Categories
Nationalism and National Identity Nostalgia and Memory Post-Soviet Russia The Collapse of the Soviet Union

Letters to Max

Letters-to-Max

This intriguing 2014 documentary takes place in an obscure part of the former Soviet Union called Abkhazia – a tiny sub-tropical mountainous region on the coast of the Black Sea (“Letters to Max,” https://vimeo.com/89560258). This country of 242,000 residents, most of them ethnic Abkhazians who practice Eastern Orthodoxy and who speak Russian, is ostensibly a part of the post-Soviet nation of Georgia. But like many former Soviet territories, simmering ethnic tensions exploded as the Soviet Union disintegrated, turning into a brutal civil war in 1992 and 1993. The Georgian forces were defeated, leading to the expulsion of ethnic Georgians from Abkhazia and a ceasefire in 1994 enforced by a combination of United Nations and Russian peacekeepers. Abkhazia’s independence, however, has only been recognized by Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Nauru. The forces of Abkhazia periodically clash with the Georgian army as the nation-in-formation, with Russia’s help and in opposition to the United States, seeks international recognition.

abhazia map

Abkhazia’s fate provides a window into two processes. The longer-term process is the formation of modern nation-states, which invariably involves competing forces who claim to represent the “real nation” and who seek backing for their claims. The second is the backdrop of the Soviet Union’s attempts to build national communities within the confines of its vast borders. It was a project that simultaneously promoted and suppressed a bewildering array of national identities and various levels of cultural and political autonomy for hundreds of ethnic groups. The tensions and conflicts created by Soviet policies were contained only by Soviet authoritarianism and by the communist party of the Soviet Union. When both the party and the Soviet Union collapsed, unresolved national tensions, exacerbated by various land grabs by newly independent and former Soviet national republics, produced a number of frozen conflicts along the Russian Federation’s borders – in Moldova, Ukraine, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, just to name a few.

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The documentary tells the story of Abkhazia’s search for legitimacy through a diplomat named Maxim Gvinjia, whose mission since the Soviet Union’s collapse has been to establish Abkhazia’s place in the community of recognized nation-states. During the course of filming “Max” occupied various positions inside and outside Abkhazia’s Foreign Ministry, eventually becoming Foreign Minister in 2013 for a brief period. The filmmaker (“Eric”) uses the narrative device of the letter to tell his story, filming Max as he opens letters from “Eric” in Paris in which Eric asks Max a question regarding his job and life. The film consists of Max’s responses to those questions, set against the backdrop of Abkhazia and Max’s daily routines.

Photo 2 Passport

Max is an amiable and interesting narrator, with the detached and wry sense of humor of a person (and people) whose experiences defy clichéd conceptions of liberation, democracy, national sovereignty, and progress. The film opens with Max wondering about Eric’s question of where exactly he is. His philosophical answer touches on one of the central dilemmas of the modern nation-state, namely, that most people’s identities and sense of self do not match the ideas about identity projected by the state that purports to embody their “will.” Max points out that there are many recognized countries, such as Somalia, Afghanistan or Yemen, which make little sense as nation-states. The way various peoples within those states self-identify rarely match state conceptions and often are violently at odds with official political visions. Max claims that Abkhazia, in contrast, is unique in the relative perception by its citizens and state leaders of a united community of interests and identity.

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Abkhazia is a beautiful country, situated in a mountainous region that hugs the Black Sea Coast. The spectacular coastline views combine with a human-built world which, like much of the former Soviet Union, is in a state of exquisite decay and dilapidation – a place frozen in a Soviet past, similar to the frozen political conflicts that provide the political and social equivalent of a landscape. For Max, the state of decay is a starting point for his own discourse on nostalgia for the Soviet period, when the Abkhazian sea city of Sukhum (known in Soviet times by the Georgian Sukhumi) was a meeting point of cultures and peoples, and also a resort town for Soviet citizens. With its harbor, Sukhum in the Soviet era was far more open to the world and various peoples than other parts of the Soviet Union. That openness contrasts with the city’s current isolation in the post-Soviet world – yet another one of the many ironies highlighted by Max in his letters and discourses on camera.

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The director is careful to ask tough questions of Max, especially regarding the fate of Georgian refugees, who are unable to return to the Abkhazia that their families for centuries called home before the war of 1992-1993. Does creating a new Abkhazia mean erasing their memory? Is the coherence of Abkhazia as a nation-state, in which the identity of its citizens seems to match ideas about identity projected by the state, a result of ethnic cleansing? Max’s very surprisingly honest and apolitical answer — perhaps one reason for his being sacked as Abkhazia’s foreign minister — is both yes but also that the fate of Georgians is part of the tragedy and irreversible change in Abkhazia as a result of the Civil War. There can be no return to the Soviet period, though Max admits he would love to do so, when ethnic harmony was supposedly far more the norm than the exception. With regard to a question regarding whether Abkhazia has escaped from Georgia only to be eaten up by Russia and become a playground for Russian Oligarchs, Max is unequivocal. Russians, says Max, are the ones willing to buy Abkhazian products, spend tourist dollars in Abkhazia, and support Abkhazian independence. Given the limited range of options for Akbhazians, and the reality of Russia’s presence, Abkhazia has no choice but to align itself closely with Putin and the Russian Federation. The Mexicans say, “It’s the same hell only with a different devil.” For the Abkhazians, aligning with Russia is not quite the same hell, and perhaps preferable to Georgia, but few Abkhazians would mistake Russian leaders and oligarchs for saviors.

