In a Russian Mirror

Elias Crim
Apr 5, 2019 · 47 min read

A Cold War Memoir in the Form of a Travelogue

“We [Russians] are an exception among people. We belong to those who are not an integral part of humanity but exist only to teach the world some type of great lesson.”

— Pyotr Chaadayev, Philosophical Letters (1836)


My old passport is a small, dark blue album of blotchy visa stamps from perhaps a dozen or more different points of entry and exit. Gazing back from the photo inside is a much younger, longer-haired me, wearing a look which border guards probably read as a mix of confusion and subversion.

Artistically speaking, my little collection of visa stamps ranges widely: from the dullish boxes and rectangles of the U.K., Denmark and Sweden (in sober capitalistic shades of grey and green), to the filigreed crests and seals of the U.S.S.R., Romania, Hungary and Czechoslovakia (in blazing socialist reds and blues).

The idea of a trip to the Soviet Union first struck me in the spring of 1978, a time when I had grown weary of grad school, in addition to feeling melancholic over the loss of a grandparent (to old age), a first cousin (to alcoholism) and a girlfriend (in a car crash), all in fairly quick succession. Somehow the latter events, along with my newfound Russophilia (partly under the spell of Vladimir Nabokov’s writings), seemed to argue for a change of scene.

“My God,” more than one friend responded when I revealed my plan, “you want to go to Russia?! That’s your idea of a vacation?!”

Let’s recall that the Soviet Union in the summer of 1978 was viewed by most Americans as one vast, grey-walled KGB bughouse. The country was led by the dour Leonid Brezhnev, a beneficiary of Stalin’s purges in the 1930s and a protégé of former leader Nikita Khrushchev. As General Secretary of the Central Committee from 1977 to 1982, Brezhnev led an aging Politburo intent on gradually reversing Khrushchev’s anti-Stalinization program (initiated in 1956) and using a heavy hand with any unruly troublemakers. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was still two years away, the “Star Wars” defense program and the Chernobyl disaster were also still to come. For the moment, a façade of what looked like unchangeable, stolid calm was in place.

In those years, the regime notoriously tolerated popular expressions of anti-Semitism, while dissident writers (like Solzhenitsyn) were forced to circulate their work in samizdat (secret, illegal publishing with copies mostly distributed one-to-one). Brezhnev’s government acted mostly as a caretaker state, less concerned about fomenting revolution abroad and more about keeping things nicely locked down domestically.

During the 1970s, the Soviet economy hit its historical peak, reaching almost 60% of U.S. GDP and even out-producing the U.S. for a time in heavy industry. Military spending was fully 12.5% of GDP. When elderly Russians are asked today which earlier time in their history they prefer, they often cite the Brezhnev years, despite the thousands of political and religious prisoners at that time, many held in “mental asylums,” as well as much homelessness and rationing.

Billboards in U.S.S.R. in 1978 were scarce and entirely devoted to governmental propaganda — there was no commercial (i.e., capitalistic) advertising of any kind anywhere. The Russian word behind Brezhnev’s image here means “peace.” (A friend sardonically observed, “Note the Rolex watch.”)

Yet this experience within the Soyuz (Russian for “Union” and a nickname for the U.S.S.R.) allowed me to observe, briefly but close at hand, some cracks in the imperial facade. Indeed an imperial decline was just beginning to set in, at the very point when the Soviet regime was beginning to convince itself and the world that it had finally (after 61 years of Communism) become a “normal” government. (One notable item in the needed revision of Cold War thinking I’m undertaking here is the fixed notion that “Russia is not a normal country.” See “What We See in the Mirror Below”.)

Certainly in these years any predictions that a country with such global reach, backed by such a massive military presence, might ever collapse would have seemed ludicrous, beyond the realm of possibility. Maybe Communism didn’t in fact work but still it was indisputable that the almighty Soviet regime wasn’t going anywhere.

My own geopolitical views around this time were nebulous. Perhaps that’s why I did not approach the trip in a particularly ideological fashion, as some fellow travelers of mine did. One hard-liner from Texas remarked to me, “You do know there are two types of people who come back from the U.S.S.R.? There’s the guy who arrives friendly to the place and comes back hating it. And then there’s the guy who arrives hating the place and comes back really hating it.” I was pretty sure I did not fall into either camp.

Still my great error about the eventual fate of the U.S.S.R. — one widely shared at the time — was to imagine that the latter’s collapse was somehow an ideological victory for the U.S. and for Western neoliberalism generally. I attribute my falling for this bandwagon effect in the 1980s to my growing enthusiasm for the Polish Solidarity movement — an early indicator of trouble for the Soviet regime — and my misreading of what that popular uprising was truly about. (See “Polish Solidarity Movement” in the Appendix.)

But all that was a few years away. The first domino in the Soviet collapse, many would argue, began to topple this very summer of 1978 — the “summer of the three popes,” as it’s sometimes called — with the expected death of Paul VI, the very unexpected death of John Paul I thirty-three days later, and then the election of John Paul II, all in quick succession.

Our American tour guide, Jim M., a speaker of both Russian and Polish and someone very informed on Eastern European politics, noted that the arrival of a Polish pope would be received as nothing less than an earthquake by the Kremlin, clearly a dangerous development which would call for extraordinary measures of control.

And that effort at control — at this date in history — would necessarily be through various forms of physical (and analog!) measures, of the same kind the KGB utilized domestically and abroad for practically the entire history of the Soviet Union. After all, the primarily technological tool of surveillance in 1978 was still the tapped telephone land line, shrugged off by the average Russian as simply a universal fact of life in that country.

Here’s a through-the-looking-glass example I recall from those times. You’re a Soviet citizen and you want to look up someone’s phone number in another town? Fine: you’ll need to pay a visit to a local branch of the public library, where the librarian will take your name and then allow you to browse a copy of that town’s phone directory — if there is one!

With that brief sketch of the atmosphere of the late 1970s, I feel the only other preliminaries here are first an apology for the faded condition of the accompanying photographs, which have not aged well. I did not take them myself: a friend on the trip was kind enough to share a set.

And then a note about my title. Ever since my undergraduate studies in classics, I’ve been fascinated by the idea of cultural comparisons, the new angles of vision possible when looking at yourself and your culture through a very different mirror. I came to understand the Vietnam War about the time I was first reading about the Sicilian expedition in Thucydides — nothing’s changed, I realized with some amazement.

In reflecting on a single summer during the time of Brezhnev’s Russia, I try here to read small signs of larger forces at work — a nation overgrown with militarism, a society numb to surveillance, and a people desperately struggling to maintain a dignified existence. I saw the U.S.S.R. partly with the eyes of a young and shallow Cold Warrior, never imagining that the tumultuous Russian experience of the last half-century was in fact closer in some ways to historical normality than our own American post-war bubble of prosperity.

Nor could I have guessed that the declining world system we saw around us in our travels would soon be replaced by another ideology, a hyper-individualistic one born partly in reaction to Soviet-style state communism .

It is tempting to believe that an unintended consequence of the Cold War was a kind of mimetic effect whereby we Americans have gradually come to resemble our old adversaries and even to imitate them in some Girardian sense. The gradual onset of what the late Sheldon Wolin referred to as our “inverted totalitarianism” depended not upon the use of force, as did the Bolshevik revolution, but instead the use of fear, beginning in the 1950s and then accelerating sharply after September 11, 2001.

Moreover, our surveillance state was not imposed on a helpless public but rather “co-produced” by our own citizens as we cheerfully handed over our personal data to giant corporations and supported the rise of so-called “smart cities” where we are now watched almost everywhere, at every hour.

The catastrophe of the First World War arguably gave rise to a mood of “creative destruction” in Russia, which led to Lenin and his allies seizing control of the state. In the aftermath of the staggering, still largely unacknowledged social and economic costs of the Iraq War (2003–2011), a mixture of anomie and ressentiment have destabilized American politics, inspiring a similar gamble on the part of Trump voters.

