The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union ran from 1945 to 1989. Calm historical reflection shows that it was both unnecessary and profoundly tragic. The Cold War led to the death of millions, plus enormous waste of economic resources, plus continual danger of nuclear annihilation. The Soviet Union was not nearly as expansionist or brutal or resistant to change as Cold War ideology claimed. In the words of Mikhail Gorbachev, the Cold War “made losers of us all” (See “The Russians Are Coming, Again: The First Cold War as Tragedy, the Second as Farce” by Jeremy Kuzmarov and John Marciano, 2018).
One of the lesser-known disasters of the Cold War was the destruction of the auspicious American progressive movement. Unfortunately, many labor unions, civil liberties organizations and socialist groups bought into Cold War ideology and supported the militarism associated with it. This fractured and disoriented the progressive movement and largely negated its appeal to young people. Demolition of the progressive movement prevented the adoption of social democratic reforms such as comprehensive health care, guaranteed employment and gender wage equality. It also greatly weakened resistance to imperialist aggression as occurred in Korea and Vietnam.
We now face a Second Cold War fomented by the growing antagonism between Russia and the United States. The ideological component of this Second Cold War is a concerted media campaign to demonize Russia and Vladimir Putin. But there is also a hopeful progressive upsurge in the United States, as evident in the Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements, and in the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign. A crucial issue for this progressive upsurge is whether it will be seduced by the demonize Russia/Putin narrative. This narrative is a dangerous trap that will misdirect and enervate the new progressive movement just as anti-Communist ideology debilitated the former progressive movement.
No country is free of faults, and there is much to criticize about Russia and Putin: the executive branch of the Russian government has overwhelming power, individual freedoms are not strongly protected, the state controls the major media, etc. But objective criticism is quite different than demonization. Objective criticism (a) acknowledges merits as well as faults, (b) accepts responsibility for one’s own culpabilities, (c) demands evidence for reproaches, and (d) places situations in a reasonable historical context.
Vladimir Putin may be an autocrat, but he is not a tyrant. Putin is overwhelmingly popular among the Russian people and needs not crush opposition to retain political power. Putin’s aims are to restore the Russian economy, to regain great power status, and to resurrect Russian national pride. He clearly favors (as does China) a pluralistic global system rather than monolithic United States hegemony (which appears to be the aim of U.S. political elites). Moreover, Russian policies in Crimea and Ukraine is largely a reaction to unexpected NATO expansion. Historians Kuzmarov and Marciano maintain that “the Russians have more reason to fear us than we have to fear them.” Let us hope that the new American progressive movement can resist the dishonest and disabling demonize-Russia trap.
The Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center’s “Peace Train” runs every Friday in the Colorado Daily.