Categories
Uncategorized

On Hungary, Gorbachev, Fence Demolitions, Wet Kisses, and Collapsing Empires

nemethyounger
Miklós Németh

Historians often say that at least twenty years must pass before people can begin to grasp the true significance of an event. The passage of time dampens the passions, permits a more objective view, reveals new documents, and provides some sense of the long-term impact of the event. Yet the passing of more than a quarter century since communism’s demise in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe has produced more light than heat. The documentary entitled simply “1989” provides a valuable eyewitness perspective on the collapse of communism.(http://www.budapesttelegraph.com/news/788/1989:_new_documentary_features_miklos_nemeth’s_help_bring_down_berlin_wall) It suggests the vital role of one small communist nation, Hungary, in setting into motion a chain of events that led, willy-nilly, to the dismantling of the Iron Curtain. At the center of this story – known previously but not so clearly and compellingly conveyed as it is here in this hour-long documentary — is Miklos Nemeth, the last prime minister of the communist government of Hungary. Forty years old at the time, Nemeth seemed like the perfect party scapegoat for an intractable economic crisis brought about by a severe financial crisis. Hungary had been unable to pay back Western banks for millions of dollars of loans that had replaced Soviet subsidies through the 1980s.

As with many dramatic political upheavals – including the French Revolution of 1989 — a budget crisis precipitated the chain of events that ultimately led to the collapse of the Soviet Union and its system in Eastern Europe. As a professional economist, the technocrat Nemeth seemed a logical choice to handle Hungary’s economic crisis – or at least to find a way to service that debt and avoid larger political repercussions. Western banks in the early 1980s had financed consumerism in Eastern Europe. They believed that communist governments in Eastern Europe provided an ideal customer for their loans, as the communist governments, immune to democratic political pressures, seemed likely to service the debt. The Soviets, for their part, were happy to allow Western banks to subsidize Eastern European consumerism, thereby shifting the burden of empire maintenance to the capitalist enemy (echoes here of Lenin’s dictum that the capitalists would give the Bolsheviks the rope with which they would hang the fat cats in top hats). But as with Germans banks and Greece more recently, the Western banks began demanding payment on their loans which the Eastern European nations simply could not provide; and as with Greece in 2010 the burden of servicing massive debt triggered an existential political crisis that went far beyond the economic and political fate of Hungary itself. greeceCombined with Soviet-driven reform efforts under Gorbachev, and the ensuing political instability, the economic crisis created a perfect storm that resulted, contrary to anyone’s expectations, in the dramatic end of communism in Europe – the reverse domino effect.glasnost

In Hungary, the panicked party leadership handed the mess over to the unknown Nemeth as the new Prime Minister in November 1988 – just one year before the collapse of the Berlin Wall, which it is safe to say no one, and certainly not the CIA or secret services of the Communist states, would have predicted. Few believed Nemeth could survive – the proverbial lamb fed to the lions. Desperate to trim state expenses, one of the first things that he did was to scour the budget line items for areas where he might save money. He noticed a large, mysterious and recurring expenditure. It was labeled with a secret code that he did not understand, which turned out to be for maintaining the electrical fence that kept Hungarians behind the Iron Curtain. It was badly in need of repair, as he discovered when he inquired about this line item with party bosses, and the Soviets, facing their own budget crisis, had recently refused to provide spare parts and money to maintain it. So the Hungarians had been turning to France, spending what little money the government had, which was also borrowed from Western banks, to maintain a critical part of the Iron Curtain that even the Soviets had little desire to maintain. It is a curious footnote to the history of the late Cold War: the role of Western banks in first propping up communist states in Eastern and Central Europe and then in prompting the political crisis that brought them down when the bill for loans came due.

This is a late Cold War propaganda cartoon from East Germany that mocks West German consumerism. It is unintentionally ironic at two levels. First, East Germans and other Eastern Europeans had a clear hunger for this kind of consumer society. Second, the Eastern European communist governments were accumulating massive debt from Western banks to fund an increase in the purchase of consumer goods from the West.
This is a late Cold War propaganda cartoon from East Germany that mocks West German consumerism. It is unintentionally ironic at two levels. First, East Germans and other Eastern Europeans had a clear hunger for this kind of consumer society. Second, the Eastern European communist governments were accumulating massive debt from Western banks to fund an increase in the purchase of consumer goods from the West.

As a budget saving measure, Nemeth decided to curtail this expenditure in December 1988, though actually tearing down the fence proved more problematic. Understandably, he encountered stiff resistance from the party leadership and then discovered another surprising fact that turned him against the system he was appointed to serve: the news that Hungary since the 1970s – contrary to official claims that denied nuclear bombs on its soil — had housed nuclear bombs pointed at Italy.

