by Vladimir Bukovsky
Exactly one hundred years before I was born, the great Russian writer Nikolai Gogol prophetically described Russia as a troika rushing headlong for no apparent reason or purpose, just for the joy of fast driving:
“O troika, thou bird of a troika! Who was it that first thought thee up? It must have been a resourceful nation that gave thee birth in a land that brooks no nonsense, but has spread its plains, smoothly, evenly, over half of the world; and now go, count its milestones until everything is blurred before your eyes.
And no elaborate job either is this contraption of a vehicle. No iron screws hold it together. An ax and a chisel—that was all a smart Yaroslav peasant needed to make it and fit it in a jiffy. The driver wears no German top boots: he is all beard and mittens, and sits on—the Devil alone knows what it is he sits on. But the moment he has half-risen in his seat, has swung his whip and struck up a song, off shoot the horses like a whirlwind …
… And thou, Russia, art not thou, too, rushing headlong like the fastest troika that
is not to be outdistanced? The road smokes under thee, the bridges rumble, everything
Falls back and left behind. Lost in amazement at this, God's own miracle, stands the
onlooker. Is this not a flash of lightning sent down from heaven? What is the meaning,
of this awe-inspiring onrush? What is the mysterious force that is contained in these
steeds? O ye steeds, steeds—what steeds they are! Do whirlwinds dwell in your manes? Is every fibre of yours endowed with a quick, eager ear of its own? The moment you hear the familiar song above your heads, you strain your mighty chests of bronze, all as one, all at the same instant, and barely touching the earth with your hoofs, you become transformed into straight lines flying through the air, and the troika dashes along, all inspired by God. Russia, whither art thou speeding? Answer me!.. She gives no answer. The jingle bells pour forth their wonderful peal, the air, torn to shreds, thunders and turns to wind. Everything on earth is flying past, and the other nations and states, eyeing her askance, make way for her and draw aside.
The contemporaries of Gogol were at a loss at how to interpret such strange prophecy. The Russia of their time was a fabulously immobile country; no apparent rush was in evidence, or even hinted at. put now, a century and a half later, we have no difficulty identifying even the smallest details of the picture.
Who is so blind nowadays who cannot recognize this contraption of a vehicle called “developed socialism,” put together by a smart peasant in due hurry of a five-year plan out of odd bits and pieces procured from foreign lands? The Devil alone knows how the driver manages to hold on when the horses dash along, and why the unwieldy carriage does not fall apart at the first bump.
And the steeds, those steeds... what steeds they are! I could write a whole poem about what these steeds think when they hear above their heads the all too familiar songs of proletarian solidarity and fraternal assistance, of eternal duty and the bright future. Their only hope is that the driver will somehow tumble down and break is neck as, all as one, they strain their mighty chests.
Still, the problem remains. No one knows where the carriage is going. She gives no answer, but continues her awe-inspiring onrush through Asia, Africa, and Central America. And the other nations and states, at their wits’ end after trying everything from containment to detente, still make way for her and draw aside.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find in American literature of the nineteenth century anything equally prophetic and graphic to symbolize modern America. Perhaps I didn’t search hard enough, but neither Mark Twain’s steamboat on the Mississippi nor the great white whale of Melville could satisfy me.
But just as I was fishing for an appropriate passage in the old books, I happened to look down to the street and there he was, our symbol in flesh and blood. Speeding recklessly along on roller skates was a middle-aged Californian (about 45 years old, I’d say, judging by his grayish beard) in defiantly red swimming trunks, mouth chewing gum and steadily making bubbles, ears plugged safely by Walkman earphones. His eyes seemed to be the only part of his body not entirely pleased with their occupation. They expressed total amazement, as if repeating that favorite American phrase: “What’s going on here?” I imagine this amazement would disappear if our friend could watch TV at the same time.
As outraged as some Americans might be by this image of their country, the resemblance is too striking to deny. This great nation of pioneers and gold prospectors, this land of opportunity and tough competition has become effeminated by a few decades of peace, prosperity, and Social Security. It has become obsessed with the pursuit of pleasure, comfort, and entertainment, as if being happy were a constitutional obligation. Irrespective of their age, Americans are supposed to be “kids,” and the ultimate objective of their lives is to have “fun.”
