You are a special generation: born just after the Cold War, the first of the digital age, and fortunate to have enjoyed the longest economic expansion in American history.
It may be hard to believe, but the threat of nuclear war once cast a long shadow over our lives. Your parents probably recall huddling under their school desks in civil defense drills. Thankfully, that horrible specter has receded. We did not win the Cold War, but the Soviet Union lost it for reasons that are relevant today.
Communism denied individuals freedom to speak out, stifled information and monopolized power. It was mind-numbing, suffocating and once covered about half the planet -- hundreds of millions of people suffered through it in the Soviet Union, China and elsewhere.
Imagine: there were special rooms in the Soviet Union where photo-copying machines were kept under lock and key so people could not share information on a page. Statistics about life expectancy were considered a state secret. In libraries, there were special drawers and whole rooms where forbidden literature was locked up by a paternalistic state. No Facebook, no Kindle, no freedom.
The Soviet Union expired for many reasons: over-militarization, a dysfunctional system of economic central planning, and a lack of civil society and rule of law. But one factor which we can see more clearly in retrospect was that, as a closed society, it could not compete with a wave of innovation, communications and new technology that was blossoming in the West. The advent of the personal computer in the 1980s empowered individuals to control and distribute information -- an idea that made Soviet bosses shudder. Later, the widespread connection of computers to networks triggered another explosion of innovation and prosperity, born and nurtured in societies that prized freedom and rewarded innovation. Mikhail Gorbachev's last-ditch bid for glasnost was certainly the right idea, but too late. Would Steve Jobs or Bill Gates have succeeded if they lived in Moscow in the 1980s? Probably not.
Today, the digital revolution has become a powerful liberating force for millions of people. China's burgeoning middle class is rife with ferment, making it harder and harder to sustain the Great Firewall. Events like the Zhejiang bullet train crash, once hushed up, are now shared with lightning speed on microblogs and provoke popular fury. In Russia, a single Facebook page was critical in organizing tens of thousands of people to protest Vladimir Putin's return to power and last December's fraudulent parliamentary elections. Russia now has 53 million people online, more than any other country in Europe. The Arab world was convulsed by demonstrations for democracy which spread like wildfire on the winds of social media and satellite television. The life sciences are in a period of discovery as exciting as physics was at the dawn of the nuclear age. The digital upheaval has transformed music, photography, news and literature, and a new video entertainment boom is around the corner. Already, 60 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute; more video is uploaded to YouTube in one month than the three major U.S. broadcast networks created in 60 years. We live in an age of person-to-person communications that are more fluid and accessible than at any time in human history. We routinely search across oceans of data in a fraction of a second.
And you can hold a device to do this in the palm of your hand.
But there are danger signs. The world is now totally dependent on connectivity. Finance, medicine, education, science, news, national security and culture are all reliant on networks. What if the power in a major American city is abruptly switched off by a single command from a remote server that no one can trace? Or a dam sabotaged? Or the wrong signal causing stock markets to crash? Computers have been such an impressive force for good that it may be hard to think about the underside, about an arms race in cyberspace, but it is plausible. The United States, China, Russia and others are now investing in offensive cyber weapons, and doing it largely in secret, without public debate.
In the early years of the atomic age, nuclear bombs were huge and unwieldy -- they weighed 5,000 pounds and had to be lofted across the oceans by airplanes that would take five hours to reach their target. Technology relentlessly improved the "absolute weapon" so that by the end of the Cold War, a nuclear-armed missile could fly 4,000 nautical miles in 30 minutes and hit a target in a circle with a radius of 560 feet. No doubt the threat of warfare in cyberspace will arrive long before we are prepared for it. The commander of U.S. Cyber Command said recently we have a better chance of detecting an incoming ballistic missile than we do a cyber attack.
The digital revolution is also upending our politics. It has enabled every one of us to effortlessly choose the sources we want for information, and to custom-build them. Inevitably and inexorably, this is breaking down the middlemen or gatekeepers who often sifted and synthesized in an earlier time: the newspapers, the book publishers, the broadcast radio and television networks. To an older generation, it is painful and disorienting to see these institutions suffer, but that is not the real problem. Until there are new gatekeepers (if they will rise at all) we have to fend for ourselves in the realm of information. Sure, it can be exhilarating: new products, smart start-ups, and relentless competition that stimulates ideas and opportunity. The levels of participation are astounding. If Facebook users were citizens of a nation, it would be the third most populous on earth. Yet, in the United States we are fragmenting into ever-smaller and more narrow niches. We have lost the ability to form consensus on the big issues, such as our fiscal future, or climate change. Clearly the first wave of the digital age has been chaotic and disruptive. It will fall to you and future generations to guide it to something more coherent.
