Many Russians who fled Brezhnev’s USSR because they could not speak freely are in a state of shock in today’s America. One is Roman Kaplan, an intellectual from Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) and the owner of the “Russian Samovar,” a famous New York City restaurant for Russians and East Europeans (visitors and immigrants alike), which he opened in 1986 together with two icons of the Soviet immigration, the late poet Joseph Brodsky and the dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov. “America was our dreamland, the last frontier of freedom,” Kaplan said. “Where do we go now? I can’t believe I left the Soviets thirty years ago to end up in Brezhnevland here!”
In 1991 I too left the Soviet Union to embrace America’s freedom (not so much political–Gorbachev’s glasnost was in full bloom then), but a freedom to be myself regardless of politics. Today I ask myself the same question, “Where do we go now?”
Those who stayed in Russia are equally dismayed–they welcomed American help to bring down Communists, only to see, ten years later, the White House employing strategies akin to what America used to condemn about the Kremlin–an expansionist foreign policy, disregard for public opinion, propaganda rhetoric and manipulation.
We found ourselves back at the drawing board, turning off George W. Bush’s enthusiastic TV appearances the same way we tuned out robotic CPSU Secretary Leonid I. Brezhnev. Determined President Bush, it seems, has an invisible tape in his head playing out a collection of keywords–evil, compassionate, terrorism, national security, liberation, promoting democracy. Those who’ve studied the Soviet Union know that Kremlin leaders similiarly repeated words and catch-phrases for decades on end. Brezhnev, too, seemed to be plugged into an electric socket, automatically replaying his own endless broken record–imperialism, socialism, world equality, peace and security…
Regardless of how true Bush’s words about evil dictatorships may be, they are hardly made believable by of their repetitious, mechanical, Brezhnevian nature. Especially when “compelling” reasons to start the war in Iraq–from WMD to terrorism to democracy there–were based on falsified evidence and were devoid of consistency.
George Orwell was right: “All propaganda lies even when it tells the truth.” As much as newspeak was a signature of the Kremlin, it is an equally apt description of today’s White House. Its resolute war message is similar to Brezhnev’s insistence on the superiority of socialism: Both lack public debate and are handled top-down.
The United States may indeed have a noble cause of liberation in Iraq (in addition to such not-so-noble causes as oil, money and power), but the original idea of socialist brotherhood was beautiful, too, before it acquired a totalitarian treatment. There is something remarkably “Soviet” in Bush’s requirement for a blind trust in a “higher cause” of “peace and freedom,” just by the virtue of previous American successes in Eastern Europe. (And mind you, that was Europe.)
Don’t get me wrong. I recognize the difference: Here we voice our opposition without being killed, sent to the gulag or the asylum as people were in the Soviet Union, but a bleak and hopeless feeling of being irrelevant to the democratic process–despite months of worldwide protests the war was always inevitable–is a signature characteristic of both regimes, Brezhnev’s thirty years ago and Bush’s today.
From the start this White House employed an autocratic formula of ends justifying the means, forgetting that you can’t bomb a nation into freedom: Peter the Great and Stalin the Terrible tried to Westernize and industrialize Russia by killing millions. After the initial euphoria of ending Communism, Russia’s democracy has been a troubled one because its leaders regularly fail to involve their public in a discussion of the country’s future. In 2003 Russia still fights a 200-year war with Chechnya and has a president who insists on managing freedoms and the press. What’s more, its public at times still finds it easier to be ruled from the top. And Russia had years to prepare itself for “American liberation” (and is, at least nominally, part of Europe).
Imagine then how troubled Iraq’s road to democracy may become, with no leaders in place to implement the process and the public, though if happy to be freed from Saddam, with no experience of either responsible government or citizenship.