Little Moscow -- the secret Soviet nuclear bomb site in Hungary
Little Moscow — the secret Soviet nuclear bomb site in Hungary

Nemeth, meanwhile, traveled in March 1989 to Moscow with grave doubts and fears, given his own family experiences and trauma associated with the brutal suppression of the 1956 attempt by Hungarian reformers to gain some independence from Soviet control. His father, a farmer, had been an advocate of the revolution of 1956 crushed by the Soviets. Hungary1956-LgNemeth claims he joined the communist party in the early 1960s to try and change it from within. His father did not speak to him for six months but eventually reconciled himself to his son’s decision, telling him only that he must tell the truth to his people and to the world if he were to attain a position of power. He took that advice when he traveled to Moscow to meet Gorbachev, nervous but determined to discuss his reform plans, including holding free elections that would almost certainly result in the victory of non-communists and to remove the fence that the Hungarian treasury could no longer maintain. To his great surprise, Gorbachev greeted him with a firm handshake rather than the sloppy kiss and warm embrace typical of Brezhnev’s encounters with Eastern European counterparts. Gorbachev-shaking-hands-with-Miklós-Németh-Archive-21st-CenturyGorbachev, incidentally, preserved the practice of the lip kiss and warm embrace for more reactionary communist party bosses in Eastern Europe, suggesting that the wet kiss, in semiotic terms, signified a certain unequal power relationship between Moscow and Eastern European leaders, whereas a firm handshake, absent the kiss and hug, indicated a new kind of political relationship. the kissAt any rate, Gorbachev assuaged Nemeth’s fears, promising not to send troops and also endorsing Nemeth’s plans to take down the fence (telling Helmut Kohl later that Nemeth was a “good guy — khoroshii chelovek“). Nemeth then grasped an important dynamic of the developing political situation: he would have to rely on Moscow for support and face his stiffest resistance from old line Stalinists and Brezhnev cronies back in Prague, East Berlin, and his own capital of Budapest.

fencedown
The Austrian and Hungarian foreign ministers dismantle the border fence between their countries in the summer of 1989, thus creating the first breach in the Iron Curtain

Nemeth’s decision to open the border with Austria in May of 1989, by tearing down a 40-year old electric fence that guarded the border with Austria, soon triggered an exodus of Eastern Europeans and a refugee crisis, especially from East Germany, which was still under the control of the hardliner Erich Honecker. That refugee crisis spilled into Western Europe when the Hungarian government decided in September 1989 to allow all East German refugees to pass across the border and into Austria. How much Nemeth understood the momentous political impact of that decision remains unclear, though the East German communist party boss Erich Honecker seems to have been acutely aware of its potential effect on his own power. The West German government had promised housing and support to all East Germans. Tens of thousands accepted that offer, travelling through Hungary in their Trabants and the now open border and then making their way to West Germany to collect their Deutschemarks and free housing. trabant exodusThe exodus, involving many of East Germany’s most highly qualified professionals, who believed they had good prospects in West Germany, enraged the East German leader Honecker, as well as the remaining hard liners still in power in Bucharest, Prague, and Sofia. As in 1960, when there was a mass exodus of East Germans to West Germany in Berlin, the East German government demanded that the Soviet Union plug the hole in the Iron Curtain that was allowing the best and brightest in East Germany to leave. But unlike Khrushchev, who responded by building the Berlin Wall, Gorbachev refused to stop the mass emigration, consistent with his promise to Nemeth earlier that he would not interfere in plans to remove the electric fence between Hungary and Austria whose absence now provided an exit path for East Germans. That refusal set into motion the dramatic events that led first to Honecker’s ouster in October 1989, the collapse of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 and the disintegration of communist control in Eastern Europe shortly thereafter.

nagy's burial
The reburial of Imre Nagy

Among the other dramatic moves made by Nemeth was to exhume the body of the executed leader of the 1956 Hungarian reforms, Imre Nagy, who had been buried secretly after his execution by the Soviets. His body was exhumed and given a public ceremonial burial in Bucharest in June 1989, against the wishes and thinly veiled threats of the old party diehards. Nearly 200,000 attended the event, which Nemeth’s security people thought might result in an assignation attempt on his life (they instructed him to keep moving his head to avoid having a sniper blow a hole in his brains). The re-burial catalyzed opposition to the communist party and helped to mobilize the movement that resulted in the electoral dismantling of the communist one-party system in Hungary and eventually throughout the rest of Eastern Europe. It turned out in some ways to be the burial of the Soviet system.

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Nemeth in the documentary “1989”

The story is narrated by Nemeth and the point of view is almost his exclusively, though he comes across as honest and reflective, especially regarding his own inability at the time to understand the larger implications of his decisions. Would communism have collapsed without the specific decisions of Gorbachev and Nemeth? History is not written in the conditional tense, as they say, so it is impossible to answer that question. But the evidence from the documentary certainly suggests the critical role of individual leaders and decisions in determining the specific timing and outcome of events leading to the collapse of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. berlin_wallThose dramatic events almost always unfolded in unintended ways and to the astonishment of those, like myself as a student in Moscow in 1989, who believed that the Soviet system in Eastern Europe, whatever its clear weaknesses and problems, would last for a very, very long time.

As a prologue to this story, Hungary in 2015 began constructing a fence along its border with Croatia and Serbia to handle another refugee crisis — this time one involving Syrians trying to get into the EU.

