In recent years, the White House’s relationship with the Kremlin has dominated the headlines in America — from Syria to Ukraine. According to CNN, Vladimir Putin denounced last night’s U.S. airstrike against Syria (a response to a Syrian chemical weapons attack earlier this week) as “aggression against a sovereign state in violation of the norms of international law.” In addition, an FBI probe into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russians in the 2016 election has turned into a full-blown political scandal. It can be tempting to view these events through the familiar lens of the Cold War, but in this episode, Joanne, Ed and Brian probe the deeper history of our relationship with Russia — and discover moments of comity as well as conflict.
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JOANNE: Major funding for BackStory is provided by an anonymous donor, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.
ED: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory.
JOANNE: Welcome to BackStory, the show that explains the history behind today’s headlines. I’m Joanne Freeman.
BRIAN: I’m Brian Balogh.
ED: And I’m Ed Ayers.
JOANNE: Brian, Ed, Nathan Connolly, and I are all historians. Each week, we explore the history of a story or topic in the news.
BRIAN: This week, Joanne and I are going to start off with a phrase that politicians love to use– “American exceptionalism.” This self-congratulatory refrain has a pretty surprising origin.
ED: Well, Brian, it’s a 19th-century visitor to the United States who’s most often credited with creating that language. That would be Alexis de Tocqueville, who reported back to his fellow Frenchmen in 1840 that Americans’ democratic politics made their country unique.
But even though Tocqueville did use the word “exceptional,” he didn’t actually use the word “exceptionalism.” And we want to get things right here on BackStory.
So we need to jump forward to the 20th century– specifically, to a political organizer who is jotting down some notes on the state of the American economy in 1927.
JAY LOVESTONE: It is a basic fact that American capitalism is still on the upward trend, still in the ascendancy, much more than any other capitalism in the world.
ED: Now, here’s the catch. To this guy, this was bad news. See, Jay Lovestone was the head of the Communist Party of America, and he had spent the last few years watching as economic chaos in post-World War I Europe led to rising class tensions and rampant inequality. His comrades in Europe thought the proletarian revolution was just around the corner.
BRIAN: But back here in America, the economy was booming. And that made Lovestone very nervous.
The United States was the most advanced capitalist economy in the world. According to Marx’s theory, that meant the revolution should be hitting America first. So, like, where were the barricades? Where was even the protest?
ED: So in 1929, Lovestone finds himself with an awkward job. He has to account for the absence of American socialism to none other than the top dog of the Communist International. That would be Joseph Stalin– if you can imagine trying to explain something to Joseph Stalin!
And the explanation that Lovestone came up with was basically this. America is different from other countries.
JAY LOVESTONE: The international revolutionary leaders have always recognized the special conditions under which the American labor movements have developed.
BRIAN: He pointed to the history of frontier living, the lack of a feudal past, the social mobility here. All these things, Lovestone explained, had created a unique society in which workers were more tolerant of economic inequality. So Marx’s theory– well, it didn’t quite apply here.
ED: As you can imagine, Joseph Stalin was not impressed. In his response, he demanded that Lovestone, quote, “end this heresy of American exceptionalism.”
JOSEPH STALIN: Who do you think you are? Trotsky defied me. Where is he? Zinoviev defied me. Where is he? Bukharin defied me. Where is he? And you– who are you?
Yes, you will go back to America. But when you get back there, nobody will know you except your wives.
BRIAN: And so that’s how the term American exceptionalism came into being. Not with the founders. Not with any of the intellectual forefathers of today’s political leaders. Instead, it was with Joseph Stalin.
JOANNE: Now, we’re telling you the story not just to give you a great piece of trivia to bring out at your next party– although, by all means, you should totally feel free to do that. It’s because in recent years– and recent months, weeks, and days– Russia has been in the news a lot.
From its role in Syria and Ukraine, to its controversial role in the 2016 election, you would almost think we’ve returned to the bad old days of the Cold War.
But America’s relationship with Russia predates the Cold War. It even predates the Soviet Union. And it’s a relationship that is full of strange twists and turns.