As emigre author Dmitry Orlov puts it, “The U.S.S.R. had one entrenched, systematically corrupt political party with a monopoly on power. The U.S.A. has two.” Putting it another way, we Americans have a single governing elite, organized into something like two sporting teams — which happen to control a trillion-dollar military.

And now back to the box of old photos…

Through the Looking Glass (Leningrad and Environs)

The headline on the flyer read “Camping and Driving in the Soviet Union”, with the subhead “A Maximally Unrestricted Trip”.

I don’t remember how I came across the tour operator, an outfit in Cambridge Mass called Pioneer Travel, managed by one Alex Lipson, a professor of Russian at M.I.T. and reportedly (I never met him) a brilliant, erratic character.

Lipson’s hilarious Russian-language textbook — long out of print — was filled with this kind of dialogue (more Marx Brothers than Marxist): “What does our brigade do when we finish working? We read magazines in the club of the plant. What do we read about? We read about concrete. Which magazines do we read? The young female concrete-workers read the magazine, Young Female Concrete-Worker.”

For the price of $1,880 US per traveler, Lipson had devised a tour offering almost seven weeks inside the Soviet Union, with all expenses included, even airfare from New York to Amsterdam, where our group of two dozen or so adults and students was to pick up four Volkswagen microbuses. Thereafter we would alternate camping with hotel stays.

No glossy photos on this travel brochure which resembles a military map of the Eastern Front in 1941.

The flyer included the following sentence: “The trip is designed to get you to the Soviet Union and leave you alone as much as possible once you’re there.” As the subhead above put it, we would be “maximally unrestricted.” (Was this lack of restrictions entirely a good thing, I recall wondering at the time, not sure of how Soviet officialdom might view the matter.)

As far as my Russian language skills went, I had managed to scrape together what amounted to less than an average schoolchild’s fluency in the few months before the trip began. I was reassured to learn that we would have both an American guide who spoke excellent Russian, as well as Russian guides (assigned by Intourist, the Soviet tourist bureau) who spoke good English. Moreover, several travelers in our group turned out to have passable or good Russian skills.

A souvenir from our trip: a Soviet-era alphabet book for young Russians.
Near the end of the alphabet book, this children’s song in praise of the Fearless Leader, beginning “The sun is shining clearly,/In the pale blue sky/As to the great Lenin/We raise our voice in song…”

Let us recall that in those days an American did not simply buy a plane ticket to Leningrad or Moscow and then deplane at a Russian airport, free to begin poking around the country at will. All foreigners entering the Soviet Union had first to make arrangements with this same Intourist, an organization founded by Stalin himself in 1929 and known to the outside world as a mix of cultural bureaucracy and upwardly mobile KGB informants.

Thus well before any of us would be driving up to a Soviet border crossing, we had to be issued our government-approved tourist itinerary, listing camp sites, hotels, and indicating our exact routes in, around and out of the country. Copies of these itineraries were even distributed to the local traffic police (or “GAI”), whom we saw both on foot in the cities and sometimes along the roads high up in towers where they could spot our mini-bus caravan listed, along with each license plate number, as we drove nervously by. Surveillance of American visitors, while not exactly tight in those times, was at least fairly frequent.

This preliminary paperwork was the job of Cambridge MA-based Pioneer Travel, probably handled mostly by Alex Lipson himself. After reading Lipson’s entertaining pre-tour memos to us on travelling behind the Curtain, I was very much looking forward to meeting him, which I assumed I would do, probably when we all gathered in Amsterdam.

Disappointingly we soon discovered Lipson would not be travelling with us: he had been denied further travel in the U.S.S.R. as a result of his previous, probably “maximally unrestricted” exploits there. No one seemed to know what exactly Lipson had done to annoy our fraternal comrades but there was a story about him slipping off to take photographs of desecrated Jewish cemeteries. In these years, the very topic of cameras and photography was a touchy one with the Soviets, especially if you were suspected of an excessive interest in human rights.

What I did not realize at the time was that the Pioneer Travel combination of camping and driving was a kind of ruse. Lipson simply hoped to maximize his travelers’ chances of exposure to ordinary Russians, something other tours lost in their dependence on insulated hotel stays. Instinctive Jewish dissident that he was, I sensed Lipson nevertheless had a deep affection for the Russian people. I truly regret not having met him.

I had better describe our group a bit. In almost Chaucerian variety, we were pilgrims from both the U.S. and Canada, adults and children, Russian speakers and non-speakers, and mostly visiting the Soviet Union for the first time, except for two travelers: Jim M. (a grad student in Russian/Polish studies, picked by Lipson to be our American guide) and Klaus W. (an older German who had previously toured the country in 1944 as a teenage soldier assigned to an invading armored division which became caught up in the epic tank battles near Kursk).

Klaus, the oldest member of our expedition, didn’t talk much about his war experiences but would occasionally notice rattletrap Soviet vehicles driving past us, after which he would laugh sardonically, “And they won! They won!”

Also with us: a California-based family of four — the husband (a poli sci prof) with his wife and two pre-teen kids; a nerdy science undergrad who went on to become an expert in the history of Soviet astronomy; a young radio D.J. with an exhaustive (and sometimes exhausting) knowledge of early rock ’n’ roll; a nurse specializing in prematurely born children; and — happily for me — Ray A., a brilliant, nearly bilingual young pre-law student from an émigré Russian Jewish family near Chicago, along with several more travelers who have mostly faded from memory by now.

My journal records the names of the Russian cities — some of them chewy on the tongue like Russian black bread: Leningrad, Novgorod, Moscow, Orel, Kharkov, Rostov, Piatagorsk, Ordhonikidze (a physical pleasure merely to pronounce this word Russian-style), Tblisi, Sukhumi, Sochi, Gelendzhik, Kiev, Odessa…

Looking at photos of Russian cities today — their streets full of new cars and neon signs — I realize the degree to which the country back then was still largely a third-world landscape. The best of the inter-city highways were no better than most county roads in the U.S. today.

One Lipson memo contained this mildly terrifying advice, which I suspect also revealed something about Russian drinking habits and the perennial shortage of car parts (like headlight bulbs!):

“Note: Driving at night is hazardous! The probability of an accident at night is frighteningly high. Three reasons:

1) Rural pedestrians are not car-wise. People often walk along the roads at night. When they see a car coming, they’re a) as likely to step into its path as out of it, and b) they sometimes hesitate until the last minute, then try to make it across. So you must see them first, which you can’t always do at night since they may be walking just off the road until it’s too late.

2) Soviet drivers sometimes drive without lights — not dims but no lights at all — and turn them on only when they’re just a few yards away.

3) The narrow or non-existent shoulders mean that when you swerve off the road because of the above, you’re likely to hit a tree or turn over into a ditch.”

Also a bit unsettling:

Maps: City maps are generally sketchy, have little detail, and are confusing to use. There are none that show all the streets — even all the downtown streets. The best maps are of Kiev, then Leningrad, then Tbilisi…Other cities have no maps at all.

Our guide Jim laughingly explained to us that the crude city maps we were issued by Pioneer Travel were actually photocopies of ones created by the CIA but he didn’t explain how he knew this.

Aside from these occasionally alarming observations, Lipson’s memos were filled with his delightful, peculiar insights. Part of his advice about seeing Moscow included this nod toward the Russian habit of venerating their classic authors (and their immediate families):

In the neighborhood are the Moscow Crematorium, and the Donskoy Monastery, now the History of Architecture Museum. At the monastery is an unkempt, charming, old graveyard with the graves of Chaadayev, Pushkin’s aunt, grandmother and uncle, and Turgenev’s mother. [Imagine the cachet of returning home, able to say “The graves of Pushkin’s aunt, Turgenev’s mother — I was there!”]

