Back in the USSR: Ruminations on the Cold War

Russian Birthmark

I always had a strange fascination with the old Soviet Empire. Being born into the Cold War era, I just accepted its’ peril as something burned into my existence. It was always there operating in the background of my early life like Bonanza or Spaghetti O’s. Even though I was only 7, I was mystified on how something as dispiriting and toxic as Communism could take root in the bosom of Mother Russia. And as a disbelieving adolescent I followed Soviet events with prodigious avidity – not an easy thing for a 7 year old to do. Their culture seemed so poisonous; like being on chemotherapy all the time, but with nothing to cure. Things were so bleak in the Soviet Union that Russian children didn’t wish they were Oscar-Mayer wieners. Even the Soviet Keebler Elves were banished to a Siberian Gulag for putting too much sand in one of Stalin’s Pecan Sandies. 

This disconnect with reality also informed my thoughts on God and religion. As a naïve youngster, I reckoned for sure there had to be one God or at least one truth and yet all sorts of organizations offered any number of distinct pathways; each one claiming, with unshakable conviction, to be irrefutably authentic. “How could this be,” said little David? What was the difference between an Episcopalian and a Taoist – I mean outside of the bedroom? Why couldn’t the grown-ups agree on one path when it all seemed so self-evident? As a guileless adult (guileless is the mature version of naïve) I still ask the same questions. The old Soviet Union combined these dual pathogens (Communism and a Godless Society) into a two-headed monster that marauded the steppes; wrinkling the people and driving them to drink.

As we’ve seen in America a two party system is fraught with partisan inefficiency and petty squabbles. But under Communism, one repressive and unresponsive mega party is pure Hell. Communism eventually collapsed more from the unworkable tenets of Marxism than from anything else. It was a flawed system, like gender assignment in San Francisco. The fall of the Berlin Wall is not to be confused with the winter or spring of the Berlin Wall. The fall of the Berlin Wall was a time to rejoice as the faceless masses of Eastern Europe finally got real pusses to slap on those nondescript mugs. But more important than achieving an identity, the newly liberated citizens finally gained access to genuine made in the US of A Coca-Cola. The Coke they had prior to 1989 was Warsaw Pact black market Coke sweetened with Hungarian coal tar. It wasn’t even carbonated. Such was the state of affairs in this benighted empire.

Caveat Empire

In a Fulton, MO speech in 1946 Winston Churchill famously articulated the Soviet hegemony exercised over the hapless Eastern European states: “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an Iron Curtain has descended across the continent.” (Hear it).It was true. But by 1956 the Iron Curtain had completely rusted out leaving a dispiriting political system grafted to a stand in population of shiftless proletariat whose only joy was listening to Perry Como warble “Magic Moments” on Radio Free Europe. And you thought watching “Petticoat Junction” was bad.  

A Very Brief Capitalist Rant

And as great a service as Google provides to humanity, I am galled by the indiscernibly pink background color they use to “highlight” search engine answers that are actually fig-leafed advertisers who paid Google hard cash for my eyeballs. So even though I think I’m getting some kind of organic search based on consumer merit in the unfettered digital marketplace of ideas, it’s really just another cyber commercial. But somehow we’re grateful to the Great Oz for protecting us from the untamed internet and navigating its treacherous digital waters on our behalf. Good for their business, but insidious manipulation nonetheless. You have to tilt your screen at a 150° angle to even notice the pink highlighting of their sponsored ads. It’s too late now because Google is burned into everyone’s existence just like Spaghetti O’s was. OK sorry, I’m off topic.

I Just Met You, and This is Crazy

Today I’m here to discuss Communism – the peculiar political system that played on the world stage from 1917 to 1991. What? You think it still exists? No, China is Communist in name only. You don’t grow your economy 8% per year for 14 years by adhering to toxic Marxist-Leninist economic principles. And then of course there’s the basket case of North Korea where school lunch programs classify pumice as a vegetable. And let’s not forget Cuba who’s just looking for an excuse to gracefully exit from the suffocating atmosphere of ’57 Packards and a Command Economy where lint is rationed. If some kind of “Caribbean Spring” were to materialize, they’d once again join the colorful world of Calypso to which they’re much better suited. Once the Castro brothers retire their fatigues it’s going to be party time and it won’t be a Communist Party. No. Communism is dead and everyone knows it; just as geocentrism is dead; to the dismay of certain clergymen.

