Friday, November 27th 2015
Anne Applebaum opened her article “Russia and the Great Forgetting,” in the December, 2015, issue of Commentarymagazine with memories of Moscow in the last decade of the Cold War. While she was an American graduate student, America’s Public Diplomacy people – through broadcasts, magazines, exhibitions, and many other programs – were feeding the desire for knowledge of the United States even as the Soviet authorities were trying to restrict or distort information on the their Cold War foe.
The Russians I met . . . . 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. . . . 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. * * * * *
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. . . . .
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.