ED: In today’s show, we’ll look at how American suffragists used women’s rights in revolutionary Russia to shame Woodrow Wilson into giving them the vote. We’ll also hear about Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s unlikely friendship with an Iowa farmer. And we’ll read some letters from you, our listeners.
BRIAN: But first, Ed, you mentioned this French writer Alexis de Tocqueville. He never used the word “exceptionalism,” but he did compare the United States to Russia, no?
ED: Yeah, in a really interesting way. In the 1830s, he makes a remarkable comment. De Tocqueville says, there are now two great nations in the world, which started from different points– seem to be advancing toward the same goal– the Russians and the Anglo-Americans.
One, the Americans, has freedom as the principal means of action. The other has servitude. Which is bizarre, when we consider at this time–
BRIAN: Quite a bit of servitude.
ED: Yeah, exactly. We called it slavery, though.
Their point of departure, De Tocqueville, says, is different, and their past diverse. Nevertheless, each seems called by some secret desire of Providence one day to hold in its hands the destinies of half the world.
ED: Isn’t that spooky, Brian?
BRIAN: That really is. I can relate to that.
ED: Exactly, and it seemed kind of built in, because of this huge land mass that each occupied.
And so I’d say that from across the 19th century, both countries were so preoccupied with becoming themselves, they didn’t have much time to think about the other one. But there were a couple of points where their paths did cross.
One was at the time the American Civil War. And there, the Russians were the only people who stood up alongside the North, the United States.
BRIAN: Really? What did they do?
ED: Well, they actually helped seal off some of the trade from the Southern ships. So that’s the first time you see it. So there is a warm relationship between the United States and Russia.
And they ended serfdom, we got rid of slavery, at almost exactly the same time. Servitude in Russia ends in 1861. Emancipation Proclamation in the United States in 1863.
Now, the big difference, of course, is that the Russians have a czar, and we had Abraham Lincoln. So there is that divergent past that De Tocqueville’s talking about. And then, only two years after the war, another big crossing of path which has really enduring consequence– the United States buys Alaska from Russia. And the United States and Russia, no matter how much they’re destined to control half the world, don’t in the 19th century.
BRIAN: They’re having a little trouble controlling themselves, as a matter of fact.
ED: Yeah, exactly, exactly. And Russia is concerned that this distant area of Alaska will fall to the British if they don’t sell it.
So they do purchase Alaska for $7 million. And it turns out people think that this was called Seward’s Folly–
JOANNE: Doesn’t it get called Seward’s Folly?
ED: It does, but not by many papers. Just by his political enemies. Generally, people go, well, seems like a pretty good idea. Pretty good deal.
And so that’s sort of the last real concrete moment. So you just had these flashpoints.
BRIAN: But that’s so incredible, Ed, because the real takeaway there is, this is like trading a star player to a team that you know is going to finish in the cellar. Right?
I mean, they want to get rid of Alaska to somebody who’s a nobody. So, hey, I got an idea. The United States! Right?
ED: And there’s a lot to that. And the idea, too, kind of like keeping up the sports analogy– it’s like “for a player to be named later.” You know, that we’ll make a deal now with the Russians, because they seem that there will be a powerful country. We might need them. And it would be good for us to have this outpost up there in the North.
And they continue to have deals. The Russians are able to have fur companies and things like that in Alaska. So it was kind of another thing that built good will.
So you put all these together, there’s actually relatively good will between the United States and Russia throughout the 19th century.
BRIAN: But I have to ask you something. What about this czar thing? What about this authoritarian thing? That just seems such a stark contrast to my conception of late 19th-century America. You know, democratic America.
ED: Well, that’s the way democratic America wanted to see itself. The United States wasn’t exactly sure what to make of the czar. He seemed kind of exotic and romantic. On the other hand, terrible stories came out of Russia of the things that the czar was doing with his unchecked power.
JOANNE: And there was a Freeman family czar story. Well, let’s
ED: Hear it.
