The relationship between the United States and Russia has been troubled for more than half a century, most notably during the decades-long Cold War that, despite never turning “hot,” led to many deaths on both sides as well as in countries such as Afghanistan, Cuba, Vietnam, Indonesia, and others that were caught in the crossfire between the two global powers. To this day, assumptions about the Soviet Union color Americans’ view of modern-day Russia, as well as seem to justify U.S. atrocities committed during the Cold War. Yet, some Americans, like Joseph Weisberg, are intent on reshaping the American perspective on Russia, in part to keep the two nuclear powers from entering another conflict.
A former CIA officer and Emmy award-winning creator of the hit FX series “The Americans” about two Soviet agents living secretly in Washington during the Cold War, Weisberg offers a refreshing perspective on the tense relationship between the two countries throughout his work. He joins Robert Scheer on this week’s “Scheer Intelligence” to talk about his latest book, “Russia Upside Down: An Exit Strategy for the Second Cold War,” in which he examines how he, like so many Americans, got Russia wrong.
The author tells Scheer about his childhood growing up in a liberal Jewish household in Chicago, Ill. before studying Soviet politics at Yale University and joining the CIA, eager to do his “duty as an American” and fight what he considered then to be the “evil” Soviet empire. Now, after years of writing fiction about the Soviet Union in novels and TV scripts, Weisberg has decided to reflect on the historical events that he briefly played an active role in during his brief time at the CIA as the Soviet Union was collapsing through a more critical, factual lens. Based on both his personal experience as well as detailed research, Weisberg dispels common misconceptions about Russia that he once held to be true in “Russia Upside Down.”
In his conversation with Scheer, he also unravels what he describes as “black and white, uni-dimensional thinking” which led him and the majority of his compatriots to view the Soviet Union as “evil.”
“We [Americans] wanted to view ourselves as pure, as good, as virtuous,” says Wesiberg, “and if we took everything nasty or bad in our history or our politics or our souls and essentially projected all on to the Soviets, then we could view them as evil and in reflection of that, we were all good.”
Weisberg goes on to stipulate that he believes both countries were guilty of this form of projection, but adds that, as Americans, we must try to understand and take responsibility for our own country’s role in the conflict. Listen to the full conversation between Weisberg and Scheer as the two discuss why the U.S. seems to need enemies like Russia and what the Cold War with the Soviet Union has in common with a new conflict taking shape today.
Guest: Joseph Weisberg – Author; former CIA officer; creator of the TV show “The Americans.” – @joeweisberg
Host: Robert Scheer
Producer: Joshua Scheer
Introduction: Natasha Hakimi Zapata
Transcript: Lucy Berbeo
RS: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where I hasten to add the intelligence comes from my guests. And in this case, no question: Joseph Weisberg, a person who is some 30 years younger than my 85 years. But he had an experience in the Cold War that is much beyond mine; for one thing, I’m not fluent in Russian, the language of the enemy. He was a student [at Yale], knew a lot of strong cold warriors there, and then he went to work for the CIA for, I gather, three years.
And he has written, I would argue, the one book you ought to read before you even talk about what the Cold War was about. Now, the title is Russia Upside Down: An Exit Strategy for the Second Cold War. I happen to think that that subtitle takes too much away from this book. First of all, I don’t think–personally, I think a second Cold War would come with China. Russia, yes, does have nuclear weapons, but they don’t have anything else really. If you want to use Orwell’s idea of our need for an enemy, and to justify the military budget, China will be the target, and clearly that’s what President Trump did, and it’s being followed by President Biden too. I mean, China has people who are better capitalists than we are, which is really irritating, and people who still consider themselves communists. Putin, of course, defeated the communists, and he’s now a supporter of the Russian Orthodox Church, and doesn’t make a good enemy, in many ways.
But the point is, this book invites a rethinking about what was the Cold War, and as a result, a rethinking about what did our media do, what did our politicians do. Because after all, a lot of people got killed in the so-called Cold War, in Vietnam, in Afghanistan and elsewhere. And also a lot of money was spent, and it impoverished not just Russia. So why don’t we begin by you just telling me how you came to write this book? And I want to thank your publicist, PublicAffairs, because frankly I didn’t know about this book a week ago; it just came out. And I was–I’m blown away by it, let me just put it that way. But why don’t you tell us how this book came to be, about who you are, and you know, what kind of dialogue you expect to open with it?
JW: Well, thank you, Bob. I really appreciate all that a lot. I’ll tell you a little bit about the genesis of the book and where it came from. Because at the end of the day, I myself had a big reassessment of the Cold War, and that caused me to want to think a lot about why I’d been such a hard-boiled cold warrior when I was younger, and how I turned into something quite different, where I really thought the Cold War was a kind of a series of mutual escalatory attacks that essentially is continuing now between the United States and Russia. So I got interested in just thinking about myself–it’s always, in a way it can be very dangerous to write about your personal self and politics as if you are the part that matters. And I have read books like that in my life, and in fact some of those people way back when–at a time you remember a little bit, I remember a little bit–people were kind of considered dupes if they went a little too far in with the Soviets. But I also think there’s an advantage in looking at your own self and your own psychology and your own history to try to understand politics, because it’s such a key part of how we’re formed and shaped, and how we end up thinking one way politically or another.
