President Donald Trump answered a question about Vladimir Putin being a killer with a glib retort that everybody kills — including the United States. It was a bizarre moment when the president of the United States defends Russia by effectively accusing his own country through moral equivalency. What is the basis for Trump’s embrace of Putin and Russia? What do Trump and Putin have in common? The answer to that question may cause a re-evaluation of the cause of the Cold War.
As a baby boomer, my earliest memories of matters involving politics and international matters were about “Russia.” In my family and neighborhood, we didn’t use the term “Soviet Union,” but the demon was Russia because it was Communist. In my Catholic Church, a priest referred to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev as the “Butcher of Budapest” for his armed suppression of the Hungarian uprising. Discussions in school about the Cold War with Russia centered around it being a war of ideas — Communism versus democracy, freedom versus oppression, a state-run economy versus a capitalist free market.
The political dialogue in the United States was all about the threat of Communism, manifested in the House Un-American Activities Committee and McCarthyism, intended to either root out Communist influence or reaffirm American values.
It’s been 25 years since the breakup of the Soviet Union and the outlawing of the Communist Party. It is time to ask: Was the Cold War enemy Communism or was it Russia?
In recent years, we have seen Russia, under Vladimir Putin, turn into a nation where many of those close to the leader have grown wealthy through questionable business dealings. We also have seen Russia behave in ways that are similar to the former Soviet Union: Incursions into Georgia, seizing Crimea, supporting a war against Ukraine, armed support of Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria, are all throwbacks to the geopolitics of the Soviet era. We know Russia hacked the computers of the Democratic National Committee and quite possibly influenced the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. Opponents of Putin have been known to disappear, or die. Yet, the bad behavior has no connection to an ideology. Can we conclude that the bad player in the Cold War was Russia and its autocratic tradition and not Communism?
Throughout its history, Russia was never a democracy. Serfs were not freed until 1861. Draftees in the army could serve as long as 20 years. Jews were permitted to live only in designated areas, and were driven out of the country through pogroms in the early 20th Century. The overthrow of the czar in 1917 did not lead to democracy but to civil war and to decades of oppression, famine, and the Gulag. Josef Stalin’s geopolitical strategy, not his Communist ideology, led to his pact with Adolf Hitler to divide Poland before World War II. Was there anything intrinsic about Communism that caused repatriated POWs to be sent to prison camps after that war?
More than two decades of experience after the Cold War should lead to a re-evaluation of that era. For all the rhetoric about Communism and Americanism and the talk about a war of ideas, recent history leads to the conclusion that Russia is, and always has been, a negative player on the world stage, with Putin as the new poster boy in a long line of bad Russian leadership. The common denominator in Russian history is autocracy, whether czarist, Communist, or Putinesque.
Trump, through his attacks on the judiciary and the news media is acting like an autocrat. His Twitter attacks on anyone who criticizes or parodies him and his overall intolerance of any opposition add to his resume as one who sees a threat in anyone or anything that does not support his agenda.
Is it any wonder why he refuses to criticize Putin, the latest player in the long line of Russian autocrats?
Kenneth J. Uva is a retired attorney.