Cold War lingers on
I want to state my disclaimer right up front: I am not a political science expert nor am I much of a historian. But, as a ‘housewife turned loose on the world,’ I am deeply concerned about events taking place around Russia.
I have traveled a lot in eastern Europe with study and mission groups. Most of those countries were Soviet satellite countries during the Cold War. My first such trip took place just six months after the Berlin Wall came down. At that time, Frank was lieutenant governor and led a delegation of leaders to Russia, the former Yugoslavia, Poland and the Ukraine. We took business people, educators, government officials and professionals, and, thus, our meetings covered a variety of subjects.
The effects of many years of Soviet domination were sobering. Food was scarce, accommodations were minimal and the infrastructure was drab and run down. The people we met were mostly open and euphoric about the future. Everyone was sure that democracy and the free-enterprise system had arrived. It definitely was an atmosphere of people freed from a tyrannical system of governance.
We were the first Americans that some Russian legislators had ever seen, and they rejoiced in taking us into the official buildings. I remember one such discussion during which our hosts searched for something to give us as a welcoming gift. The only thing they could find was a lead pencil, which they presented to Frank. At another reception, we met an enthusiastic mayor who had come 500 miles to meet and learn from Americans.
We visited Ukraine, too, and were so glad to get to this bright spot in the old tightly-held Soviet Union. Flowers flanked the streets, and the people displayed a more prosperous life than we had seen in Russia. We visited a summer home in the country and were served a bountiful display of large berries. Our hosts’ mood dimmed as they confessed they didn’t know if it was really safe to eat them as their size might have been a result of the radiation from the Chernobyl nuclear power station disaster in 1986.
Yes, in 1990, we thought the Cold War, with its ‘iron curtain’ dividing the West and the East, was a thing of the past. Surely freedom was here to stay.
But, in history, nothing is a clean sweep from the past or a guarantee about the future. We carry with us attitudes, habits, alliances, economic treaties, nationalistic characteristic and established institutions and skills.
I have visited the little country of Moldova a dozen times. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, its attempts at a democratic government failed. They simply didn’t know what to do with their newfound freedom. They were the first ex-Soviet country to vote a Communist president into office. When I asked ‘why?,’ I was told because ‘under the old regime, the orphans at least got milk and the old people got their pensions.’
Since the second World War, Russia has kept a military presence in a territory that belongs to Moldova. It gives them a foothold in the region which sits right next to Ukraine. This area, called Transneister, is a corridor of heavy smuggling of drugs, ammunition and humans. Moldova is still the poorest country in Europe and sits ready again to be ‘rescued’ by the Russians when the time is right.
This past summer, Don and I visited Moldova, the Baltic nations of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia and St. Petersburg, Russia. Vladimir Putin, president of Russia, had already taken over Crimea and is now accused by many of sending troops in to the Ukraine. We went to observe and record the feelings of citizens as to the current state of their freedom and how they felt about the future. We hoped to learn things that would help us in the United States to hold on to the freedom we so often take for granted.
One of the few things that has stuck in my head from history lessons in school is that Russia always needs a warm water port. With dominance over the Baltic nations and the Crimean peninsula comes control of prosperous shipping routes, barriers to outside aggressors and valuable access to Europe.
After the second World War, in an attempt to avert future wars, countries formed economic and military alliances. As struggling, new, free countries, where were the former Soviet satellite countries going to look for support, to the East and Russia or the West with the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization? It appears that Putin is using force to destabilize countries and, thus, making them less acceptable to entrance into the Western organizations.
The headquarters of NATO is in Latvia. In that small, strategically located country, a journalist told us that ‘if NATO were not there today, the Russians would be.’ The Baltic Nations are used to being threatened by aggressors and have developed vigorous nationalistic traditions and practices, but they can only ride out the storms for so long.
The propaganda machine of the Russian government is in high gear. Many folks we talked to said they rarely were given the truth and so they quit getting involved or thinking about the issues.
We in the United States know that a democracy is held together by citizen involvement.
The Cold War is not over; it is just on hold and Russia is just a ‘mouse’ click away.