This advice was soon followed by Lipson’s idea of a great tip on getting to know the Russian people better:

Getting from town back to the campground: The Kursk Station is worth a trip for its own sake — for hot, sweaty, cursing, shouting Russian crowds.

And here’s Lipson on receiving mail — or more like the gloomy odds of receiving any:

Moscow and Leningrad have General Delivery for foreigners, known throughout Europe as Poste Restante…Mail is sometimes delayed or lost. Allow 14 days for a letter from the U.S., but don’t count on getting it.

Oddly, one topic which loomed fairly large in our travel experience but received scant comment from Lipson was that of Russian toilets, truly a jarring shock to our first-world American sensibilities. Those found in the hotels were primitive pull-chain affairs but I vividly recall briefly entering a reeking, hellish facility at a service station along the road and instantly turning on my heel back outside for a gasp of fresh air. In these cases, we were frequently forced to traipse a few yards behind the service station in order to squat ingloriously amidst the fir trees. Other accommodations — on what I thought of perhaps unfairly as the Middle Eastern model — amounted to a hole in a stinking tiled floor.

I should probably add that, as per the advice of our man Lipson, we had brought a sizable supply of American toilet paper. What the local brand was like, frankly none of us wanted to find out. (Something like cheap waxed paper, according to one rumor.)

June 30

After picking the vans in Amsterdam and making an enjoyable week-long loop around Scandinavia ending in Helsinki, we were ready for the border crossing into the U.S.S.R. I don’t recall much about that event, other than the warning which our guide Jim offered us, roughly as follows:

“Travelers, as we enter the country, you should think of the Soviet system as like a big sleeping elephant. You can walk around and even over it, so long as you just don’t wake it up. Which is not easy to do but is possible. That would be a bad mistake.

“There are two places especially in the U.S.S.R. where you do not mess with the elephant. One is Lenin’s tomb, considered the most sacred space in the country. The other is at the border, coming in and especially going out. Absolutely no funny business.”

We understood that the Soviets were perfectly happy that Westerners wanted to vacation in their country. After all, we were spending good American dollars — hard currency or valuta, as it was called then — to do so. Despite a deep-seated suspicion of foreigners generally, Intourist saw Western tourism as an opportunity to make money and to put the best face on things in hopes of improving the U.S.S.R.’s dubious international image.

Ironically, this meant that the system was also somewhat protective: they did not want any mishaps to occur to us, as that would create a bad impression for those “on the outside.” Their surveillance was thus to watch for any illegal behavior but also to quickly offer help in case of a breakdown or other problems related to keeping us on schedule.

On June 30, we crossed the Finnish border without incident, as the old Victorian travelers used to say, and reached Leningrad (as it was then called), where we were assigned our lovely Circassian tour guide, Olga. She turned out to be a good sport and knew lots of songs.

Our guide Olga (looking at camera) was charming if a bit too insistent on reciting to us the reams of cultural and economic data she had been compelled to memorize for her job. I attempted a minor flirtation until she dreamily mentioned her boyfriend, whom she noted was serving in the Red Army.

These first days on the trip were the most like conventional Western touring, simply because Leningrad (St. Petersburg today) is such an extraordinary world city. Its mix of Baroque and neoclassical buildings, the canals and the White Nights (midsummer northern nights during which you can read a newspaper outside until 10 PM) inspire much of the same euphoria you might feel visiting a Paris or Rome.

The city’s urban face is also an outstanding example of the historic Russian tendency to imitate Western models but on a much grander scale. The result, as Marshall Berman put it, was “a weird, warped modernity,” very much Baudelaire’s “unreal city” or (as Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man described it) “the most abstract and premeditated city in the world.”

Take Palace Square, a windswept plaza surely designed to atomize people and display the state’s power, always ready for the next military parade. Each of Russia’s major cities has such a square, sometimes surrounded by Stalinist skyscrapers. (As a result, retrofitting a post-Soviet city today, in the view of many urbanists, is a difficult challenge, as many of these places have been among the least livable cities anywhere.)

Palace Square was the scene of the Decembrist uprising in 1825, the Bloody Sunday Massacre in 1905 and several events of the October Revolution in 1917, including the seizing of the Winter Palace (across the square from the Admiralty Arch pictured here), home of the Provisional Government, by the Bolsheviks.

In the events of 1917, this city was also the stage setting for a world-historical exercise in creative destruction, one possessed by a utopian vision which was violently sabotaged early in its career, arguably with the death of Lenin in 1924, if not earlier.

Yet it was in Leningrad that we began to sense the great difference between the U.S.S.R. and anything in our American experience: the country could be described as one vast cemetery.

After a few hours in the vast galleries of the Hermitage, I decided that even if it were emptied of every piece of art, the palace itself would still be one of the most extraordinary places on earth.

I knew a bit about Russia’s horrendous experience of the Second World War before making the tour that year. My first closeup glimpse of its aftermath occurred when (taking Lipson’s advice) I wandered away from the group on one occasion. Strolling only a block or two away from Leningrad’s Nevsky Prospekt to a side street, I spotted an apartment building ripped in half and exposed to the street. I guessed its ruined condition dated back to the German bombing campaigns during the city’s siege, the infamous “900 days” (1941–1944). Thirty-four years later, the regime had still not been able to repair all the destruction caused by what was frequently referred to simply as “the Fascist invader,” a term which we lucky Americans took as a kind of catchall excuse for the country’s continuing state of under-development.

Certainly the apocalypse of the largest invasion force in the history of warfare, along an 1,800-mile front, still haunted every Russian of age in those years, especially the older Leningraders who survived.

We drove out to the Piskarevskoye Memorial Complex a few miles from the center of the city. Standing amid the long grassy bunkers — 186 of them, each a mass grave with a large headstone at one end marked simply with a year — the visitor attempts to imagine how a half-million Leningraders came to be buried in this park. At one end of the cemetery, an eternal flame burns, while at the other a monumental statue of Mother Motherland (“Rodina-Mat’”).

Creating an even more somber atmosphere for visitors, the music of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony (the “Leningrad”) — championed by Stalin himself — plays dirge-like over the cemetery’s loudspeakers.

For the three-year duration of the siege, starvation was the main killer, with the worst period that of January through March 1942, when around 100,000 died each month until the streets became littered with bodies, while the living dealt with thirty-below temperatures without heat or light. After the blockade ended, the sheer quantity of corpses overwhelmed the physical abilities of the Russian soldiers assigned the task of digging the graves and they soon resorted to dynamiting open the earth in order to complete the task.

Strolling around the city, we encountered by design lots of everyday, non-official Russians, surprising them both because we were Americans and because at least a few of us could speak their language.

Four young Russian bloods, one wearing, improbably enough, a Smith College centennial T-shirt reading “A Century of Women On Top.”

One studious-looking chap, overhearing us speak English, attempted to interest us in his manuscript proving that all of modern science was predicted in Shakespeare’s sonnets. Another fellow — with a touch of desperation in his voice — felt sure we must know a way to connect him with NBC News, where he seemed quite sure the late broadcaster Martin Agronsky would be eager to hear his story, whatever exactly it was.

We also learned of another characteristic which immediately communicated our (probably) American status more than any other: our shoes. They were the object of frequent glances in an economy of very limited styles in clothing generally.

More broadly, to many Russians, we Americans represented a kind of pipeline to the wealth and freedom of the West, a way to evade the regime’s tight control over their contact with foreigners. Putting it another way, the presence of an American might mean anything from a source for a pair of top-quality jeans (enormously in demand) to a possible clandestine courier of messages, documents, even samizdat materials to the world outside the Soyuz.

A number of us were carrying cameras, a technology which had a very different meaning to our Soviet hosts. The consumer use of photography in the U.S. has always been associated with personal or hobbyist enjoyment. Smiling for the camera — even for a professional or government photo — came as naturally as standing to sing the national anthem at a ball game.

This traffic policeman (called a “GAI”) has almost certainly spotted our distinctively Western clothing, including our shoes, and (most importantly) the fact that we are taking pictures of him.