The 2015 Hungarian fence on the border with Croatia and Serbia. Fences, apparently, make the best neighbors
The 2015 Hungarian fence on the border with Croatia and Serbia. Fences, apparently, make the best neighbors

The documentary’s celebration of barrier demolitions should be placed into the context of this new border fence. Fence and wall builders once again have seized power — in Hungary as in Israel and all along the US-Mexico border. Perhaps some may say it is inappropriate to make such connections between Cold War walls and present ones erected by the supposed winners in the Cold War, but one thing is clear: the era of fence and wall demolition seems to have been very brief, a mere quarter of a century. The brevity of the fence-dismantling era reinforces the point made in the beginning of this post — that the true significance of an event only becomes apparent with deep hindsight.

The Israeli West Bank Border Fence
The Israeli West Bank Border Fence
The US-Mexico border near Tijuana
The US-Mexico border near Tijuana
Categories
Soviet Afghanistan War Soviet Era 1917-1991 Terrorism Transnational History

1979, the End of the Cold War, and the Law of Unintended Consequences

_images_afghan-rugs-5Nineteen seventy nine was a pivotal year in twentieth-century history – as momentous, perhaps, as 1945 and the defeat of the Axis powers in World War II. The Soviets invaded Afghanistan; Iranian revolutionaries seized American hostages in Tehran and overthrew the Shah; Islamic fundamentalists attempted to seize Mecca; and enraged crowds of Pakistanis, goaded on by Islamic extremists, attacked the US embassy in Pakistan. With the benefit of hindsight it is clear that these events signaled a radical break from the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States. The world had changed, and a new kind of war had emerged; yet the United States and the Soviet Union continued to fight proxy wars against each other, blinded by their own ideological obsessions and incapable of discerning the new common enemy of Islamic fundamentalism.

Fyodor2650

A captivating and timely film tells the story of the ten-year Soviet war against Afghanistan (Afghanistan 1979: The War that Changed the World: http://icarusfilms.com/new2015/afg.html). The war triggered an ever-increasing cycle of violence. Fueled by American and Soviet weaponry – which armed future enemies of both the United States and Russia – Afghanistan became a failed state, creating a power vacuum filled by terrorist movements of various sorts and spreading like a cancer throughout the region. Over a decade more than one million Afghanis died – mostly civilians – and millions more became refugees. At least 15,000 Soviet soldiers fell in battle, and the aura of the Red Army’s invincibility, which had been so crucial to Soviet power and prestige around the world, was shattered.

graveyard

Curiously, despite its enduring and tragic significance, few historians or political scientists have studied the war in depth: the reasons for the Soviet invasion, the conduct of the war, the relationship of the failed war to the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union, and the role of the war in creating the world in which we now live. The primary piece of documentary evidence for the decision to invade comes from a single hand-written page from the Soviet Politburo leadership. The document does not even mention Afghanistan, referring to it as simply country “A,” and it provides little insight into the Soviet decision to send in troops. It is as if Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet leader at the time, was a kind of Mafia Don, and his fellow Politburo members and generals his mob family bosses. Through various winks and nods – but with nothing concrete or coherent presented as an explanation – Brezhnev let it be known that it was time to do a “hit” on the increasingly annoying and irksome Soviet clients. By comparison there has been far more research and analysis of the war with which the Soviet invasion is often compared –the American Vietnam War – though arguably the Afghan war has had a much greater impact on the course of world history.

stinger

Whatever the exact reasons for the invasion, Afghanistan was certainly considered a strategic prize, both for the Soviet Union and earlier for the Russian Empire, when the region became a pawn in the “Great Game” for control between the British and Russian Empires. The Soviets were the first to recognize the new state of Afghanistan in 1919. Relations remained close, as the Soviets attempted to use Afghanistan as a buffer zone between itself and Pakistan and Iran. Only an attempt at radical communist revolution – generated not by the Soviets but independently by more extremist communists within Afghanistan in April 1978 – destabilized the situation. The revolutionaries’ agenda of social, agrarian and economic reform immediately created stiff resistance and polarized the country, radicalizing the political environment and opening the way to more extreme forms of political expression from all sides. Afghani communist officials persecuted religious leaders, causing blowback that drew inspiration from the Iranian Revolution in February 1979 and the Ayatollah Khomeni. As resistance to the new communist Afghani President Nur Mohammad Taraki grew, so too did Afghani appeals for Soviet aid. Meanwhile, the country continued to splinter, as warlords and tribal leaders began to fill the vacuum of power created, unintentionally, by the revolutionary upsurge.

Afghan 1 F

One of the more intriguing claims in the documentary is that Brezhnev’s advancing dementia and lack of stamina played a central role in the invasion. Manipulated by alarmist memoranda from the KGB head Yuri Andropov, and their suggestion that immediate action needed to be taken, Brezhnev assented to intervention – though just what kind and why was unclear, and perhaps will never be known if in fact Brezhnev was not entirely lucid, as seems to have been the case. The seeming success of the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, which Andropov believed produced a more docile and controllable client state to its west, perhaps fed the delusional notion in the Kremlin leadership that Afghanistan, the graveyard of empires, could be just as easily invaded, and with just as few military and political consequences. Eurocentric views of the Afghanis as inferior, similar to US views of the Viet Cong, also seemed to have made the Soviets underestimate their foe.

withdrawal

There are many compelling stories and revelations in the film. The Soviets, for example, early on trained Soviet Central Asians to form a special battalion that would wear Afghan uniforms – so that Soviet military intervention could be disguised in May 1979, before the actual invasion in December of that year. The CIA countered, on the borders of Pakistan, with support for anti-communist insurgents. A state of civil war, with various war lords in control of the provinces, emerged by December 1979, when another fateful event occurred. President Taraki’s erstwhile ally and Prime Minister Hafizullah Amin overthrew his revolutionary comrade, commanding his secret police to strangle him.