So the story is, as you said, I spent a couple of years working in the CIA in the early nineties. And I made a couple of friends throughout the years who stayed there after I left. And about six years ago one of them called me on the phone, and he happened to have been put in charge of a lecture series. And he said, do you want to come in and give a speech? You know, people knew me a little bit because I’d done this TV show “The Americans,” and he thought it would be interesting. So I started thinking about it and what I would talk about, and I realized I’d been going through this process of reassessing the Cold War. And I called him back and I said yeah, great, I’d love to do it; I’m going to talk about the Cold War and how I and frankly the CIA got it wrong. And he said, oh, I think we misunderstood–you don’t get to choose the topic. It’s going to be a speech about counterintelligence. And I was very disappointed, because I didn’t have any speech to give on counterintelligence, and also I’d spent a lot of time thinking about what I wanted to say. And then I decided, well, why not put it in a book? After all, I’d just made a whole outline for the speech; just expand it, add a lot of words, and I’ll have a book.
And that was where the whole thing came from. But it really went back to the fact that I grew up in Chicago in a kind of liberal, political family that even though it was liberal, it shared the general consensus across partisan divides in America that the Soviet Union was an evil empire. And I really believed that. And I went off to college and I studied Stalin and the purges and the famines and the gulag and all these horrible things, and it was almost like proof it was an evil empire. And you know, obviously, people talked about the fact that post-Stalin, things liberalized, but it was still an incredibly repressive place. And I felt, you know, my duty as an American was to help take down that evil empire. You know, I really thought exactly like Ronald Reagan, right? That’s something he thought as well. And so I joined the CIA, and I worked there for a couple of years, only a little bit of that time in the area dealing with the Soviet Union. And the Cold War, you know, technically ended while I was there; the Soviet Union collapsed, obviously, and that was pretty much in a certain sense the end of it. And then I went about my way and starting writing novels; I wrote a spy novel.
And I started reading some of the things that came out later, that never could have been printed during Soviet times by Soviet citizens. For example, there’s a very important book about the KGB by a KGB officer named Victor Cherkashin. And when I read that book I was absolutely shocked, because the guy who wrote it, instead of seeming like the sort of soldier of the evil empire that I had anticipated, was not just relatable to me but seemed a lot in outlook and general personality like me and my friends from the CIA. And I started thinking, I think I have this place wrong. So I started doing a lot more reading, and I started revisiting things I thought previously, and there was a lot of good academic work being done at that time, or even earlier, but post-Cold War where people got into Soviet archives. And I started thinking about what Soviet society really looked like for the people living there, and not just the nomenclature. And I just started to see that I had oversimplified that place to exactly the degree you need to oversimplify to consider a country an evil empire. And so I kind of went from there.
RS: Yeah, but let me add something here. Because in your book you draw very heavily on–I wouldn’t call it revisionist history, but as you mention, we now have a lot of access to the archives. We have people who worked within that system. And what is incredible about your book is that you’re really describing another power structure that was described as the evil empire, that has a lot of the failings and strengths of our own Cold War power structure, our own power structure. And what was really denied during the Cold War was that the other side–whether it was Russia or China–had any claim on nationalism, or whether its people could believe in that nationalism.
And one of the things that comes out in your book is, you know–and this I think is true of China as well, because there the Communist Party is still in power–that there are a lot of people for whom this worked. It worked as a way of feeling proud of your country; it worked very well in terms of the Second World War, defeating Nazism more effectively than any other country, or taking it on. And you even have some sense in there that the people who were in opposition to the government–but still, wait a minute, they wanted to reform it, or are they grateful for what they have now.
So why don’t you revisit that? Because your book is really a conversation with a lot of people who thought about Russia for a long time, lived there, and so forth. And as I say, you have the linguistics, you have the access, you have the scholarly background. So you’re able to give us a historical setting for that, a cultural setting.
JW: Yeah, I’m glad you brought that up. I have to let you know that I don’t speak Russian fluently. I did study for a couple of years, but I never got too far. So, just so we–
RS: But you can read it, right?
JW: Well, I could read it some a long time ago, but not really anymore.
RS: Oh, OK.
JW: My work is generally secondary sources and translations. But the point you’re talking about, Bob, is one of the central, if not the central misunderstanding that I had about the Soviet Union. I believed–and essentially was brought up to believe–that it was not possible that the Soviet government had broad-based popular support, because living in a liberal democracy, I think we generally couldn’t imagine that a different kind of system could have broad-based popular support. Essentially, only our system could have that. And there was an understanding that some people had liked Stalin, but that was generally explained away by saying that they didn’t know what was really going on, and so they were duped, and had they known the truth they would have joined the vast majority, who of course hated him. And post-Stalin it was essentially the same picture: it was a failing, economically abysmal, repressive country, and almost anyone living there–except for a small number who were fully enfranchised in the system, which is one definition of [unclear]–anybody else of course opposed it, even though you had no way to, they had no way to express that.
