The Old/New Cold War

February 27, 2022

Uprising in Hungary, October 1956. Getty Images.

I WAS NINE YEARS OLD when the Hungarian revolution began in October 1956. I still recall the grainy television images of Soviet tanks in the streets of Budapest and students confronting them with Molotov cocktails and pistols. The images stimulated fantasies of a Soviet invasion in the neighborhood. I defended the house from my bedroom window, taking dead aim at Russian tanks coming down our street.

This morning’s news conveyed images of Ukrainian resistors training to meet Russian army tanks in the streets of Kharkiv and Kyiv. Some of them carried rifles carved from wood. A widely distributed video showed men and women and children making camouflage nets. President Zelensky urged citizens to make Molotov cocktails. It’s at once horrifying and inspiring to imagine the ordinary residents of a modern European city battling Russian tanks with homemade bombs. Today. In 2022.

The Hungarian uprising lasted less than a month before it was brutally dismantled by the Soviet army. Thousands of Hungarians were arrested and imprisoned, and hundreds were executed, including the leader of the revolutionary government, Imre Nagy. For many Marxists and communist sympathizers outside the Soviet Union, it was the definitive end to any remaining hope for the Bolshevik revolution.

Unity Day in Ukraine, January 2022. KuwaitTimes.

The Soviet Union is long gone, but its repressive apparatus and spirit live on in the autocratic personality and regime of Vladimir Putin. The apparatus is now trained on the Ukrainian state and people. It’s not a fair fight, but many things have changed since the Red Army smashed the Hungarian uprising.

Ukraine has been independent since 1991. Its recent history has been rocky, haunted by corruption and Russian interference. Still, 30 years is a long time. It’s also an enormous country with a population of more than 40 million. Lots of angry people with Molotov cocktails.

And the world is greatly changed, too. Late last week, Tom Friedman meditated on the Russian invasion and occupation of Ukraine in a world that is totally wired. Instantaneous communication from the front lines. Millions of Ukrainians using their cell phones to describe troop movements and atrocities. Elaborate digital networks connecting (and disconnecting) Russian and Ukrainian institutions to the rest of the world. Social media outlets constantly and everywhere in play. “The revolution will be televised.”

No one knows how this war will turn out, including Vladimir Putin. And there is bound to be a lot of pain and needless suffering. But everyone will know what is happening almost as it happens. It’s not a great recipe, as Friedman observed, for an autocrat who prefers secrecy, shadows, and surprise. It’s perhaps a moment–alas, too rare–in which we will be grateful for our wired lives and our potent and fully integrated digital technologies. And in a world too fractured and divided, it’s a chance to express solidarity with people seeking Putin’s imperial embrace.

The invasion of Ukraine also reminds us of the fragility of international security arrangements and peace. The brutal repression of the revolts in Hungary and Czechoslovakia was tragic, but it was also consistent with the fundamental political dynamic of the Cold War. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the easing of Cold War tensions, we became accustomed to something very different — the stability provided by the diminution of Russian influence, the expansion of NATO, and the steady growth of the European Union, which united areas of previous Soviet influence with countries in Western Europe in common economic markets. We lost sight of the relations of force that underlie the relations of peace; we forgot that the sudden use of force can abruptly transform stability into instability, and peace into war.

Thomas L. Friedman, “We Have Never Been Here Before,” The New York Times, February 25, 2022.

Gil Scott Heron, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” Pieces of a Man, RCA Studios, 1971.

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Bro Adams

William Adams lives and writes in Portland, Maine, and Puyloubier, France. He served in the Obama administration as Chair of NEH from 2014 to 2017.