Though it resonates strongly in the present, the Cold War is history

I was expecting to encounter references to current news about Russia, Putin and the Ukraine in my interviews. They are after all, interviews about fear of Russian threat and military strength. But my expectations have been exceeded – in every interview there has been a least one comparison to contemporary news, in some it has happened repeatedly. In one case, Khrushchev and Putin are confused by the respondent.

Referring to the Ukrainian conflict, British Defence Secretary, Philip Hammond, recently said “We are in familiar territory for anyone over the age of about 50, with Russia’s aggressive behaviour a stark reminder it has the potential to pose the single greatest threat to our security.” He is talking about my interview age bracket, and of course, he is referring to the Cold War. It seems almost natural that contemporary Russia harbours the remnants of that Soviet era of secrecy, sabre-rattling and spies. Putin himself is a graduate of the Soviet security service; his leadership behaviour screams of an education in demagoguery. The business oligarchy seems to have superseded with greater force the thrones of former Soviet heads of state.

This would imply that we should be concerned, perhaps this is the coming of the second Cold War as so many politicians and media outlets like to cry. Being a student, a researcher, of Cold War history I am sceptical of the second Cold War notion. By no means do I underestimate the highly dangerous, difficult situation that international leaders currently face in handling a dictatorial, propaganda-pushing, undemocratic government.

Why am I sceptical then? Because for every mention of Soviet era conspiracy and aggression, my interview respondents have mentioned pre-Cold War animosity towards Russia. In fact, a Western fear of the Russian juggernaut, an aversion to Russian approaches to government and diplomacy, and a variety of disparaging views of Russian society have prevailed in ordinary and political circles for centuries.[1]

It is normal and appropriate to react with horror at what appears to be a flagrant flouting of international law in the Crimea (and elsewhere) and the sense that one of the largest ‘democracies’ in the world is ruled by a dubious, seedy clan. Yet even during the Cold War, when Soviet Communism appeared to present an entirely novel threat to national defences via menacing behaviour and provocative rhetoric it was playing out some much older historic trends.

The problem is the West and Russia are caught in a game of ‘I know you better than you know yourself’. Second-guessing based on past misdemeanours, predictions based on assumptions. The upshot might mean mistakes based on former failures. Though it resonates strongly in the present, the Cold War is history. We must learn from history – always – and in this case that means not accepting an easy historical comparison.

Putin - 'man of action' in The Telegraph photo gallery

[1] One excellent article on such deeper-seated views can be read in DAVID REYNOLDS (2002) ‘From World War To Cold War: the Wartime Alliance And Post-war Transitions, 1941–1947’, in The Historical Journal, 45, pp 211-227; http://journals.cambridge.org/abstract_S0018246X01002291

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