Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Gorbachev, Yeltsin, and Me

In the summer of 1991 the Soviet Union began to fall apart. Russia established its sovereignty that summer, and a hardliner coup was overturned by Russian President, Boris Yeltsin, and his democratic allies. By December of that year, Boris Yeltsin pulled the plug on Lenin's political experiment by joining with the leaders of Ukraine and Belarus to establish the Commonwealth of Independent States, a loose confederation of sovereign entities that looked almost nothing like the monolithic superpower that preceded it. The final act in the drama took place on Christmas Day of that year when Gorbachev announced on CNN that he was ceasing his activities as president.

It's impossible to overstate the signifance of this bathetic conclusion to seventy years of Bolshevism. After little more than half a decade of glasnost and perestroika, Soviet leaders and ordinary Soviet citizens walked away from superpower status, Marxist theory, and Communist idealism. But what was I doing while the nuclear briefcase passed from the urbane but anachronistic Gorbachev to the alcoholic but immensely popular Boris Yeltsin? In the summer of 1991 I was graduating from Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. As a student of international relations, I should have had a keen sense of the historical import of the moment. As I've mentioned previously, I had only recently completed three different courses on Russian history and statecraft. And yet, like most Americans, and some professional Kremlinologists, I remained oblivious to history. In fact, like most folks, I was, in the words of Flavor Flav of Public Enemy, "busy tryin' to do for me."

 That summer I sustained a series of minor personal setbacks, which seemed impossibly depressing to me at the time. In the first place, I failed the hyper-competitive Foreign Service oral examinations, something I hadn't really anticipated doing when I got accepted to a hyper-competitive international relations academic program. I remember this first Foreign Service failure vividly, even though I went on to fail the exam three more times before finally passing the exam a decade later. At one point, the examiners gave us a mock inbox of directives, written queries, and other forms of correspondence that demanded our attention. Without any previous work experience outside of Pizza Hut, Burger King, and Baker's Square, I smugly assumed that my decisions could scarcely be gainsaid. And yet, upon being told that day that I had failed the exam, the female examiner felt it necessary to add that the she and her colleagues had been "quite shocked" by my refusal to meet with a secretary who had, according to the mock organizational chart, wanted to criticize her supervisor, my fictitious chief of staff. During the exam, I reasoned that "real life" bosses would never stoop to undermining high level officers in the organization by meeting with their subordinates. To this day, I'm not quite sure that I was wrong about my assumptions about business life, but certainly it didn't do me any good to profess such cynicism at such a young age.

I want to tell my readers that things go better from here but they didn't. I moved to California, in pursuit of a woman who would one day do me wrong. In California, I took up a job for nine dollars an hour, right across from a strip club on Sunset Boulevard. In an attempt to escape my fate--which I wrongly concluded I had done nothing to forge-I took the Foreign Service exam a second time. This time, as they say in Godfather, "things got rough, Boss." Yes, I failed the exam a second time. The tragedy this time is that the examiners actually praised me, saying that I had done so well on the exam that it would have been "statistically impossible" for me to do any better than I had done, without actually passing the exam. The "good news" of the near miss devastated me. What happened next was par for the course. Walking outside, I noticed that it had recently rained but failed to notice that this rain had flooded a large area that blocked my way. The flood at pushed up a mass of floating wood chips that I now attempted to step on. Sinking about five inches deep into the flooded zone, I felt ridiculous. I only had one suit and this dunking seemed to be nature's way of telling me that buying a new suit was no guarantee of worldly success.

I remember thinking how I might have been able to accept the loss of a childhood dream like becoming a major league baseball player or astronaut; but why was the dream of becoming a government bureaucrat so unattainable? I took the Foreign Service test two more times before finally passing it. On the fourth time out, I was so desperate to pass and escape graduate school that I began to experience what must have been something akin to a panic attack. Making my way to the bathroom I peered into the mirror to try to get a hold of myself. The vision in the mirror horrified me. Having shaved a little too zealously that morning in preparation for the exam, I had nicked myself, leaving a few small drops of blood. In my heightened state of nervousness, I saw something quite different, something akin to a bloody, severed head. I blinked but could only see a dress shirt drenched in oceans of crimson blood. Surely this embarrassing sight would be the end of my quest to enter government service! And indeed this, or at least my exaggerated anxiety over the test, did lead to a fourth failure.

My quest to work in the field of international relations seems a bit comical now, or tragic, depending on how much sympathy one has for the follies of youth. It's ironic, to say the least, that my struggle to secure a place in the State Department should have distracted me so thoroughly from the events in Eastern Europe that were reshaping the world. History is like that. We think, to paraphrase Althusser, that "the future lasts forever." But it never works out that way. Nothing is permanent. The Soviet Union and the Cold War melted away and I hardly noticed they were gone. The Russians themselves weren't that concerned either apparently. Nightline and CNN provided the world with more coverage of Gorbachev's exit from the stage of history than any news outlet in Russia, and not merely because of Yeltsin's distaste for the man. Apparently Russians knew that Communism had died years if not decades early, and that Glasnost and Perestroika were just morbid attempts to animate a corpse.

And in case you were more interested in global history than you are in personal history, please see Conor O'Clery's thrilling book, Moscow, December 25 1991:  The Last Day of the Soviet Union.  Conor's book juxtaposes that final day with the year leading up to it.  Although the role of the American press gets far too much attention, the book goes a long way toward helping readers to see understand and assess the best and worst qualities of two great men, Gorbachev and Yeltsin.