The Universal Notebook: The Russian lesson

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My old friend Serge Rossolowsky (1895-1976), the subject of my self-published novel, lost his father to the Bolsheviks, his wife and daughter to Stalinist concentration camps, and years of his own life to Soviet prisons and labor camps. 

Rossolowsky told me his life story in great detail, but he was never able to explain to me how Russia became such a cruel and vicious place.

Edgar Allen BeemI first became aware of Russia, then the Soviet Union, when Nikita Khrushchev pounded his shoe on his desk at the United Nations because another delegate charged, correctly, that “the peoples of Eastern Europe and elsewhere … have been deprived of the free exercise of their civil and political rights and … have been swallowed up, so to speak, by the Soviet Union.”

That was in the fall of 1960 and, at 11 years old, my first impression of Russia was of a country run by belligerent bullies. That judgment only intensified two years later when, in 1962, the discovery of Russian missiles in Cuba sent the world to the brink of nuclear annihilation, and those of us in junior high scurried to duck and cover beneath our desks.

In a secret deal, Russia apparently agreed to remove its missiles from Cuba if the U.S. would remove its missiles from Turkey.

I was too busy chasing girls to pay much attention to Russian aggression in high school, but what was known as détente (“a release of tension”) began when I was in college. By the time Mikhail Gorbachev ushered in glasnost (“openness”) and perestroika (“restructuring”) in the 1980s, the Soviet Union had lost much of its menace and was beginning to behave more like a western democracy.

The Soviet Union pretty much fell apart by 1991. And that was the year a brutal former KGB officer named Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin began his political ascent. We now know Putin as a murderous dictator feared throughout the world but beloved by belligerent bully Donald Trump.

Putin’s determination to put the Soviet Union back together by force has turned the nuclear clock back to 1962, when I was sure the world would come to an end at any moment.

Putin’s Big Lie, his pretext for invading Ukraine, is that Ukraine is run by Nazis. Trump’s Big Lie is that the 2020 election was stolen from him. The only thing you really need to know about Trump is that he is guilty of everything he accuses others of doing. And he will cheat any way he can to win in 2024. We can’t allow that to happen unless we are prepared for the U.S. to become another USSR.

I can’t get all high and mighty about the Russian military targeting civilians in Ukraine however, remembering that the U.S. incinerated some 200,000 Japanese civilians in August 1945 when we dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In February of the same year, the U.S. and its allies created a firestorm in Dresden, Germany, that killed some 25,000 people.

Rossolowsky was in Dresden as a prisoner of war during the Dresden firebombing. He told me of seeing people boiled alive when they jumped into water tanks to escape the intense heat of the fire.

I called my fictionalized life of Rossolowsky “The Russian Lesson.” That lesson is that forces beyond our control steamroller little people like Rossolowsky and you and me.

History is the collective biography of madmen and there is no logic to their madness, just a bloody thirst for power.

Edgar Allen Beem has been writing The Universal Notebook weekly since 2003, first for The Forecaster and now for the Phoenix. He also writes the Art Seen feature.