By contrast, we occasionally saw large signs outside a factory with photos of outstanding “hero” workers, almost all of them blinking warily or scowling, as though imagining how their images might end up in the wrong file folder someday, with dire consequences.

An exception to my generalization about Russian reactions to being photographed, this iconic kitchen table scene with a happily bemused family.

Our shopping excursions to the city’s big stores were always fascinating and included places like Dom Knigi (“the House of Books”), where we learned that books, stationery and (strangely) toilet paper were sold. The logic, from a central-planning perspective, is impeccable: all paper goods should be sold through the same outlets.

After we passed the tenth or eleventh Lenin statue — usually with outstretched hand as though emphasizing some point — we invented a caption contest for Vladimir. The winner (from the old John Belushi/SNL skit): “Cheezborger!”

In the same vein, our visit to the local branch of the Soviet bank in search of ruble coins was unsuccessful: apologies, the teller informed us to our utter exasperation, the bank had none. (What were we thinking?)

The Lower Depths (Moscow and Environs)

July 8

From neoclassical Leningrad to the medieval city of Novgorod — a shrine of historic Russian architecture behind its red brick Kremlin walls — is a bit over three hours’ drive. The same Fascist invader had destroyed practically every building in the city in 1941. Nevertheless we found the central area, including the onion-domed St. Sophia Cathedral, largely and beautifully restored.

In this city of over fifty churches, we happened upon one of the few remaining Museums of Atheism, a kind of throwback to the 1930s, before Stalin realized that winning the Great Patriotic War (as World War II is referred to in Russia) would require concessions to religion and religious practice generally. The museum was slightly delapidated, with its displays of crude and faded cartoons attacking avaricious priests as parasites on the people, and so on. With an entrance sign proclaiming “the Truth about Religion,” it seemed even by then a dated curiosity, more so today, given the resurgence of religion in Russia.

We pushed on toward Moscow, across a landscape alternately green and dusty but entirely devoid of outdoor advertising, save for the occasional exhortation to communistic solidarity. Perhaps the oddest such billboard was the anti-smoking sign on which quotations from notable Russians authors such as Chekhov (a quote from his one-act play “On the Harmful Effects of Tobacco”), Tolstoy, and Mayakovsky. I tried to imagine a similar billboard appearing in the U.S., complete with quotes from (say) Melville, Jack London, and…E.E. Cummings. Highly unlikely.

Vending machines of voda (seltzer water) — plain or favored — for a few kopecks. Each vending machine had a single glass which customers spritzed upside down first before dropping in their coins. (We tried not to think about it.)

As we approached what must have been the outskirts of Moscow, there were no suburbs, no notable developments other than small collections of wooden houses, scarcely a transition zone from rural to urban. Even at the edge of the city, everywhere things looked overgrown, probably because economic conditions did not allow for large-scale control of weeds or other vegetation.

Then, quite suddenly, the traveler approached an enormous city limits sign, the letters MOSKVA (Moscow) looming up perhaps thirty feet high in a kind of splendid isolation. Again, no billboards, no neon signs, no elaborate traffic circles as we entered the metropolitan area.

Moscow traffic in the late 1970s: mostly trucks, the ugly sedans made by ZiL or Volga, and military vehicles. Except when there was no traffic at all.

It’s time I mentioned one of Lipson’s favorite topics, the omnipresent public cafeterias called stolovaya. His memo instructed us: “The food is plain, filling, inexpensive, and very typically Russian.” A “sumptuous” meal — consisting of appetizer (salad, fish, eggs), first course (soup: shchi or borshch), second course (entree, especially the notorious kotlyet — some kind of mysterious chopped meat), drink (chai or white coffee), and side dish (kasha, rice, potatoes) — cost roughly 1 to 1 1/2 rubles (at this time, just under one dollar US).

We discovered there were stolovaya which specialized in blini (pancakes of various kinds), wonton, dairy products, pirogi dumplings, sausages, and shashlik (shishkebob).

The customer paid either at the end of the serving line or (most confusingly for the non-Russian speakers) at the very beginning. In the latter case, the cashier rang up and printed out little receipts for every item which you handed over to the serving staff as you picked up your food.

I recall these places as often being located below ground level, just off the city street. The black bread was the tastiest, freshest thing on the menu, whereas the vegetables were usually forlorn, the fruit non-existent, and the meat a test of one’s nerves.

More memorable were the faces of the everyday Russians we encountered in these dank, crowded corners of the cities — craggy-faced, soulful-looking Pasternakian faces, as well as Georgian, Armenian, Korean, Mongolian profiles (especially in Moscow’s more international mix). This is what Lipson wanted us to see and experience for ourselves.

By contrast we found ourselves with tickets one evening to the Moscow State Opera, a very good production of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov held in the State Kremlin Palace. Happy to finally dress up in something other than our jeans and sandals, we joined an elegant, prosperous-looking crowd in tuxes and ball gowns very unlike any we had seen elsewhere in the country. These were the nomenklatura, the Soviet ruling class, an audience with the same veneer of glamour as one might find at the Met or Covent Garden.

Lenin was supposedly embalmed with a special secret substance taken from Egyptian secrets. The process was popularly thought to make him “incorruptible”, as some Catholic saints are thought to be.

According to one Soviet-era children’s book, “As everyone knows, the whole world begins at the Kremlin.” That is, the ideological center of world communism since 1917 was of course the Kremlin, and especially the Mausoleum, where more than 12,000 people passed through daily to view the remains of the great leader. Lenin’s three-day funeral in 1924 inspired such hysterics among the people, I later read, that a separate area with hospital beds had to be set up.

In 1978, visitors were only allowed a minute and a half in the vault, with photographs categorically forbidden. In fact, even by that date no photo of the interior, the sarcophagus or Lenin’s body was known to exist (!).

The Mausoleum — designed with elements of the Step Pyramid, the Tomb of Cyrus the Great and even the Mayan Temple of the Inscriptions — stands in the center of a small cemetery previously called “the revolutionary necropolis,” on either side of which (within the Kremlin walls) are buried Stalin, Kalinin, Dzerzhinsky, and Brezhnev, along with notable military leaders, cosmonauts and scientists.

President Boris Yeltsin, with the support of the Russian Orthodox Church, intended to close the tomb and bury Lenin next to his mother in St. Petersburg but his successor, Vladimir Putin, opposed to the move as implying that generations of citizens had observed false values during Soviet times.

(A website poll sponsored by the United Russia party in 2011 asked whether Lenin’s body should be buried, with 70% of the votes in favor of burial.)

It was at the official campsite outside Moscow we realized Lipson’s memos somehow overlooked to mention the loudspeakers installed around these places. We were often treated to tidbits of Komsomol propaganda during the day and raucous wakeup music about 7 AM.

Just after our Moscow stop, we had a special treat, courtesy of Intourist: a visit to a Pioneer youth camp, where young Russians participated in a version of scouting activities with a bit of historical materialism thrown in. Because of Lipson’s problems with the regime, he had apparently attempted to disguise his agency’s identity by telling Intourist that we were actually a group of tourists from the U.K. Thus the campground entrance featured a large sign reading “Welcome the British Delegation!”

Our day trip to the Pioneer camp included a stage show with serenading by our young hosts, with one song a kind of plea to the West to give up the idea of creating a neutron bomb, a weapon much in the news that summer.

As we made our way across the western portion of the country, a variety of strange incidents occurred. We were once attempting to reach our evening’s campsite and became a bit lost, partly due to some very foggy conditions on the road. Entering a large roundabout amidst the gloom, we suddenly realized our van was completely surrounded by Soviet tanks covered with large tarps for some odd reason. As we knew there were rules about getting too near anything military, we attempted to drive away from the tanks as quickly as possible, lest we all be arrested for espionage on the spot. Luckily, nothing came of this foggy encounter.

