Monday, September 30, 2013

The Return of Mother Russia


October is coming on, and it is time to overload the long-suffering old Mercedes wagon and hightail it for Florida.  A few words about the latest stages of the jihad.

On September 12, 2013, when it looked as if President Obama had red-lined himself into a corner by pledging to send  a barrage of Tomahawk missiles into Syria no matter what anybody --i.e., most responsible Americans -- wanted, deliverance came from an unexpected quarter.  President Vladimir Putin of Russia published a piece in the op-ed section of The New York Times in which he -- quite reasonably, it seemed to me -- dealt with the quandary into which we had backed ourselves.  He did maintain that Bashar Assad had not deployed those sarin-loaded missiles into the Damascus suburbs, and could not resist a poke at American "exceptionalism."   "When we ask for the Lord's blessing, we must not forget that God created us equal," Putin concluded.

Editorial response here was outraged, with a self-righteous John McCain railing on television about hypocrisy and ex-KGB thugs and by God we were exceptional.  In fact, as things appear to be working out, Syria is already in the process of being delivered of its gas and the shaky Obama presidency might yet survive with its reputation intact.

I haven't visited Russia recently, but in 1997 I was a member of a group of intelligence journalists and retired CIA operatives who were invited to spend a week in Moscow.  At vodka-fueled dinners with KGB veterans every night and days prowling the reaches of  Stalin's covert-warfare establishment, our Cold-War education was deepened.  I well remember the blood-soaked walls and overhead manacles of the Lubyanka basement.  Our hosts made it plain that times were hard, and any money we might find it in our hearts to spare....

Russia under Boris Yeltsin was tumbling into the chaos of the unrestricted free market.  Gangster capitalism was on the loose.  Oligarchs were grabbing off the oil resources.  We stayed at the Radison Hotel that overlooked the Kiev railroad station.  Long lines of old women in babushkas with tin cups were there night and day, begging for rubles from travelers. At the piano bar of the hotel somebody was playing jazz.  A small man sat in a club chair and was overhung by a couple of gorillas in long, black leather coats, both with Kalachnikovs slung from their elbows.  The small man, somebody told me, was the owner.  He had once had an American backer.After the Radison started to do business the American had appeared and demanded his cut.  The gorillas had cornered him and blown him all over the ceiling of the elegant Kiev Metro station.

Everybody was not happy.  My friend Thomas Powers introduced me to the editor of Izvestia, once a foremost journal of Marxist thought.  A reflective fellow, the editor saw nothing good in Russia's fall from Communism.  The whole country was a grab-it-in-the-dark party.  Once the week was over I took an overnight train, the legendary Krasnaya Zemlya -- the Red Arrow -- to St Petersburg. All night my fellow passengers kept banging on my compartment door, demanding in broken English to be allowed to see me, they had something I might like to consider....  Fortunately, I held out.

Everything was for sale.  In Saint Petersburg I was met by a tall, blonde woman in her forties who would cart me around for two days, with a lot of time at the Hermitage.  Afterwards she took me to my plane.  Stepping onto the tarmac, I pressed a fifty-dollar tip into her hand.  She looked astonished.  "And I didn't even have to sleep with you," she muttered, with evident relief.

Russia under Vladimir Putin is certainly no paradise.  But Putin has introduced a measure of shabby stability that appears to be enough for now.  Russia -- and America -- could be confronting worse.

Burton Hersh

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