As you take this immense revolution in your hands, don't be passive. Climb out of your foxhole and look at the world broadly. It will be a terrible disappointment if the technology and creativity of recent years results in a new isolation -- everyone looking down at their smartphones without looking up at the horizon. Our problems right now are too daunting.
And just as your parents and grandparents fought to liberate millions of people from an ideology that locked up photocopiers and books, so too must you be ready to take action, perhaps under entirely different circumstances. Freedom, competition, openness, democracy and innovation are treasured values for any age. They helped bring us to this moment. Don't lose sight of what you inherited and what you must do to nurture and protect it.
What lies ahead for Russia, now that Vladimir Putin has decided to return as president? For answers, go no further than Dmitri Trenin and his new book, Post-Imperium, published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Trenin looks over the cliff 20 years ago -- at the precarious, unknown abyss after the Soviet collapse -- and discovers why Russia did not become the nightmare scenario that many predicted. He helps explain the mindset, circumstances, and outlook of Russia over the last two decades, providing an excellent vantage point to see where Russia is going.
The current conventional wisdom about the failed coup in the Soviet Union twenty years ago -- great expectations, followed by disappointment -- neglects the more subtle and important aspects. The anniversary this week is a good opportunity to savor some insightful and complex assessments. Among the best, in my view:
Jonathan Steele's interview with the last Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev. Gorbachev is unusually introspective, and laments his failure to separate himself from the Communist party. Many people have long thought it was his greatest error, and it is refreshing to see him acknowledge it now.
A series by Der Spiegel including an interview with Gorbachev. In discussing the coup, Gorbachev admits he should not have left Moscow for vacation in the days before the hardliners moved against him. "I had become exhausted after all those years," he said. "I was tired and at my limits. But I shouldn't have gone away. It was a mistake."
Masha Lipman's terrific essay in The Washington Post. Lipman points to the bargain that Russians have made with the Kremlin, what she has called a non-participation pact. Russians have won personal freedom, and enjoy it, while apathetic and passive about public politics, in which competition has ceased to exist. This nuanced description of today's Russia points out that not all was lost. The public space may be closed, but the private space is free. That's not the Soviet Union any longer.
Leon Aron's piece in The Post is based on extensive discussions with people involved in building civil society, and he concludes there's still hope, that there's a solid foundation being built in social movements that will prove a counter-point to the efforts from above to suck all the air out of civil society.
Neil Buckley has an enlightening survey in The Financial Times [behind paywall] that looks at what happened to all the former Soviet republics, chiefly focusing on economics and political freedom. This wider lens is very useful. Estonia and Uzbekistan were once in the same country, and although differences existed then, too, look at the distance between them now.
I've already had my say on this topic, in FP, here.
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In 1989, Mikhail Gorbachev permitted elections for the first popularly elected legislature in Soviet history. The Communist Party still dominated, but about a third of the seats in the 2,250-member chamber were open, and in many of them, establishment party members were booted out. When the first session of the new Congress of People's Deputies opened on May 25, the nation was mesmerized by the televised proceedings. Work stopped on factory floors as millions of people witnessed an astonishing new phase in Gorbachev's revolution from above -- open criticism of the powers that be.
Read the rest of the article here.
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First the revolution, then the reality.
It has been exhilarating to watch the Arab spring, spreading from Tunis to Cairo, to Manama, Benghazi and elsewhere. These images of people demanding simple freedoms and fresh air after decades of autocracy are reminiscent of the collapse of Communism two decades ago. Then, too, there was a sense of liberation from arbitrary, suffocating rulers. There was a sense of enormous possibility if individual initiative could be set free, if democracy and markets could take hold.
But for those feeling liberated in the Arab world today, a caution: to realize your dreams is going to be a lot harder than it has been so far. It is going to be painfully, maddeningly, frustratingly difficult. One of the useful lessons you can draw from the collapse of Communism is that
tearing down the old order is really just the first step of revolution. What follows has to be built brick-by-brick, may take a generation and is not guaranteed to succeed.
