The Cold War Through The Looking Glass

PrintPrintEmailEmailWhen the Cold War began, people my age were in school, and when it ended, we were increasingly thinking about our pensions. Our whole lives were spent amid the fear that our great national enemy would strike a fatal blow if we made the slightest false step or showed the least weakness. Who “we” were and who the enemy was depended on which country we considered our own, the Soviet Union or the United States.

Virtually my entire life has been spent in Russia. When, already past maturity, I came to the United States, I was surprised by how much our fears and our determination to defend our ideals and our countries had coincided. For Americans, of course, the Soviet Union was the Evil Empire. Readers will be surprised and even indignant to learn that to us—or at least for most of my compatriots—the United States was the Evil Empire. Each side came very close to seizing the other by the throat in a fit of righteous indignation and, in defense of its ideals, using force to make it admit it was wrong (always a hopeless approach). Thanks to the statesmanlike and human wisdom of the leaders of both countries—and a certain amount of luck—we succeeded in avoiding such a “resolution” of the ideological quarrel. The Cold War expired by itself, and we, having survived, can now look back, evaluate our recent past, and even joke about it.


But at the time of Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953, everything seemed to be heading toward a real war, a nuclear war. Today, when many secrets are secrets no longer, we know that at the beginning of the 1950s, Stalin ordered an accelerated buildup not only of the Soviet Union’s armed forces but of those of his Warsaw Pact allies as well, in order to be fully mobilized and ready for an armed clash by 1954 or 1955. By March 1953 the number of Soviet military personnel had reached 5,394,038, an insupportable burden for the economy of a country in peacetime. However, this gigantic army could have done little in case of a conflict, since the strategic air force of the United States, whose bases surrounded the Soviet Union, could have destroyed whatever it chose. Stalin did not possess a weapon capable of responding with a comparable retaliatory strike on American territory. He knew this and was deathly afraid of war, but at the same time he considered it inevitable. Motivated by fear, he ordered that ten thousand tactical IL-28 bombers with a range of about fifteen hundred miles be produced and stationed at airfields built on the Arctic Ocean ice, closer to U.S. territory. Soviet generals were fully aware that this was an impractical plan, but they did not dare contradict Stalin. Preparations to implement it endedonly with his death.

When Eisenhower was elected, we knew what it meant: “The U.S.A. has decided to fight, otherwise, why would they need a general?”

Another crazy scheme, similarly born out of fear, was actually carried out. An army of one hundred thousand men was stationed in tents on the Chukotsk tundra and charged with resisting an invasion from Alaska. It was assumed that the Americans would cross the Bering Strait on the ice. However, where they could go from there, surrounded by swamps, permafrost, and the taiga, has always remained a mystery to me. From Chukotka it is a good eight thousand miles to Moscow and at least twenty-five hundred miles to relatively inhabited regions of Siberia.

Anti-aircraft batteries were ranged like a fence around Moscow. Beside them lay open crates of gleaming shells ready to be fired. The sudden German air attack in June 1941 was continuing to dominate the Kremlin’s thinking, just as Pearl Harbor lived on in Washington’s.

I finished school and began studying at the Electric Power Institute in September 1952. I wanted to become an engineer in the field of automated control. We schoolboys and students were inclined to be militant, even aggressive: “Just let them [whomever you like] poke their noses in here and we’ll show them a thing or two.” Sitting at our school desks, we, like our leaders in the Kremlin, felt sure that war was not far off. When America elected Gen. Dwight D. Elsenhower, a hero of the Second World War, as President in November 1952, we had no doubt what it meant: “The U.S.A. has decided to fight. Otherwise, why would they need a general as President?”

After living through the horrors of German bombings, we were not frightened by the atomic bomb. We flaunted our courage. During civil defense classes we were told to cover ourselves with something white, preferably a sheet, in the event of a nuclear blast, to reduce the radiation impact (I don’t know how effective that would have been). A joke immediately went the rounds: “If an atomic bomb explodes, cover yourself with a sheet and crawl to the cemetery, but without hurrying. Why without hurrying? So as not to cause panic.”