Another archetypal Soviet moment: In one small town, we filled our vans with gas (benzin in Russian) and managed to drive a few miles outside the city limits before all four vans coughed to a halt, next to a meadow with a tranquil stream. The gas we purchased was apparently only 76 octane, suitable for Russian trucks (and possibly American lawnmowers, we guessed). Everyone clambered out the vans and stood around until a small car containing the local mayor and one other official (the commissar for fuel?) pulled up. (These little mishaps, we recalled Lipson predicting confidently, were just the kinds of things that might happen on our tour.)

Babushkas at a roadside stand. Russians have always had “victory gardens”, during wartime and otherwise — a fact which enabled many of them to survive not only the Second World War but the wholesale economic collapse of the 1990s.

After a comic opera scene with our few Russian speakers and the local dignitaries conferring among themselves for quite some time, we then heard a sound from across the meadow. At that moment a group of Russian cows decided to cross the stream together. All conversation stopped as the entire group turned and observed the animals with fascination for several minutes, as though this was the reason we had convened at the spot. Once the cows had crossed, we turned back to the small emergency at hand. Sometime later, a truck finally arrived from town with large cans of the higher octane fuel and we somehow got back on the road, with the mayor leading the way in his little black Lada sedan for a few miles, our proud official escort.

Kvas is a kind of beer made out of fermented bread, mildly alcoholic, and sold along the roadside. Setting aside our American attachment to public hygiene, we noticed that the kvas trucks seemed to have only one or two glasses from which to drink. The Russians appeared to be quite inured to this system.

Another bizarre episode. We awakened one warm summer morning at the campsite to discover that the windshields on two of our VW camper vans had cracked to bits from some unknown cause. (A change in temperature from the hot morning sun?) Whatever the case, we were forced to drive the vans into Kiev to what we discovered was a special garage, usually reserved for military vehicles only and generally off-limits to foreigners or ordinary citizens. Worse, the streets of the city were muddy from a morning shower, so that my stint behind the wheel meant enduring sheets of muddy water splashing into my eyes and mouth through the open windshield area.

Hours later, the Russian mechanics — wholly unequipped to service a Western vehicle of any kind — somehow fabricated and bolted on a curved piece of cheap plexiglass to serve as a windshield and we resumed our trip, now trying to navigate the road through a kind of funhouse mirror.

Every Family Touched (Kiev, Gori, Sochi)

July 20

Crossing the vast breadbasket plains of the Ukraine, we found ourselves at one point passing through enormous fields of sunflowers on both sides of our vans. When we eventually stopped to buy a cold roadside glass of kvass, our German companion Klaus could no longer restrain himself from informing us that this was the second time he had seen these yellow landscapes.

His first occasion was in the summer of 1943, as a teenager riding a motorcycle in a motorized division caught up in the apocalyptic Battle of Kursk, considered the pivotal battle on the Eastern Front and the largest tank battle in world history. The Germans managed to amass nearly 800,000 men, 3,000 tanks, 10,000 guns and mortars, and 2,000 aircraft. Unfortunately, they met 1.9 million Soviet soldiers, 5,000 tanks, 25,000 guns and mortars and more than 3,000 aircraft.

A field of sunflowers outside Kursk.

Klaus explained that his armored group was slowly breaking down at the time of the battle, running short on everything, down to the engine oil for the motorcycles and other vehicles. Finally, he and his fellow soldiers were reduced to harvesting armfuls of sunflowers and then attempting to grind down the seeds into something that would work in their engines. He had also told us he spent five years after the war as a POW in Vienna but didn’t offer many other details.

An aside here to insert the text of a dialogue poem by Russian Jewish poet Pavel Antokolsky, written in 1942 after the death of his 18-year old son. Even in translation, it somehow manages to spark beauty within a mood entirely bereft of all hope. In case my descriptions of this country filled with cemeteries and memorials lack sufficient pathos, here is surely one of the saddest poems (recited by Sir Laurence Olivier in the remarkable BBC series World at War) ever written:

Do Not Call Me, Father
Anonymous, Soviet Union, 1942

(Son to father…)

Do not call me, father. Do not seek me.
Do not call me. Do not wish me back.
We’re on a route uncharted, fire and blood erase our track.
On we fly on wings of thunder, never more to sheath our swords.
All of us in battle fallen — not to be brought back by words.

Will there be a rendezvous? I know not. I only know we still must fight.
We are sand grains in infinity, never to meet, nevermore to see light.

(Father to son…)

Farewell then my son. Farewell then my conscience.
Farewell my youth, my solace, my one-and-only.

Let this farewell be the end of a story
Of solitude past which now is more lonely.
In which you remained barred forever from light,
From air, with your death pains untold.
Untold and unsoothed, never to be resurrected.
Forever and ever an 18 year old.

Farewell then.
No trains ever come from those regions,
Unscheduled and scheduled.
No aeroplanes fly there.

Farewell then my son,
For no miracles happen, as in this world
Dreams do not come true.

I will dream of you still as a baby,
Treading the earth with little strong toes,
The earth where already so many lie buried.

This song to my son, then, is come to its close.

I remember Kiev as an ancient and pleasant place, full of greenery and parks, described by Lipson as having “a dumpy and thoroughly homey” atmosphere, despite having a population of 1.5 million at this time. Set high above the Dnieper River, the city was the ancient capital of the first Russian state, ideally located for East-West trade, just where the forest meets the steppe.

The traveler can take a winding and picturesque descent down Kreshchatik Avenue, Kiev’s main boulevard, past the city’s great public square, the Maidan (of later fame in the 2014 uprising), and along the embankment to the river and its beach (another good spot to meet everyday Russians, Lipson advised). I recall a good breakfast of bliny at the “Dinamo” restaurant, a look at the striking chartreuse-colored university, and then a stroll through the narrow cobblestone streets of the Podol, the old merchants’ neighborhood.

As we walked past tiny wooden houses with crumbling 19th-century facades on both sides, we came to the old synagogue, closed and looking dilapidated. Leaning as always on my companion Ray’s language skills, I learned it was only open on certain holy days.

The sign — in both Russian and Hebrew — next to the front entrance of a Kiev synagogue in the old quarter described the place as a “religious museum”, a typical state euphemism of the time.
My friend Ray happened to meet a young Jewish woman in a park and chatted with her in Russian. Even knowing a good deal about the situation of Jews at this time in the U.S.S.R., he reported being struck by how little she knew of Judaism.

I don’t recall much about our visit to the Pechersk Lavra, the ancient Orthodox monastery with its own catacombs. We were led through caves in which the monks once lived in small cells, though they have not done so for several centuries. No one informed us that the eerie figures curled up inside the cells were actually mannequins, so that I went away quite unnerved by the idea that we had just been shown the human remains of these ancient holy men.

Given his émigré family background, Ray was also aware of another, more important local site of Jewish history. The invading forces of Nazi Germany reached the Ukraine in June 1941 and occupied Kiev three months later. On September 29, German commanders ordered all Kievan Jews to meet at 8 AM on Dehtyarivska Street, near a train station which people naively assumed would be used for their deportation. The Germans apparently expected a few thousand to appear that morning. Almost the entire Jewish community complied, doubtless thinking they were being allowed to escape.

Rather than putting anyone on a train, the Germans loaded the crowds onto trucks and drove them to a large ravine outside the city called Babi Yar. Approaching the place, the procession was funneled between rows of soldiers — including Ukrainian collaborators — and forced to strip themselves of possessions and then clothing before finally being massacred en masse by machine guns.

Over a two-day period, 32,000 Jews were murdered at Babi Yar, possibly the largest such shooting incident in Holocaust history. Another 70,000 Ukrainians, Poles, Gypsies and others were also executed. All the bodies were burned afterwards. The few escapees later testified at the Nuremberg Trials.

