Nation contributing editor Stephen F. Cohen and radio host John Batchelor continue their weekly discussions of the new US–Russian Cold War. (Previous installments, now in their fourth year, may be found here.)
Cohen begins by reflecting on the public life of Yevtushenko, whom he knew well for many years—so well that the poet was the godfather of one of Cohen’s daughters. Mindful of the adage that a great writer in Russia is more than a writer, Yevtushenko was for decades the nation’s—and perhaps the world’s—most famous and popular poet, and he used his talent and position to champion the cause of historical and political justice and a democratic reformation of the Soviet Union, as finally attempted by Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 1980s. He did so at great political and personal risk. Western observers not known for protesting anything in their own countries often criticized Yevtushenko for having been officially tamed and corrupted by privilege, but they do not know the scores of writers, dissidents, and cultural works his private interventions helped, even saved. Or the impact of his (not so) private letter to Soviet leader Brezhnev protesting the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Many of his poems, and his remarkable public readings, inspired at least two generations of Soviet reformers, as Gorbachev himself later acknowledged. At least two of his most famous poems had a direct impact on public affairs: “The Heirs of Stalin,” which warned the nation in 1962 that powerful forces behind the scenes were seeking to overthrow Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev for his anti-Stalinist revelations (as they finally did in 1964), and “Babi Yar,” which broke the official Soviet taboo against discussion of the Jewish Holocaust.
Cohen wonders why established American figures—in the media, Congress, universities, cultural life, and elsewhere—have not protested the Soviet-style abuses now engulfing US politics in a wave of McCarthy-like hysteria. They have far less to lose than did Yevtushenko. A torrent of fact-free allegations and slurring of people has flowed for months from leading newspapers and television networks, but exceedingly few, if any, Americans in a prominent position to protest have done so. When New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow declares that “the Russians did interfere in our election. This is not a debatable issue”—why does no one protest that it is in fact highly debatable, because no such facts have actually been presented? Or when Blow slurs Secretary of State Rex Tillerson as a compromised friend of Russian President Putin, when there is no evidence of this either? Or to the baseless allegations made almost nightly by MSNBC and CNN hosts and panelists? Or the preposterous claims of a vast “Russian threat” to democracy everywhere staged at the Senate “investigation” earlier this month? Cohen knows prominent Americans who have grave doubts about this political and media conduct, but who nonetheless remain silent. Do they lack the civic courage that Yevtushenko exhibited for decades while treading a political razor’s edge?
Such behavior and larger policy issues, Cohen points out, were framed in another way by the American response to the recent terrorist act on a St. Petersburg subway. Downplaying it generally, too many American commentators suggested that Putin himself was behind the explosion that killed or maimed scores of Russian citizens—in order, it was said, to deflect attention from public protests against official financial corruption. Again, there is no evidence or plausible logic for these shameful innuendoes.
But they also directly threaten US national security. Ever since the attack on America on 9/11, and re-emphasized by subsequent attacks on European cities, the imperative of a US-Russia alliance against international terrorism has been abundantly clear, as are the readiness and capabilities of Russia—which has suffered in this regard more than any other Western nation—to help. Time and again such an alliance has been thwarted, primarily by powerful political forces in the US establishment.
President Trump indicated he wanted such an alliance—and the tragedy in St. Petersburg should have been occasion enough to warrant one—but it may again be thwarted by the Kremlin-baiting of Trump and his “associates” and the nearly indifferent reaction by the US political-media establishment to the most recent act of terrorism in Russia. When Yevgeny Yevtushenko turned his pen against the powerful forces of Soviet neo-Stalinism and anti-Semitism, he risked his life and his family’s. What do prominent, privileged Americans who understand the ongoing folly but remain silent have to fear?