Humpty Dumpty

In 1989 the once unassailable Berlin Wall crumbled spectacularly in a haze of ideological ash. American historians immediately consigned Communism to the trash heap of history. British historians consigned it to the dust bin of history. Point being, this discredited system was put out by the historical curb. Discerning nations left it there, stating: “We refuse refuse.” Communism’s ideological forefather Karl Marx summarized the philosophy with grunting elegance, “From each according to his abilities. To each according to his needs.” And this is a beautiful philosophy that makes perfect sense – in heaven. It’s different on earth. We’ve got something here called self-interest. So although Communist ideals are compelling in theory, in practice the system is positively fecal. Epic fecal. The Soviet people however were a beautiful and persevering citizenry yoked to a hellish history and demented political system. Is it any wonder the national pastime is vodka? Let me cite a statistic you might find surprising: After 44 years without a Triple Crown winner, Detroit Tiger Miguel Cabrera finally achieved the hallowed Crown Jewel in 2012 with 44 home runs, a .330 batting average and 139 RBIs.

Red Letter Day

Russians were inured to czarist and communist despotism. Any country where a leader’s title begins with “Cz” or who’s national airline ends in the word “flot’” is in serious trouble. Could you imagine having a Czesident Kennedy or flying United Airflot? Not very inspiring. In the old Soviet Union melancholy, apathy and resignation were referred to as the 20th century. Russian despair runs deep and is best exemplified by how pixie Olympic gymnast Olga Korbut responded when asked what she was going to do now that she’d won a gold medal: “I’m going to Gulagland.” With expectations set so low, a day without oppression was referred to as an error. Russian literature, music and especially their wallpaper bespoke the gray mood coloring the people. Have you seen that depressing wallpaper in the background of old Soviet pictures? My god it looks like the lining of my grandmother’s esophagus (Don’t ask.).

Capitalism and Communism perceived things differently. Whereas Americans hoped for air conditioning in their new car, Soviets simply hoped it “went away” when it was flushed. I wonder if the world would’ve been different had Marx been born into money or at least met H.R. Pufnstuf. Would he channel his hostility to opulence into a rickety theory on economics or would he have been content playing whist and drinking brandy? Of course that’s like saying what would’ve happened had Hitler been Jewish. I know this much – there’d be a lot more doctors in Germany. 

Marx did have a point. The extreme disparity of wealth and poverty helped to foment the 1848 revolutions which rocked European monarchies. Labor was abused. This was a time when a pension was known as “children.” Workers (if they were employed) generally worked 12 hour days and 10 hours on Saturday. Sunday was a day of giving thanks to God for their good fortune. And it was against this backdrop Marx formulated his turgid, if utopian, Communist Manifesto: “Workers of the world, Unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains.” There’s much more nuanced history to explain here and if you’re really interested I suggest you get a life.  

Boo! The Red Scare

The Cold War. Soviet – US tensions. MAD – Mutually Assured Destruction. A godless society. It all seemed so perilous and intractable. Khrushchev once said in reference to a possible superpower Armageddon; “The living will envy the dead.” Merry Christmas to you too Mr. Chairman. Movies like “Failsafe” and “Dr. Strangelove” fed into this powder keg mentality. In my early frame of reference, East vs. West, the Bear vs. the Eagle, Communism vs. Capitalism, were all part of the permanent geopolitical landscape. Unlike today’s terrorists, the Soviets were a legitimate enemy with cities you could target and interests you could threaten. However in the nearly half century of the Cold War there wasn’t one Russian suicide bomber. Maybe that’s the advantage of living in a godless society. Their interests are more earthbound and not based on the promise of 77 virgins in the afterlife (I always felt 1 in this life was plenty). Take God out of the equation and you can pretty much deal with anyone. So while the Soviet Union was a wicked and wily foe, they were also a fairly responsible belligerent because even their vodka-drenched Politburo understood the consequences of bad behavior. Soviet leaders would actually visit this country and we’d return the favor. It was like a really bad divorce. The leaders were only putting on a good face for the children (citizens). In fact in a 1974 summit, Nixon presented Brezhnev with a Lincoln Continental. Or maybe it was Lincoln who presented Brezhnev with a Nixon Continental (need my potassium supplement). I don’t think we’ll ever see Obama giving Kim Jong-Un a Lincoln. A Yugo maybe, but not a Lincoln.

The old adage; “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer,” comes to mind. The Soviet Union was a close enemy. I mean I’m not wistful about their passing and I’m glad their ominous specter has been pruned back to a lighter, less lugubrious force. I guess what I’m trying to say is, I never thought I’d see the day when Gorky Park would host a Russian flash mob dancing to Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face.”

