The contrast between what had been part of the USSR and what was still Russia could not have been greater when my husband and I visited Tallin, Estonia and St. Petersburg, Russia one day apart during our 2017 Baltic Sea cruise.
We spent a sunny happy day roaming medieval Tallin, Estonia’s picture postcard capital. A free shuttle bus dropped us off next to the original walls, and we explored the cobblestone streets on our own, enjoying a hipster cafe and a rustic restaurant before meandering through stalls of traditional Estonian handicrafts on our way back to the ship. We didn’t see one police officer.
The skies were heavy and grey as we sailed into St. Petersburg harbor the next morning. We stood quietly in line while grim-faced passport control officers thumbed slowly through each passenger’s information, swiveling their heads toward and away from a presumed computer database, eventually shooting the passport back under the glass slot without eye contact. No “Welcome to Russia!” here.
Rain drizzled down the windows of the tour bus as we drove past blocks of industrial-grade apartment housing.
Older buildings closer to the city center were sooty and cracked. A city park had been let to grow wild behind rusted fencing. There was not a flower to be seen.
It was depressing. Maybe the weather brought out the old distrust of a long-time enemy. After being out of the picture for much of the post-Cold War Era, Russia was now an above-the-fold news story involving the Trump presidential campaign.
During the Cold War, which began before and ended after my father’s Foreign Service career, The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) made headlines all the time. We were the Good Guys. The Russians were the Bad Guys. The USSR had carried out espionage activities inside America with the aid of US citizens, particularly during World War II. Soviet influence, and American concern, grew with the Cold War. Communist sympathizers were branded as un-American by Senator McCarthy and as subversives by J. Edgar Hoover. Truman’s Executive Order 9835, the Loyalty Order, mandated that all federal employees be subject to scrutiny to root out Communist influence.
Both of my parents underwent a “full field security check” as part of the 1955 USIA application process to ensure that there were no hidden vulnerabilities that might provide the USSR or others with a way in. My dad recalled facing his inquisitor:
Various investigators — FBI, Civil Service, State Department, we were never sure — poked around Minnesota and South Dakota asking questions, perhaps thus raising a quizzical eyebrow from acquaintances or neighbors here and there but failing to uncover anything that might constitute a “security risk.” [During my final interview with the Agency security office] the agent angled repeated questions about my relationship with the college professor whose name I had listed as a reference on my application form. The line of questioning and barely masked intensity of my inquisitor suggested that the professor’s name still represented a suspicion that he had to check out. I felt indignation surge along with the sudden realization that, at this very moment, I was undergoing some kind of examination to test my patriotism, my loyalty. With government employment came vulnerability.
So what was, and is, disturbing about the 2017 Russia stories is that the a presidential candidate, a Good Guy wanna be, is being investigated for aspiring to collude with the Bad Guys to ensure his election. The White House and Republicans on the Hill have been very relaxed about the whole thing. Imagine if the Truman administration had been accused of loyalty to any foreign sovereign government, much less the USSR Communist regime. It would have been an impeachable offense.
Why is everyone’s head not exploding?
Truth and fiction no longer stand apart: Trump’s people have given alternative facts a place at the table. Trump deflects and redirects and distracts, adopting Russian terminology to distance himself from the issue: it’s all fake news. And the only loyalty he cares about is loyalty to himself, measured in public declarations of his Superbness.
I was starting to think that Trump was the New Teflon President: never before has any public official exhibited greater offensive behavior without consequence …and then November 30th happened.
“Mueller Shock and Awe.”
“A collective body blow to the Trump White House.”
On Monday, Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller III revealed criminal charges including “conspiring against the United States” against two campaign officials, and a guilty plea by the individual who connected the Trump campaign to Russian “dirt against Hillary.”
The evidence is in, and the Big Red Flag is up.
But last July, I despaired of ever the Trump administration getting caught in Russian lie. Although the St. Petersburg subway system was covered in marble, mosaics and brass and the caviar at the market glistened temptingly, we had little interaction with somber train passengers and sullen shopkeepers.
The skies brightened a bit the next day while we cruised past mansions of the old aristocracy,
but the Russian Revolution still reverberates: the bones of Tsar Nicholas, Alexandra and their children are entombed within the baroque ornateness of the Peter and Paul Cathedral.
So much wealth concentrated in Petrograd’s Tsarist autocracy could not hold against Lenin’s demand for land to the peasants and bread to the poor. The Revolution brought the system down.
Our revolution took place nearly 250 years ago, and the United States government serves at the pleasure of we the people. When elected officials forget this, we will remind them.
The 2018 elections are around the corner.