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The documentary claims, though it is not clear based on what evidence, that the Soviets believed Amin was an American pawn. In his brief time in power Amin waged a campaign of terror and purges against the dead former President’s real and suspected allies. At one point the Soviet officials in Kabul charged with protecting Amin from a counter-revolution were now ordered by the Soviet secret police to assassinate him and his entourage. They tried to poison the President’s drink at a dinner in the palace – by slipping poison into his Coca Cola, with which the Soviet agents were not yet familiar. Coke, however, was not “it.” It apparently neutralized the poison and the dining party survived! So the Soviets instead bombed the presidential palace to smithereens, sure that they would find evidence that Amin was a CIA pawn (just as, perhaps, the US was sure in its invasion of Iraq that Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction). There was no such evidence; Amin was simply a loose cannon — and not even a Chinese spy, as other KGB agents thought might be the case.

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By the mid-1980s it had become clear to Mikhail Gorbachev that the war was a strategic, political, and military disaster. The architect of Perestroika and new political thinking makes a fascinating and typically self-serving appearance in the film. As a young Politburo member, he claims that most of the political leadership was excluded from the initial decision to invade, and that the invasion was a kind of coup orchestrated by Minister of Foreign Affairs Andrei Gromyko, General Dmitrii Ustinov, and Brezhnev. Of course, this position perhaps too conveniently absolves Gorbachev of complicity in the invasion on December 28, 1979. The absence of documented records makes it impossible to say. When Gorbachev in the film proclaims fatefully, “you can’t rewrite history,” it is entirely possible that he is the one doing the rewriting.

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Among other things, the Afghan war derailed the politics of Détente, which Jimmy Carter and his hawkish National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski decisively ended. Providing lethal aid to the Mujahideen, they intended to make Afghanistan the Soviet Union’s Vietnam, payback for the American nightmare that had only ended five years previously. A boycott of the Moscow Olympics soon followed, as well as termination of broad-ranging intellectual and cultural exchanges — as well as collaboration in space exploration — between the United States and the Soviet Union, all initiated by Nixon and Kissinger.

Reagan with Afghan Mujahideen 1985

Especially blameworthy in this story, as recounted in the documentary, is the role of the ideological Cold Warriors of the Reagan Administration, who were determined to defeat the Soviet Union at all costs, even as Gorbachev attempted to rely on the most moderate forces in Afghanistan, in order to achieve a national reconciliation and remove Soviet troops. Reagan’s advisors, gleeful at the humiliations suffered by their ideological foe, armed the most radical Jihadists they could find with billions of dollars of sophisticated weaponry and training, thus creating a kind of hothouse for growing future terrorism. Stinger missiles — handheld anti-aircraft weapons — were given to the Mujahideen, taking down hundreds of Soviet attack helicopters. Sly Stallone exploited the triumphal embrace of the Islamic Jihadists in 1988, producing Rambo III, in which Rambo heads a CIA operation to help Mujahideen blow away Soviet soldiers. Reagan greeted Mujahideen in the White House as partners in defense of religious faith and freedom against Godless commies.

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karmal

If Brezhnev’s dotage played a role in the initial Soviet invasion, goaded on by hawks within the Soviet military industrial complex, Reagan’s own advancing senility in the mid-1980s allowed Cold Warriors like Richard Pearle, blind to the dangerous implications of their Afghanistan gambit, to enact a fatally-flawed policy in the Middle East.

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This is a well told story that clearly outlines the series of blunders and missteps that led to the overthrow of Amin, the invasion, the installation of the new Soviet-chosen leader Babrak Karmal and to the many unintended and tragic consequences that resulted – especially for the United States and the Soviet Union, who armed their current and future enemies in waging a proxy war against each other. It contains excellent archival footage as well interviews with important historical figures on all sides of the conflict at the time. This documentary, in short, is a must see for anyone interested in the blunders and miscalculations of both Soviet and American leaders that produced the terror-infested world in which we now live.

REAGAN-US

Categories
Russian and Soviet Art Russian Space History Soviet and Russian Space Flight

Russian Space History — Philatelists

This is in response to an interesting comment on my earlier post regarding the stamp image I used, which commemorated Aleksei Leonov’s 1965 space walk (http://russianhistoryblog.org/2013/12/russian-space-history-transnational-culture-and-cosmism/#comments). The comment noted differences between the United States and the Soviet Union. Not only was the Soviet Union more concerned with celebrating space feats on stamps, but Soviet cosmonauts were themselves directly involved in the creation and promotion of those stamps. After his flight Gagarin wrote an article on the theme of cosmonauts on stamps and carried on a correspondence with avid philatelists. Leonov, the cosmonaut-artist, actually drew the images that appeared on many cosmonaut-themed stamps (yet another illustration of how the cosmonauts promoted themselves above and beyond official state promotion).

