The slow thaw of the Cold War

The Cold War began its thaw 25 years ago, then apparently melted sufficiently for us to get on with our lives without fear. Surprisingly, the slow thaw is still in progress.

The fact that two 20th-century powers locked in a potentially catastrophic nuclear standoff found sufficient reason to put the launch codes back into the vault and draw back the Iron Curtain was a relief more than a victory. Open borders, open markets, open McDonald’s, Prada and Ferrari in Moscow, and one would think the melt and merge was complete. But any attempt at East-West assimilation stopped right there.

I was in Moscow this week after a 20-year break, and was intrigued to see just how much had changed. Everyone I met assumed that it was “a different world” from the early 1990s, and superficially it is. Checking into a hotel only takes a few minutes, ATMs deliver cash from my USA debit card, restaurants are plentiful and of good quality, English is spoken all around me. But I was also surprised just how little had changed. It felt like just the same place I had experienced a generation ago.

Notwithstanding Moscow’s fascination with Western consumer goods, the Russian Federation has maintained a staunchly Russian – and Soviet –perspective on the world. Its selective engagement with the West, including its rejection of close relations with either the European Union or the U.S., makes it the wild card of international relations. It is just influential enough to cause serious disruption when it takes a contrary position.

So what does any of this have to do with teaching about the Holocaust, genocide and human rights? The first thing is that perspectives on history are very different from those in the West. Even though the Soviet Union is long gone, historical perspectives and the geopolitical sphere of influence from Moscow is still highly Soviet from a territorial perspective. This means the teaching of historical subjects requires a lens adapted and sensitive to Soviet history and its geographic sphere of influence. It requires a delicate balance of respecting local sensitivities and making them meaningful in a global context.

This method was demonstrated at the Moscow Jewish Museum, which balanced its focus with a self-aware Russian and Soviet perspective with the universal story of the Jews. They resisted the temptation to tell the history of the Holocaust through the experience of Auschwitz, precisely because Auschwitz was not the experience of Soviet Jews during the Nazi period.

What I understood more than anything is that the thaw relies on the West just as mush as the Russians themselves. How many Americans respect or understand the level of sacrifice committed by Soviet forces during the Great Patriotic War? How many Americans would know what the Great Patriotic War was, even though they were fighting the same war and on the same side? How much attention does the U.S. Holocaust Museum give to Soviet liberators or survivors?

In the archive of the USC Shoah Foundation, there are over 7,000 Russian language testimonies given largely by witnesses living in former Soviet states talking about their lives in the Soviet Union, under the Nazis, then in the Soviet Union again. Their personal life histories have the same value, the same purpose as every other testimony. Recognizing their right to contribute to history and memory is all a part of recognizing the other and continuing to warm the relationship that was too cold for too long.

About the Author
Stephen D Smith is Executive Director of the USC Shoah Foundation in Los Angeles, whose Visual History Archive holds 52,000 testimonies of eyewitnesses to the Holocaust and other genocides. He founded the UK Holocaust Centre, The Aegis Trust for the prevention of crimes against humanity and genocide. He was Project Director of the Kigali Genocide Centre, Rwanda. Smith, who trained as a Christian theologian, is an author, educator and researcher interested in memory of the Holocaust, and the causes and consequences of human conflict. Views expressed in this blog are his own and do not necessarily represent the views of USC Shoah Foundation.