Having studied Soviet political history for decades and having lived off and on in that repressive political system before Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms—in Russia under Leonid Brezhnev in the late 1970s and early 1980s—I may be unduly concerned about similar repressive trends I see unfolding in democratic America during three years of mounting Russiagate allegations. Or I may exaggerate them. Even if I am right about Soviet-like practices in the United States, they are as yet only adumbrations, and certainly nothing as repressive as they once were in Russia.
And yet, ominous trends are not to be discounted and still less ignored. I have commented on them previously, on the official use of “informants” to infiltrate Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, for example, and such practices have now multiplied. Consider the following:
Soviet authorities, through the KGB, regularly charged and punished dissidents and other unacceptably independent citizens with linguistic versions of “collusion” and “contacts” with foreigners, particularly Americans. (Having inadvertently been the American in several cases, I can testify that the “contacts” were entirely casual, professional, or otherwise innocent.) Is something similar under way here? As the former prosecutor Andrew C. McCarthy has pointed out, to make allegations of Trump associates’ “collusion” is to question “everyone who had interacted with Russia in the last quarter-century.” In my case and those of not a few scholarly colleagues, it would mean in the last half-century, or nearly. Nor is this practice merely hypothetical or abstract. The US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence recently sent a letter to an American professor and public intellectual demanding that this person turn over “all communications [since January 2015] with Russian media organizations, their employees, representatives, or associates,” with “Russian persons or business interests,” “with or about US political campaigns or entities relating to Russia,” and “related to travel to Russia, and/or meetings, or discussions, or interactions that occurred during such travel.” We do not know how many such letters the Committee has sent, but this is not the only one. If this is not an un-American political inquisition, it is hard to say what would be. (It was also a common Soviet practice, though such “documents” were usually obtained by sudden police raids, of which there have recently been at least two in our own country, both related to Russiagate.)
In this connection, Soviet authorities also regularly practiced selective prosecution, which is persecution intended to send a chilling signal to other would-be offenders. For example, in 1965, Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel were arrested for publishing their literary writings abroad under pseudonyms, an emerging practice the Kremlin wanted to stop. And in 1972, an important dissident figure, Pytor Yakir, was held in solitary confinement until he “broke” and signed a “confession,” even naming some of his associates, which greatly demoralized the dissident movement. Paul Manafort is no American dissident, literary or otherwise, and he well may be guilty of the financial misdeeds and tax evasion as charged. But he is facing, at nearly age 70, in effect a life sentence in prison and, through fines imposed, the bankruptcy of his family. We may reasonably ask: Is this selective prosecution/persecution? How many other hired US political operatives in foreign countries in recent years have been so audited and onerously prosecuted? Or has Manafort been singled out because he was once Trump’s campaign manager? We may also ask why a young Russian woman living in Washington, Maria Butina, was arrested and kept in solitary confinement until she confessed—that is, pleaded guilty. (She is still in prison.) Her offense? Publicly extolling the virtues of her native Russian government and advocating détente-like relations between Washington and Moscow without having registered as a foreign agent. Americans living in Russia frequently do the same on behalf of their country. Certainly, I have often done so. Are patriotism and promoting détente as an alternative to the new and more dangerous Cold War now a crime in the United States, or is the selective prosecution of Butina a response to Trump’s call for “cooperation with Russia”?
Now we have an even more alarming Soviet-like practice. Former acting head of the FBI Andrew McCabe tells us that in 2017, he and other high officials discussed a way to remove President Trump from office. As Alan Dershowitz, a professor of constitutional law, remarked, they had in mind an “attempted coup d’état.” Which may remind students of Soviet history that two of its leaders were targets of a bureaucratic or administrative “coup”—Nikita Khrushchev twice, in 1957 and 1964, the latter being successful; and Gorbachev in August 1991, though perhaps several other plots against him may still be unknown. Khrushchev and Gorbachev were disruptors of the bureaucratic status quo and its entrenched interests—very much unlike President Trump, but disruptors nonetheless.
Finally, at least for now, there is the role media censorship played in Soviet repression. To a knowing reader who could read “between the lines,” the Soviet press actually provided a lot of usable information. Equally important, though, was what it excluded as taboo—particularly news and other information that undermined the official narrative of current and historical events. (All this ended with Gorbachev’s introduction of glasnost in the late 1980s.) In the era of Russiagate, American mainstream media are practicing at least partial censorship by systematically excluding voices and other sources that directly challenge their orthodox narrative. There are many such malpractices in leading newspapers and on influential television programs, but they are the subject of another commentary.
These examples remind us that we are also living in an age of blame—particularly blaming Russia for mishaps of our own making, for electoral outcomes and other unwelcome developments elsewhere in the world. Drawing attention to Soviet precedents is not to blame that long-gone nation state. Instead, we again need Walt Kelly’s cartoon philosopher Pogo, who told us decades ago, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
This commentary is based on the most recent weekly discussion between Cohen and the host of The John Batchelor Show. (The podcast is here. Now in their fifth year, previous installments are at TheNation.com.)