A stamp celebrating Leonov's space walk
A stamp celebrating Leonov’s space walk

Cosmonautics was also celebrated on coins issued for various jubilees of Soviet space accomplishments. I’m not aware, though it is far from my specialty, of the extent to which American astronauts appeared on coins, if at all. With regard to the celebration of Soviet cosmonautics in various media Cathleen Lewis at the Air and Space Museum has done quite a bit of work.

Categories
Russian Space History Soviet and Russian Space Flight Soviet Era 1917-1991 Transnational History

Russian Space History — Transnational Culture and Cosmism

In balmy Culver City near Los Angeles, not far from the campus where I teach, there is a wonderful little museum called the Museum of Jurassic Technology (http://mjt.org/). The museum contains a Russian tea room and aviary on the roof. Next to the Russian tea room are two exhibition halls. One contains portraits of all the Soviet space dogs. Another is devoted to the life and myth of Konstantin Tsiolkovskii, whose translated technical works as well as science fiction are available in the museum gift shop. I often thought about that exhibit –and how odd it must be for casual visitors — as I worked about 40 miles to the south, in the place where Richard Nixon grew up, at the Nixon library and archives.

 

The Museum of Jurassic Technology room honoring Soviet space dogs
The Museum of Jurassic Technology room honoring Soviet space dogs
Categories
Archives Cold War Detente Soviet Era 1917-1991

“Brezhnev’s hospitality was effusive, if unpredictable…”

The words in the title of this post come from a description by Donald M. Kendall, CEO of PepsiCo from 1971 to 1986. Kendall met Brezhnev in August 1973 in the Soviet Union and reported back on his meeting to Nixon and Henry Kissinger — who were both close to Kendall. Kendall — who had also played a critical role in the overthrow of the Allende regime in Chile — used those connections to penetrate the Soviet market during Nixon’s detente and thus counter Coca Cola in the epic sugar water wars  (Jimmy Carter was later close to Coca Cola and aided its penetration of the Chinese market in 1979). Kendall’s enduring influence in Russia is suggested by his receipt in 2004 from Vladimir Putin of the Order of Friendship medal.

The result of Kendall’s meeting with Brezhnev is a fascinating read: 15 typed pages of his observations of Brezhnev’s personality, political inclinations, and endearing qualities — endearing, that is, for certain types of males who like sports, drinking, hunting, fishing, boating, and cars (Brezhnev’s favorite was the iconic 1970s muscle car, the Dodge Charger).

The document below comes from the National Security Council, Henry Kissinger/Anatoly Dobrynin files at the Nixon Presidential Library and Archives in Yorba Linda, Ca. I came across them as part of my latest research project on international collaboration in space as a window into detente and the late Cold War. Soviet/American collaboration, leading to the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project of 1975, played a critical role in the creation and unfolding of Nixon’s policies of detente (referred to as peaceful coexistence by the Soviets). While providing insight into Brezhnev and the Soviet political leadership, the document also illustrates the shared culture of male bonding and machismo on both sides of the Cold War divide.

Categories
Cold War Historiography Soviet and Russian Space Flight Soviet Era 1917-1991 Uncategorized

Call for a Wider Perspective

Many thanks to Alexander Geppert, a leading figure in the history of space flight and European culture, for this review of two recent volumes on Russian space flight and culture (in which I and fellow blogger Asif Siddiqi have essays). It’s nice to see a scholar from outside our field address our scholarship.

http://hsozkult.geschichte.hu-berlin.de/rezensionen/type=rezbuecher&id=17657

What I find most interesting about this outsider’s perspective is that it confirms something that many of us perhaps already know – or should know: the parochial nature of our scholarship and scholarly community (as an aside, it’s great that the Russian History Blog has included scholars from outside the Russian field to comment on our scholarship in the Blog Conversations). The point was driven home to me at the April 2012 conference in Berlin put on by Alexander (http://hsozkult.geschichte.hu-berlin.de/tagungsberichte/id=4303). I was the lone Russianist at the conference. I was struck by the marginalization of Russia in the European context (even as the papers devoted to the United States, in a conference dedicated to European visions of space and utopia, dominated parts of the agenda). I think we Russianists share some of the blame for this, precisely because of our tendency to eschew transnational or global approaches to writing the history of Russia and the Soviet Union in the 20th century. But what would a transnational history of space flight and culture look like? It’s a question that consumes me now as I attempt to research the space race in a transnational context — focusing on collaborative moments such as the Apollo-Solyuz Test Project, the Interkosmos flights beginning in 1979, the Association of Space Explorers in the 1980s, and the Mir and ISS space stations. If anyone feels so inspired, perhaps they could point me to interesting examples of attempts to write Cold War Russia and the Soviet Union into a more global — or at least — pan-European history.

Categories
Films Gender and Sexuality Nostalgia and Memory Post-Soviet Russia

Miss Gulag

Our university is holding a Russian documentary film series. We showed one of the films that I reviewed here earlier (http://russianhistoryblog.org/author/andy/page/2/). Our next film is called Miss Gulag, produced in 2007 and directed by Maria Yatskova (for an interview with the director see Sean Guillory’s http://newbooksinrussianstudies.com/2011/06/03/maria-yatskova-miss-gulag-nienhause-yatskova-vodar-films-2007/).

