America And Russia, Americans And Russians

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The Cold War was an anomaly, a forty-year chapter in the history of American-Russian relations, a consequence of the Second World War, in the shadows of which all of us were living, until very recently. It ended in 1989, with the retreat of the Russians from Eastern Europe and with the end of the division of Germany.

Yet in many ways the essential condition of the Cold War—the division of Europe between Americans and Russians—began to fade much earlier. A crucial day in the long history of Europe, of Germany, and of RussianAmerican relations was a Wednesday, April 25, 1945, when the triumphant advancing American and Russian armies met at Torgau on the banks of the Elbe River amid the wreckage of spring and war. Among the soldiers of the 58th Russian Guards Division there were some whose home was Vladivostok, who arrived in the center of Europe from the shores of the western Pacific. Among the soldiers of the U.S. 69th Division there were some whose home was San Francisco: they too had been sent to conquer halfway around the world. They met in the middle of Germany and in the middle of European history: Torgau on the Elbe is about midway between Wittenberg, where Luther’s fire of great revolutions had started, and Leipzig, where Napoleon’s course of great victories had ended. The American and Russian soldiers drank and celebrated together into the night. If that was the peak hour of American-Russian comradeship in arms, it was also the high-water mark of the Russian-American tide flooding Europe.

It would not last. Ten years later, in the midst of the Cold War, the disengagement of the United States and the Soviet Union began: they agreed on their mutual evacuation of Austria. The Russians were already gone from Yugoslavia and Finland. There were crises in American-Russian relations to come, about the Russian suppression of the Hungarian uprising in 1956 or about those missiles in Cuba in 1962, for example, but it was evident (at least to some of us) that the United States was no more willing to risk a war with Russia over Hungary than were the Russians willing to risk a war with the United States over Cuba. Slowly, gradually—albeit periodically interrupted by crude reassertions of their predominance—Russian (and also communist) influence was weakening and retreating throughout Eastern Europe and the Far East, until in the late 1980s that extraordinary Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev thought it best to write off those liabilities—principally for the sake of improving Russia’s relations with the United States. Meanwhile, the American presence in Western Europe has been declining too, all superficial impressions to the contrary notwithstanding. A new chapter has opened now in Russian-American relations, and it is by no means impossible—especially in the Far East—that Russians and Americans, if threatened by certain combinations of other powers, may one day become allies again.

The problem is, however, what does “Russia” and what do “Russians” now mean. The recent coup attempt and the consequent ending of the communist period in the long history of Russia may have been dramatic and inspiring, but it amounts to little or nothing when measured against the much greater phenomenon: the retreat and dissolution of much of the traditional Russian Empire itself, of which the “Soviet Union” was but a cover name, by now as antiquated and meaningless as the Holy Roman Empire. (Keep in mind, too, that while the Holy Roman Empire lasted almost nine hundred years, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics lasted but seventy.) It is to the credit of President Bush and his Secretary of State that they seem to recognize how the dissolution of a great empire may present new and unforeseeable problems not only to their inhabitants but to the world at large and to the United States in particular. They ought to keep in mind also what Bismarck was reputed to have said on one occasion: that Russia is never as strong, or as weak, as it might seem.

I am asking my readers to consider that all of the foregoing concerned, almost exclusively, the relations of two great states—which is apposite since, at least for the last five hundred years, the relations and the struggles of states have been the predominant factors in the history of the globe. Predominant , but not exclusive —certainly not in the history of the United States, which is the history of a people as much as that of a state, of the governed as well as of their government. So something must be said about the relations of the American and Russian peoples: of their mutual perceptions, of their reciprocal images of each other.