The Babi Yar monument. For decades the Soviets denied the sui generis nature of the Holocaust, using the phrase “peaceful Soviet citizens” to refer to the murdered Jews. Only on the 50th anniversary of the massacres in 1991 was the identity of the 30,000 Jewish victims recorded on the Babi Yar monument by the newly independent Ukrainian government.

Returning to the city center, we attempted a look inside St. Sophia, the great monument of 11th-century Byzantine architecture, where a wedding was in progress. The scene was crowded, with the priest chanting, choir singing, everyone milling about. Just outside the entrance, elderly women were selling candles and shiny new icons.

We also visited a peculiar institution called a “wedding palace,” a state-run place for hosting secular weddings, albeit in a somewhat assembly line fashion and with a whiff of being part of some nationalistic endeavor.

We drove on to the city of Pyatiagorsk, at which we visited another in that category of standard Russian tourist attractions: the Museum Home of the Famous Author. In this case, that of the 19th-century novelist Lermontov.

We briefly explored a cave mentioned in the latter’s A Hero of Our Time, following a low tunnel into a grotto with sulfurous mineral baths, at which the local guide gave us much hocus-pocus about the water’s restorative powers and suchlike.

At this date (1978), the only outdoor advertising was often ‘30’s-style socialist-realist murals or mosaics. We spotted a large mural featuring a healthy female comrade lifting a fresh loaf of baked bread amidst an admiring family. The ad’s sponsor, of course, was the Soviet government and its point was possibly nothing more than to remind Russian citizens — especially older folk with memories of the catastrophic war years — that today we are all able to eat in this country.

A billboard with the visage of V. Lenin and the phrase “Our goal — communism!

My diary indicates we stayed at an Intourist hotel for one night, and notes its “typically queasy atmosphere,” “guys in suits that look to be made out of wallpaper,” etc. We adopted one of these characters — Sasha — who followed us around local bars until he connected with a strange woman wearing dark glasses and they two disappeared suddenly into the Pyatiagorskian night.

July 28

Once during our summer travels I had the sensation that I might be near death. It was while descending in our VW microvans the famous Georgian Military Highway south through the Caucasus Mountains.

On this drive to Tblisi, we ascended and descended 6,000-foot elevations with gorges looking down between 1,000 and 2,000 feet.

This was also one of the most spectacular scenic experiences, with fresh water rills pouring down the mountainsides from snowy tops, ruins of ancient Georgian churches and fortresses popping up on either side, with occasional shepherds and goat herds. I noted what I thought was the Iranian appearance of most Georgians as well as the road signs in both the Russian and Georgian languages.

The “highway” turned at times into a horrendous stretch of dirt and rocks, winding switchbacks, with occasional stops to watch bulldozers push freshly-dynamited boulders out of the roadway.

My fears were not so much about running into a boulder as finding myself haplessly watching from a back seat as one of my fellow travelers — several of whom were very inexpert drivers — sent us flying off into a deep ravine.

My notes on Tblisi are sketchy, possibly because we were so caught up with the Mediterranean atmosphere of the place. Wonderful Georgian food, including the first fresh fruit and vegetables we’d seen in some weeks, and clay pots full of local wine belonging to the oldest wine-growing culture in the world. The cuisine was a unique mix of other Caucasian, Eastern European and Middle Eastern influences, many of them arriving via the famous Silk Route which passed through to the south.

We took a dizzying ride on those peculiar devices known as funicular railways up to Tblisi’s amusement park, from which we had a view across the city below. Descending later, we stopped in a stolovaya to eat, where a poor sickly girl selling crosses approached us. We couldn’t decide whether she looked more tubercular or alcoholic.

August 2

I think it was on the beach near our campsite at Adler that we encountered the Man Who Saw Lenin. Flavir, an older man born in Philadelphia, as he told us. He came to the U.S.S.R. at age 7 in 1923 with his parents, members of a “Red Dawn” commune who brought with them farm equipment and an enthusiasm for the revolution. He told us that, although he was quite young, “I saw Lenin,” when the great man came to speak at the commune and thank them for their good work.

Flavir became an engineer of some kind and during the war wound up living near the Black Sea, at a time when that entire area was a dangerous swamp of malaria. His English was pretty fair, possibly with a lingering Philadelphia accent.

We spent a night in Sochi, a little resort town which looked like the setting for a Chekhov story. Palm and eucalyptus trees along a 19th-century boardwalk, ice cream stands, a botanical garden. The little local museum featured photos of area folk who claim to be over 120 or more years of age. (The latter are apparently subjects being studied by a nearby gerontological institute.)

A very uncommercial scene here for a resort — no blare of noise, no condominiums, etc. To complete the antique atmosphere, a woman was operating an old-fashioned wooden “Chinese” peepbox show along the boardwalk — fifteen kopecks to set yourself beside the ornate “ivory” pagoda and look through the eyepiece at seventy-year old postcards of the Eifel Tower, London Bridge, Broadway.

Signs in three languages: Abkhazian, Georgian, Russian.

Unluckily I missed out on one of the more interesting adventures about this time. A small group from our tour ran into some young Gypsy guys and agreed to attend a party there at which everybody would agree to exchange “gifts” (i.e., black market items our new friends very much wanted to acquire). The police spotted our camper van and broke up the party, but not before ordering everyone to return all gifts. I heard the details from another traveler. I wrote at the time: “First truly obnoxious incident with the authorities. If all our petty infractions are being collected [by the Soviet police], the exit at the border may be a great mess.”

Another campsite story, again an encounter with ordinary Russians which a more luxurious tour would not have afforded. Jim and I came upon an elderly couple eating a simple lunch. They said they were both working in Siberia and had lived in Leningrad during the war years. The man and his wife were both sweet-natured but had vision problems. They explained they thought the shortage of fresh fruits and vegetables during the war probably had something to do with their loss of sight.

We drank without comment several glasses of the hideous wine they had to share. Somehow we got the conversation around to their opinions of Stalin, whom the husband referred to as “the diktator,” a word with perhaps less

August 7

Stalin Museum in Gori

I remember being startled at the very idea of a museum devoted to the memory of Josef Stalin. Yet as we drove across Georgia, I noticed truck drivers would sometimes place a small picture of the late leader on the dashboard of their vehicles. Much of this feeling had to do with his role as generalissimo during the war, of course, as well as Georgian patriotism.

Arriving in the small dusty town of Gori, we quickly found the museum, at the time a kind of two-story shell overhanging the original wooden home. It had been open to the public since 1957. There was a small crowd of fellow tourists, mostly Russians.

The great leader’s simple wooden home, ensheathed in a larger stone structure. Photos on the Georgian/English website for the Stalin Museum today show a much upgraded design and new rooms of exhibits. One other innovation since our visit: “Separate room of the museum is devoted to the period of repressions. It’s existed since 2010.”

Admission was free. We entered a marble hallway facing red-carpeted stairs, at the top of which a white marble statue, slightly larger than life, looked down imposingly.

The main hall was in Renaissance style, with virtually no signage, no gift shop other than a lone postcard booth.

I asked a friend for a quick translation of the gold-letter text on the wall hanging behind the marble figure. It was something to the effect of “I consider myself Lenin’s only pupil — and his best one.”

The museum’s historical displays at this time made use of numerous old photos, a few seemingly sanitized by pre-Photoshop efforts — you get Trotsky or Bukharin replaced by a palm tree, etc. (This penchant for revisionism is behind the ironic Russian saying, “Our history is unpredictable.”)

I recall another room full of exotic and oddball gifts from around the U.S.S.R., the kind of thing you see in many U.S. presidential libraries — the great man’s face made out of chocolate or tiny colored seashells, that kind of thing.

After a short time, I finally realized that part of the museum’s slightly sinister aura was the red neon lighting, as well as the air of embarrassed silence about the place. (No guides or docents around to answer any questions.)