This fascinating documentary tells the improbable tale of a beauty pageant set in a modern-day Russian prison, one of 35 women’s prisons across the Russian Federation. The story of this documentary is simple enough. A group of young women in a Siberian prison – all of whom have come of age in post-Soviet Russia – stage a beauty pageant.

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Archives Films Nostalgia and Memory oral history Russian History in Popular Culture Soviet Era 1917-1991 Teaching Russian History World War II

900 Days

The Nazi siege of Leningrad began on September 8, 1941. It ended 874 days later, one of the longest and most destructive sieges in history. The Soviets won at the cost of more than 1 million soldiers killed, captured, or missing and more than 640,000 civilian dead. Nearly a third of the city perished — from disease, bombings, and starvation.  Soviet propagandists — during the siege and afterwards — constructed a heroic story of perseverance and courage as part of a broader mythologizing of the war. That tale has served various social, political, and cultural purposes ever since. In the process, however, the real story was sanitized and simplified, hidden and censored — to the point that even participants often preferred the mythological version (which at any rate was more ennobling than the real story). This fine documentary (900 Days, 2011) uses interviews with survivors and archival sources to help peel back the layers of myth and to reveal the historical siege that few survivors had ever discussed publicly.

Categories
Chernobyl Cold War Films Post-Soviet Russia Russia in World History Russian Orthodoxy

The Nuclear Age: A New Documentary

People often say we live in the “nuclear age,” but what that means is never entirely clear. A new documentary produced by a former ABC newsman captures the spirit, or rather spirits, of that era – from its beginnings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and up to the present.

Inspired by the late Cold War, when Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan initiated a process of disarmament in Iceland in 1986, the producer hopes to make viewers believe that eliminating nuclear weapons can happen – despite the growing fatalism and relative inattention to the problem in the post-Cold War era.

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Digital Russian History Soviet and Russian Space Flight

Reaching out beyond the ivory tower

Here is a first review of my new book on Yuri Gagarin. http://www.thespacereview.com/article/2109/1

The publication is read by space enthusiasts and engineers and managers in the space business. I like the fact– which was partly my hope in publishing this book — that the book would reach non-academics as well as the usual academic market of 300 or so libraries and various interested historians and specialists. Just a few weeks ago I gave a talk on my book to the Boeing Defense and Space Systems group in Seal Beach California. The audience consisted of executives and managers in Boeing’s space and defense operations. Many had visited Russia to work with their counterparts in the Russian space business. They provided a unique, non-academic perspective on my topic — yet they were also receptive to many of the same problems that professional Russian historians grapple with in their work: issues of identity, cause and effect, the politics of gender, class, and race, etc.

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Blog Conversations Death and Redemption

Death and Redemption – A Blog Conversation

Welcome to the third of our blog conversations. I encourage readers to join the conversation by commenting our our authors’ posts. The book we are discussing is by fellow blogger Steven A. Barnes (Death and Redemption: The Gulag and the Shaping of Soviet Society, Princeton University Press, 2012).

Based on meticulous and exhaustive archival research, as well as a thoughtful examination of memoir literature by prisoners, the book examines the Gulag as a penal institution. While acknowledging the brutal and inhumane nature of the Gulag, Barnes also explores those aspects of the institution that made it very different from a Nazi death camp.

The conversation dovetails nicely with our first blog conversation about Deborah Kaple’s translation of a Gulag prison guard memoir (Gulag Boss: A Soviet Memoir). That conversation prompted a lively exchange on the nature of the Gulag — its function in Soviet society, its distinctiveness versus other internment systems. Barnes’ book forces us to consider the borders that separated the Gulag from the rest of Soviet society. How did the Gulag figure into the larger Soviet political and economic project? Was its function economic, ideological, or rehabilitative — or some combination of all three? What was the relationship between the regular criminal and the political criminal within the Gulag?

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Films Perestroika Post-Soviet Russia

Marina Goldovskaya: Chronicler of the Post-Brezhnev Era

My post is about a film festival that was held on my campus on March 18. We screened three documentary films by documentary filmmaker Marina Goldovskaya. I emerged from the event, and also after reading her autobiography, convinced of the importance of the documentary in understanding recent Russian history.

Goldovskaya — who was at the event and commented on the creation of her films — has a unique talent for finding subjects. Her subjects are ideal microcosms that provide a window into larger issues and themes. She adds to that talent an uncanny ability to draw her interviewees out on camera. She rejects the term “interview”and refers to her subjects as “characters.” She calls her interactions with the protagonists of her film “conversations.” Goldovskaya somehow manages to maintain an unobtrusive presence in her films. The setting for her conversations is often the apartment kitchen. She films her subjects as they chop onions, slice bread, and open their souls, as Russian so often do, around the cramped but cozy kitchen table. Her 1993 film (The House with Knights, 58 minutes) explored a famous house on the Moscow Arbat. It was so named because of the distinctive statues of knights in niches outside the grand structure. Built in the early 1900s as an apartment building for the rich and privileged, it was parceled into communal apartments after 1917.