Well, this was very–this was just incorrect. And by the way, there were people at the time who knew it was wrong. You and I were talking a little bit earlier about the great academic and writer Stephen Cohen, who pointed out at least by the eighties and probably sooner that there was a kind of a compact between the Communist Party and the government and the people, in which certain needs were provided for and they had a strong military, and a country that nationalists could appreciate. And in exchange, the system got a high degree of loyalty. Well, that was pretty debatable at the time, but I would say that now we know it’s true, through a combination of public opinion research polling, which is good in Russia–or there isn’t a ton of it, but there’s some that’s very good–and through all the access people have had to just former Soviet citizens who they’ve been able to talk to and interview.
And it’s just clear now that for many, many reasons, this system had broad-based support. It was actually–and certainly it was especially true early on in Stalin’s time. Because Stalin did so much to essentially create the country, to build it, to industrialize it, to turn it into a world power. So take, for example, millions of peasants who lived dirt-poor lives on farms, and under Stalin were brought up into the Soviet equivalent of a middle class: were sent to universities, were often given jobs as bureaucrats in which they worked in offices, which was a big step up from what they’d been doing. All these people supported Stalin because of what he had done for them, and a lot of them supported him to the point that even if they knew what he was doing in the gulag and everything else, would nevertheless have maintained their support.
And you know, some of this support–this support certainly carried through Khrushchev’s time, and it probably did start to ebb later, in the seventies, but it remained reasonably robust. And of course one example is you can look back now, and the polling now shows that Stalin remains, as a historical figure, very popular for probably about half the Soviet population. So all of that was hard for me to wrap my head around, hard to believe, in a way painful to believe, because I had to let go of certain illusions. I had to let go of the idea that it was impossible for human beings to support somebody as cruel as Stalin. But the truth is the truth.
RS: Yeah, you know, I have to tell you I had an experience with this early in the sixties. I was in Russia, and I was getting Yevtushenko and Voznesensky’s poetry to publish at City Lights Books. And I was taken over to Moscow News to meet, I think it was Igor Yakovlev was the editor. And he had been tortured, actually; he was a guy from Spain originally, if I recall correctly. And his secretary, or the woman out in the hallway, she had a picture of Stalin at her desk. And these people were all–and I remember Yevtushenko even telling me, well, that’s all too common; they think it went downhill after some of these people. And it’s an interesting dislocation of history, in a way.
And I want to bring up–I mean, maybe this was really the way to begin this interview. You came from, you said, a family in Chicago and so forth. But you came from a Jewish family that had a particular connection with the Russian experience because of the refuseniks, because of the anti-Semitism and the Russian, the Soviet experience. And when you were growing up, one of the big human rights campaigns was to help primarily Soviet Jews, but other refuseniks, get out of the country. And you were swept along with a certain idealism about all this. Is that not the case? And then in your book, you have some of the most interesting discussion I’ve read about anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe, in the Soviet Union, and before. And the reason, personally, I have some interest, is the only reason I’m in this country in my current biological form, is my mother left after the revolution.
And you have a statement in your book that I found fascinating, and it sort of explains some of my own family history. You said, “Considering the long history of violent, brutal anti-Semitism in Russia and Ukraine, Jews would have been crazy not to support the Bolshevik revolution.” Now, my mother was not so crazy as to be a Bolshevik at that point; she was in another book you describe, the Jewish socialist Bund. And then when Lenin turned against the Bund, my mother had to get out of the country; she’d been an active member, and she ended up in New York in 1920 or so. But it just struck an echo with me that so much of our thinking about this was somehow Russia and anti-Semitism, the Soviets came to be a substitute for the Nazis. But actually anti-Semitism had unfortunately a very strong history in Eastern Europe.
JW: That’s right–in Eastern Europe, in Ukraine, in Russia, all throughout. And you know, I think the passage you read from my book is interesting; now that I hear it read back to me, I realize it should have been a little more precise, and said that considering how bad it was for the Jews before the revolution in Russia, they would have been crazy not to be revolutionaries. Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, joining the Bund, and there were plenty of other revolutionary parties too, socialist revolutionaries. And there were Jews in all those parties. The thing that would have been odd would be for a Jew to say: we don’t want to overthrow this system. The system was horrible for them, and had been for a long time. I think the reason I said “Bolsheviks” without thinking it through more clearly was that in a sense, there’s always been this question: why were there so many Jewish Bolsheviks?
And of course, anti-Semites try to use that against Jews, and essentially blame them for the revolution. Hitler, of course, did that; one of Hitler’s preoccupations and main things he talked about and used to instigate the war was claiming that the Jews and the Bolsheviks were going to spread communism everywhere. So it’s easier at this point to sort of focus on the Jews and the Bolshevik party, but there were quite a few Jews in the Bolshevik party, and quite a few Jews in the Bolshevik leadership. And if you view that not from an anti-Semitic perspective, what you see is what that says about how open the Bolsheviks were, right? The Bolsheviks were, by ideology, not racist, not anti-Semitic, not prejudiced. That was very fundamental to their version of Marxism. Also not sexist. So if you were a Jew suffering in that country, and now here was a chance to be better off–and maybe even, for God’s sake, join a system where you might even be one of its leaders–that’s why you get that character from Fiddler on the Roof who is going around to these towns advocating for a revolution. I don’t recall if he was a Bolshevik or not, but he was certainly a revolutionary.
