My wife and I felt it was the right thing to do to expose our children to other cultures early in their lives, in the spirit of Thomas Paine’s humanist declaration: “My country is the world, all mankind are my brethren, and to do good is my religion.”
Along with traditional American collections of cute animal stories like Mother Goose with happy endings, we included a few translations from other countries which were more realistic. One was a book of old Russian folk tales that was so brutally realistic we donated it to a book sale. But I always remembered the story about a devious fox and a dim-witted wolf in which the former tells the latter he can catch fish by sticking his tail though a hole in the ice on a frozen lake.
To Americans coming of age in the Cold War (1945—1991), Russia has always been coming. We were conditioned in schools and churches to loathe communism. One of the first TV shows we watched was “I Led Three Lives,” about an advertising executive who’s really an FBI agent spying on the Russian-controlled U.S. Communist Party. The commies were evil, denying the existence of God and teaching subversives how to convert vacuum cleaners to bomb launchers.
My family moved to Mannheim, Germany, in the mid-50s as part of a huge post-war U.S. military presence. Purportedly an army of occupation to snuff any resurgence of Nazism, actually we were there to stop any further Russian expansion into Europe. A few times a year we’d be awakened by alert sirens; then my father would don his fatigues and .45 automatic and disappear. We’d watch the long procession of tanks from the 510th Heavy Tank Command roar away, ripping up the cobblestones, to the anticipated battle front along the borders of East Germany or Czechoslovakia.
Nuclear war and kids hiding under tables
Back stateside in the early 60s, the Russians were still coming. Stationed at the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD) in Colorado, my father worked on an anti-missile missile project to intercept Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles. In high school, during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, we practiced crowding into the crypt-like basement of a Catholic church. The room was lined with containers of water and C-rations where we’d wait out the nuclear exchange in case those antimissiles failed.
I was reminded again the Russians were still coming in the 80s as I stood in a cavernous building at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory that housed the Nova Laser. It was built during President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative to provide a shield against incoming Russian “independently targetable reentry vehicles” (MIRVs) with multiple warheads.
By then I knew a little more about Russia and the Union of Socialist Soviet Russian Republics (USSR). In college, I learned to admire the great Russian writers from Tolstoy to Solzhenitsyn, who could only be understood by studying the historic conditions during which they wrote.
Russia’s history like bloody folktales
Russia’s history was as brutal and bloody as their folktales: close to a million killed by Ghengis Khan, millions by Napoleon, millions by Stalin, millions by Hitler. For centuries, Russian was invaded from every direction. As a result, Russia grew hostile to outsiders and systematically and forcibly annexed bordering countries to deter invaders. Inadvertently, they also created a vast expanse of ungovernable expanse of diverse cultures, speaking over 100 languages, which could only be controlled by force. Their isolationist stance spawned a national character that was not really European, but not really Asian either.
With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1991 and the collapse of the USSR, there was absolute glee among the Western democratic super-powers, especially the U.S. We signed some limited nuclear disarmament treaties. We invited the Russians to join the elite G-7 in 1997, to create a G-8, with the expectations that Russia would enthusiastically embrace all things Western—shopping malls, free elections, gay rights, individualism, and rock and roll.
It didn’t work out that way. In 2014, Russia was kicked out, and the club of elites shrunk back to the G-7. Now Russia and the West are back to the future. What happened?
In short: Vladimir Putin, the reincarnation of the Russia’s past, ready to avenge.
Unlike Western Europe, Russia did not participate in the two critical passages that gave rise to democracy and capitalism. Russia skipped both the Renaissance and Protestant Reformation, watershed events in which the ideas of individual rights and liberty took root in Europe.
During the Renaissance, the barbarian tribes, which later merged to become modern Russia, were busy fighting the Mongols, and they never had any exposure to the democratic principles that Europe adopted from ancient Greece. As to the Reformation, it didn’t gain traction because the powerful Russian Orthodox Church was not rotten to the core like the Roman Catholic Church, guilty of selling indulgences and other shortcuts to heaven.
(Russia did embrace the scientific method from the Enlightenment. This enabled them to put the first satellite and human in space, and develop atomic weapons, using little more than slide rules.)
Putin: Make Russia Great Again
Russia has always been hostile to the ruthless destruction of traditions, order, and community bonds that accompany multiculturalism, capitalism, and globalization. They flat don’t buy our way of life. They never did. Russians are not Europeans.
Upon the collapse of the USSR, the first elected president was Boris Yeltsin, a drunk and loud-mouthed buffoon whose “anti-establishment” rise to power was similar in many ways to that of Donald Trump. The privatization of the Russian economy engineered by Yeltsin, and encouraged by the West, was a disaster. There was chaos, near total economic collapse, and the open plunder of the country’s wealth by oligarchs.
As if part of a sinister master plan, Putin, a career KGB officer, learned about geopolitics while a spy in Germany. He showed up on the political stage and became Yeltsin’s understudy. While a witness to the embarrassing debacle, he mastered the ins and outs of Russian politics, including killing opposition. When Yeltsin was forced from office, he appointed Putin president.
A fervid Russian nationalist, Putin despises the West. He was insulted by the USA’s and Europe’s triumphalism during the Reagan years and after. Once in power, he immediately embarked on a project to restore Russian greatness. To aid him in this cause, he formed a surprisingly strong bond with the Russian Orthodox Church, with whom he shares a hatred for homosexuality, to communicate and affirm his message—Make Russia Great Again.
The Russians are coming because the Cold War never ended, as should be obvious to Americans, especially those transfixed by minor threats like ISIS and terrorism, and under the leadership of a president who is a clueless imbecile when it comes to history and geopolitics.
How the folktale ends
Just look at what Russia is up to:
- Sabotaging democratic elections.
- Building new missiles capable of delivering nuclear warheads in violation of treaties.
- Establishing a permanent military presence in the Middle East.
- Moving to re-annex bordering nations once in the USSR, such as Ukraine.
- Risking violent confrontation by constant provocations of U.S. military.
Naive Americans may believe the pop culture images of us trumping the backward Russians at every turn. Think of all those jingoistic Tom Clancy novels, or Clint Eastwood cleverly stealing a top secret Russian jet in “Firefox,” or a bunch of American high school kids repelling a Russian invasion in “Red Dawn.” Were geopolitics like the movies! Especially those happy endings where we always win.
Based on history, sometimes it’s more like a Russian folktale.
In case you wonder how the fox and the wolf story ended, the fox’s advice was a devious trick to punish the wolf for ruining the fox’s life. The wolf’s tail froze in the ice, trapping him. The fox told the town peasants, and they attacked with their farm implements and killed him.
Trump versus Putin. Guess who’s the fox?