JOANNE: When I was a kid, I was told that my great-grandfather fled Russia, went to America, because he was being chased by the czar. And as a little kid I just thought that meant a guy in a big black funny hat was chasing my great-grandfather across here, and he somehow was fast enough–
BRIAN: What an image.
JOANNE: Exactly. He made it to America.
But what’s interesting about that is, when I was a kid, the czar was a bad guy. I had– there was no question that he was an evil, bad guy.
ED: And, you know, increasingly in the eyes of Americans, that was the vision, because people heard of the mistreatment of the Jews in Russia, but they also heard about these labor camps that are in Siberia. People saw them with their own eyes and came back and said, Russia is not what we want to be.
And so Russia, as embodied in the czar, comes to be seen as uniquely old-fashioned, archaic.
BRIAN: Not like our modernizing democracy.
ED: Well, that was exactly– hey, they got rid of serfdom, we got rid of slavery, but now we’re moving forward with real democracy, whereas they still got this guy with all of this speaking French and all this gold and Faberge eggs.
JOANNE: We could point over there and say, look at them. I mean, they’re over there in that sad state, whereas we–
ED: Exactly. But other people said, you know, that’s true, but we can’t afford to be too self-righteous about this, because look at the a system of racial subjugation and violence and lynching that we have going here right now.
So I think that helps explain, going into the 20th century, Brian– there’s a lot of slippage. It could go in lots of different directions depending on how events unfold.
And when the revolutions hit Russia in 1917, some people look at that and say, you know, this may be Russia actually kind of leapfrogging ahead of us in terms of modernity.
JOANNE: You know, Ed, speaking of the Russian Revolution, there was one group of Americans that thought Russia was way ahead of America in 1917. In fact, historian Julia Mickenberg says this dates back to the 1880s and 1890s, when American suffragists noticed the prominent role Russian women played in the movement to overthrow the czar.
JULIA MICKENBERG: When Czar Alexander II was assassinated, it was by a woman. And there were a number of famous instances of political assassinations that had been undertaken by these female revolutionaries in Russia.
JOANNE: Now, Mickenberg says many American women praised these Russian women for their bravery and political ambition, and even invited some of these female revolutionaries to the United States and organized speaking tours for them.
ED: In February of 1917, the long struggle to overthrow the czar finally succeeded.
Now, this wasn’t the Bolshevik Revolution that would ultimately lead to the Soviet Union. That would come several months later, at the end of 1917.
Though these democratic reformers were mostly men, one of the first things they did was grant Russian women the right to vote.
BRIAN: Julia Mickenberg says that 1917 was a turning point for suffragists. Suddenly the nation that they had seen as being backwards and oppressive appeared to be more democratic than the United States.
Mickenberg told me that one group of suffragists wasted no time in making that contradiction clear. When the revolution hit, they had already been picketing outside the White House.
JULIA MICKENBERG: They were perceived as an annoyance, but nobody was really doing too much about it. But in June of 1917, you had two women hold up a banner that was greeting a delegation from Russia’s provisional government, who had been invited to the United States to discuss what Russia’s role would be continuing in the war.
BRIAN: This is right after the US has entered the war. Is that correct?
JULIA MICKENBERG: Yeah. So the protest was in June of 1917, and we had just entered the war that April.
So these two suffragists held a big banner in front of the White House, and the banner said, “To the envoys of Russia. They say we are a democracy. Help us win a war so that democracies may survive. We, the women of America, tell you that America is not a democracy. 20 million American women are denied the right to vote. President Wilson is the chief opponent of their national enfranchisement. Help us make this nation really free. Tell our government it must liberate its people before it can claim Free Russia as an ally.”
BRIAN: That banner must have been pre-bumper-sticker era. I don’t know if you could fit that on a bumper sticker.
JULIA MICKENBERG: No, it’s definitely much bigger than a bumper sticker. It’s a pretty large banner.
So within a minute of them getting this banner up there, an angry crowd rips the banner down. And this really sets off a tremendous amount of anger, because here are women embarrassing the United States in front of a crucial war ally.