The world may be going to pieces, but the best-selling books in America are about diet, health, sports, and sex. And to hell with the world, so long as “our boys” are not being killed somewhere, or not involved in anything troublesome. Like all egocentrics, Americans feel that the world exists only in their perception and, therefore, the less they know about external troubles the less they themselves are troubled. This is not just ignorance, but a deliberately cultivated mental block. External problems appear in the minds of Americans only when their government becomes involved in them. Is it any wonder that these same problems are always looked upon as being caused by the American government?
Like all children, Americans are blissfully irresponsible and demanding, but at the same time very generous. Quite consistent with this attitude is the popular notion of foreign policy as some sort of charity: If everything at home is in good shape, why not go and help some poor people abroad? Nothing more sophisticated than a relief convoy or a few trillion dollars—perhaps an arms sale in the extreme case of a highly sentimental issue.
In truth, the American people don’t mind foreign policy so long as it doesn’t require any effort or sacrifice on their part. They don’t mind having the CIA so long as it doesn’t do anything. They don’t even mind having some sort of army-after all, other nations have armies too for some odd reason—but also on the condition that it not be used anywhere, and, above all, that no one get hurt. In short, Americans view foreign relations as something primarily ceremonial and formal—like the Queen’s visit to California, or an extra holiday in Paris when the rate of exchange is very favorable for the dollar.
Not surprisingly, those who manage now and then to tear themselves away from the TV screens and earphones are divided into two unequal groups: the “liberals” and the “conservatives." I use these terms as they are used in the U.S., although I've never been able to understand them. As my friend, Russian poet Naum Korzhavin, once observed: “I am a liberal too, but I am a severe liberal.”
This term "liberal” in the American context does not mean anything definite, or anything similar to traditional European liberalism- In fact, it’s nothing but an extreme mental aberration best described by the Russian saying: that it is like a dog in reverse because it barks at its own folks and wags its tail in front of a stranger.
Another peculiarity of American liberals is that they never know what they want, but they want it very badly. They are always well organized, well financed, and on some campaign or other. They are a minority, but a very noisy one, and forever on the offensive, no matter what the cause.
It would definitely be a mistake to call these people “left-wingers,” at least in the European sense of the word. The European left is ideological, philosophical—and one can have an intelligent argument with them. They may agree or disagree, but they are willing to change their views under the pressure of arguments and events, and they 'will remain friends with you despite the disagreement. In short, they have certain principles and ideas, and they formulate and develop their views according to what they have learned. For example, even the Communists in Europe now reject the so-called "Soviet model of socialism and have no illusions about the aggressive nature of the Soviet system. Italian and Spanish Communists kia^e even gone so far as to acknowledge the need for the NATO alliance. If nothing else, they need it to protect their own “model of socialism” from the Soviet dictate.
When watching American TV or looking through American newspapers, on the other hand, I sometimes get the feeling that American liberals haven’t changed in thirty years. What else could I conclude after watching Professor Kennan show American viewers photographs of happy Soviet children, mothers, and babies as proof of peaceful Soviet intentions? I certainly hope that Americans stand in no particular need of persuasion by Mr. Kennan that the Soviet people have neither horns nor tails, but I really am surprised that American liberals have not learned to distinguish the Soviet people from the Soviet system.
At least Europeans, even those on the left, remember that the Nazis could enjoy Bach and Mozart and could also be good husbands and loving fathers and at the same time could exterminate Jews in the gas chambers. At least they, in Europe, are clever enough to listen to the stories of thousands of political refugees coming in wave after wave from the Soviet Union, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Vietnam, Cambodia, Ethiopia…
Not so in America. A few months ago PBS produced a remarkable film called “Russians Are Here” which used every trick possible to distort the truth about refugees from the Soviet Union — presenting them as misfits, drunks, and, above all, as people who “regret” their decision to emigrate, who don't know what to do with the freedom America has given them, and who even “miss the KGB” (the very words used in the film by a narrator). The producers must have spent many weeks trying to locate the most bizarre characters out of some 200,000 recent emigrants; they must have spent miles of film to be able to cut the appropriate passages out of lengthy interviews; and they miraculously managed to avoid a single case of success—all of it just to prove to the American people that the “Russians” (as they persistently call the Soviet Jews recently arrived in this country) are generally happy with the regime back home, do not deserve anything better, and, therefore, should be of no real concern to the American public when news comes of more repression in the USSR. This outrageous forgery was made with public money and shown repeatedly all over the country despite vehement protests from the refugee communities. Just try to make a similar movie about Hispanics or about emigrants from, say, Chile, and the press will crucify You for instigating national hatred and for persecuting national minority — you may even be sued in court for millions—all of it by the very same liberals.
