JOSHUA TREVIÑO, AUSTIN
We did not compel any sort of reckoning with the Communist past in Russia. The party which plunged the world into a century of tyranny and bloodshed should have been eradicated as thoroughly as the National Socialists were from Germany, but no one thought to do it.
History has always been my first love, but that isn’t to say I was ever particularly good at it. I contended with it early in life, asking questions most children don’t have to. Why are there Polish refugee families appearing in our home? Why is there a copy of Soviet Life magazine on our doorstep? Why are we moving to Korea? Why is my father going to war? Still, in the nearly thirty years since engaging in the discipline—as a student, a youth, who definitionally knows nothing—I have tried to adjust my approach toward it. History is popular these days as a bludgeon, and perhaps it was ever thus. Properly understood, though, it is not a weapon in our hands. It is a tutor and we sit at its feet.
The close of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union therefore had a great effect upon me. The era spanned high school in my case, a strange and—in retrospect—exceptionally dangerous time for a world that did not quite seem to grasp it. We made it through, though: the last great gathering of strategic wisdom in world affairs managed the implosion of a whole imperium without the usual accompaniment of general war. The peace of the 1990s was the crowning achievement of the Second World War generation, in both America and Europe. They were determined to beat totalitarianism again, and also to avoid a Third World War. They did both. Naturally, the electorates in both continents tossed them out the door as soon as possible.
In this context, in the warm glow of permanent victory and endless prosperity, I went to college and resumed the study — too strong a word for my mediocre GPA, but it will do—of history. The urgency of it all was considerably diminished. I focused upon east-central Europe and did my sole foreign study meandering about Russia, Poland, Hungary, Estonia, Scandinavia, and beyond. If you’d been ruled by a Romanov or a Habsburg, well, you were in my lane. That isn’t, again, to say I was good at it. But I loved it. Amateur enthusiasm ruled the day. Because it was the 1990s, there was a sense that the whole region was more or less done with its history. All that was left was to chart the upward progress of the Czechs, the Magyars, the Slovenes, yea even the Russians themselves, unto the broad sunlit uplands of neoliberalism acceptable to the investor class and the bourgeois bohemians of the Noe Valley.
Something troubled me about it. It was in the origin of the golden age. Working from an n of three—Napoleon, the Kaiser, the Fuhrer—it struck me that the right way to end a European imperium was to militarily occupy it and compel it to own its failures. The models were the Stunde Null approaches of 1815 and 1945. The wrong way was to grant an armistice and let the beaten party sort out its own affairs. The latter, whether in 1814 or 1918, only guaranteed a second round within a generation. The problem with 1989 through 1991 was that it was not Stunde Null for the beaten Soviet Union. We allowed Russia to pretend it was something else—which was true, to an extent—and did not compel any sort of reckoning with the Communist past. The party which plunged the world into a century of tyranny and bloodshed should have been eradicated as thoroughly as the National Socialists were from Germany, but no one thought to do it. Therefore, I concluded, America and Russia would eventually come to blows again, when Russia felt ready to relitigate the outcomes.
This is, as analytic method, not very good, but in my defense, I was nineteen.
I shared this thesis with a couple of people. One was a very beautiful Russian girl in St Petersburg, whom I met there and with whom I corresponded. She thought this sort of theorizing was profoundly stupid and stopped writing. Another was a professor who I very much respected, a wizened veteran of German studies. I made the mistake of mentioning that I’d read some Spengler, which spurred him to chasten me—correctly—that Spengler was a poor guide to interpreting history. He also did his best to impart to me the understanding that history is human affairs writ large, that it is all contingent, and never mechanistic. The past is suggestive, not predictive, even if the strength of the suggestion is often indistinguishable from prediction. In this he was, of course, completely correct.
Therefore, he said, I ought not spend too much time concerning myself with a Russian Weimar period concluding in a resurgent and aggressive Russian nationalism. New conditions apply. I’ve seen them myself, haven’t I? There is a Johnny Rocket’s in Budapest. Well, all true. And yet, and yet.
This morning, I read a news story about the final suppression of Memorial in a Moscow courtroom. The civil-society organization founded in the waning days of the Soviet empire dedicated itself to cataloging the massive crimes done in its name. This is unacceptable to the Russian leadership now. The prosecutor, a bureaucrat by the name of Zhafyarov, denounced the organization in terms alien to the golden ‘90s: “Memorial creates a false image of the Soviet Union as a terrorist state … It makes us repent for the Soviet past, instead of remembering glorious history.”
Memorial, or what’s left of it, had the sense to shoot back that the Soviet Union was, in fact, a terrorist state. But the thing is done. It’s over. To the years of Our Lord 1814 and 1918, meet 1991.
You see it, and you see the revanchism on display now—armored divisions arrayed along the Donbas, ultimata from Moscow to NATO—and it makes you wonder what it was all for. When I was a child, my mother and father got together to plan for what they would do if the In Min Gun surged across the Korean DMZ in a bloody lunge for Seoul. There was an evacuation plan for American dependents, but it was not reassuring: get to Kimpo airport, get a plane out. But Kimpo would assuredly be hammered with cross-border artillery. No one was getting out. There was not an official plan B. So our family’s plan was to tell our father goodbye, and then join the great crush of humanity heading south, toward Pusan, hoping for a boat to a Japan at the far end. That was what a twenty-eight-year old American mother with an eight- and a four-year old in tow planned to do, alone. It was not an academic exercise.
Americans accepted those things in those days—I get no credit for it, by the bye, I was eight—because the memory of the alternative was still alive. That twenty-eight-year old mother in 1983 saw her father cry exactly once in her life, when he recalled to her his duty visiting small prairie homesteads in central Illinois, telling mothers that their sons died on some Pacific island, in some African gully, in some European forest. Their boys, raised in endless plains of golden wheat and green corn and bright sun, strong and full of promise, cut down in blood and pain. It was too much, and they did not want to do it again.
That generation is gone. The memory is gone. The perceived stakes are gone. The invocation of “a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing,” once a byword for infamy, is now peddled as the merest common sense. Our fathers won a great victory, greater even than their fathers’, because they did it without a war. They handed it to us in the expectation that we would understand how precious it is, how hard-won it was, and what it meant. They believed we would prove worthy of their efforts.
But, said the old and canny professor, history is contingent.
Their error was not in their estimation of themselves, nor of their foes. Their mistake was believing in us.
Joshua Treviño is the Chief of Intelligence and Research at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. He writes at Armas about culture, events, and strategy, with a particular focus on Texas, Mexico, and China.
Disappointed to see CG carrying an essay by this secular Trevinoist, infamous for taking the anti-“Bob” campaign all the way to Malaysia, in an attempt to undermine Dobbstown itself.