BRIAN: Were they are accused of being traitors to the war?
JULIA MICKENBERG: Yes. They were being– they were accused of being traitors.
Interestingly, though there was a cartoon published shortly after this, and it had a picture of all the chaos in the crowd. And it was captioned, “making the Russians feel at home”– “making the Russian envoys feel at home”– because they had become so used to all this violence and chaos with the revolution.
BRIAN: But Julia, you call this a turning point. Can you spell out exactly why it was a turning point?
JULIA MICKENBERG: This becomes a turning point because this pressed kind of a raw nerve. Part of it was the coincidence of the Russian Revolution and the war. Suffrage is ultimately passed as a so-called war effort.
But part of it was that here, the country that had been sort of showcased as a bastion of its lack of democracy was giving women the vote before the United States. And this was our ally and it becomes increasingly a national embarrassment. And suffragists were very savvy about picking up on this.
BRIAN: So later in that year, in October, the Bolsheviks take over. That had to change something, right?
JULIA MICKENBERG: So the Bolshevik Revolution, sometimes called the October Revolution, is received in the United States very differently from the February Revolution.
The February Revolution is widely hailed. The Bolshevik Revolution was quite unpopular. And there were fears that this was a tremendous radical takeover.
Right after the revolution, Russia withdrew from World War I. They called for the nationalization of all private property.
On the other hand, within the suffrage movement, you don’t really see any kind of negative reaction to the Bolshevik Revolution. And in fact, part of that was because the rights for women that had been granted to women under the provisional government were retained by the Bolsheviks. And Lenin especially spoke quite vocally about what the Bolsheviks were doing for women in 1919.
He made this claim that was then republished in The Nation that, you know, no bourgeois government in the world is doing a tenth of what we’re doing for women to release them from household drudgery. They’re setting up nurseries for children that would allow women to keep working. Abortion was not only legalized, but made free. Divorce was made much easier. Women could keep their names after marrying.
So a slew of regulations passed pretty quickly under the Bolsheviks that were seen by many as benefiting women.
BRIAN: So unlike many other Americans, the suffragists aren’t condemning the Bolsheviks. Do they take a lot of heat for that?
JULIA MICKENBERG: Well, yes. Anti-suffragists– known as the antis, really seized upon the Bolshevik Revolution as, look, the suffragists are supporting this clearly dangerous government. We’ve been saying all along that they’re socialists. Now look– they’re supporting these clearly dangerous Bolsheviks. And they just had a field day attacking suffragists.
So this was arguably really damaging to the cause of suffragists.
BRIAN: So I’m confused, because we know the end of the story– women do get to vote. Wilson does change his mind.
Yet you leave us hanging here. In 1918, 1919, things are looking bad for the movement, right? They’ve been associated with this radical movement in the Soviet Union. And 1919 is known by historians as the Red Scare. What happens?
JULIA MICKENBERG: Well, really, by the fall of 1917, arguably before the Bolshevik Revolution, the passage of suffrage is largely seen as a done deal. And also in the fall of 1917, Wilson gives his support to the suffrage amendment as a war measure.
And you know, arguably, the sort of outcry and this really hammering on the Bolshevik thing can be taken less as an indication that the suffrage movement is in trouble and more as an indication that its opponents are really panicking.
BRIAN: I see.
JULIA MICKENBERG: And trying to do everything they can at this point to make the amendment fail.
But what I do think is that the antis did succeed in limiting the feminist agenda. You know, workplace justice, or having free childcare available– those kinds of things are associated with Bolshevism and subversion. And so certainly by the 1920s, tied up with the Red Scare, the National Women’s Party– and feminism in general– has a much more limited meaning.
BRIAN: Julia Mickenberg is a historian at the University of Texas, Austin.
The piece you heard from the top of the show on Stalin coining the term “American exceptionalism” was from a previous BackStory episode, as was my conversation with Mickenberg.