Those Soviet apparatchiks were implacable enemies. They wouldn’t floss. They didn’t Rock or Roll. And because they didn’t believe in God, they never knew the spiritual release of bingo. In Russia the accepted cure for snoring was a hatchet. This brutish aesthetic carried over to manufacturing where the only thing of value they could export came from the ground – oil, gold, and radiation from Chernobyl. They were always so worried about nuclear war yet managed to unleash one in their own backyard; and to this day they’ve quarantined a 30 mile radius surrounding the plant to everything but squirrels with tails at both ends. This creaky, non-incentivized system couldn’t get anything right. Their automobile “industry” was pathetic. By the time they rolled a brand new Volga off the commie assembly line, it already had “old car smell.”

But while dull Communism limped alongside shiny Capitalism; the Old Soviet Union was mostly an honorable foe. Like that Star Trek episode where, after a transporter malfunction, evil Kirk and evil Spock battle their Star Fleet doppelgängers. How did the USSR get that way? So gloomy and brutish. Well, it’s complicated. Suffice to say the *sshole Czars didn’t help much by treating their subjects like ants under a magnifying lens. Income distribution was non-existent. The Czars and 6 cronies owned everything in a country the size of Mercury. This went on for centuries. Once Lenin took power and imposed communism’s celebration of labor upon the serfs, things turned 180° and now everybody (through something called “the State”) owned everything. Now that’s redistribution of wealth.  Of course the proletariat owned everything in theory, and that’s the problem with Communism. It only works in theory. When quizzed in off the record interviews of conditions in this “worker’s paradise,” laborers would convey the true state of affairs in simple terms; “We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us.”

When Vladimir Ilyich Lenin assumed power, the peoples’ situation did not change. Only the system did. Few if any serfs were interested in being commies. They were too busy scrimping on borscht till the turnip crop came in. Despite numerous posters to the contrary, they didn’t exhort their comrades to gallantly mine bauxite for the Motherland. They didn’t wave any banners of ideological purity unless they were being watched by the KGB. When the Bolsheviks won the 1917 Revolution over Czarist or Tsarist forces (it’s unclear which is which), egalitarianism began to seep into the country. For example all the padded headboards were removed so everyone humped on an equal basis. Urinals were installed in women’s bathrooms and all churches could choose to worship either a hammer or a sickle. Russian iconography never disappoints. Yes the Commies imposed their system with an iron fist, but it really wasn’t any different from how 20th Century FOX Studios treated their contract players (Why do you think Shirley Temple didn’t star in “The Wizard of Oz?”). Slowly the Soviet Union evolved into a classless society. And by 1930 they had achieved their goal and had absolutely no class at all.

Of course that classless society later morphed into a stratified cronyistic haven. For example, Romanov Airlines offered 3 classes of seating for its Russian countrymen – First Class, Serf Class and Dissident Class. In First Class you could have your Faberge eggs poached or beaten and usually served over hashed Latvians. In Serf Class you could have your dissidents beaten and in Dissident Class you were just beaten. Dissident Class thoughtfully offered a goiter and non-goiter section. The Soviet cradle to grave health system was superbly efficient in getting people from the cradle directly to the grave. Let me cite a statistic you might find surprising: in 1968 Carl Yastrzemski won the AL batting title with a paltry .301 average, .301! Maybe that’s why the next year MLB lowered the mound from 15 to 10 inches.

The Warsaw Pact: An Equal and Opposite Reaction

In response to the threat from the West’s NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) the Russians formed their formidable Warsaw Pact Alliance. It was formidable only in the sense that I placed a word spelled like formidable before the term Warsaw Pact. This paper tiger slaughtered hundreds of troops – usually their own during training. Since alcohol consumption was so pervasive, infantry grunts were told, “Don’t fire till you see the reds of their eyes.” This shell of an alliance was a bulwark against whatever the hell bulwarks were supposed to prevent. Great money, labor and unrecoverable invention was squandered as the two factions rattled their light sabers and jockeyed for international supremacy. And when all was said and done the unstinting Soviet specialists in the State Department had won the day with fear-mongering rhetorical overestimation of the USSR’s strength and generally bad faith in assessing the intentions and abilities of our creaky lethargic Russian Bear of an enemy. A policy of “Containment” was born and we spent a fortune sharpening our nuclear-tipped spears and trying to contain communism in very expensive Tupperware containers.

A Moment to Pause, Refresh and Focus on the Preposterousness of Russians Enclosed in Tupperware

Once the Russians were confined in Tupperware containers, their humanitarian American adversaries would occasionally burp them and ask the Russians if they were ready to come out and play well with others.