RS: Well, it actually extended to the occupation of Eastern Europe, because the one country that really caught our attention early on in the beginning of the Cold War was the revolt in Hungary against Soviet rule, basically, imposed. And that was, what, 11 years after the end of the war. And you describe that a bit in your book. But one of the things I–you know, it clicked in my head, because at the time I was a young student at City College in New York, and I was, I don’t know, had some position with the national student association. And we went out to, I think it was Camp Kilmer in New Jersey to receive the planes bringing back people who had fought against the communists and gotten out of the country. And there was actually evidence of anti-Semitism. Some of these same freedom fighters, or people concerned about it, had been beaten on the planes and so forth. And what I discovered, then, was that anti-Semitism–after all, Hungary had been a country that sided with Hitler; this was not Czechoslovakia or Poland, where there’d been opposition; Hungary had been an ally of Germany. And the fact is that the communist leadership that Stalin trusted in Hungary was primarily Jewish. I think it was like 10 out of the top 12 were Jewish people, because he knew they were very fiercely anti-Hitler. And that’s sort of an interesting history that has been ignored.
JW: You know, I’d really recommend to anybody who’s particularly interested in that to read Timothy Snyder’s books. He writes extensively about that, and there’s so many fascinating elements to it. He writes for example about how if you wanted to be a Jewish partisan during the war–in other words, if you had managed to get out of your village without getting killed after the Nazis occupied it, and you went into the woods to find a partisan band, you might end up–these partisan bands were local Ukrainians, or from any of those countries in Eastern Europe, and plenty of Russian bands as well–you might find a band that would take you in and be thrilled to have you in the ranks, and you might find a band that would murder you for being a Jew. It could just go either way. And it’s really interesting.
The other thing–I believe it’s also him who talks about this, although he may not be the only one–that when the Nazis came in to occupy first Eastern Europe and then later the western half of the Soviet Union, they of course were there on a mission to exterminate the Jews, but a lot of the local population, particularly in Eastern Europe but to some degree in the Ukraine and other areas, the local population also had a lot of hatred for Jews who were leading communists. They’d been some of the top bureaucrats who had helped impose Stalinism on areas that didn’t want it. So they were sort of doubly hated. And of course, turned in to the Nazis, and in many cases killed by local bands as well.
RS: So let’s take it up to the post-Stalin period. Let’s take it up to Putin now. Because the subtitle of your book, An Exit Strategy for the Second Cold War–well, how did we get into this second Cold War? In your book, you know, you were inside the CIA as a young person–what about our need for a Cold War? What about our need to flirt with the idea of a hot war? What about our need for an enemy? And maybe this seizing upon Putin, and the threat of Putin, is really more a reflection of our own military-industrial complex than it is a real threat from a basically bankrupted Russia. I mean, what did people think inside the CIA? And what did they ever think about Russian nationalism, or Chinese nationalism? Did they think, really, when they talked about common communist cores and communist desire to take over the world, did they really believe that?
JW: I think most of them did. I try to explore this in the book, and think about it in terms of my own experience, not because everyone’s like me, or in some grandiose way, but because what I did believe, and what I did talk about and what I did try to essentially proselytize for, was a vision of an evil empire that we had to fight to the death, which clearly was commonplace. It wasn’t everybody, but it was commonplace. And it’s also reasonably clear that it guided our foreign policy throughout the Cold War, which I would argue makes a pretty strong case that it’s how most of our political leaders thought as well.
And I tended to look at it myself as being sort of vulnerable to a very unidimensional black-and-white thinking. That, as you were just saying about us, that I needed to have an enemy. I needed, in an almost Jungian sense, to be able to take all the dark, nasty, ugly stuff in me, deny it because my self-image wouldn’t allow it, and put it on somebody or something else. And what I put it on was the Soviet Union, the Soviet leadership, on and on. And I think our country did a version of that on a kind of a national scale. We wanted to view ourselves as pure, as good, as virtuous. And if we took everything nasty or bad in our history or our politics or our souls and sort of essentially projected it all onto the Soviets, then we could view them as evil, and in reflection of that we were all good. And I think that–when I say that’s the genesis of the Cold War, I think they did the same thing.
So I’m not saying just that we did that, and they were just sitting over there the victims of our projection. I think it was a two-way street. But it seems very much to me that the same thing is going on today. And you can see it in the media, the way you could see it in the media back then, which is there’s just such a widespread assumption that Putin can only be seen as a nefarious autocrat determined to hack us, and as of late maybe even try to destroy us, and there’s, not no discussion, but very little discussion about how we have contributed to that conflict. What we have done, how we have threatened them. By the way, I don’t want to say nobody talks about it; I do once in a while run into an editorial where somebody makes that point, but it is far, far from the mainstream.
RS: Well, I guess I’m asking a sort of basic question that you do raise in your book about the Soviets. You ask, how could reasonably well-educated, sometimes brilliantly educated–you actually show that not Khrushchev, who was kind of crude in his thinking and not well educated, but you get up to Andropov and these people, and they’re highly educated and knowledgeable about the world, and you show they’re complex. You could be writing, as you say in your book, about the people at the CIA or the defense department. They can hold different, contradictory ideas; they can think they’re advancing humanity while at the same time they’re assassinating people or torturing them or what have you.