JOANNE: OK, so now we want to switch gears for a moment and read some messages that listeners sent us via email or Facebook or Twitter or our website.
ED: We received a lot of responses to our history grab bag episode two weeks ago. One of the stories that we explored then was about how the Boston public schools had adopted a new map of the world that rescaled the size of the continents.
We wondered why the school system was choosing to show the new Peters projection map alongside the old Mercator projection map, which under-represented Africa’s size so dramatically.
Marissa, a geographer, wrote that “anyone who asserts that there are right and wrong maps should be corrected immediately. All two-dimensional maps contain distortions. I applaud Boston for adding Peters but retaining Mercator to spark discussions about projections– and maybe even learn some of the math that makes them all possible.”
ED: In February, we did a show on immigration restrictions. In that episode, historian Douglas Baynton told us about how people with disabilities were turned away by the US immigration authorities in the late 19th century. The list that could disqualify you from immigration included things such as flat feet and varicose veins.
The interview reminded listener Jeff [? Gorski ?] of his great-grandfather, who emigrated from Ukraine. He had been stopped by the US immigration official because of an eye condition that [? Gorski ?] said was probably conjunctivitis.
Jeff wrote, “the recruiter, for an extra fee, had him pretend to be a ship crewman, and he jumped ship when he got to the US, entering illegally.”
Jeff went on to tell us that not only was he named after his great-grandfather, but that he became an immigration lawyer, interpreting and enforcing immigration law.
BRIAN: Many of you wrote about another show we did on immigration and border control. In that episode, we talked to historian Erika Lee about the invention, in the late 19th century, of illegal immigrants. We noted that after the passage of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, Asians began sneaking across the US-Mexican border.
A listener named Bishop thought our discussions about that history went too far. He wrote that, “my takeaway from this episode seems to be heavy insinuation that Americans have no right to enforce our borders, and that anyone entering the country, legally or illegally, should be allowed to stay.”
What do you guys think?
JOANNE: I don’t think that we were trying to say something so broad as that Americans have no right to enforce our borders, or that anyone can enter the country and be allowed to stay. So I don’t think we made those kinds of big sweeping statements. I think we were really focused on the thing that raises that question, which is that there’s a lot of gray area.
BRIAN: That’s right, Joanne. I do think the listener raises a good point. It’s very hard to get this balance correct. Certainly, every nation has a right to enforce its border.
But nations are constantly deciding who to let in and who not to. And I think we can see, even in the brief snippet of history we covered, that the United States tends to swing between one extreme and the other– in essence, letting anybody in for much of the 19th century, and ending up with complete immigration restriction in effect by the 1920s.
ED: Thanks to everyone who writes us each week. We love hearing your stories, your feedback, and even your corrections. Please keep them coming. Write us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit our Facebook page. Our Twitter handle is @BackStoryRadio.
JOANNE: OK, now back to our discussion of the history of US-Russia relations. We’ve been talking about surprising moments before the Cold War, but even during that decades-long rivalry, there were a lot of unexpected encounters between the two world powers.
For example take Nikita Khrushchev’s tour of the United States in 1959. That surprised a lot of Americans, because just a few years earlier, the Soviet leader said the USSR would “bury” the West. And now he’s grinning and shaking hands with Americans.
ED: Most surprisingly, Khrushchev only requested meetings with two people. One, not surprisingly, was President Dwight D. Eisenhower. The other was a farmer from Iowa.
That farmer, Roswell Garst, had met Khrushchev before. In fact, they considered each other friends.
A few years ago, BackStory producer Andrew Parsons looked into how the powerful Soviet leader struck up this unlikely friendship.
ANDREW PARSONS: Liz Garst was eight years old when Khrushchev came to her grandfather Roswell’s farm. She says they were oddly compatible.
LIZ GARST: I did have the impression he was like my grandfather. He was sort of loud, had a big belly, a big belly laugh, and was just a little bit scary.
ANDREW PARSONS: She says Khrushchev’s high profile made the day a bit of a circus. The news media swarmed the two men.