GI Joe: Are you guys ready to come out yet?

GI Ivan: Nyet.

GI Joe: Do you mean “No” or “Not yet?”

GI Ivan: Nyet Comrade.

GI Joe: Well we’re going to put your top back on now because your lid is ajar.

GI Ivan: Do you mean our lid is a jar or just open? 

GI Joe: Don’t give us any semantic trouble or will raze this place.

GI Ivan: Do you mean you will level the place or raise it up? 

GI Joe: Yeah I get it raze vs. raise. Well the answer is Nyet.

GI Ivan: Do you mean “No” or “Not yet?”

GI Joe: Just get back in the USSR!

GI Ivan: Do you mean the Beatles’ “Get Back” or “Back in the USSR?”

GI Joe: Let me cite a statistic you might find interesting. From 1949 thru 1953 the Yankees under manager Casey Stengel won 5 World Series.

GI Ivan: Don’t you mean “through” instead of “thru?”

This kind of miscommunication led to the harrowing Cuban Missile Crisis and eventually, through a process not fully understood, the final quirky season of “Lost.”

I Sing the Commies Electric

The Commies did get a few things right. For example they threw Lee Harvey Oswald out of Russia. What a colossal f*ck up this guy was. A US marine defects to the Soviets Union and is such a tool that even they say “Nyet misfit comrade. Back to Ahmerika.” They also promoted women’s rights and went to great lengths to ensure women suffered just as much as men did. In 1973 the relatively myopic Leonid Brezhnev expressed hope the Beatles would get back together. And while it’s true he thought John Lennon was related to Vladimir Lenin, it was a charitable hope nonetheless.  And let us not forget Yuri Andropov who remarked on his death bed: “Don’t these Santana guitar solos ever end?” Additionally, because there were chronic shortages of everything, Russians excelled at queuing. They could stoically line up for some newly arrived Bulgarian bleach with nary a harsh word passing their lips. And if the bleach ran out by the time they reached the front of the line they’d calmly reflect, “Good then. Though my clothes are dingy, my character is built.”

You Crane Ian (Ukrainian)

By 1959 the Soviets had outstripped the US in the production of steel and cement. But little did we know it was all piled high in a useless coagulated mess just outside Moscow. We in the West didn’t realize there was no anesthesia in Russia. That’s because under communism the people had lost all feeling and didn’t need it. The Russians had already snuck enough Teflon into the Moscow aquifers to ensure small caliber bullets would bounce off Muscovites. And with that degradation, Russian water simply gave up under communism and allowed itself to boil at a tepid 150°. Quintessential Russian writer Leo Tolstoy once wrote, “Some people’s lives would be a barren landscape of utter alienation if they couldn’t walk their damn dogs in the morning. Sheesh.” It’s for inspiring prose like this Russia has a suicide rate on par with lemmings. They could care less if a baby panda was born at their National Czoo. The stalwart Russian people are thankful their short brutish lives aren’t even shorter and brutisher (sic). That’s why this dystopian country is a riddle wrapped in an enigma then lightly dusted with paprika and served with a side of disbelief. Russian cuisine featured generous amounts of nothing and lots of grit. Often diners were heard to complain, “My condiments to the chef.” My sediments exactly.

In the Beginning

Communism. It even sounds like a dirty word like smegma or Enron. Communism. The other “C” word. I don’t want you reading this forever so I’ll move it along. In 1917 Lenin begins his Occupy St. Petersburg movement and in no time the revolution is won. After a few years of forcibly hanging gloomy wallpaper all over the land and installing billboards exhorting the faceless masses to remain faceless, he dies of cretinism in 1924. His corpse is embalmed with Stolichnaya and put on display in Red Square as a kind of Commie Jesus Christ. His disciple, Jolly Joe Stalin takes over and leads the country to unprecedented lows. Whereas our political system might allow someone like Richard Nixon to rise to power, the Soviet system birthed the psychopathically murderous Josef Stalin. Had he and his henchmen focused more on the onion crop and less on Holodomor (forced famine in the Ukraine to promote farm collectivization – WT*?), there’d be 30 million more people in the world today. Real uplifting stuff. For a country with massive alcoholism this is a sobering statistic. Especially when considering that among those starved to death was an endocrinologist who had almost eradicated menopause thereby eliminating the need for trophy brides. The entire country should’ve been placed in the custody of a caring foster nation like Finland. But how long would they need Finland’s foster care? You never know when the Finnish are done (In Biloxi, MS that sentence would read, “You never know when they’re done Finnished.”).