But the fact of the matter is, what I’m getting at is, how could they be so wrong? Because in fact, the whole Cold War kind of derailed with the detente. OK, all right, we can make agreements; we can get along, and so forth. Meanwhile, we’re fighting wars against people called communists in Vietnam, and by inference they’re agents of another Chinese communism. Well, certainly even the cold warriors that you were with at Yale knew that the Chinese-Soviet dispute went back, what, to the 1920s, before the Chinese communists were even in power. That there was racial animosity between the Russians and the Chinese communists. That their international solidarity really didn’t carry over very far. And even within, you know, the Chinese had occupied Vietnam for 10 centuries–that we were fighting, what, people in Vietnam who were highly nationalistic and had their own animosity, both toward Russia and China. And then we lose that war. The Chinese communists and the Vietnamese communists go to fight with each other; they don’t invade the United States. So there was an irrational assumption that communism was the dominant thing, the ideology, rather than these different nationalisms that latched on to Marx and Lenin and so forth as justification for their nationalism. How could intelligent scholars miss that?
JW: You described it well, and I think that’s exactly right and it shows you what people will do, how much they will kill, how much they will destroy, in the name of whatever ideology they believe in. And I think the key to it is that it isn’t rational. Jonathan Haidt writes about this, I think, very thoughtfully: the profound misunderstanding that politics is a rational business. Everybody thinks they’re right; they think they can prove what they’re saying, and that it’s all fact and logic; but it’s not, it’s emotionally based. It is a set of feelings that drive you, and that often people are not aware of.
That’s why one of the things I kind of advocate in my book is for a more self-aware politics, that people have a responsibility to, or at least opportunity to try to be more self-aware about where their political ideologies and ideas are coming from. Because if you start to understand that your political ideology does not spring from the fact that you have seen the truth and now you’re a proponent of the truth, but rather that you felt this way and that way as a kid, you felt this way and that way now, and you worry about this, and you care about this–you start to understand that it’s more emotionally based, I think it gives you a little bit more of an opportunity to back away from extremism. Because extremism relies on people being positive that they are right about everything.
And you asked me how people can kind of make that error; I’ll give you another example as well, which is that we tend to think that only other people are making that error. We recognize the error, but we recognize it in others and not in ourselves. So for example, I tried very hard to understand what you and I talked about earlier, which is how could anybody support Stalin? It just didn’t make any sense; he killed millions of people, he created so much havoc and so much pain and suffering and destruction, how could anybody support him? And it became clearer and clearer to me that Soviets at the time, and many Russians still, simply focused on the positive things he did, or the things he did that mattered to them, and then took the horrible things he did and–they didn’t not know about them, but they put them back in a little corner in the back of their head and didn’t emphasize that.
And I thought, well, it’s not a perfect analogy, and I don’t even know how to compare the two evils, because comparing evils is never really a good idea, it kind of diminishes both. But if you look at George Washington, what I was brought up to do with George Washington is focus completely on all the amazing things he did and what a great leader he was, and how he founded our country, and how he stepped down from the presidency. And so essentially–it wasn’t not mentioned that he was a slaveowner, but I was able to–because he was my guy, because he was our guy–I put that in a little pocket in the back of my brain. When it’s the other guy, then what goes to the front of my brain is all the horrible stuff. And I think that gets back to the kind of personal, emotional need to think that you and your people are the good guys, and them and their people are the bad guys.
RS: So let me ask you a kind of $64 question, because the book is subtitled, it’s called Russia Upside Down–and obviously Russia has been turned upside down. But what persists is its usefulness as an enemy; that’s my editorializing. And your subtitle is An Exit Strategy for the Second Cold War. Well, how did we get into a second Cold War? Putin, as I said, got elected–first of all, he was on the Yeltsin side of things, so he wasn’t even, you can’t blame him for Gorbachev; he had broken with the party, he was in the Leningrad group, or the St. Petersburg group by then. He was a teetotaler, so as opposed to Yeltsin, he actually could get something done, and he actually ended up running a large part of the whole Yeltsin federation government. And he was backed by Yeltsin and by the Americans to take on what remained of the Communist Party, right, in that 2000 election.
And thus was born the Putin years. And despite Putin being, again, breaking with some notion of Marxist hostility towards religion and support the Russian Orthodox Church, somehow he’s substituted as if he’s still a communist. And at the same time, we were getting along with China; now we’re not getting along. They are admittedly communist, they claim to be communist; Putin doesn’t, right? You mention in your book Oliver Stone’s interesting, I found very interesting, movie on Putin, his interview with Putin, long interview which basically was ignored by the media in America. But the fact is, the guy is a nationalist, right? In some sort of Peter the Great sort of aspiration. And so I’m asking you a basic question: who needs the enemy? Is it us, or them?
