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In “The American Bad Dream” I described how troubled I had been during the Reagan Administration about the insane nuclear arms race, a race that did not (and could not) serve any legitimate military purpose, but made fortunes for military contractors. There was such a steady drumbeat during the Reagan Administration about the evil Soviet Union and “godless” communism that I had suspected the “Cold War” itself was to a great degree an effort to maximize the fears and hatred of the American people.
“The Russians are coming, the Russians are coming!” was always a standing joke. We had every reason to feel safe from any attempt at a conventional attack by the Soviet Union on our soil, all the way over here in the Western Hemisphere. After all, wouldn’t their protracted war with Nazi Germany, probably the most brutal one-on-one in history with the protracted and deadly war on the German “Eastern Front,” the total destruction of Stalingrad, and a German advance almost to the outskirts of Moscow, have been more than enough for them for a while?
So our fears about the threat posed by the Soviet Union, it always seemed to me, were exaggerated… except for the threat posed by nuclear weapons.
The degree to which its participation in the nuclear arms race bankrupted the Soviet Union has always been a matter of speculation in the U.S. To justify its massive nuclear build-up, the Reagan Administration made both qualitative and quantitative misrepresentations that the U.S. had fallen behind in the arms race. Based in part on my own observations, I also believe that Soviet communism was an unsuccessful economic system, and that the U.S.S.R. was also collapsing economically in the 1980s.
Even so, if the Russians were trying to keep up with the United States and spent anywhere near as much as we did, there would have been a significant drain on the smaller Soviet economy. I’m sure that we Americans, back then, could absorb the multi-trillion dollar costs more easily than the Russians could.
I learned a lot in 1990 when I joined a citizens-exchange group from Albany, New York that visited Russian citizens in their Moscow apartments, and also visited two neighboring cities and St. Petersburg. In exchange for our three-week visit, we hosted a return delegation of Russians in Albany in 1991.
Arriving in Moscow, we discovered that our hosts lived in small, mostly unfurnished apartments in run-down neighborhoods. I was startled to see things like people foraging for food in the fields on the outskirts of the city, and a woman in the coat check room of a downtown government office building hand-rolling toilet paper.
The country was in a depression. We saw almost no stores with anything to sell. Government markets had mostly collapsed, we were told, and nearly all commerce was taking place in black markets. One of the most amazing things we were shown was a line of people circling a park, three city blocks long, waiting to get into the one McDonald’s outlet that had opened in downtown Moscow.
When our Moscow hosts took us to see Red Square around noon on a weekday, the streets were deserted near Lenin’s tomb and St. Mark’s Cathedral. We walked all the way around the Kremlin, and on the opposite side near a huge hotel we found a political rally taking place. Speakers, we were told, were protesting for economic and governmental reforms. A company of soldiers was deployed near the Kremlin walls about a block away from the large crowd, but we saw as we walked by them they were lounging, bored and indifferent. Many in the crowd were waving a red, white, and blue striped flag, which we later learned was the Russian national flag. (I looked for, but did not see, any red Soviet flags.) We were told that this kind of demonstration was relatively new, but was happening more often.
Anti-government sentiment was rising at that time, and grass-root reform movements were exhibited in meeting we were invited to attend, including a welcoming visit with the Moscow “peace” committee that sponsored our visit. Although not always openly, people seemed to be questioning everything, down to the way math was being taught in the schools.
The Berlin Wall had come down within the past year, and European communism was in its last throes. As to why people were finally turning openly against their government, we were told that they had mostly trusted their government before they learned that it had lied to them about Chernobyl in 1986. The Russian people, they said, were furious at learning first about how bad the disaster really was on Swedish radio. According to them, this was the first time they had dared to openly challenge authority.
A week later in Zagorsk, we witnessed another surreal scene, like that at the McDonald’s in Moscow: We visited a jewelry store that had nothing in its display cases but one item, a cheap necklace. There was no reason for that store to be open, yet there was a line of people several hundred feet long waiting to enter that store!
After Zagosrk, we were taken to a small city north of Moscow called Dubna. This was a center of science and engineering. The most stunning thing about the Dubna visit was that when we arrived the first thing they did, even before taking us to our lodgings, was to drive our bus a few miles into the countryside by the edge of the Volga River to show us a flat slab of concrete on the ground, about 40-50 feet wide. We sat in confused silence for a few moments, staring at the slab.
While it was being explained why they took us there, our Russian hostess broke into tears. We were told that this once was the site of a giant, 50-foot bronze statue of Josef Stalin. It was erected not far from a monumental engineering project, the building of the Volga Canal, at which many of Stalin’s enemies had been sentenced to manual labor for the rest of their lives. We were reminded of something we already knew, that Stalin had been responsible for the deaths of millions of Russians.
We were told in detail how, upon Stalin’s death in 1957, the citizens of Dubna immediately rushed out with their trucks and ropes and toppled the statue, then tore it to pieces. One of the boots, we were told, was thrown in the pond in the middle of town, where it remained for several years. Our hosts made it clear to us that the suffering of the Russian people at the hands of Josef Stalin had not been, and would never be, forgiven or forgotten.
One day our Dubna hosts took us on a tour of an old nuclear research facility, which was housed in a small, old two-story building in the heart of town. The facility, we were told, had not been much used in recent times. It was an interesting one-hour tour, nonetheless, especially since the facility did not seem modern or high-tech. What I still remember most about that tour is something I’ll never forget: I was very surprised to find, just off the main hallway on the second floor, an open, deserted computer room full of old IBM mainframes and peripheral equipment. It appeared to have once been one of the facility’s main computer rooms.
I went into that room alone for a few minutes gazing at the equipment, and recalling that when I had worked for IBM twenty years earlier I had heard rumors of major Russian contracts in the works. I recalled that I had wondered, back then, how the United States could justify allowing Big Blue to share our cutting-edge computer technology with our cold war enemy, especially since we were engaged with the U.S.S.R. in a deadly nuclear arms race that potentially threatened the survival of our nations and, indeed, all life on earth. I wondered about that again as I stood in that computer room, and I still wonder, although our corporate leadership wanted us to fear Russia, how much they actually did.
As for our self-congratulatory myth that Reagan, like Davy Crockett, single-handedly defeated the Russian Bear, well, maybe: Both sides squandered unfathomable resources competing in that horrifying game of nuclear chicken. Tragically for 99% of the American people, however, we now face our own payback. The “Reagan Revolution” that, starting 30 years ago unfairly shifted a disproportionate share of arms race costs away from the wealthy and their corporations and onto Americans with ordinary incomes, ushered in the rapid shift of American wealth to the billionaires at the top and the corporate takeover that now threatens the demise of America’s freedom and prosperity.
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JMH – 3/29/11