No, your liberals will never learn. They are here to teach us about ourselves, not to learn.
What is most remarkable about liberals is that their persistently wrong judgment never affects their credibility. Regardless of what happens they remain untouchable, free of moral responsibility, a shining example to us all. Did they not assure us in the past that the Vietcong had nothing to do with the Communists — that they were just “nationalists” fighting for the independence of their motherland? For decades liberals have been shouting at the top of their voices that their critics are “too simplistic." Yet did they not assure us that the PLO was just a patriotic organization with no Soviet connections? Did they not scream that Americans were the aggressors and should withdraw from Southeast Asia without fear of the '‘domino effect’’? Today they advise us that Central American guerrillas aren’t like all the others and that there will be no “domino effect” in Central America, no new Communist strongholds and bases, no totalitarian oppression of Central American nations.
These very same people once assured us that Castro is a “true revolutionary,” that Angola is not a Communist state, and that Cuban troops in Angola are just “stabilizing the situation.” They assured Carter that Sandinistas are not Communists and, as such, deserve American support. They persuaded Carter that the Shah must toe Iran and that there would be no revolution. Millions have died and lost their homelands because of their relentless moralizing bad judgment, but our liberals don’t give a damn about these nations. And they are never responsible for all the rivers of blood and mountains of corpses produced by their progressive proteges around the world.
But what about the majority, the conservatives? Unfortunately, they are still a silent majority. Whereas liberals always want something very badly, traditional conservatives want nothing from this world at all, only that it remain as it is. They may grumble about the liberals’ frenzied activism; they may complain to each other about liberal bias in the media. But just try to get them to organize, to get them into the streets, or even to vote for a conservative candidate on a rainy day!
For example, we all know how dangerous the so-called “nuclear freeze, “non-first-use,” and other numerous peace campaigns aimed at disarming the United States could become. We also understand, I hope, that given the fabulous naivete of our 45-year-old baby on roller skates, the peace movement requires only a modicum of financial support to make its campaign a pivotal political factor. All it needs is a well-planned rock concert to endorse any suicidal political idea. Indeed, on March 25 the New York Times published article by Kathleen Teltsch entitled “Philanthropies Focus Concern on Arms Race,” which spoke of the open commitment of the biggest American foundations to make '‘the prevention of nuclear war to be to the 80s what civil rights was to the 60s.” Since these words belong to Mr. William Dietel, president of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, one imagines that the millions designated by the Carnegie, Ford, MacArthur, George Gund, and other foundations are not going to be spent promoting the idea of a stronger defense policy. We can be warned in advance, then, that a huge effort is under way to brainwash the American public into accepting unrestrained Soviet blackmail.
And do conservatives plan to counter this effort of massive public opinion manipulation? Do they reach for their check books and try to match this gigantic liberal fund-raising, dollar for dollar? Do they mobilize activist groups across the country, in every town and on every campus? Do they plan lectures, workshops, petition drives, rallies, exhibitions, festivals, media events? Of course not. A few years from now they will sit around and grumble, blaming the liberal media, popular ignorance, Soviet agents—everyone but themselves.
The problem with conservatives is their belief that the truth is self-evident and does not need to be marketed, advertised, or otherwise promoted. The mere word “propaganda” makes them shudder, just as the word “nuclear” leaves the liberals furious. Unfortunately, neither nuclear power nor ideological warfare is about to go away.
The twentieth century, with its industrial revolution and technological progress, has changed the face of human society irrevocably. It has provided us with the means of mass destruction, and so placed a far greater responsibility on everyone. On a more mundane level, it has provided comfort and security, thereby making us soft and vulnerable by playing on our conformist tendencies. But, most importantly, it has created means of mass communication, mass media, and thus mass culture and mass psychology.
As a result, we all are close neighbors now, irrespective of geographic location. It takes only about 15 minutes for a missile to reach the opposite side of the globe. It takes only a fraction of a second for news to reach the same destination. Strictly speaking, there is no longer any such thing as purely internal affairs.
