That cold, difficult year, my first in the Soviet Union, it started snowing in late September and didn’t stop until April of the next year, if I recall correctly. When I look out my front window here in Evanston in this particular moment, that is what I see, Moscow 1979.
We are not at all like that brutal place, with a leader who was enfeebled at the top of a corrupt system with enough nuclear weapons to kill everyone. It wasn’t Communism, exactly, because it didn’t do what Communism was supposed to do. You might have called it state socialism or some variant, but that wasn’t adequate, either. It was, in retrospect, a frozen dictatorship encased in the ice of history in the heart of a nation where no one actually knew anything.
I would walk from my apartment on Kutuzovsky at night to Red Square, a couple of miles, just to look at it and wonder where it would all lead. There were always two people following me, as though I had a great secret they had to sniff out. Lenin was encapsulated in his brown marble tomb and, always, there was an honor guard marching stiff-legged in front of the tomb. It played out most powerfully when it was snowing, like it snowed in my back yard last night, relentless and unending and somehow, starkly lovely. The guard would change every hour or so, with four fresh soldiers in their snappiest green overcoats with their grey ushankas and big black boots and their shiny rifles balanced on the palms of their hands as though they were glued there. Legs stiff as wood, they would march in lock step from behind the scenes then up the sidewalk to the tomb. There was just the slightest hint of a sway in that march, a fluidity they had obviously practiced for many hours, because it had to be just right. And it always was. It was a very impressive changing of the guard and I loved watching it and thinking about whether these people would ever have the revolution promised to them so many decades ago. They lived in near poverty in collective apartments that would have been unacceptable anywhere but here. Their food supply, if you could call it that, tended toward canned fish of some kind, maybe some chicken. Who knew what else. They were endlessly resourceful, and after spending even a little time there, you could not be blamed for thinking they could make any sacrifice, put up with anything, if their country asked them to. They were lovely people, I believe to this day. But sadly, wrongfully misdirected.
We, however, are not like that.
We will sacrifice some things for the nation if we are asked, but not everything. We are not fully in the game because we do not recognize that historical motivation that seemed so apparent on Red Square, particularly during celebrations. Many of them believed they were preparing the world for a brighter future, a Marxist future where people could give what they could and take what they needed, or something like that. Communism Soviet style was irrational, dishonest and, in a couple of ways, totally deceitful. It led only to what they have today, a nation led by a former KGB man surrounded by purchased locals to protect him. It’s one place in the world to which I have no need to return. And I don’t want to see that kind of bullshit playing out here, in beloved America.
Something about the way the latest impeachment turned out is dragging all of these old Soviet memories from me. I hated the place enough to want to spy on it, but loved it enough to be swept away by the moments it could provide if you were in the right place at the right time. My great fear is that Donald Trump will become some kind of new despot with a massive, blind following (not unlike Lenin). Why he retains a measure of control over these people, still holds their loyalty, escapes me. He is an ignorant man, corrupt as they come, ungainly and self-absorbed. He called his bloody mob to wreck our government and they came close.
I read every word of Mitch McConnell’s apologia and came away unconvinced. I will give him his constitutional argument, of course, but not the rest. Every person involved in that trial knew deep in their hearts that Trump was guilty and deserved conviction. But when the moments came, there were still enough true believers in the Senate that Trump could walk away from it. I saw that behavior as almost uniquely Soviet, the embodiment of that capacity for denying what was right in front of your eyes, arguing the color was not the color, the behavior was not the behavior and giving the villain a pass. Your reward was you could stay in power for a little while longer, have those rewards, still feel a part of it.
The problem, of course, is that it cannot last.
Even in this superficial nation, where heads are constantly being turned by the latest sparkling distraction, there is a truth. It is Lenin’s truth, I would argue, the one he carried into his tomb, a persistent lie about a bright future. It’s still down there with him on Red Square. People knew nothing turned out the way that had been promised.
We face that same kind of reckoning, and so does Donald Trump. His mob awaits him, and just beyond that mob, stands a justice that won’t be denied, searching for the traitor.