JW: Yeah. Well, I’ll [tell] you what I think the story is. I think it’s us and them, but ultimately we’re responsible for us. There’s not that much we can necessarily do; it’s up to them to deal with their need for an enemy, it’s up to us to deal with our need to have an enemy. So let me give you the short version of what I would say the common story is, and I’ll give you a slightly longer version of what I think is closer to what really happened. The short version is that Putin got elected; he was a former KGB officer and rabidly anti-Western and anti-American; bitter and angry about the dissolution about the Soviet Union that he partially blamed the United States for; a complete autocrat who only wanted to use, or only knew how to use the tools of repression to secure his government; and someone determined to spread not communism, but authoritarian rule, who therefore started attacking America in all kinds of ways, from buzzing our military ships and planes with his own planes, to the social media campaign and disinformation campaign that was so widely noted in 2016, and certainly ongoing to a certain degree. So we, in the general version of events, I think we are the victim of this nasty autocrat the same way we saw ourselves as the victims of the Soviets. By the way, I maybe should say intended victim, because I think we always felt that we held our own against the Soviets, but that they wanted to victimize us and we had to defend ourselves. I think that’s the most common perception. Maybe I’m giving a slightly unnuanced view of it to make my point, but I think that’s the general idea.
I think something more like this happened: I think that in the Yeltsin years, in the nineties, as really everyone understands, post-Soviet Russia was a disaster. It was more democratic, it was more liberal, it was more open, there was more freedom of speech, but everything else fell apart. The economy fell apart, crime was rampant, Russian mafia bosses had enormous influence, some people felt that it was possibly in danger of literally becoming a mafia-controlled state, which had nuclear weapons. So things were not going well there. They were a disaster for almost sthe entire citizenry. Putin came in, and he essentially restored–I do not mean to suggest that he solved all of those problems completely, but he mitigated them quite a bit, and enough that pretty soon it was clear that there was a central government authority back in control. And so the country started to become more and more functional. He appears to me, for some time, to have been somewhat open to the West. You know, I base this partly on the fact that he wasn’t making a lot of anti-Western statements, that there was nothing he was doing that seemed particularly anti-Western, and also the fact that it’s pretty clear that he wanted to grow the Russian economy and saw cooperation with the West as a way to do that. And then finally on September 11, when he was so openly and emotionally supportive of the United States, offered some limited use of his Russian airspace for us to respond, didn’t complain when we started opening military bases in central Asia, which were his neighbors–you know, you’d have to say he was pretty good, he was pretty helpful to us, and positive.
RS: Well, wait a minute. He felt betrayed, as many, going back to the Reagan, Gorbachev–I mean, Gorbachev has felt betrayed. There was an understanding that you would not be moving NATO to their borders and spying on them and supporting counter elements and so forth, that they were breaking up the empire pretty effectively on their own, they didn’t have to have their nose rubbed in it, in the Ukraine or elsewhere. And it looks like a deliberate provocation, what, to get more NATO countries who will buy American equipment? I know I’m sounding a little bit simplistic, but really, a deal had been made. And Ronald Reagan, who was certainly no softie, and Gorbachev, decided that this was time for peace. And the first President Bush certainly endorsed it. Even Donald Rumsfeld said we can cut the military budget by 30, 40 percent, you know. And the next thing you knew, no–we’re going to pick fights here. And you’re picking a fight with a guy who has rejected any semblance of Marxist ideology, thinks it’s dangerous old hat. And is actually doing what demagogic leaders all over the world do–and they all are, to some degree, demagogues–they’re playing the nationalist card. Yeah, we’re not going to give up that warm water port that the Ukrainian Khrushchev gave away; we’re going to grab it again, you know, and we’re going to show we have some dignity, and people can’t just plunder us.
And your book acknowledges that. That’s why Stalin was popular, because many people in the old Soviet Union, in the different republics, wanted a strong leader, and they didn’t want the Germans to overrun them, right? And they wanted some national pride. And you have this polling in your book where Stalin had, what, 70 percent support or more from people. It’s really something–we say they were brainwashed; well, then, anybody who cheers for the home team and is nationalist is brainwashed.
JW: I’ll never forget seeing an interview with a Russian woman–I think she was somewhere in Siberia, and she was just giving an interview–and she said: “Look, you like your president, and we like ours.” And I thought there was something kind of great about that, because it was so simple–
RS: No, no, but in your book you point out that people–that writers and dissidents that most of us support were not necessarily popular among the old Soviet population. They were thought maybe to be weakening the country. And that’s why I used the example of that woman working at an office of Moscow News, where her editor had been tortured, nonetheless–and by the way, I got the name wrong, because the editor at that time was not Igor Yakovlev; he came later, and he was Russian. But the editor of the Spanish-language edition had been in the Spanish Civil War, and he’d been tortured under Stalin. Yet she had a picture of Stalin on her desktop. And I think your book captures that. That there–I don’t know, he wasn’t their Donald Trump, but he was playing to nationalism. That’s very different than Marxist Leninism, which is supposed to be unifying the world against nationalism, right?
JW: Yeah, I mean, the sort of interplay back and forth between communism and nationalism in the Soviet Union is a pretty fascinating topic. And now it’s pretty much all nationalism. But the fact that the dissidents who did not–were not popular, really came as a surprise to me. I think that I was so sure that those dissidents who in fact were people who pretty much were Western liberal democrats inside the Soviet Union, they thought just like me, they had the same values I did–I just assumed that’s what everybody secretly wanted, but in such a repressive system they couldn’t admit it. Well, I was dead wrong. The dissidents were marginal, they did not have widespread popularity, either during or after the fall of the Soviet Union. They’re not looked back on particularly fondly by most Russians now. And it’s just interesting to think about what went on in my own mind to convince myself that they had to be the secret heroes of most of the population, because there was no evidence to support it. There was just the desire for it to be true.
