To remind myself of the hatred I felt for the Soviet Union while it existed, I re-read last month Smiley’s People, the third and final novel of “Karla Trilogy,” John le Carré’s saga of the monumental struggle of British spy chief George Smiley with his KGB counterpart Karla, director of Moscow Centre’s Ninth Directorate. The hollow-point bullet in the back of the head of a former Soviet general taking a late-night London stroll brought back all the brutality and duplicity of le Carre’s portrayal of high-level espionage competition during the Cold War.
Vivid as the story is, it seemed too narrow an indictment of the many loathsome aspects of the Soviet empire. So for a broader reminder, I picked up again The Soviet Century: Archaeology of a Lost World, by Karl Schlögel, translated from the German by Rodney Livingstone (Princeton, 2023). The Soviet Century is by far the single best chronicle I have ever encountered of what happened in Russia over the course of the hundred years after those Ten Days that Shook the World reporter John Reed’s contemporary account of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917,
I haven’t read all of Schlögel’s tome, which presents as a generously illustrated guidebook to a museum of the vanished Soviet world. Mostly I have leafed through its generously illustrated pages again and again, reluctant to give the book away, but unwilling to commit to systematically reading its 906 pages. A series of deeply thoughtful essays organized around particular eras, places, and things, “an arrangement of exhibits to provide a form framework,” but not the linear history of progress of a typical museum, but instead a searing look behind the scenes.
Tolstoy could organize a ball to introduce his cast of characters when he wanted to explain a war; Schlögel relies on words and photographs to tell his stories: of dams, steelworks, and canals; city parks and gulag camps; couples dancing and being married; everyday kitchens and homey toilets; apartment buildings, parades, and queues; public cemeteries and private killing fields. The last chapter comes close to capturing the heart of the matter: the enormous Lubyanka Building in central Moscow, headquarters of an nineteenth-century insurance company, twentieth century home to Soviet secret services, reimagined as a physical museum, a celebration of a newly open society, containing innumerable installations in the manner of Schlögel’s book.
Born in Bavaria in 1948, Schlögel started working on the history of Eastern Europe and Russia forty years ago as a young professor at the University of Konstanz. The Soviet Century appeared in Germany in 2017. By then the war in Ukraine had begun. Schlögel became an outspoken critic of Russia, especially after 2022. It is easy to understand his disappointment with the way post-Soviet Russia has turned out.
Economic Principals is not so sure of the way this story is being told in the West. “What Brits don’t understand about life in Russia,” by Robin Ashenden, is an account of four years, the young editor and novelist, recently spent in Russia before the most recent phase of the war in Ukraine began. No subscription to The Spectator is required; the short piece is a link especially worth clicking on for the picture it paints of the mood and feel of daily life in Russia before the all-out invasion of Ukraine began in 2022, and how the mood and feel of daily life in London has changed since. Recollections of my own short tour of Soviet Russia in 1974 lead me to believe there had been trending in the direction he describes for at least fifty years, more rapidly after 1999.
Standard versions of Russia history in the twenty-first century usually stipulate that, since having been as a KGB officer stationed in Leipzig when the Berlin Wall came down, Vladimir Putin has learned nothing, and that he began yearning, almost immediately, for the restoration of the Soviet Union. There is abundant evidence that he has learned a lot, at least about how to manipulate opinion, both in his own country and abroad. More than half the world seems to consider that that war in Ukraine is an internal Russian matter. And how do Russians feel? That is much more complicated, because they are directly involved, as citizens, potential soldiers (and their loved ones), and, recently, as residents. See this dispatch from Christian Science Monitor correspondent Fred Weir about the night the war came to his little village outside Moscow.
Roger Cohen, the widely respected Paris bureau chief of The New York Times, spent a month traveling across Russia this summer, and in August filed a careful report on his journey. Summarizing near the beginning of his dispatch, he wrote:
“As I traveled from Siberia to Belgorod on Russia’s western border with Ukraine, across the vertigo-inducing vastness that informs Russian assertiveness, I found a country uncertain of its direction or meaning, torn between the glorious myths that Mr. Putin has cultivated and everyday struggle.
“Along the way, I encountered fear and fervid bellicosity, as well as stubborn patience to see out a long war. I found that Homo sovieticus, far from dying out, has lived on in modified form, along with habits of subservience. So with the aid of relentless propaganda on state television, the old Putin playbook — money, mythmaking and menace of murder — has just about held.”
There is no telling when the war in Ukraine will end, or how. But the first rule of strategy is to begin by putting yourself in your opponent’s place, imagining what he hopes to accomplish. Putin was clear enough when he published his 6,000-word rationale for the war in the summer of 2021. Although he didn’t mention Vietnam, he sees his assault on Ukraine as analogous to that of North Vietnam on South Vietnam in the Sixties and Seventies – two parties of one people (and, of course, an economy much stronger if unified than were to remain independent parts).
His invasion of the Crimean Peninsula, in 2014, went smoothly; seriously ill-informed in 2022, he expected his “special military operation” against Kyiv to succeed as well. When it didn’t, he pulled back, repositioned his forces, ordered a nationwide draft, and prepared to seek to outlast NATO’s devotion to the cause of Ukrainian independence. Will he succeed? Who knows? But to reincorporate Ukraine in the Russian Federation is what he is trying to do. And though EP objects to the invasion, I don’t dislike Putin’s Russia the way I loathed the the Soviet Union.
Meanwhile, back in Washington. D.C., David Ignatius, an influential foreign affairs columnist for The Washington Post, wrote last week that, even at this late date, President Joe Biden should step aside. He has been a successful and effective president, Ignatius argued, but if he and Vice President Kamala Harris campaign together in 2024, “Biden risks undoing his greatest achievement — which was stopping Trump.”
“Biden has never been good at saying no. He should have resisted the choice of Harris, who was a colleague of his beloved son Beau when they were both state attorneys general. He should have blocked then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, which has done considerable damage to the island’s security. He should have stopped his son Hunter from joining the board of a Ukrainian gas company and representing companies in China — and he certainly should have resisted Hunter’s attempts to impress clients by getting Dad on the phone.
“Biden has another chance to say no — to himself, this time — by withdrawing from the 2024 race. It might not be in character for Biden, but it would be a wise choice for the country.”
EP couldn’t agree more. To think that only Biden can beat Trump is to risk the loss of faith in American democracy. It is not too late for a series of vigorous debates and snap primary elections to produce, from among a handful of serious contenders, a Democratic candidate who would decisively defeat the desperado former president, who is rapidly aging himself. And if a surprise Democratic president didn’t succeed in reducing the current turbulence, the nation would have a chance to choose again in 2028.
Now here’s the funny thing. Next month marks EP’s fortieth anniversary – about half those years as a column in what was then a major American newspaper, the second portion as an online newsletter, with four books to show for it in the process, and one more in the works. That’s a long time in the news business, but it doesn’t seem that way. In fact, EP feels it may be more relevant than ever to its small but elite core readers.