Why Is It Always About Russia?
Believe it or not, this isn’t a political post. Well, not a pure one at least; maybe a slightly political post. In truth, many readers have asked why Russia (or the Soviet Union) and Russians feature in so many of my works of fiction.
The simple answer is Russia has always been a fascinating country to me–its varied cultures, its history, and, yes, its politics. From a Dark Ages, loose collection of principalities to a global power in the mid-twentieth century, Russia and its people are worth learning about. When you know and accept that the Russian people–whether actual ethnic Russians or people from their various territories–have always sought to have a strong man (usually) protect them, you understand Russia of today. For centuries, Russian tsars extolled themselves as being the father of the Russian people, and his people called him “Little Father.” We always look to our fathers to protect us. There are dissidents, of course; there have always been dissidents, and the history of their treatment in Russia is fairly consistent over the centuries.
From the overwhelming personalities of its leaders to its incredibly non-uniform and spectacular geography, Russia fascinates me to this day, some four decades after I concentrated in Russian History in college. From our ally in World War II to a Cold War adversary in a short span of time, our intelligence community has often vastly underestimated that of the Russians, in inverse proportion to how much our military and politicians overestimated the strength of the Russian economy and military.
Some people love to credit a speech given by Pres. Ronald Reagan in Berlin in 1987 wherein he said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” as the impetus for the end of the Cold War. In truth, the downfall of the U.S.S.R. started when Josef Stalin made the country and its territories his playthings, when he gutted the military and agricultural production with his purges. Reagan, honestly, had nothing to do with it.
Oh, but, you say, his promotion of the missile defense system nicknamed Star Wars made the Soviets overspend, their economy collapsed, etc., etc. The Soviet economy had been in one long and prolonged collapse for its entire existence. Much like the Potemkin villages set up to fool a tsarina that her subjects were healthy and happy, the Soviet Union displayed its Potemkin economy to the world, always with the sick fear its underpinnings would collapse and show the world its fakery. And that would be an affront to Russian pride, an unbearable humiliation.
The Unbearable Humiliation
I suspected the beginning of the collapse of the Soviet Union was a seminal, embarrassing event that occurred on February 15, 1989. On that day, the Commander of the Soviet 40th Army, Boris Vsevolodovich Gromov walked alone across the Friendship Bridge spanning the Amu-Daria River. In so doing he crossed from Afghanistan into Soviet Tajikistan. He was the last Soviet soldier to leave Afghanistan. Gromov, a stellar graduate of a Soviet military academy and a highly-decorated officer, had a flair for the dramatic. He’d been back in the Soviet Union and returned only two days before the planned pullout of Soviet forces after a nearly decade-long war.
Some might say Gromov wanted all the attention on himself, but he was recognized as a good officer in an army that rarely had them. As the commander, the humiliation of the withdrawal should rest with him, not some poor grunt in a personnel carrier. I think he crossed the bridge alone to spare his men humiliation.
By the time Gorbachev took power in 1985, he saw the truth of Afghanistan: the war there was economically unsustainable for this paper-thin superpower in name only. Somehow he had to extract the Soviet Army from the quagmire costing the country a generation of men and resources it didn’t really have. But he wanted to do it in a way to lessen the humiliation he knew would follow. Despite his glasnost (openness), he allowed Soviet spin doctors to portray it as a victory, albeit a hollow one.
In America we gloated. This once powerful Army whose long-coming victories in World War II started the downfall of Nazi Germany had been defeated partly by the Afghan Army it had trained and supplied and partly by a collection of goat-herders and religious fanatics propped up by the CIA. The unbearable humiliation was upon them. The whole Potemkin village that was the Soviet Union began to dissolve. Nine months later, the Berlin Wall fell not because Gorbachev obeyed Reagan, but because that unbearable humiliation in Afghanistan revealed an ugly truth: that global superpower was no longer super nor powerful. Almost three years after Gromov’s walk, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was no more. It had voted itself out of existence.
I said earlier that at times our intelligence community underestimated its Soviet counterpart, the KGB. The KGB wasn’t a motley collection of thugs. Okay, well, they had thugs and made good use of them, but they weren’t as stupid as we made them out to be. In fact, they quite often outdid us in tradecraft. That’s because Russia all the way back to Ivan Grozny (Ivan the Terrible) has had a secret police/spy apparatus. The U.S. history in that arena is much shorter. The KGB had an advantage in experience and a long history.
I’m sure there is a beancounter in both intelligence communities who kept track of how many agents the CIA and KGB turned respectively. Whether it was money or ideology, there were plenty of people on both sides willing to sell out their countries. And the CIA and the KGB both took advantage of that, lest you think the U.S. can moralize from the high ground. What Americans often didn’t realize or accept was that the true believers in the Soviet system who populated the KGB were as patriotic as their CIA counterparts. They were defending their country, which they loved as much as any flag-waving patriot here in the United States.
And the KGB knew exactly who was the external source of that unbearable humiliation in Afghanistan: the government of the United States. Vengeance runs through Russian history and culture, and the Soviet then Russian intelligence services would have their revenge. That became a high-priority mission. Another advantage of the KGB then SVR was its patience. If it took years or even decades for an operation to play out, they would wait for the opportunity for an optimum outcome.
They accomplished that on November 8, 2016, not with bombs, tanks, or guns but with thorough, well-planned, and vicious cyber warfare, or as it has been phrased, “hybrid warfare.”
As an historian, I often wonder if things would have been different if our national policy toward Russia after the break-up of the Soviet Union had been hands-on (Let us teach you about democracy, friends.) rather than hands-off (Sorry, you’re on your own, Ivan.). Would that desire to avenge humiliation been lessened?
Maybe, but it’s also too late for either side to atone or for either leopard to change its spots. Hello, Cold War II, where the methods have changed but the adversaries haven’t.
And that’s why Russia appears so frequently in my fiction.