After Stalin’s death from natural causes in 1953 (I can’t believe no one murdered the bastard), Nikita Khrushchev became Chairman of the Board and wielded as much power as Frank Sinatra ever did. His first pronouncements to the US were stated with typical Russian pluck: “We will bury you.” I blame his parents and lack of a Head Start program for his truculence. Initially he was home schooled but was expelled for setting off a cherry bomb in the lavatory. Little Nikita’s parents never went to any of his chess matches in high school and this scarred the young lad for life. Khrushchev represented the pugnacious Rambo face of the Soviet Union which was then rising in the esteem of the world. Communism was presented as a nurturing alternative to heartless Capitalism and the West fretted immensely over the specter of its world domination. Early on they rocketed ahead in the Space Race by launching Sputnik (loosely translated it still means “sputnik”) and they were the first to send a dog into orbit and then just as quickly a cosmonaut to clean up the mess Laika had deposited in low earth orbit (The brain trust at Star City forgot to walk the dog prior to its being crated in a space ship for 24 hours).

Eventually Khrushchev fell into disfavor due to the spelling of his name more than anything else. Alexei Kosygin took the reins , but was nothing more than a transitional figure much like “Badfinger” was supposed to pick up where the Beatles left off. Kosygin soon sputniked into oblivion. And when massively lush eyebrows became the preferred look for international tyrants, it was only a matter of time till Leonid Brezhnev (Soviet iBrow: see it) became the leader. Obviously times had changed in the Soviet Union. During his “Era of Good Feelings” which lasted from 5:15 pm to 6:45 pm MCT (Moscow Commie Time) on Tuesday November 18, 1969, Siberian Gulags lavished prisoners with heaping bowls of sleet instead of the usual fare of just bowls, inspiring noted refusenik Alexandr Solzhenitsyn to remark, “I hate my last name”. By now the Iron Curtain’s rust had become a fine ferrous powder and was only standing by force of habit. Communism’s teetering situation is best exemplified by the Soviet’s client state Cuba, who in the 70’s and 80’s generated almost 40% of its GDP from reexporting Soviet oil. When Russia died so did Cuba. Allow me to cite another interesting statistic. In 1971 the Baltimore Orioles sported four 20 game winning pitchers (see them).

In quick succession former KGB Director Yuri Andropov succeeds Brezhnev. In no time (actually some time) Andropov drops off and Peter Offenjerkoff takes over but is dismissed when he can’t produce a birth certificate (alright Offenjerkoff is fictitious). This leads to a power vacuum provided by Hoover but soon filled by the aged Konstantin Chernenko. He holds the fateful sickle of power for a short time till he succumbs to chugging embalming fluids. And finally the ascendancy of that shining star and enabler of the Soviet implosion, Mikhail Gorbachev who deftly takes the stage to illuminate the pathology of the system and let it crater under its own weight. Gorby ushered in revolutionary ideas like glasnost meaning “tubers for all” and perestroika translated, “happy with my onions.” Under these permissive programs burlap suits were phased out and rainbows were now colorized. There was some overreach however when the Politburo passed a coercive law making it mandatory for trees to exhale Nitrous Oxide or risk being chopped down. Soviet problems were often solved with hatchets. You could aks them anything, but you might not like the answer. Allow me to cite another interesting statistic. In 2001 Barry Bonds hit a record breaking 73 home runs. In all other years he never hit more than 49. Steroids were not involved.

In the End

All good things must come to an end. Fortunately that works with bad things too. And as Communism becomes just another faddish relic from the past like goldfish swallowing or Rubik’s Cubes, I’m pleased to visit its grave and gaze upon its ignominious epitaph: “Here lies Communism. Even when it was living it lied.”

The “What Have We Learned” Ending

If people are born into a system, it’s very difficult to change it. Whether it’s an ideology or a proclivity, the amount of consciousness needed to redirect one’s energies is directly proportional to the embeddedness of the system you’re trying to dislodge. This is true for child abusers, drug addicts and commies. Of course it also works the other way where caring begets caring and those that generate love, elevate themselves and those around them, in much the same way former Laker point guard Magic Johnson made his teammates even better. It’s not ironclad, but it does operate more directly than just having faith. What else is there to say? Allow me to cite an interesting statistic. In 1930 reporters asked Babe Ruth to justify how he could make more money than Depression Era President Herbert Hoover. “Easy,” he offered. “I had a better year.”   

 

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