And another thing that you said that I want to respond to is you mentioned this eastward expansion of NATO–I think you asked me earlier how we got back into this new Cold War, if you want to call it that, which I think is reasonable. It doesn’t really matter if it’s a Cold War or not; it’s a very hostile, dangerous relationship full of conflict. And I would say one of the primary ways we got back into it was the never-ending, tit-for-tat, back-and-forth attacks and ways of fighting between the Soviet Union and the United States did ease after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but then they started going again. And the most significant and provocative one that I can find, that happened first after the end of the Cold War against the Soviet Union, was the eastward expansion of NATO. That basically, we had a mutual defense pact designed to fight against the Soviet Union. When the Soviet Union dissolved, as you refer to, there probably was somewhere between an unwritten understanding and a misunderstanding.
But there are some different people who have different opinions on this historically; having looked at it pretty closely I think it’s probably right to say there was an unwritten understanding that NATO would never expand to the east. And after the Soviet Union fell, NATO started expanding to the east. And first it started picking up former members of the Warsaw Pact, but also Soviet defense pacts. Imagine how that would look if you were a Russian or a Russian leader with a long historical anxiety about being encircled. By the way, a lot of countries have a fear about being encircled. It’s an understandable thing to be worried about. So that happens, and then it expands to the point that they start picking up not just former members of the Warsaw Pact, but NATO starts picking up former Soviet republics. And at that point, you see Putin start to get more outwardly and openly hostile towards the West, and you have to say, huh. Do you totally blame him?
RS: Yeah. But you know, this is not the subject of your book. Except–do we want an exit strategy for the second Cold War. That’s what I’m raising here. Now, no one can accuse Orwell of having been naive, certainly not towards the end of his life, about communism. And yet in Nineteen Eighty-Four, he makes the really chilling point that maybe some societies need enemies, and they profit from it, and maybe autocracy is not unique to one ideology or not, it’s unique to the lust for power: power corrupting, absolute power corrupting absolutely. Maybe autocracy–we’ve seen that in some recent American presidential candidates–maybe autocracy is the default position of power and manipulation.
And you know, do we want–the subtitle of your book, Russia Upside Down, is An Exit Strategy for the Second Cold War. Maybe we need a Cold War–hopefully not hot wars–maybe with China, if not Russia. And I think–it’s beyond the scope of your book, but I just wonder–because people kept saying, what kind of great enemy is the Soviet Union when they’re falling apart, when they can’t even get proper computers, when a lot of their stuff doesn’t work? And oh, we were always told no, it’s formidable, no it won’t collapse on its own, no, no–well that was wrong. And the fact is, there was a reason why they wanted to negotiate peace, and certainly under Gorbachev, why he was sincere about getting rid of the military component and actually freeing Eastern Europe. He was obviously committed to that.
And so then we have to–this is a good way, maybe, of wrapping it up; you’re a brilliant historian–is the problem here, in our own government? Is it the American empire that requires war, or at least cold wars? Otherwise why do we have to build new carriers and new B-1 bombers and everything, why are we modernizing the nuclear fleet and all that?
JW: I think I’m somewhat in agreement with that sentiment, but I might look at it a little bit differently and say that large, powerful countries in particular–and to some degree, plenty of other countries too–are vulnerable to mass political movements, or mass national policies, that are kind of predicated on the psychological desire of its citizens and even its system to have an enemy. But the only country where we could really do much about that is our own. Other countries have to deal with that themselves; that’s their problem. For us, we have to deal with it as our problem. Now, if it is an immutable fact of human nature, there’s really nothing to do about it. And that’s a definite possibility .But what I argue in the book is that it might be that if we can essentially become self-aware about that desire, about that need, about that sometimes I would almost say compulsion to have an enemy, that might allow us to step back and tread a little more carefully, and maybe not create enemies or accept an invitation to joint enemyship, such as we had with the Soviet Union and I think we have with Russia.
And you know, it’s interesting, Bob, watching everything that’s been going on in our country lately–not just watching, but feeling everything that’s going on in our country–I think the sort of fundamental question about whether innate psychological issues like needing enemies is going to prevail over our democratic system is suddenly a very potent question. And I don’t see how anybody could possibly know the answer. I would say that I grew up with a kind of a fantasy that I never even thought about, that the democratic system was so powerful and so good that it essentially could overpower any niggly little problems in human nature. I would say that was pretty naive. And that now there’s sort of a battle between some of these nasty impulses and some of the great checks and balances in our system to check them, and I don’t know what’s going to happen; nobody does.
RS: You know, you’ve been very patient with your time, and I want to extend this just for a few minutes to a sort of a basic question of who we are and how the world works. In my lifetime, one of the things that’s kept me apologizing, actually, for the United States, even though at times when I was very strongly opposed to specific policies like the Vietnam War or segregation, and certainly in the South and so forth, was an idea of a written constitution, the codification of individual rights, the idea of separation of powers–all of the things when we teach this history we stress that the founders, whatever their failings, were aware that power corrupts. They were aware that you have checks and balances, you have to have the freedom of the individual.