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After all the memoirs and diaries are published, after the myths are created and exploded, there is something quite bracing about the transcripts and official minutes of once-secret White House meetings. People often have imperfect memories of what was said at a meeting, which makes it all the more important and interesting to read the official record of a dialogue as it actually unfolded.
A fresh cache of declassified and original materials on President Reagan and the Cold War is coming to light with the publication of The Reagan Files: The Untold Story of Reagan’s Top-Secret Efforts to Win the Cold War, edited by Jason Saltoun-Ebin. The documents contained in the volume are raw, genuine and illuminating.
Here’s a gem: a White House meeting Sept. 8, 1987, Reagan and his cabinet members were debating negotiations with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Reagan confides, cheerfully:
I have a friend who tells me that in the Soviet Union their right-wingers are starting to call Gorbachev 'Mr. Yes' because he agrees with everything that I propose."
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Lots to read this fall. Here are three new books:
The New Nobility: The Restoration of Russia's Security State and the Enduring Legacy of the KGB (PublicAffairs)
By Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan
The authors bring hard-digging, fact-based journalism to an aspect of Russia that has been hard to document and understand. The New Nobility shows how Vladimir Putin expanded the reach and resources of the successors to the Soviet KGB, and examines their performance as a new elite. The book raises plenty of questions about why the services have not been more successful at security in an age of terrorism, given their favored status, with revealing chapters on the Nord Ost theatre siege, and the Beslan school massacre. They also document the use of the security services to pursue scientists and opposition political figures. A surprising chapter is the story of the hidden underground subway system, which has its own security service. Borogan recalls going down through a ventilator shaft -- a good metaphor for their deep dive into this murky world. They come back to the surface with a book that is sober and probing. (Full disclosure: I gave the authors some editing advice.)
The Twilight of the Bombs: Recent Challenges, New Dangers and the Prospects for a World Without Nuclear Weapons (Knopf)
By Richard Rhodes
Rhodes set the gold standard for nuclear history with The Making of the Atomic Bomb almost 25 years ago. In his latest volume, he examines what happened to nuclear weapons after the Cold War by looking not so much at Russia, but elsewhere around the globe. There is a strong focus on Iraq, where Rhodes chronicles the efforts to dismantle Saddam Hussein's nuclear weapons program in the 1990s, and then explains how the intelligence about WMD was so badly exaggerated leading up to the war in 2003. It is an important story that's been told before, but Rhodes injects a fresh sense of outrage. He also offers intriguing and contrasting accounts of nuclear decision-making in South Africa and North Korea, chapters relevant to today's proliferation conundrums. At the start of the book, Rhodes says he set out to understand "how the dangerous post-Cold War nuclear transition was managed, who its heroes were, what we learned from it, and where it carried us." While the title suggests dusk of the atomic age, the book is actually a reminder that we have not come close to the twilight of the bombs.
Masterpieces of History: The Peaceful End of The Cold War in Europe (Central European University Press; another in the Cold War reader series of The National Security Archive.)
Svetlana Savranskaya, Thomas Blanton, and Vladislav Zubok, eds.
This book is the kind that you can open at any page for an instant immersion in one of the most critical years of the last century, 1989, when the Cold War ended in Europe. The "masterpieces" of the title are 122 original documents which tell the story in words as they were actually spoken and written. The documents make great reading, especially the transcripts of Mikhail Gorbachev's conversations with European leaders. The volume also contains key diplomatic cables, including Ambassador Jack Matlock's perceptive three-part cable from Moscow on the future of the Soviet Union in February; Soviet Politburo transcripts; CIA estimates; and diary entries. All are accompanied by explanatory introductions. The book offers astute and enlightening essays by the editors, and the transcript of the 1998 Musgrove conference, a retrospective on the end of the Cold War. On any reference shelf, this one will be pulled down often, again and again.
The National Security Archive has released a fresh installment of the diary of Anatoly Chernyaev, who was the top advisor on foreign affairs to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Translated into English, the diary for 1990 is a fascinating read. Chernyaev admired Gorbachev greatly, and he recounts moods, trends, and his long talks with Gorbachev in a way that is understanding, sympathetic, yet realistic.
This was the year that Gorbachev tried to satisfy the hardliners. Chernyaev could see the drift and was disappointed. He wrote in an entry March 3, 1990:
There is confusion in my heart. Society is falling apart; so far the rudiments of a new society are nowhere in sight. Judging by my latest observations, Gorbachev is losing a sense of control over the processes. It seems also has “gotten lost” (one of his favorite expressions) in what is going on and is beginning to look for “simple solutions” (another favorite formula)."
