Cold Warriors Are Vindicated by the Archives : Third-World conflicts, anti-nuclear protests were part of the Soviet Union’s plan.


The deeper Western researchers dig into the archives of the former Soviet Union and its intelligence services, the more it seems that those “simplistic” anti-communists during the 1980s had it right on four key points:

* From 1945 through the mid-1980s, the Soviet Union was in fact engaged in an international conspiracy to expand communist power throughout the world.

* That drive for hegemony was in fact ideologically driven by the tenets of Marxism-Leninism, by which all Soviet policies had to be justified.

* Soviet foreign policy in fact prospered during the soothing days of the Nixon/Ford/Carter detente. But the strain of an arms race with the West during the Reagan/Thatcher years proved more than the communist system could stand.


* Soviet communism was in fact unreformable; the only antidote to its corruptions and backwardness was the system’s overthrow.

Those are the lessons to be drawn from “Messengers From Moscow,” four hour-long documentaries that PBS is broadcasting weekly beginning Friday. The series combines remarkable contemporaneous archival footage (including home movies from the personal collections of Stalin’s foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov, and Nikita Khrushchev) with a series of astonishing interviews during which key Foreign Ministry, Communist Party and KGB officials speak frankly about Soviet policy aims between 1945 and 1991 and the system’s implosion during the 1980s.

In their telling of the tale, we get a first glimpse of what the Cold War looked like from the other side.

Revisionist historians of the period will find little comfort in “Messengers From Moscow,” which demonstrates that Harry Truman started neither the Cold War nor the Korean War; that Stalin fully intended to control all of Europe after World War II, beginning with a unified communist Germany; that Third World proxy wars, far from being simply local outbursts of anti-colonialism, were Moscow’s preferred strategy for draining Western resources and resolve; that the Soviet deployment of SS-20s in Eastern Europe during the height of detente was not a defensive move but a bid for theater nuclear superiority; that the anti-nuclear campaigns in the West during the late 1970s and early 1980s were manipulated by Soviet officials; that the Soviet military-industrial complex, not the West’s, was completely out of control in the 1980s, and that the Strategic Defense Initiative forced the Soviet Union to “seek an understanding with the West,” as KGB Gen. Sergei Kondrashev puts it.


Perhaps the most chilling revelation in the series touches on a fear often expressed by the American left during the 1980s: What would happen if a nuclear-armed superpower had an incapacitated old man as a leader? It was a legitimate concern; the problem was that it was focused on Ronald Reagan. For, as “Messengers From Moscow” makes clear, the Soviet Union was led for six years by a geriatric drug addict whose reality base was increasingly fragile: Leonid Brezhnev.

According to his personal physician, Brezhnev had, by the time of the Vladivostok summit in 1974, become addicted to sedatives, which he took in such massive doses as to create the same effect as a dependency on hard drugs. Even more telling is the testimony of one of Brezhnev’s bodyguards, who remembers that “Leonid Ilyich used to say, ‘The less you know, the better you sleep. I know a lot so I need sleeping pills.’ ” Thus, we may speculate, did the formative experiences of Brezhnev’s political youth--the terrible party purges of the 1930s--take their toll on the life of this Stalin-era survivor 40 years later.

“Messengers From Moscow” also confirms that, while Brezhnev had no intention of keeping the human-rights commitments he signed in the 1975 Helsinki accords, his action did have the unintended consequence of creating, inside the Soviet Union and its Eastern European empire, something that the system could not tolerate: organized opposition (in this case, human-rights “dissidents”) to the Communist Party’s ideological hegemony. The further paradox, of course, is that those Western diplomats who thought that Helsinki would mean the end of ideological conflict and the beginning of a “normal” relationship between East and West were also wildly mistaken.

Repetition has turned it into a cliche, but ideas really do have consequences in international affairs. The world is not run by economics alone. That was true during the Cold War. We need not doubt it today, in thinking about post-communist Russia.