What is so often overlooked is that political tools have also changed. We live in an era of ideological wars, with mass ideologies, mass propaganda, and mass movements as their indispensable instruments. Sovereignty and national borders, war and diplomacy, peace and stability—all these notions of the nineteenth century have become obsolete. The nuclear weapon is not a weapon in the strictly military sense of the word, but a huge psychological factor in the ongoing ideological war. War is no longer simply military confrontation between nations, but anything from popular unrest to terrorism and guerrilla movements. And the battlefield of modem war does not confine itself to the borders of nations, but it exists in people’s minds, whether in Indiana or Siberia. And what are peace and stability in this context? They have lost all meaning. Stability of what? Of a concentration camp, or of Fifth Avenue? And what do we mean by peace? A continuation of the “class struggle” and of ’’liberation,” the triumph of Islam, the capitulation of democracy?
The trouble is that Americans in general and conservatives in particular stubbornly refuse to accept the political consequences of technological progress, that very progress to which their country has contributed more than any other nation. They simply refuse to enter the twentieth century politicallyThe Communists were the first to grasp these new realities and to utilize the opportunities they offer. They have mastered the art of ideological war to the point of perfection. Their ultimate goal may be absurd, their concept of history may be ridiculous, their methods unscrupulous and cruel, but they fit perfectly into the twentieth-century socio-political environment, much as an epidemic of plague befitted the Middle Ages.
Say what you will about Comrade Lenin, but he was a tactical genius, and the first to think up this contraption of a vehicle which continues to rumble across the world. Sixty years after his death, the Soviet Union remains the same ideological state serving the purposes of the world revolution as he had conceived it. Never mind that no one nowadays believes in Communist ideology. In their everyday life the Soviet people perceive it as a nuisance, or as a source of the numerous jokes shared equally by the people and their rulers. But at the end of the day, the Communist party is still in firm control of every aspect of Soviet life, and Communist ideology is never challenged within the Party.
What was once a utopia, a dream, became a structure, an institution, and an everyday job for millions of people. They might hate it wholeheartedly, but there is no other choice: Either be a part of the system, or be locked up until death comes to your rescue. And the famous troika still rushes onward, its horses cursing the driver, its driver cursing the horses, and together all cursing the damned foreigners who so obligingly give way and draw aside.
The difference between professionals and amateurs is usually defined in terms of payment. Professionals, it is said, are those who are paid for their work, while amateurs do it for fun. In my view this definition is misleading. People in the State Department or in the CIA are also paid, but are they professionals? Let me give You a better definition: professionals hate their Job, but they do it well; amateurs enjoy what they are doing, but they do it badly.
A friend of mine once overheard the following conversation while riding on the Moscow underground, a conversation between a lieutenant and a captain, quite ordinary guys going home to their wives and kids after a long day at the office.
“You know,” said the lieutenant, "I still can’t get over the unfair treatment you received. Just think of it, you worked on that damned Ethiopia for three years, and just when things started moving they replaced you with that fool with the high connections. And now that the people you found, prepared, and promoted in Ethiopia have came to power in their ‘glorious revolution,’ this fool gets promoted to major. But you are still a captain. What dirty play.”
Tomorrow, our deeply offended captain may defect to the West and come to New York. He will display a remarkable knowledge of the advantages of democracy upon arrival—no need to educate him about the great American liberties. He knew about them all along, even while masterminding a bloody revolution in Ethiopia, even while professionally subverting those very liberties. But as long as he is still in the Soviet Union, he will do his job very well. He is probably doing it as a matter of duty right now in El Salvador. He hates what he does, but he does it well.
Yes, the Soviet system is a gigantic professional machinery of subversion which has entrapped 275 million people, of course, the Soviet system is not perfect, it makes its share of mistakes, but who is here to exploit them? Soviet policy is planned some twenty years in advance with considerable precision, and to be successful the U.S- response must be equally precise and well planned. But what in fact do we have? A bunch of very nice amateurs, a sloppy system of policy-making comprised of chaotic and sporadic reactions to yesterday’s events. No long-term concept, no policy, just reactions when the trouble becomes too apparent.
This is not to say that the United States lacks gifted people, or that they never produce good ideas. Zero Option, the withdrawal from UNESCO, the threat to exile the United Nations to Moscow—these were brilliant ideas. But they have to be developed into a principle, a concept, to become effective.
To begin with, no one in the vast U.S. foreign policy apparatus knows what the U.S. wants from the Soviets. Nor has anybody ever tried to formulate this question. Once I raised this matter with several friends working within different branches of the American government, and all of them came up with different answers. Some said it would be just fine if the Soviets left us alone, others said they’d like to see the Soviets lose their grip on Eastern Europe, or show some respect for the human rights of their people. But no one ever tried to establish how any of this might be remotely possible.
