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A Forgotten History

If the narrative we followed brought us to this, of what use was the narrative?

Russian President Putin Attends Summit Of Shanghai Cooperation Organization In Uzbekistan
(Contributor/Getty Images)

We live in an age where the narrative is king. What is true, what is false, what is fact, what is fiction: These are distinctions that have been rendered meaningless by the power of the narrative.

Consider: How many people do you suppose remain convinced that it was Russia that paved Donald Trump’s way from Page Six to the presidency? Allegations of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government is a conspiracy theory as wild and improbable as Pizzagate. Shown to be false by both the Mueller and Durham reports, the idea that Hillary Clinton owes her loss to a foreign power—rather than to herself and an inept campaign—remains an article of faith among millions of our fellow citizens thanks to the power of the narrative.


Today, U.S. foreign policy confronts no bigger challenge than the war in Ukraine. And here the narrative is simplicity itself: There would have been no war but for Vladimir Putin the Aggressor. As such, Ukraine ought to be seen as the West’s first line of defense, or, as Russiagate’s most toxically dishonest partisan Adam Schiff has said, the U.S. must aid Ukraine so “we can fight Russia over there, and we don’t have to fight Russia here.”

This narrative leaves little, if any, room for the actual history of the conflict between Russia and the West. Yet correct prescription requires correct diagnosis, and, as it pertains to the war in Ukraine, the narrative—whatever its uses to the elite in stirring up the passions of the media and the mob against this, America's latest foreign enemy du jour—necessarily obscures the nature of the current crisis.

The task of bringing clarity to this climate of fog and lies is often a thankless task, at best.

But history matters. And Russia’s history, replete as it has been with invasions across its vast, indefensible Eurasian steppe, has not yet been, as it has been here in 21st century America, relegated to the province of books and movies and museums. No, Russia has a tradition of zhivaya istoriya, or living history. And if the memories of the suffering endured by Russians during the Second World War remain fresh, the memories of the humiliating post-Soviet decade of the 1990s—during which Russia experienced the largest economic and demographic collapse ever record in peacetime—remains more so.

And so, the legacy of the forty-year Cold War are alive and well in the minds of Russia’s current generation of leaders, perhaps especially so in the mind of its paramount leader, who rather helplessly witnessed the collapse of the Soviet empire from an outpost in Dresden.


Post-Soviet legacies are, if anything, even more germane to the current crisis in East-West relations. David P. Calleo, a longtime professor of political science at the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, once tartly observed that “American statesmanship seems to have been a good deal more enlightened at the beginning of the Cold War than after its end.” The proof of this is in how U.S. policymakers, including the sitting president, bungled the U.S.-Russian relationship in the post-Soviet era. 

The expectation widely accepted and promoted in the aftermath of the Cold War, that Russia would meekly agree to play a subservient role to the American imperium and allow what had been its wide sphere of influence in Eastern Europe and Central Asia to be reduced to staging posts and landing strips for NATO, was bound to be disappointed. The idea that Russia would also accept American tutelage with regard to its domestic political arrangements was even less grounded.

The West's failed, indeed disastrous, introduction of American-style finance capitalism to Yeltsin’s Russia; the series of NGO-U.S. government supported “color revolutions” on Russia’s periphery; the post 9/11 U.S. forever wars; and last but certainly not least the American-led policy of NATO expansion, do much to explain the present, perilous state of affairs.

For years, the U.S. national security establishment was warned by voices from the right, left, and center that America needed to change its policy toward Russia. It was warned that Russia could not be defeated in their near abroad. It was warned that Kiev—by launching an “anti-terrorist” campaign against its Russian speaking citizens—was recklessly antagonizing Russia. It was warned that making a semi-deity out of a corrupt tool of Ukrainian oligarchs was an obvious mistake. It was warned against conflating the interests of ethno-nationalist far-right factions in Kiev and Lviv (and their allies in Warsaw, Riga, Tallinn, and Vilnius) with U.S. national interests. It was warned to take President Putin’s numerous protestations against NATO expansion seriously.

Yet America’s bipartisan ruling elite decided to ignore these warnings, and the results speak for themselves.