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Donald A. Henderson at the Center for Biosecurity in Baltimore
Thirty years ago, on May 8, 1980, a special session of the World Health Assembly in Geneva declared that smallpox had been eradicated. A disease that killed hundreds of millions of people, and haunted humans for more than 3,000 years, had been wiped out. It was the result of a global campaign that took more than a decade. Biological weapons expert Jonathan B. Tucker noted in his 2002 book, Scourge, that "the conquest of smallpox, the first-and so far, only-infectious disease to have been eradicated from nature by human effort, was among the greatest medical achievements of the twentieth century."
The man who spearheaded the smallpox eradication is Donald A. Henderson, now a distinguished fellow with the Center for Biosecurity of the University of Pittsburg Medical Center. Known to most as simply "D. A.," he ran the World Health Organization's campaign against smallpox for a decade, defying predictions it could not be done, and building an organization and methods that overcame many obstacles to eradication.
The smallpox campaign raised hopes about fighting disease, and helped launch a greatly expanded vaccination effort around the world against other illnesses. But in an interview at his office in Baltimore last week, Henderson said, "I really have my doubts about a disease being eradicated" today. The reason: the smallpox campaign brought together many factors that are absent in other efforts.
Photo: David E. Hoffman
A new window was thrown open Friday on key historical turning points in the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The National Security Archive at George Washington University in Washington D.C. published a large new collection of digitized fascimiles of original documents, making them available to Russians online for the first time.
The materials include a rare complete series of the historic dissident journal "Problems of Eastern Europe." The journal is accompanied by an introduction from its longtime editors, Larisa and Frantisek Silnicky. Published throughout the 1980s, the journal contained "a wide range of Soviet, Eastern European, and ultimately even Western reformist thinking, in order to make connections between those various publics and overcome the information barriers that especially hindered the development of dissident and oppositionist ideas," the archive said.
The documents on new Russian-language web pages also include declassified Soviet-era documents on topics such as the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Soviet war in Afghanistan, Mikhail Gorbachev and the end of the Cold War, and dissident movements in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, the archive said.
Here's more from the announcement after the break:
It was a cold autumn in Russia in 1998. The country had recently defaulted on its debts and devalued the ruble, millions of bank depositors lost their savings, and the banks closed their doors. The economic crisis had also created a sense of uncertainty about nuclear security. Erik Engling, who had been working on the problem of loose fissile material for several years for the U.S. Energy Department in Washington, was attempting to visit as many of the Russian institutes with uranium as he possibly could that fall.
One day in early November, he arrived at the Institute for Theoretical and Experimental Physics, spread over 89 acres on a beautiful old estate in Moscow. The institute was one of the oldest in the Soviet Union's archipelago of nuclear research facilities. A large amount of weapons-grade uranium, enriched to 90 percent, was stored there inside in aluminum-clad canisters 6 inches long, which had been used for a heavy-water research reactor and physics experiments.
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Arms control is not magic, even if it seems to have high priests and secret codes.
The lesson of the Cold War is that all those complex negotiations and treaties are not by themselves agents of change, but the result of much deeper, underlying forces and the actions of people. Sure, a treaty is vital to lock in decisions and prevent cheating. But of far greater importance are the reasons that brought the two sides to the table in the first place: economics, politics, technology, and military power, as well as the role of leaders such as U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. The most effective nuclear arms-control measure of all time was not a treaty, but rather the demise of the Soviet Union and the superpower competition along with it. What caused it? A dysfunctional economic and political system imploded.
So let's hold off on the overheated hyperbole about the Prague treaty that U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev are set to sign Thursday. As long as the weapons are still around and on alert, it is unquestionably worthwhile to limit them in a treaty with solid verification provisions. Obama promised last year in his speech in Prague to deliver a treaty that is "sufficiently bold." This one is sufficient, but it's modest, not bold.
Just one week into his presidency, on Jan. 27, 1969, Richard M. Nixon got an eye-opening briefing at the Pentagon on the nation's secret nuclear war plans -- the Single Integrated Operational Plan, as it was known then. "It didn't fill him with enthusiasm," Henry Kissinger, the national security advisor, said later. The briefers walked Nixon through the absolutely excruciating decision a president would face upon receiving an alert of impending attack: whether to launch nuclear missiles.
David E. Hoffman is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and a contributing editor to Foreign Policy.