And then there was the security. Her grandmother couldn’t even make a simple meal for the Soviet leader without officials butting in.
LIZ GARST: As one of the security procedures, they had two food tasters– one American and one Soviet food taster– taste each dish an hour before lunch to make sure it wasn’t poisoned. The whole hour before lunch, we did not let them out of our sight, just praying they would die of food poisoning. As an eight-year-old, that was just beyond exciting.
ANDREW PARSONS: Khrushchev was on his way to Camp David to discuss pressing matters, like this big arms race that was threatening World War III. So why was it so important for him to stop in this American farm?
In a word, corn. Ever since he rose to power six years earlier, Khrushchev had been crazy about corn. While the arms race was important, so was feeding a massive population with a long history of famine.
SERGEI KHRUSHCHEV: The goal of my father was to improve the life of the Soviet people.
ANDREW PARSONS: This is Khrushchev’s son, Sergei. His father knew that in America, corn mostly fed lucrative meat and dairy industries.
SERGEI KHRUSHCHEV: So his first priority was to increase food production– and most important, meat and dairy products. So the agriculture was one of his main priorities at the time.
ANDREW PARSONS: In 1955, Khrushchev set a goal to create what he said would be an Iowa-style corn belt in the Soviet Union. Four years before that famous televised visit, he even sent a delegation to Iowa to take some notes on how it was done. Liz Garst says that’s where her grandfather first appears.
LIZ GARST: The delegation was hosted by Iowa State University. And Roswell always thought that he was way ahead on technology, compared to Iowa State University.
ANDREW PARSONS: By technology, she means hybrid corn seed, which yielded huge harvests. The problem was that the state government hadn’t scheduled the Soviets to go anywhere near Garst’s farm. But Garst had other plans.
He intercepted the head of the delegation and invited him to tour his land the next day.
LIZ GARST: Roswell said, so tonight, keep your mouth shut. Tomorrow morning, you load your delegation up in Iowa State’s cars to go on their planned tour to Newton. And at the last, minute just refuse to get in their car. And I’ll drive up in my car, and I’ll open up the passenger door, and you just get in my car.
So that’s how it happened. Roswell basically kidnapped him from underneath the nose of Iowa State.
ANDREW PARSONS: The Soviets returned home with a 400-page report on Iowa corn. And Garst’s use of hybrid seeds and nitrogen-rich fertilizer stood out. He soon found himself sitting with Nikita Khrushchev in Moscow, drawing up contracts to sell his seeds.
It was this meeting in 1955 where the two men struck up their unlikely friendship. Their surface-level motives were clear. Garst got big contracts from the Soviet government, and Khrushchev got technology that could help his massive collective farms.
But Sergei Khrushchev says there was something else. The Soviet Premier came from humble roots, and he really liked the image of a self-made American farmer.
SERGEI KHRUSHCHEV: And I remember Garst. He was a strong man, big, a real American farmer as I understood at that time. Hard-working person. And my father was also a hard worker– not only in the politics, but when he was a metalworker in the factory, of course.
It increased their sympathies to each other. Two hard workers, they understand each other.
ANDREW PARSONS: But selling American farming to the Reds wasn’t all smooth sailing. At first, the State Department was skeptical about Garst’s adventures in the East and only reluctantly gave him the license to sell.
And the Soviet corn belt? That didn’t exactly pan out either. Liz Garst said corn was planted everywhere, including where it couldn’t be sustained, like Siberia.
LIZ GARST: A common joke of this era in the Soviet Union is someone says to Mrs. Khrushchev, Mrs. Khrushchev, your husband’s planting corn every place but on the moon! And Mrs. Khrushchev says, shh, don’t give him the idea!
ANDREW PARSONS: And technology wasn’t always applied consistently, even on fertile soil. The Soviet leader later claimed this wasn’t his fault. He said in a rush to please him, the Soviets just planted hybrids too quickly in too many places.
Though yields improved overall, the program wasn’t nearly as successful as it should have been. Khrushchev later wrote in his memoirs, “corn was discredited, and so was I.”