What we’ve seen–and it’s interesting–is that increasingly that doesn’t hold very much water. That we can lie to the public, which we did in a lot of these foreign adventures; that you can manipulate people; that you can apologize. And then reading your book, I was reminded that actually the Soviet Union had written safeguards in their constitution. Article 50 in their constitution, where they guarantee essential freedoms of speech and of the press and of assembly. And you actually say some of that had some value, in that even in the dissident trials people could appeal to that and so forth, and they did sign off on the UN Declaration of Human Rights. This is not to say we shouldn’t have codification of individual rights, but it is an indication that it’s not the safeguard that we might think it is.
And I just want to think of it, because lying becomes easiest about the defense of empire; truth is the first casualty in war. And one of the strongest parts of your book, you know–and the book is marvelous, I want to say, because it challenges a lot of our preconceptions about everything. I mean, what happened in Russia and what happened in the U.S. But there’s one section that I think you do a particularly good job, and that’s about Afghanistan, and the war in Afghanistan, which then we continued the war in Afghanistan after being involved in supposedly defeating the Soviets. And it’s been the longest war and just at an end. And in reading your section, it seemed very fresh to me, that whole thing, because basically you make the argument that actually the Soviets didn’t go into Afghanistan because of Marxist Leninism or even to get fresh water ports, warm ports or any of the things that people have said. But they had a screwed-up ally there, who was however on the side of modernization, and on the side of challenging religious fanaticism. And we sided with the mujahideen in that war against the Soviets, which might have been the main factor in bringing down their regime, which was our goal according to Zbigniew Brzezinski. And the fact of the matter is, we used all these arguments about human rights, actually defending the Muslim fundamentalists who were deprived of human rights, for much of their population.
So why don’t we just conclude on that? And the reason I’m bringing that up is because if we continue cold wars, we continue the excuse for invading other countries, for messing up other people’s history. And Afghanistan, I think, is an important cautionary tale that your book, Russia Upside Down: An Exit Strategy for the Second Cold War–it’s a reminder that the second Cold War, that cold wars lead us to irresponsible behavior, including something like this long war in Afghanistan. So let’s wrap it up with that as an example.
JW: Well, great, because there’s something I’d like to say about that that I find particularly interesting. For years, many people drew the obvious parallel between Vietnam and Afghanistan, with really quite a few ways in which they were analogous. And I always got that, and it seemed interesting. But then I read a book called [unclear], by a British guy named [unclear], I’m not sure if I’m pronouncing his last name correctly. I think he had been a British ambassador to the Soviet Union. And he talked about how when the Soviets were deciding whether or not to invade, there was a very robust debate in the Politburo; they sort of had a feeling, some of them, that they were being pulled into a quagmire, but they couldn’t quite stop themselves. I mean, it sounded exactly like how our leaders struggled before making the decision to get into Vietnam.
And then he had this one particular point, which was that they started to tell themselves, well, we could modernize Afghanistan. After all, we have these Muslim central Asian republics in the Soviet Union that are the most liberal Muslim places on earth. There is something about us that can liberalize Islam, and in particular bring women’s rights to Afghanistan. And they told themselves that to justify and give a kind of human rights motivation to what was really a strategic thing they wanted to do, that they also kind of knew was a mistake. And that just sounded so exactly like us, that I found it very powerful, because it showed how similar we are, and how much we think the same way, and also how much their leaders were not these stereotypes of kind of evil people trying to spread communism, they were actually people who got caught in the same kind of logical ruts that we and our leaders did.
RS: Well, that’s a serious, cautionary–well, actually an indictment. I mean, you’re kind of–you know, cold wars, like hot wars, they mess up a lot of lives; they carry a lot of implications. But that’s all the time we’ve got for considering the upside down world, not just Russia. And so thank you for doing that. And the book is Russia Upside Down: An Exit Strategy for the Second Cold War. Indispensable reading if you want to understand not just where we are now, which is pretty dangerous–you know, Russia still has a lot of nuclear weapons and these issues are not going away, and how do we manage, they still occupy a lot of real estate in this world, a lot of time zones, and getting it right is important.
But I think it’s even more important as a book to try to raise fundamental questions about what were the last 50, 60 years of history all about? You know, after all, 70 years now–what was the whole Cold War and its continuation really all about? And I think people reading Russia Upside Down, really an appropriate title, don’t realize how much they were deceived about this. How much nonsense was said and written about this whole Cold War, how partisan it was and how nationalistic it was on both sides. And it’s an exercise, really, it was an exercise in madness. And the book, I think, exposed that. It’s very clearly written based on a great deal of scholarship by a lot of scholars including the current author, Joseph Weisberg. And I want to say we need to be taken back to school on this. We have to re-study that history.
But we’ve done our share here. I want to thank Christopher Ho at KCRW for posting these podcasts, the terrific independent public radio station. Joshua Scheer for being the executive producer of Scheer Intelligence. Natasha Hakimi Zapata for writing the intros that are indispensable. And Lucy Berbeo for doing the transcription. I want to thank the JWK Foundation in memory of Jean Stein, a great independent author, for helping fund these podcasts. See you next week with another edition of Scheer Intelligence.