Down the hall from the bathrooms, we noticed an unmarked door which of course beckoned to us. Peering inside, we saw hundreds of busts and statuettes of Stalin, perhaps quietly collected during the period of “de-Stalinization” following Nikita Khrushchev’s 1956 denunciation.

(For additional comments on Stalin, see Appendix.)

August 10

On this date, my travel diary informs me, we reached Odessa, the beautiful warm-water port and a dizzying farrago of languages and ethnicities, notably Yiddish and Ukrainian. With a civic architecture more French and Italianate than Russian, the city seemed half-European, as though hinting we were nearing the West and close to the end of our tour.

The Potemkin steps, made famous in Eisenstein’s classic film, Battle Ship Potemkin (1925), in which the horror of tsarist soldiers gunning down civilians is epitomized in a long shot of a baby carriage careening down the steps before the eyes of a terrified mother.

Our increasing proximity to consumer comforts after ten weeks of camping, proletarian food, and nary a hot shower must have put us all out of sorts. From my notes: “Group so eager to go home we angered our city guide today. She huffed and puffed about our lack of attention as she lectured about the ‘sacred’ battle obelisk with its guard of young Pioneers, etc.”

Our visit to the sumptuous Odessa Opera House, where Chaliapin and Caruso had once sung, cheered us up again. We caught a very good production of Stravinsky’s Firebird ballet (1919) before going aboard an excursion boat that shuttled between several points, including our campsite and the city’s downtown. A ticket was thirty kopecks and included a nice swing out into the Black Sea amidst big ships from India, Korea and elsewhere.

Back at the campsite, I made this entry: “A party with pepper vodka, American spam, rolls and Soviet chocolate cake. Someone with a clandestine radio tuned to the BBC World Service informs us that Pope John I has died.”

What We See in the Mirror

The Cold War — now re-igniting in a new form — was a distorting mirror in which we imagined we could see adversaries worthy of the worst. Peasant farmers, small-town labor leaders, Catholic nuns working for justice, left intellectuals and artists: we were sure they all deserved persecution, prison, torture, disappearance, death squads in order to keep the world safe.

Forty years on from the events of 1989, we can now see clearly the ideological veil — our notions of communism, primarily — through which so many Americans of a certain age viewed the Soviet Union for many decades. The U.S.S.R., the Cold War hawks used to argue, was “not a normal country.” That is, it was an exception in the world community and should be treated as such. (What is normal, we might ask, about being a superpower in the first place?)

Not surprisingly then, we Americans likewise found new ways to feel exceptional. Indeed the collapse of the Soviet system in 1991 inspired some observers to project an American and Western triumphalism — “the arsenal of democracy won” — which persists to this day. (Astute Russia-watcher George F. Kennan described George H.W. Bush’s comment in 1992 that we Americans had won the Cold War as “silly,” since the conflict had ended by mutual agreement. Nonetheless, we think one lesson to take away is: “war works.”)

Worse, the U.S. treated post-collapse Russia not as an equal but as a defeated nation, like Germany or Japan after World War II. Putin’s Russia has not forgotten all these events.

Unfortunately for our ideas of exceptionalism, the national election of 2016 has given rise to new doubts about the future of our country’s graced existence when dictatorship and climate catastrophe — two things which we thought “can’t happen here” — suddenly loom before us.

History, Henry Ford is supposed to have grumbled, is just one damn thing after another, not at all an edifying or educational experience. We Atlantic Alliance countries, having watched one utopian vision (born in 1917) turn deadly, chose to embrace a second such vision (born in the 1970s), namely the neoliberal consensus instigated by the Reagan/Thatcher administrations.

The latter world system, with its lethal mix of austerity, deregulation and libertarianism, is in fact more revolutionary than anything Lenin ever dreamed of. It is the power of the world-ravaging bourgeois system Marx described but now on digital steroids. It is an economy which (as Pope Francis put it), “kills” — not only vulnerable groups (the poor, climate and political refugees, a growing list of species) but (as we are witnessing) even democracy itself.

Happily, my interest in Russian life and culture has led me to discover writers who found ways to live and remain human in the darkest of times, like divers who have descended too deep and must try to breath under tremendous pressures. Among several names, I would mention the poet Osip Mandelstam (a victim of Stalin’s gulag) and his remarkable wife Nadezhda, in whose memoirs (Hope Against Hope) we find the following:

A man possessed of inner freedom, memory, and a sense of fear is the blade of grass or wood chip that can alter the course of the swift-flowing stream…The whole of European culture was based on awareness of this power, whose source is the Christian teaching on the intrinsic worth of each individual personality.

Living, as did millions, in fear of arrest by Stalin’s police at any moment, Mandelstam was a witness to the power of the word and its life-giving properties. For lovers of the word, we must remember these voices and their message.

Appendix: How to Understand Russia Today

For the neophyte, and as a kind of rough guide to the larger themes and events of modern Russian/Soviet history, I offer the following verbal snapshots.


Part of our American difficulty in understanding socialism has to do with our trouble understanding (or remembering) what society — that vanishing third space of civic associations which are neither the market or the state — means.

Contrary to what you might hear on the car radio these days, socialism’s origins (from Gerrard Winstanley through Charles Fourier, for example) contain both libertarian and Christian elements and did not include compulsion of any kind by the state: it was the alternative to the state. (As they say, you can look this up.)

Perhaps the one benefit of our shallow sense of history today is that we’re free to re-invent the definition of this word: few people seem to recall its historical meaning.

Karl Marx (1818–1883)

His work is often said to be brilliant in its diagnostic power but lacking in its prescriptions. Certainly Marx’s paean to the raw world-altering power of capitalism and the dark accomplishments of the bourgeois class (in the Communist Manifesto) lays a kind of groundwork for his prescient but flawed view of development — both in a human and in an economic sense.

It is these same narrowly growth-driven ideas, as we’ve come to understand, which have also given the world a mania for change by which “all that is solid melts into air,” in Marx’s famous formulation. In terms of its impact on traditional ways of living, the bourgeoisie is revealed in this document to be the most violently destructive ruling class in history. This characteristic explains how (in Marx’s view) it will inevitably create the conditions of the coming class war in post-Tsarist Russia.

It is the smallholder peasantry, tragically, which Marx derides as reactionary, backward, poverty-mired, “primitive and irrational” — views which are not far from those of some neoliberal planners today. Indeed, he celebrated the capitalist enclosures of the commons, as well as the consolidation of free smallholdings into massive monocultural cereal and cash-crop plantations. Measures to force peasants off the land into the cities where they could become wage laborers and part of the new urban proletariat were needed, on Marx’s view, until there would be no more peasants, only large-scale capitalistic farmers. (Lenin certainly concurred in this idea.) This was a necessary stage on the path Marx saw leading toward the ultimate goal of a future communism.

From these foundations (along with methodological borrowings from various capitalist titans such as Henry Ford), the modern history of Russia — in Soviet times and after — is a narrative of large-scale destruction, falling upon civil society, the built environment, the natural environment, and indeed the lives of millions of innocent citizens.

Vladimir Lenin (1870–1924)

The founder of the U.S.S.R. is often remembered as having ordered the gruesome execution of Tsar Nicholas II, Tsarina Alexandra, and their five children in July 1918. Less familiar but equally significant is the order from Lenin’s new Soviet government a few weeks later creating the first compulsory work camps — the beginnings of the infamous gulag system.

While Lenin can justly be viewed as a centralizing revisionist in his Marxism, not all his views were heterodox.

As a conventional Marxist, he believed that the vestiges of traditional economies everywhere were naturally dissolving as a result of market forces. Like Adam Smith, moreover, Lenin viewed capitalism as simply a stage on the way to an industrial economy in which the peasant class would inevitably be transformed into a new urban proletariat. That this transformation would require a struggle — sometimes violent — against the self-provisioning of rural people did not trouble either of these founding figures. (On this latter point, see Michael Perelman’s Invention of Capitalism.)

