For most of my life, and I suspect for most of yours, too, there were two great powers that defined the universe in the wake of World War II. The Soviet Union and its vassal states would decide what happened in a world that seemed somehow to be interested in embracing Communism.
And the United States and its allies would have the rest.
Just to make sure everyone knew about this division of world interests, Moscow and Washington worked hard to arm themselves up to the eyes and live under a set of rules that recognized that using nuclear weapons would draw an unacceptable response. Mutual Assured Destruction, with its lovely and appropriate acronym, MAD, defined that era.
None of that prevented conflict in a world of these competing ideologies; Korea, Vietnam and the rest of Southeast Asia were the ideological battlefields, as were lesser struggles in the Middle East and Africa, where these two great forces met for surrogate combat. Or so it seemed.
Nothing was ever that simple, but as Americans, we of course, assumed it was.
Only a very few places wanted to buy into the central planning, ideology and influence of Moscow, and generally only if that came with a lot of money, a lot of weapons and a lot of corruption that would make a collection of tin pot dictators very wealthy and put them on the very thrones the whole history of communism was aimed at wrecking.
So, we lived in an era of big tension between east and west, the thought that our side was grand and the Soviet side was evil, and a division in the world that was defined by military head counts, missile throw weights, a long string of weapons negotiations that kept things at least a little under control, and enough rhetoric on both sides to fill volumes of ideology.
Then one side collapsed on itself, with Communism dying as an ideology and the Soviet Union seemingly evaporating. It seemed a joyous time, at least here in the west, where things like the destruction of the Berlin Wall took on tremendous emotional significance. This, it was thought, was the triumph of the good side, a capitalist victory on the field of ideology that was so stunning that even the Kremlin seemed deeply diminished as a place to worry about.
Old Russia seemed to return. Again we rejoiced. The Russians ran through a collection of corrupt old men, with Boris Yeltsin representing the foolish side of leadership. Then they picked Vladimir Putin, a former KGB agent, wise to the world and its ways and also wise to Russia and its ways. It was a dramatic change. He seemed smart and reasonable to some in the west, perhaps enough of a pragmatist to want to cooperate.
In time, another Vladimir Putin emerged, a man who now seems determined to rebuild both the old Russia that was so corrupt it led to a revolution that created the Soviet Union and the Soviet Union itself, this time without the fiction of Communism as its key motivator. He wants to restore the empire without the ideology.
That is why his armies and Air Force and God only knows what else are pounding havoc into Ukraine, a neighbor that seemed to have won its freedom when Communism collapsed, but that now finds itself under assault by a power that used to be a partner when it was one of the Soviet Republics.
The New York Times lined up a collection of its most experienced reporters and commenters to discuss what all of this might mean. It is an important read if you are having trouble sleeping at night because of this budding, murderous war.
I have my own thoughts about this.
I think we are headed for a return to the bad old days of the Cold War. It will be even more complicated with a modernized and sophisticated China in the formula, but democracy, American democracy, will be the force that stands, once again, against a threat from the east, from the Kremlin essentially.
We have had 20 years or so to work out the problems that were presented when Communism collapsed, but no one has been able to do a very good job at that because, it seems, they have been unwilling to look closely at what the other side represents.
Imperial Russia would be my thought.
It was humiliated by the revolution in 1917, when the czar and his family were murdered, and humiliated from, say, 1923 to 1992 by a system that could not deliver even the most simple goods and services to a needy population base. If you read the Soviet propaganda across that period, what you found was an explanation that everything sucked because the nation was on the path toward true Communism, but had not yet arrived at that station.
Everything would be brilliant, fun and comfortable in the perfect Communist future. The Soviet Union would mean everyone would live in an era of what the Commissars called Mir I druzhbah (peace and friendship). That, of course was bullshit then and remains bullshit now.
I recall a week during my two years in Moscow in the 1970s during which the United States set up an American style grocery store exhibit. The Russians I talked with said it could not be so, couldn’t happen and was nothing but propaganda. I said no, it’s A&P and a couple of other strings where anyone with bucks could get as much food as they wanted.
They had been indoctrinated and propagandized to such an extreme that they thought the luxuries of the west were lies, the product of a corrupt capitalism that was aimed at allowing fat cats to build up vast amounts of money, generally at the expense of the working class. There was enough truth in that, of course, for it to be plausible.
So they flexed their muscle the only way they could, with overwhelming military power that would be aimed straight at the rest of the world outside those borders. No one had much interest in using it, but it was good for parades and propaganda.
The place may still be Upper Volta with big rockets, as someone said.
But now it is run by someone who seems to be crazy enough to use them.