Thursday, November 5, 2009

Raisa was a Capricorn

It’s a good thing the Soviet Union collapsed when it did because we’ve all somehow forgotten that it appeared—almost right up until the moment of the collapse—that the Soviet Union was holding its own, even winning, even in the first half of the 1980s. As I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, the Communist Superpower seemed to have a lot going for it. It remained the largest country in the world; its population was larger than ours; its army was said to be superior to that of the U.S., in quantity if not in quality; and we were routinely told that the Soviets enjoyed strategic superiority in many key aspects of the nuclear arms race.

Ruling Couples

The Soviet Union had its problems, but it possessed immense natural resources, including astronomical quantities of oil, which dwarfed our own. It had reliable allies in comparison with our NATO client states, who often went their own way even on matters directly related to the safety of the Western World. The Soviet Union also continued to do well in the war for the hearts and minds of the so-called Third World (now renamed the developing world). The Russians had, for instance, apparently chosen the right side in the Arab-Israeli conflict, insofar as Israel had little to offer America in comparison with the wealth, population, markets, and oil of the Arab League and OPEC. Moreover, despite the quagmire of Afghanistan, the Russians had clearly won in Vietnam, and were doing well in Africa, where, once again, the U.S. seemed to have backed the wrong side: the minority Apartheid regime of White South Africans.

The Soviets were even gaining ground in Latin America. Cuba had survived a trade decade for decades, and Ronald Reagan insisted that Nicaragua and Grenada were lethal threats to the security of the continental United States. Remember the map Reagan showed Americans of a huge red surge washing up to the U.S. southern border by way of Nicaragua and Mexico?

Soviet superiority also seemed to manifest itself in chess, with the Soviets maintaining both the first and second positions in the global sport. There were no more Bobby Fishers in the 1980s: We knew we couldn’t be either Kasparov or his opponent. The Russians continued to well in international sports as well. The Russian state had another important advantage: its leaders didn’t need to contend with alternative parties, or organized public opposition, or true freedom of the press.

Even when Communism entered into the period of Glasnost and Perestroika, the Soviet Union evinced certain signs of competitiveness. The viability of the system was epitomized in the strange pairing of Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan. Gorbachev, confident, supremely intelligent, and urbane, the Soviet leader emerged as a master of public diplomacy. Where David Stockman’s book The Triumph of Politics revealed that Ronald Reagan frequently slept during key meetings and required blow up dolls or other gimmicks to engage his attention for White House presentations, Gorbachev boldly challenged stereotypes about what a Communist leader could do or be. He, more than Reagan, seemed to be the man of the future. He was—or so it seemed to many, especially in Western Europe--for peace, reform, and change.

The Reagans

If Gorbachev seemed like a sophisticated leader who was prepared for the future, Ronald Reagan’s confidence seemed rooted in his Hollywood past. It was a matter of playacting. Reagan could deliver speeches, but was he the real thing or was he a B grade actor? A large minority of the United States didn’t think he was smart enough to be president. (It turns out alzheimer's might have been part of the problem). However, for me the real key to understanding Soviet potential for the future was not Mikhail Gorbachev but his wife, Raisa. While Raise was a sophisticated, substantive woman who had earned a doctorate and taught philosophy at the college level for two decades, Nancy Reagan was spending huge quantities of money on designer dresses and consulting astrologers. In the past ten years, I’ve come to reassess my superficial appraisal of the two women, and I’ve come to respect the magic of astrology.

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