed in a hellhole.

Even an awestruck teenager couldn’t help but notice the dissonance between the images and the reality. The only stores selling decent wares were the dollar-only “beriozka” shops catering to foreigners; everyone wanted to trade something, anything, for our jeans and Walkmans. And while my first-year Russian textbook had a running story line about neighbors Ivan, the construction worker, and Nikolai, the nuclear engineer, who’d gather in the evenings in one of their spacious apartments to play chess, there certainly didn’t seem to be many decent places for them to go out and grab a beer or coffee together.

The hollowness and ruthlessness of the Soviet empire created one of the world’s great bodies of political humor. In one classic Seventies joke, Leonid Brezhnev marvels over Soviet ingenuity when he learns that he can place a phone call to the devil much more cheaply than Richard Nixon can from the White House. “Well, actually,” one of his aides clarifies, “the difference is that for the Americans it is a long-distance call, but here it is a local one.”

An empire so disciplined and determined, on the one hand, armed with nukes and a mission statement proclaiming the inevitability of its ultimate triumph. A lumbering giant, on the other, whose decrepit leaders and kitschy sloganeering were undermined at every turn by the desperation with which so many of its own citizens—and those of its satellite states—wanted out. How to reconcile the bankruptcy at the core of the Soviet system with our recollections of a worthy adversary? And how to reconcile the evil at the core of the Soviet system with my nostalgia?

Part of it is surely generational wistfulness for one’s own defining challenge. The good old days in any professional sports league will tend to be when you were about 13 and following it avidly. Maybe today’s recent college grads who studied Arabic, Persian or Pashtun to focus on present challenges will look back at this time as the “good old days.”

But another explanation comes from a second piece of (brilliant) on-screen entertainment that I watched over the weekend: a re-run of one of my seven-year-old’s favorite episodes of “Phineas and Ferb.” It’s the one in which Dr. Doofenshmirtz, the show’s hilarious villain, misses his nemesis, secret agent Perry the Platypus, and breaks to a nostalgic music video about their shared adventures. “And I feel fine cause I’ve got a nemesis,” he sings. “I hate him, and he hates me,
What a wonderful animosity.” One of the shots in the accompanying montage is of Dr. Doofenschmirtz and Perry on a see-saw.

Dr. Doofenshmirtz was right about the benefits of a proper nemesis. Despite its rickety, evil nature, the USSR was a serious rival that focused America’s attention. We could exhort ourselves to be better—at science education, or civil rights, or assistance to foreign nations—on account of the global contest. The United States was forced to view the map of the world, and engage with it, in terms of a deadly zero-sum contest between two superpowers. Some of the most overreaching rhetoric around the War on Terror and some of the distortive efforts to portray China as a replacement for the Soviets are just sad attempts to recreate the Cold War dynamic, with its reassuring symmetry and clarity.

It’s tough to be left alone on the see-saw.