What is more, there seems to be total disagreement on what the Soviets want from us. Are they really frightened and paranoid, as some continue to insist, or are they still pursuing Lenin's plan of world revolution? Or, perhaps, something else? Just a few thousand miles from us is a political system that has enslaved several hundred million people for half a century, that backs every enemy we might have, that can destroy the globe five times over, and still we know not what they want from us or we from them.
Meanwhile, numerous negotiations are conducted and agreements signed without any clear understanding of either side's objectives. It’s not even known whether the terminology used in these agreements has the same meaning for both sides. And no sooner are they signed than, lo and behold, they are violated by the Soviets. So, does the U.S- then declare these agreements null and void? Of course not. Instead, it rushes to the negotiating tables to start all over again. Why?
In the absence of any defining concept, American foreign policy vis-a-vis the Soviet Union has become governed by a few ‘’golden rules” created out of fear, impotence, and frustration. The most '‘golden’’ of these rules and definitely the most absurd is “keep talking.” Can anyone prove that to “keep talking” js better than to “quit talking?”
Are there any facts to support this rule? Did anyone ever try not to “keep talking”? Of course not. Unfortunately, this “rule” is not simply a matter of innocent stupidity, for it implies, first of all, that the organic differences between democratic and totalitarian societies can be resolved by a negotiated settlement. This misleading notion misrepresents the East-West conflict as a sort of tragic misunderstanding that can be cleared up only if we “engage in constructive dialogue," “try to understand each other,” “sit down and talk," or perform some other rite of liberal nonsense calculated to lay the blame on the West for not trying to “understand" the poor Soviets.
Qn the other hand, the "keep talking” rule deprives the West of much needed flexibility and initiative in choosing when to talk and when not to, and on what conditions and for what purpose, while leaving the Soviets under no obligation to “keep talking.” As a result, American policy is left hostage to Soviet interests and dependent on Soviet “approval.” The success of American policy is therefore judged by the number of “agreements” concluded between the two sides, by the number of “talks,” “dialogues,” and concessions made to — and not by — the Soviets. At the same time, such criteria confuse the notion of what “normal” relations between the East and West are. If American policy serves Soviet interests and the Soviets condescend to a “dialogue,” relations are said to be “normalizing.”
Underlying this strange “rule” is an understandable fear: It is too scary not to keep talking. Just as a frightened child lost in the woods starts talking loudly to himself to dispel the dark shadows, Americans believe that talking to the Soviets will dispel the threat of war.
But to add insult to injury, a second "golden rule" comes into play as soon as “talks” start: “Better something than nothing.” Perhaps this would be a good rule to follow in a democracy, or when dealing with another democratic country. But when dealing with the likes of the Soviets, this is a sure way to get mugged: They’ll take what they want from You in exchange for “something” neither you nor they care about. The Americans will celebrate this as an achievement: After all, they will have obtained “something" from the Soviets, and something is surely better than nothing.
One small problem: Even this “something” is not likely to be delivered by the Soviets, not that international relations will suffer. For as soon as their cheating becomes obvious the next “golden rule” takes over: “We-should-not-demand-too-much-from’the-Russians,” “We-should-nor-press-them-into-a-corner." In practical terms, this means that we should not demand anything, even what was promised by them under an international agreement. Meanwhile, our side should of course continue to deliver: We are civilized people, aren’t we, and cannot imitate Soviet behavior, can we?
Thus, even if the Soviets manage to get themselves into a truly tough corner, when they make a really serious mistake and the moment comes to force them to retreat, to make them give back whatever they have previously grabbed, American “professionals" cry out, all as one: “Leave them a Golden Bridge,” “Let them save face.” And everyone rushes to save face for the Soviets more eagerly than the Soviets have ever tried to, Can anyone recall a single case where the Soviets actually took advantage of such a ready-made “Golden Bridge" or showed any interest in “saving face” and retreating? Why should they? The U.S. will always come up with a good excuse for their behavior, and it will never try to exploit their most obvious mistakes. With enemies like this who needs friends?
So, the vicious circle is now complete: We have talked at the wrong moment; we have signed a bad agreement; we have refused to call our opponents to task for obvious violations of this bad agreement; we have even covered up their violations; and we still have no inkling of what must be done to stop that crazy troika which threatens to knock down everything in its way. What next?