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Cold War Films Nostalgia and Memory Post-Soviet Russia Soviet Era 1917-1991 Teaching Russian History

Three Songs About Motherland

My university (California State University, Long Beach) is screening a number of documentary films about Russia this semester, including three films from the esteemed documentary film maker Marina Goldovskaya: A Taste of Freedom (1991, 46 min.), A Bitter Taste of Freedom (2011, 88 min.), and Three Songs About Motherland (2009, 39 min.)  Goldovskaya will be attending the event on this March 18 — and I will be participating in a panel discussion along with a number of other professors. So if you are in the LA area please do attend. Venue and details about this and other events can be found here: http://bwordproject.org/

Here is my review of one of the films, Three songs About Motherland. I have found it especially valuable for the classroom because of its brevity and neat division into three compelling stories.

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Post-Soviet Russia YouTube in Russian History Classes

Russian Airborne veterans against Vladimir Putin

Here is a great item related to the Russian protests making the you tube rounds (I picked this up via facebook from Peter Holquist).
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PE4q__wNNw0

Below is a very rough translation provided on the youtube site. For a better translation, see this link: http://thelede.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/01/27/paratroopers-anti-putin-song-stirs-the-opposition/#more-156849

UPDATE (the battle of the bands): Check out this pro-Putin video that has just hit the youtubeosphere: video:http://www.themoscowtimes.com/news/article/pro-putin-paean-dominates-blogosphere/452551.html

Categories
Cold War Detente Soviet and Russian Space Flight Soviet Era 1917-1991

Hot-Tub Diplomacy and Star Wars

I’ve been reviewing documents from the Hoover Archives in connection with my latest project (http://russianhistoryblog.org/2011/10/transnational-history-and-space-flight/). The ones I’ve posted here, with brief commentary and historical context, concern an organization of astronauts and cosmonauts called the Association of Space Explorers, which held its first Congress in Paris in October 1985.

Aleksei Leonov and Deke Slayton on the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project

The idea for the group emerged during informal conversations between cosmonauts and astronauts dating back to the Apollo-Soyuz mission in 1975 — that “memorable handshake in space,” as the world press at the time put it. The end of detente, however, got in the way, first with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, followed by the U.S. boycott of the Moscow Summer Olympics, the Soviet boycott four years later of the Los Angeles games, Reagan’s announcement of the Star Wars program in March 1983, and the Soviet shooting down of a South Korean jet airliner in September 1983.

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Films Russian and Soviet Art Soviet Era 1917-1991

Desert of Forbidden Art

This 2010 documentary, which has deservedly gotten a lot of press, is well worth showing to students (http://desertofforbiddenart.com/). It follows a treasure trove of Russian art stashed in a remote desert region of Uzbekistan known as Karakalpakstan, where the art was hidden from Soviet censors. Getting there required crossing a vast desert—punctuated by breaks at fly-infested truck stops. Nukus was the principal city of this desert outpost and the location of the museum housing this unlikely art collection. The art was forbidden, not because the artists were consciously anti-Soviet, but because they simply followed their own muses, irrespective of the dictates of the official Soviet artistic style under Stalin.

That such a collection of astounding avante-garde art could exist in Nukus amazed a New York Times reporter, who happened upon the museum during his time as a foreign correspondent covering Uzbekistan after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Categories
Nostalgia and Memory Post-Soviet Russia Soviet and Russian Space Flight

Gagarin Coin

My man Yuri Gagarin gets another Russian coin from the Russian Central Bank in honor of the flight’s 50th anniversary last April. He remains one of the few official Soviet heroes to merit being put on a post-Soviet piece of Russian currency. As I tell my students, if you want to know what people consider important, look at what they put on their money.

http://vz.ru/photoreport/542796/

 

Categories
Cold War Films Stalinism Teaching Russian History

Stalin’s Daughter

The death of Svetlana Alliluyeva in a nursing home in Wisconsin brings to a close a fascinating and tragic life. The documentary film maker Lana Parshina in 2007 had the good luck of landing one of the few extensive interviews with Stalin’s daughter, who had taken on the new name of Lana Peters. Here are my thoughts on the film.

In 2007, the producer and director, a young Russian émigré named Svetlana Parshina, learned to her great amazement that Stalin’s 82-year-old daughter Svetlana was not only alive—but living in a retirement community in Wisconsin under the name “Lana Peters” (Peters is the name of her last husband, an American architect whom she divorced in the 1970s). Fiercely protective of her privacy, Stalin’s daughter had famously refused for decades to entertain requests for interviews, for they invariably turned toward the deeds and misdeeds of her infamous father.

Categories
Post-Soviet Russia Teaching Russian History Terrorism

The Summer of Terror

I just showed a documentary for a group of students here at Long Beach State by Julia Ivanova entitled “Moscow Freestyle.” Completed in 2006, it provides an interesting perspective on the terrifying summer of 2004 in Moscow — and one that many students, who had recently taken a trip to Moscow, found fascinating.

In search of romance and adventure, young Westerners from Canada, the United States, and Great Britain packed up their suitcases in the early part of the 21st century and signed on to teach English in Russia. Armed with little more than expensive liberal arts degrees, the students embarked on an adventure they hoped would build a lifetime’s worth of stories to impress friends back home.