Garst’s short-lived attempt at American foreign policy was a big deal in the early ’50s. At the time, few Americans traveled to the Soviet Union. But by 1960, both governments had embraced the idea of cultural exchange.
Khrushchev even said in 1959 that this corn diplomacy helped pave the way for his dealings with Eisenhower. His son Sergei says Garst’s impact was more than just agricultural.
SERGEI KHRUSHCHEV: He became not only the farmer who sold his product. Through this, he became the politicians who just put one of the first cracks on the Iron Wall and was helping to move from the Cold War arms race to the normal competition between two economies.
ANDREW PARSONS: Khrushchev had used the image of Garst, and of Iowa in general, in state television, Soviet newspapers, and pamphlets. And it formed a lasting impression.
By the 1980s, the Iron Curtain had opened wider. And the first privately-owned family farm in the Soviet Union was established. Its name? “Iowa.”
ED: Andrew Parsons is a producer on our show.
So on this show, we’ve been talking about the long relationship and long tensions between the United States and Russia, and then the Soviet Union. Let’s do a little bit of person-on-the-street research here and find out– Brian, what did you and Joanne think about Russia growing up? Where did you get your ideas about what Russia was really all about?
BRIAN: Oh, that’s such a set-up, Ed! Everybody got their ideas from this cartoon show called Bullwinkle.
Now, Bullwinkle was a goofy moose. But there was always a pull-out in Bullwinkle that featured two Soviet spies– a couple, as I recall. Did you watch this, Joanne?
JOANNE: I did used to watch it.
BRIAN: OK, so you had Boris and you had Natasha, and they were forever going around pursuing elaborate plots to spy on the United States– and always failing.
JOANNE: Boris was always dressed in black, and Natasha had this sort of long hair and a slinky dress.
ED: She was about twice the height of Boris, too.
JOANNE: That’s true.
ED: And a lot smarter than him, as I recall.
JOANNE: That’s true, too.
BRIAN: So what did I take away from that? Russians were sneaky.
BRIAN: Russian women were seductive.
But you know what? I also kind of took away this notion that these folks worked for the Soviet government, but I always had a sense that the Russian people themselves were oppressed by their government, and that given a chance they might kind of like to be just like Americans.
JOANNE: I definitely got that message, because when I was a kid, our synagogue was constantly having us collect things to send to Russia. So my Russia as a kid was Bullwinkle, sending stuff to Soviet Jews, and that horrible Doomsday Clock in which the whole world was going to blow up.
And so I had this weird, very mixed image of friendly– because Boris and Natasha were goofy but friendly– and the Russian people being sort of imperiled on some level. But then also, somehow or other, we were all going to get blown up by them.
BRIAN: Well, you know, Joanne, that I did grow up in South Florida. And the Cuban Missile Crisis was a very real thing for me.
So I had this recurring nightmare– I had it for really a decade– where I could see the Soviet bomber flying slowly over Miami, and I could see the bomb bay open and a nuclear bomb dropping out. And then I woke up.
ED: So I shared the experiences that you have. I would say that I had a little bit of extra excitement, because we were about 30 miles away from Oak Ridge nuclear facility. And so our equivalent of whenever we had to crawl under our desks and cover our heads for the nuclear holocaust, was, it might very well be there in East Tennessee, because we were close to where we were actually making enriched uranium, we assumed.
So I would say this. When I got ready to go to college, I thought it would be a good idea to learn to speak Russian. And so one of the great boondoggles of my life was spending every quarter that I was in college studying Russian.
And because it never occurred to us that we would actually be able to go to the Soviet Union in the early 1970s, I didn’t focus on conversational Russian, but rather on reading Russian literature. So I spent many nights of my lonely late teens and early ’20s with a well-thumbed Russian dictionary looking up words from Dostoyevsky and writing them between the lines of my translations so that the professor would notice that I had actually just written them there, rather than remembered what these words meant.
But the idea was– and I think this goes back to what you were saying, Brian– there would come a day when we’d be talking to the Russian people. There would come a day when we would need to be able to communicate.
