Soviet propaganda posters on display at the Tate Modern. Photo by Loz Pycock.
Tonight’s return of my favorite cable-TV series, Cold War spy drama “The Americans,” highlights both how much has changed since the Soviet Union’s collapse and how little.
On Monday, the United States and its allies ejected close to 100 Russian “diplomats” (a traditional cover for intelligence agents on both sides) in response to the alleged poisoning in England of a former Russian double-agent and his daughter. (Both Sergei Skripal and his daughter remain in critical condition as of this writing.) The biggest roundup comes from the U.S., which is expelling 60 Russians identified as intelligence officers. Russia may well have responded in kind by the time you read this; if not, such a response is sure to be forthcoming soon.
The U.S. action was the largest expulsion ever, eclipsing the former record of 55 Soviet agents expelled by President Ronald Reagan in 1986. That is just about the same time period as the setting for the sixth and final season of “The Americans,” which airs tonight on FX.
In the television version, Philip and Elizabeth Jennings are a pair of Soviet spies who enter into a state-arranged marriage and then infiltrate suburban Washington, D.C., where they present themselves as a typical American couple who are raising two children while running a travel agency. All the while, they carry out a variety of missions for “the Center,” from stealing designs for stealth aircraft to planting a bug in the FBI’s counterintelligence headquarters.
The series spans much of the 1980s, when superpower rivalry reached a peak following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and America’s arms buildup under President Reagan. Elizabeth is a true believer in her cause, certain that she is defending her homeland against a rapacious and aggressive America. Philip has some doubts, which increase as his thoroughly American children find their footing in a society that leaves more space for individual choice than he ever thought possible.
Most Americans – by which I mean you and me, not the fictional Jenningses – thought the Cold War ended at the start of the 1990s, when the Soviet Union dissolved, with its end cemented in this century as NATO expanded eastward. It took some of us longer to realize it than others, but that was never really true.
The 1990s were a time of chaos and dislocation in Russia as kleptocrats seized state assets while much of the population lapsed into poverty and despair. Russian embarrassment at home was compounded by humiliation abroad. Former Soviet client states like Poland and the Baltics embraced the West and raised living standards with substantial aid from Western Europe. Meanwhile, Russia was unable to stop America and its allies from intervening against Serbia – a close traditional ally – to settle the civil war that erupted in the Balkans following communism’s collapse.
There was much talk in those years of how the world was left with just one superpower. This rankled in Russia, and nowhere more than in the former KGB, from which Vladimir Putin emerged to become the country’s president in 2000. After the initial humiliation of the Kursk submarine disaster, Putin set about restoring authoritarian control without even the veneer of communist ideology. The only ideology that mattered in Putin’s Kremlin was loyalty to the regime – meaning to Putin himself.
The Russian leader was re-elected in near-Soviet style this month. He received an overwhelming share of the vote, but only after the most viable opposition candidates were eliminated: one with a bullet, the other via trumped-up criminal charges. An array of journalists and opposition figures have died in Putin’s Russia under circumstances that are never subsequently made clear.
In some respects the country functions better now than it did under the creaking communist system, since at least the worst inefficiencies in its business practices have been weeded out. But from his own likely point of view, Putin’s work is far from done. NATO still has forces on his country’s western edge, and economic sanctions have taken a toll on the economy in ways that could provoke restlessness down the line. China has emerged on Russia’s southern border as a far more vibrant and potent global force, while America and its allies still act as though they are parents with the power to punish Russia for staying out past curfew in places like Crimea and Georgia. It rankles.
Lacking both the power and the opportunity to strike out directly, Putin has directed his forces to weaken the opposition by sowing division. The Russians have assiduously done so by fomenting strife within national borders (notably but far from exclusively in our own 2016 election) and across them.
Apart from its weapons of mass destruction, Russia remains a weak and declining country. Its population is stagnating and aging, its economy is overly dependent on extractive industries and its cronyism prevents enterprises from achieving success on their own merits. In other words, not much has changed from Soviet times, as this week’s diplomatic flap has confirmed.
Welcome back, Americans! Those of us who were not on set or in the writers’ room don’t yet know how your story ends, although we know what happened to the motherland in the 1980s. Will history repeat itself? That story has yet to be written.