We received our long-awaited exit visa from the Soviet Union in early October, 1973. It was valid for thirty days, so we had a month to sell our apartment, pack our belongings and get out from that hell on earth. The previous months, while our application for a visa was in processing, we kept it a strict secret, though the black Volga sedan with its KGB contingent parked across the street from our apartment building was likely a giveaway to our neighbors that something was going on. I still remember our upstairs neighbor, a sad jazz base player, who was Jewish, and who often came over late at night to drink tea and escape from his shiksa (Yiddish slang, with some derogatory connotations, for Gentile women) wife who tended to yell at him. “I really envy your courage,” he would say to my father. “But how can you leave the Russian culture… say what you want, Russia is still our homeland.” My dad, not a big talker, but afflicted with a horrible temper, would slam down his teacup: “NO! We have only one homeland and it is there, not here!”
On October 6th of that year, just as our preparations to leave Kiev and move to our historical homeland in Israel got underway, Israel was sucker-punched with a coordinated surprise attack, on the Day of Atonement, on Yom Kippur, by Egypt in the Sinai Peninsula and Syria in the Golan Heights. Now this fact is not widely known outside of Russia and the ex-Soviet countries, but every single dwelling in the USSR had its own built in government propaganda machine. In most cases it took the form of a hardwired speaker euphemistically called a “radio”. In reality it was a government provided shelf-top amplifier and speaker box that was plugged into a special outlet in the wall and had a combined on/off/volume knob. If you turned the knob to the right, you got exposed to some very good programming on travel and the culture of various “republics” making up the USSR. There was also excellent classical and folk music, but mostly there was government propaganda masked as “news. Together with the single-channel black-and-white TV, this ensured that each Soviet household had exposure to a nonstop stream of what today would be called fake news. Actual radios, the ones that could receive AM, FM, or God forbid shortwave transmissions were strictly illegal to own.
Image by Kremlin.ru
From these boxes, the TV and the “radio” in our small apartment, came a constant stream of horrific news. Israel was thrown back on its heels. The gloriously victorious Arab armies were soon going to wipe this outpost of criminal Western imperialism from the face of the Earth. My father would turn the boxes off, but my mom would surreptitiously turn them back on again. She was, perhaps, not quite as immune to Soviet fake news and not quite as much of a true believer in Israel as my dad had been. Our relatives, the few friends who knew of our impending departure were sick with worry. “How can you leave the world’s greatest superpower and go to a country that is being wiped off the face of the map?” They would ask. Of course twenty years later the “greatest superpower” was no more and these same relatives were on the steps of my parents’ Lower Galilee villa, hat in hand, with nothing but the clothes on their backs. And that is the story of today’s Russia.
The end of the Second World War found the world in the grips on an anomaly; Britain, which entered the 20th century as the world’s leading power and since then had been on the winning side of two world wars, was finished forever as a player on the world stage. It was busy running away from its imperial possessions in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and across the Middle East including Palestine. Germany was occupied, France pretended to have fought and won, but everybody knew it was a boldfaced lie. America had, as expected, finally, fully, and irrevocably assumed the leadership mantle from Britain, but the big surprise was Russia. A country that only three decades prior underwent a revolution and signed a surrender treaty with Germany, a country that fought a brutal civil war, a country that bore the brunt of the German assault on the civilized world and made the heaviest sacrifice to defeat it, was now America’s equal.
Except of course, it wasn’t. The truth was that post war USSR had widespread deaths from starvation, the truth was that it lay in ruins, the truth was that it had a housing crisis of epic proportions that was still felt two decades later when I was a child. By no metric was the USSR anywhere near being a superpower. Its GDP, in total and per capita, its industrial and agricultural outputs, none of this was anywhere near America. Not even remotely close. But Stalin knew that in order to avoid Winston Churchill’s fate of losing his grip on power in his country in the aftermath of victory when the insane and unconscionable price that Russia had paid for it became apparent, he needed to convince the citizens of the USSR and indeed the citizens of the world that the USSR had in fact acquired superpower status. That the sacrifices were not only needed to win the war and cover up Stalin’s own disastrous misreading of Hitler’s intentions and megalomaniacally self-serving pre-war purges of the top echelons of the Soviet military, no, Stalin had to convince the Soviet people that these sacrifices had also paved the road to Russia’s reemergence on the world stage as a leading power, assuming the mantle of the pre-revolutionary Russian Empire and indeed surpassing it.