BRIAN: And Ed, let’s think about the acronym that shaped, I think, all of our young lives and young adulthoods. That’s MAD– mutually assured destruction.
The basic way we protected ourselves from the Soviet Union was the assumption that both countries could wipe each other out 10 times over, so that neither country would start a war. Mutually assured destruction.
And again, I think that underscores the notion that there was something mad, something insane, about the way our governments were relating to each other. But that, again– for me, anyway– didn’t translate to thinking the Russian people themselves were mad. And I always wanted to believe that they didn’t think the American people were mad.
ED: Yeah, Brian. I’d like to think that the Americans and the Soviet Union had an idea of just how insane the situation was. This is the movies– the Russians are coming, the Russians are coming, sort of landing on Nantucket. Or Dr. Strangelove and all that sort of stuff.
But you know, it’s interesting right now– I know that you guys are too cultured to watch television. I, however, love this TV show– and we have since its beginning– The Americans.
And the idea there– it’s based on a true story– set in the ’70s and ’80s, about these Russian spies who are sent to the United States with perfect English, and actually perfect appearance as well, and insinuating themselves into the culture and politics of outside Washington, DC. And it’s amazing to watch one year after the next in the show of the deteriorating conditions between the Soviet Union and the United States when Reagan’s elected.
And you’re sympathetic to these people because they– even though you’re watching them kill people. But it’s very powerful just to think about what would we look like through the eyes of Russians.
Now, the most popular new TV show in Russia is called Adaptation, or apparently also called Blending In. That’s that turned upside down, except it’s set in the present.
BRIAN: And this is a Russian show.
ED: This is a Russian TV show.
BRIAN: Joanne, don’t you think he’s showing off a little bit on this popular culture thing?
JOANNE: I totally think so.
ED: I have to say, I’ve not watched that show– I’ve just read about it.
But what’s interesting is the degree of self-awareness. The Russians portray themselves the way they appear on our show, as cynical and sophisticated, whereas Americans are kind of bumbling and naive. And the two shows kind of agree on that.
So it’s interesting to see that we have these profound political differences, but kind of an agreement on kind of what these two places are actually like.
JOANNE: But what’s interesting is really, in the end, both of those shows are, in a way, sort of hearkening back to something that Brian said earlier. And that is, they’re both saying that these are peoples– you know, they’re talking about human relations. They’re talking about people reaching out towards each other, people being able to blend in with each other, and pushing away or being afraid of governments. But in the end, it’s all about human relations.
BRIAN: That’s going to do it for us today. But you can keep the conversation going online. Let us know what you thought of the episode, or ask us your burning history questions. You’ll find us at backstoryradio.org, or send an email to email@example.com.
We’re also on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter– @BackStoryRadio. And feel free to review the new show in the iTunes Store. Whatever you do, don’t be a stranger.
ED: BackStory is produced by Andrew Parsons, Brigid McCarthy, Nina Earnest, Emily Gadek, and Ramon Martinez. Jamal Millner is our technical director, Diana Williams is our digital editor, and Joey Thompson is our researcher. Additional help came from Sequoia Carrillo, Emma Craig, Aidan Lee, Courtney Spagna, Robin Blue, and Elizabeth Spach. And thanks to the Johns Hopkins University Studio in Baltimore.
JOANNE: BackStory is produced at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. Major support is provided by an anonymous donor, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.
Additional support is provided by the Tomato Fund, cultivating fresh ideas in the arts, the humanities, and the environment, and by History Channel, history made every day.
JOANNE: Brian Balogh is Professor of History at the University of Virginia and the Dorothy Compton Professor at the Miller Center of Public Affairs.
Ed Ayers is Professor of the Humanities and President Emeritus at the University of Richmond.
Joanne Freeman is Professor of History and American Studies at Yale University.
Nathan Connolly is the Herbert Baxter Adams Associate Professor of History at the Johns Hopkins University.
BackStory was created by Andrew Wyndham for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.