In the last two years COVID has inspired lots of people to embrace nostalgia for the past. TV shows from the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s are the “go-to” viewing for millions. Safe, warm, inviting, and you know how it all turns out anyway (Rachel doesn’t get on the plane). People are rereading or reading for the first time books from out of their past, even the ones you had to slog through in English Lit 101 and couldn’t understand why anyone ever thought this was any good (looking at you Jane Austen). Baking bread became a talisman for happier times when you came home from school to the tantalizing smell of something Mom just pulled out of the oven, a pleasant certainty in a time of complete uncertainty.
Even in politics there seems to be a desire to return to what we grew up with. A time when the President of the United States didn’t call Nazis “good people”. A time when Supreme Court nominees were distinguished legal scholars or experienced jurists who got a full and fair hearing in front of the Senate. A time when street protests were the province of the left and editorial handwringing was the province of the right. A time when the violent overthrow of the government of the United States was the stuff of political suspense novels. In other words, a time when you knew who the good guys were (us) and who the bad guys were (them).
So thanks Vladimir Putin for bringing back a remnant of an earlier time: Russia versus America in The Great Game. Just when you were thinking there would never again be a solidly black and white issue where we as a country stood together against the Evil Empire, Vlad decided it was time to sprinkle his troops along the border between his country and Ukraine and threaten to invade. All that’s missing is Brezhnev’s bushy brows, Nixon’s nattering nabobs, and Kissinger’s krafty kreepiness. Geo-politics is always better with alliteration.
Yes, Russia has it’s troops poised to invade Ukraine like so many plastic armies on a Risk game board. Meanwhile Russian and American diplomats hold talks in that citadel of diplomacy and spy craft called Geneva to try and hold off any sort of military confrontation. You can almost feel the strings being pulled by the various players and emissaries. In the meantime George Smiley is sending his people back into the cold. The main difference this time is that the ideological aspects of the Cold War are gone. This isn’t the Communists versus the Democracies, it actually harkens back to an even earlier version, the Fascists versus the Democracies.
And I hate to say it, but it’s a bit frightening to harken back to that earlier era of confrontation, mostly because we know very well how it played out and how it played out was not all that well. The similarities make it even more frightening.
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We have on one side a country that has recently lost a war, World War I for Germany, the Cold War for Russia. That defeat led to devastation for the average folk which in turn led to the rise of a political extremist party who found power through democratic elections and once in power did away with said elections (at least in a free and fair way). The leader of the extremists amassed the will of the population by decrying how the country only lost the war because the then government was corrupt and incapable of leadership, but that HE knew how to lead and besides that, it was the Jews fault.
Blame the Jews, it’s a perennial.
Next, against all rhyme or reason the new extremist leader rebuilds his military, even at the cost of feeding his people. Now he’s got a little saber to rattle and sabers are only sabers when they rattle. So he makes threats against a neighbor, one who before that lost war was part of his country, claiming that even though the majority population wants to remain free and independent, he is only trying to protect the portion of the population that is ethnically part of his country, the Sudetenland for Germany and the Crimea for Russia. Meanwhile the great powers that won the war(s) have their own problems to contend with and have to put their former enemies, who for a short while they thought were their friends, on the backburner. The problem with putting a pot on the backburner is that sometimes you so totally forget anything is in there that it’s a big surprise when it boils over.
Just like Hitler annexed Austria, Putin is trying to annex Ukraine. Why does he need Ukraine so badly you wonder? Let’s take a look at the map first:
There’s the Crimea jutting out into the Black Sea. A land of sun and beaches where tourists flock to escape the Northern European winter. But that’s not why Putin wants it so bad. That land of sun and sea also just happened to fulfill an ancient geo-political aim of Russia/Soviet Union, a warm water port where ships could come and go without the hazards of winter travel. Where oil, Russia’s main export, can be shipped around the world 365 days of the year. It was so nice when they had it, but that Gorbachev had to go and louse it up by letting Ukraine fly away. The Crimea is also where food can be shipped 365 days a year which brings us to the other reason why Putin wants Ukraine, it’s the bread basket of eastern Europe. Control the food coming out of it and you can control who eats and who doesn’t in a dozen countries. You can talk all you want about ideologies and freedom, but when a person is starving he’ll give up just about anything for a loaf of bread.
So now the Americans and the Russians are sitting down to talk. I certainly hope that Assistant Secretary of State Wendy Sherman who is the lead American negotiator wasn’t asleep in Central European History 101 (or reading Jane Austen) and understands just what the Bear wants. She seems to be unwilling to compromise on the one issue that defines all the rest, the reassertion of political spheres of influence that existed after the Second World War. The Russians want that bad. Again, take a look at that map. Before the breakup of the Soviet Union all of those countries were in the Soviet sphere of influence, now they are independent countries looking, for better or worse, to go their own way. Control them again and we truly are back to the old days of worry about an aggressor nation invading and taking over it’s democratic neighbors.
One more commonality between the pre-World War II days and our current times. Back in the 1930’s there was a well organized, foreign controlled group within the United States who not only wanted to ally the country with Germany, but adoringly talked of Adolf Hitler as a hero, just as their descendants look upon Vladimir Putin as one. They held giant rallies all over the country, most memorably at Madison Square Garden in New York. Watch that linked video and then tell me what differences there are between it and the so called Unite The Right rallies. I’m willing to bet other than being better dressers in 1939 you can’t. And they had telegenic, alright radiogenic, personalities urging them on. Famous celebrities like Charles Lindbergh and the radio priest Father Coughlin were the Joe Rogan and Sean Hannity of their day. They even had media outlets that openly backed them while more traditional journalists did their own version of “but on the other hand”. You know, at least Mussolini made the trains run on time.
This is where I’m supposed to say it’s just another case of those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it, but I had a history professor in college who hated that adage and instead would say “history doesn’t repeat itself, but human nature never changes”. More so now than in the 40 or so years since I first heard her say it, I realize the truth of that statement.
But if Miss Shirley Bassey want’s to say it’s all just a little bit of history repeating itself, well she’s allowed