In order to accomplish this incredible sleight of hand, in order to convincingly claim that the USSR, a ruined country that was far from able to feed and house its own citizens, was one of the world’s two superpowers, Stalin put in place a trifecta of strategies. First and foremost, he directed all resources, not all “available” resources, but simply and plainly ALL resources to the industrial, military, and aerospace complexes. Rebuilding and re-sowing would wait as long as necessary. Fighting hunger, disease, homelessness were at the bottom of the priorities list. First were the nuclear arsenal, the Red Army, the development of ballistic missiles. Second, came the aggressive peddling of Soviet civil and military aid to Eastern Europe and later other trouble spots around the world. Finally and crucially, Stalin redirected the massive internal propaganda apparatus first developed and perfected in the prewar years from exalting the relative merits of communism versus capitalism to building up the USSR’s status as the direct and coequal competitor of the US, the only world power that had the will and the means to stand up to America’s “imperialistic” ambitions and defend the defenseless around the globe.
It was these strategies, first developed by Stalin and later promulgated by his successors all the way through Gorbachev that gave us communist Cuba, and North Korea, and North Vietnam, and endless civil wars in such far-flung places as Nicaragua and Angola. While people just ten kilometers outside of Moscow were starving, East Germany and Cuba and China and many more received vast amounts of Soviet agricultural produce. While the production of civilian consumer goods was virtually nonexistent, massive factories were being built in Hungary and Poland and Romania and even India. Top Russian universities were full of students from the third world, receiving excellent engineering education courtesy of the starving Soviets. The façade thus created was indeed impressive; by the early 1960’s the USSR appeared to have a true superpower’s global reach, red banners flying from South America to Indochina to Central Africa. Russia’s deceit was aided by the cynical cooperation from Western and specifically American proto-globalist elites who, as President Eisenhower had warned in his farewell address, profited beyond their wildest imaginations by ostensibly buying into Russian propaganda and fleecing the American taxpayers to build and maintain the biggest military industrial complex the world had ever seen, always skimming from the top.
The fate of any illusion is to fade away, even one that was constituted on such a grand scale. By the 1980’s, with Russia’s disastrous incursion into Afghanistan, with the best of Russia’s armaments handily defeated by America’s arms wielded by the Israelis who in the First Lebanon War in 1982 destroyed all of Syria’s Russian made air defenses and shot down most of its Russian made fighter jets without losing a single American-made aircraft, the jig was up and with it came the collapse of the USSR itself. What remains is a traumatized population of a country that has no legitimate government, no legal system that anyone believes in, whose total gross domestic product is less than that of the state of Texas and whose per capita GDP is solidly in third world range. And that would have been bad enough. But even worse, Russia has a population that was weaned and raised on the myth of superpowerdom paid for by the copious blood shed by their great and grandfathers. Admitting the truth that the sacrifice of over twenty million Russians who were killed when the USSR was attacked by the much smaller Germany was only needed because the Bolshevik revolution destroyed the Russian Empire and brought to power incompetent and vile thieves the likes of Lenin and Stalin and Khrushchev and so on until the current grey KGB apparatchik occupant of the Kremlin, that the Germans only attacked because Russia was brought to its knees by its own people, finally that the victory in WWII, the war they call the Great Patriotic War was a Pyrrhic victory as evidenced by the fact that today’s Russia is vastly poorer and worse off than any of the WWII combatants in any theater of war on any side, is not a task easily accomplished.
Image by Виктор Логинов
Russia desperately needs a leader that can tell it the truth: that it is a country in deep crisis with no influence on world affairs that is rapidly becoming the vassal of the resurgent China. It desperately needs to rebuild its internal economy, its systems of governance, and make strides towards the reduction of lawlessness and brutality that are so rampant in the Russian countryside. Alas, Russia has no such leader. Instead, it has a leader steeped in the old failed techniques of harping on the old heartstrings of residual Russian pride, whose only plays come straight out of the Cold War playbook of missile launches and jet intercepts and strategic bomber flyovers and “mysterious” submarine surfacings in Scandinavians waters. If these policies were misguided in the 1960’s and 1970’s, when China was an economic non-entity and the US was dependent on oil from Middle Eastern Russian client states, today these policies are simply suicidal. They are inevitably leading to an ever escalating flight of private capital to say nothing of scaring away already meager foreign investments, necessitating the ever-accelerating liquidation sale of Russian natural resources such as its virgin Siberian forests to China for pennies on the dollar just to maintain the minimum required liquidity.
Four generations have now passed since the last Russian lived in a country that had a legitimate system of governance and a more or less functioning judiciary. They have simply forgotten what that feels like and their entire sense of self-worth comes from the bogus comparison they draw between their country and the leading superpowers of the world today, the US and China. This superpower euphoria, just like any drug or alcohol induced illusion of wellbeing, requires constantly upping the dose of political and military aggression. Russian superpowerdom is an illusion; Russians nukes are not.