Segment from Seeing Red

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Laugh at the Bomb

The hosts wrap up the show by talking about their memories of the Soviet government versus the Russian people during the Cold War.

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ED: 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.

ED: Yeah.

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, or send an email to

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.