Just Who Did Smash Communism?
An irony worth noting is that much credit for winning the Cold War should go to the people Reagan so disliked as governor of California -- the hippies, the anti-Vietnam War protesters and counter-culture figures who in the 1960s produced the music, ideas and ethos of non-conformism that appealed to the educated youth suffocating in the communist world. Those who had the most access to the West, including the children of elite apparatchiki or professionals, found themselves drawn more to Lennon than Lenin, more to Mick than Marx.
Just ask Pavel Palazchenko, the bald, mustachioed interpreter who stood between Reagan and Gorbachev whenever they met. In the 1960s, he studied at the elite Institute of Foreign Languages in Moscow, where, he recalls in a wise, little-noticed 1997 memoir, the "stupidity of the official ideology was not even funny." For relief, he and his fellow students "scraped enough [money] together for parties with girls and a lot of drinking (vodka was cheap in those days). And we had the Beatles," he said.
"We knew their songs by heart. . . . To the Beatles, even more than to my teacher of phonetics, I owe my accent. But I and my . . . contemporaries owe them something else too. In the dusky years of the Brezhnev regime [1964-1982] they were not only a source of musical relief. They helped us create a world of our own, a world different from the dull and senseless ideological liturgy that increasingly reminded one of Stalinism. . . . I believe that only some of us in those years drew inspiration from [dissident physicist] Andrei Sakharov, for we had not yet matured enough to understand his vision. But the Beatles were our quiet way of rejecting 'the system' while conforming to most of its demands."
Not all Soviet leaders were oblivious to these subversive influences. In December 1980, the month after Reagan's election, KGB chief Andropov circulated a confidential memorandum to the Central Committee. It wasn't about the president-elect, but about the murder of John Lennon that month. Andropov reported that "in many of Moscow's establishments of higher education," anonymous posters had appeared to organize a demonstration in memory of the ex-Beatle. "The KGB has taken the necessary measures to identify the instigators of this gathering and is in control of the situation," Andropov assured the party elite.
But the KGB was not "in control of the situation." By the late '80s, an underground rock scene flourished in the land of "socialist realism." When the whole edifice tumbled to the ground, former dissidents around the old Warsaw Pact, like Vaclav Havel, hailed (and in some cases erected new statues to) such figures as Frank Zappa, Pink Floyd, Lou Reed and James Dean.
Reagan gave a push to the tottering statues of Marx and Lenin, but his role was, in all likelihood, peripheral rather than central -- it's simply premature to say with any degree of certitude. In the meantime, the outpouring of hagiographic praise of Reagan for slaying the Soviet dragon says as much about us as about him. The blend of sentimentality, Cold War triumphalism and superficial news coverage reflects the dangerous American habit of neglecting the world's complexity in favor of drawing a self-indulgent, solipsistic caricature of international affairs.
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James Hershberg is associate professor of history and international affairs at George Washington University and former director of the Woodrow Wilson Center's Cold War International History Project.
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