Thus Lenin strongly opposed the agrarian socialism of the Narodniks. His views may have partly owed to his brother’s hanging in 1887 for his participation in a Narodnik plot to assassinate the Tsar. When the peasant class turned out to be relatively supportive of the 1905 revolution, however, Lenin modified his views on their role.

Nevertheless, his ideas for a revolutionary vanguard — a kind of ideological elite necessary to lead and coerce the benighted working classes — led to a totalizing system created amidst hundreds of thousands of deaths during his rule.

Joseph Stalin (1878–1953)

Stalin’s harrowing career defies description other than as (in James Billington’s phrase) “a phenomenon without precedent in human affairs.” That a single individual could so capriciously doom tens of millions to death and suffering over several decades is after all no more explicable than the Shoah.

A particular quality of the terror endured by citizens in Stalinist Russia had to do with the nature of their oppression. People were not arrested for cause, as they were in Hitler’s Germany, but often for no reason at all, as historians have later discovered.

I once read somewhere of the fate of the unfortunate actor in a play Stalin attended. The man’s performance as a spy was so convincing that the dictator later decided he should probably be arrested for espionage. (This episode would have worked well in the recent dark comedy film Death of Stalin.)

The calculated effect of living for protracted periods under such conditions of terror — usually as part of a perpetual “state of emergency” — is to atomize citizens through the corrosive impact on family, friends and social groups, even on language itself.

There is also the horror of using slave labor as an economic input to a distorted, hyper-militarized system which would likely have collapsed without it.

Soviet communism

“In the case of tens of millions killed and the lives of entire nations subverted, a catchword simply won’t do…’Communism’ was the breakdown of humanity and not a political problem. It was a human problem, a problem of our species, and thus of a lingering nature…Why don’t we simply start by admitting that an extraordinary anthropological backslide has taken place in our century?” (Joseph Brodsky)

Polish Solidarity Movement (1980–1989)

With 10 million members, it was the world’s largest union at one point, as well as being the focal point of the most successful, non-violent people’s uprising in modern history. Beginning with the first Solidarity strike at the Gdansk shipyards on August 14, 1980, the momentum built until it toppled the U.S.S.R., one of the two largest military powers in the world, in 1989. (Two other destructive factors in that collapse were the dismal Soviet war in Afghanistan throughout the 1980s and the public impact of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986.)

Regrettably, Solidarity today is an unfinished revolution, primarily because it was compromised in victory by a fratricidal battle internally and by its embrace of the false freedoms promised by Western-style corporate capitalism.

Mikhail Gorbachev (1931- )

His time in office (1985–1991) is sometimes characterized as a kind of preliminary “1905 revolution” (i.e., towards mere reform) by comparison with Boris Yeltsin’s “1917 revolution” (toward full-bore neoliberal capitalism). What Gorbachev actually had in mind with his policies of glasnost (transparency) and perestroika (restructuring) was a move toward European democratic socialism, with universal values and social democracy. In 1990, for example, his reforms created some 200,000 cooperatives, employing almost 5 million people.

Unfortunately, the democratization process unleashed in the Soviet Republics outran Gorbachev’s economic reforms. As a result, dissent destabilized the republics and pushed them toward a style of capitalistic independence which included wholesale looting of their economies, just as Western-style “free market” reforms did everywhere in Eastern Europe during this period and afterwards.

Despite all the popular democratic emotion at the time over the various “color revolutions”, the nomenklatura was simply eager for privatization — i.e., asset-stripping the great wealth shaken loose by Gorbachev’s restructuring in what was termed “a true bacchanalia of redistribution” or “grab-it-tization.”

Had Gorbachev’s proposed mixed economy not been derailed, the country might have avoided the terrible collapse of the 1990s and retained its democratic opportunity. He willingly gave up power, being averse to the use of force, even leaning toward principled non-violence. (Note that Gorbachev did not respond militarily to the fall of the Berlin Wall, fostered US/Soviet cooperation on the reunification of Germany, and even supported the war against Saddam over Kuwait.) The dashed hopes of 1991, some observed, suggested tragic parallels with those of 1917.

Boris Yeltsin (1931–2007)

Perhaps matching Gorbachev’s will to reform was Yeltsin’s will to power — and his hatred of Gorbachev. Weeks after Yeltsin’s popular election in June 1991, a tank invasion of Moscow and a military force of 5.5 million confronted a small, largely unarmed gathering around the country’s new leader in Lenin Square but the coup failed and no violence broke out.

Under a banner of “Western-style” democracy, the new regime was now free to set in motion what has been called the worst economic and social catastrophe ever suffered by a major nation in peacetime, worse than the Great Depression of the 1930s. In what has been termed Yeltsin’s neo-Bolshevik extremism, GDP dropped by 50%, two-thirds of the population were in poverty, life expectancy dropped below 59 years. In 1998, the financial system finally collapsed altogether. As elsewhere, the prescribed shock therapy ended by killing the patient outright.

(A friend who was travelling in the new Russia of these years — the terrible 1990s — recalls seeing elderly people on the subways reduced to selling their pets.)

By 1999, over 90% of Russians had become distrustful of Yeltsin and half wanted him put on trial.

Vladimir Putin (1952- )

“He who doesn’t regret the collapse of the USSR doesn’t have a heart; he who wants to see it reborn doesn’t have a brain.” (V. Putin, December 2010)

Aficionados of Russian history like to compare the Putin regime to the Romanovs of the 17th-century — sent to end a Time of Troubles. Interestingly, one key to ending the country’s recent troubles, in Putin’s view, was to give the outgoing Yeltsin immunity from prosecution.

But Putin’s government — now in its fourth presidential term — has represented much more to the Russian people than political cronyism. The eight straight years of growth during his first presidency, with GDP measured in purchasing power up 72%, were a dramatic break with the previous locust years. Once ranked as the world’s most popular politician (his domestic approval rating in 2015 was 89%), Putin has unfortunately taken Russian in a clearly autocratic direction and presided in the last decade over an economic slowdown mixed with notable corruption.

As a way of compensating for the recent collapse in the price of oil, Putin’s regime has found an alternative to expensive new weapons systems: cyberwar and disinformation. Rather like the nuclear club of nations, the cyberwar club includes most advanced countries, certainly including the U.S. as a charter member, thanks to our long history of digital black ops dating back to the Gulf War in 1990–91.


Producer and star of the largest reality show ever conceived, Donald Trump has succeeded in turning us all into cast members, not just his TV audience. That Vladimir Putin is a kind of co-producer of the show is somewhat unimportant: the destruction of the public conversation in this country is self-inflicted and almost complete. We didn’t need the Russians in order to get here.

Nor did Putin need the mercurial Trump’s cooperation to successfully plant fake news stories for American consumption with great success over the last two years. As the saying goes, they all do it.

Putin’s earlier career, it bears repeating, was with the KGB, in which 85% of the budget — a very large one — was spent on “active measures” (disinformation, forgeries, leaks), with an estimated staff of 15,000 operatives. These efforts go back to the 1980s, when stories about CIA attempts to assassinate JFK or Pope John Paul II, or the Pentagon’s supposed creation of the AIDS virus as a weapon of germ warfare surfaced after years of careful groundwork, usually in third-world media outlets.

Dezinformatsiya is the Russian term for disinformation, supposedly coined by Stalin who gave it a French-sounding name in order to suggest Western origins. The goal is to undermine official news sources and sow confusion.

The fall of the Soviet Union did not end Russia’s disinformation activities while the rise of digital infrastructure accelerated them vastly. Putin’s hope of destabilizing the Western alliance in order to level the playing field for a new Russia would have less chance of success, had Trump’s election not enabled the launch of his “fake news” campaign via cable news channels.

While Trump and Putin have different motives for disrupting democracy — the one a mafia boss protecting his business vs. the strongman rebuilding a national empire — the outcome is a new, aggrieved hyper-normality in which practically anything can be made credible.

Solidarity Hall

Reimagining American community

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