Cold War Casual: Q&A with Olga Livshin

Q: You have lived in the US for a few decades now, and you write in both English and Russian (poetry, prose, song lyrics…) What was the genesis of the book? Was there an event in your life or the life of the countries where you live/d that precipitated this project?

A: I’d say the book came not of any single event, but rather — as, perhaps, most books are — was borne of an aggregation of events, realizations and conversations occurring over a stretch of time, and seeded over my biography, personality, interests and skills. By now, I’ve lived in the US for fifteen years. I moved to the US from Russia as an adult, at age 29, provisionally at first. My English was fully functional and my new social surroundings in the States, as fate had it, were predominantly not newly immigrant. I’ve never had the diasporic experience that many new immigrants go through, but rather went immediately and headfirst from my Siberian (Trans-Baikalian, to be accurate) life into my Midwestern life. For most of my new Michigan acquaintances, I was the first Russian-born-and-bred person they met who could fluently and maturely speak about Russia to them; I also went back to Chita, Russia quite a bit, sometimes to teach, and for many of my Chita acquaintances I was the only person they knew who’d gone to live in the US and came back to tell the tale. Both the sides had their misconceptions and prejudices. Both the sides had questions, though, I must clarify, the Russian side had more questions, on average. “What do Americans think about us?” I was asked at many a friendly dinner. I’d tell the truth: ‘This is a poorly constructed question to which an accurate answer cannot be given.”  It was never a popular answer. I remember one dialogue that went like this: “So, what do Americans think about us? They probably think we are all angry drunks and mafia people, and that bears roam our streets. Those paranoid Americans!” — “To be fair, I’d say Americans, on average, don’t think about us a lot.” — “Of course! It’s because they have no idea that other countries exist. They can’t tell Mongolia from Finland. Those illiterate Americans!” That conversation may not have quite elucidated what Americans thought of Russians, but it did clear up what my Russian interlocutor thought about the US, I thought. So eventually, I decided to make a book about what America thought of Russia and what Russia thought of America, straight from the horse’s mouth into the horse’s ear. I was at peace with the idea that the book would contain just a narrow sampling of the horses’ opinions, and that the data would be only partially trustworthy as a source of historical information. I set out to collect histories of affect.

Q: It feels as if the bilingual format is itself a work of cultural diplomacy, inviting native speakers of Russian and those of English to read, interact, and learn about each other. And this is over the course of nearly 700 pages! Can you speak about this choice to have a thoroughly bilingual and bicultural book project?

A: From inception, the book was to be bilingual and general-audience. Its secondary purpose was to be a teaching resource, because I used to teach college and when I began recording testimony in 2009, I was still thinking about all things –board books, soup cans, pop songs —  in terms of how they could be used in the classroom. But foremost, the book was to be visibly bilingual, so the reader could have immediate visual confirmation of the foreignness of half the sources. It was to be affordable, as non-partisan and judgement-free as possible, and easy to process — yes, an act of people’s diplomacy. I’d jokingly say I wanted to make something a plumber named Joe or a plumber named Vanya could pick up and read while on the john. The book was to be simple — which is not the same as stupid.

Q: Interviewing Russians and Americans several decades after the end of the Cold War means that everyone you spoke to has a perspective informed by a few decades that passed since the end of the Cold War. What did you learn about the perspective your interviewees had on the events of the past with the passage of time?

A: First, we must acknowledge that perspectives on events, and memories of events, are not mental copies of events, even when the events in question are fresh or still occurring. Then, we must acknowledge that memories of past perspectives are not mental copies of those past perspectives, either. Thirdly, we must acknowledge that not all reporting of personal opinion is what we may call “honest”: people can intentionally  misrepresent their actual stances in conversation for a variety of reasons, which could be a fear of persecution, the desire to appear sophisticated or knowledgeable, the tendency to mirror the interlocutor, the list goes on. Once we factor in what we, thanks to brain science, now know about the timey-wimey, wibbly-wobbly, humany-wumany nature of memory and reasoning, we will have to come to terms with the fact that our reports on past experiences and perspectives are much more like feature films than documentaries; they are stories, at least in part fictional. Whew! All that memory and cognition stuff out of the way, now to the question proper: yes, some interviewees whose stories were included in the book reported that their perspectives on past political crises and the “enemy” state changed (improved, worsened or morphed while retaining the same levels of approval) with time, age, international exposure and new political events and revelations. Others held on to their original beliefs no matter what.

What takes up the bulk of the book is looking into the whys and wheretofores of the stances reported by the interviewees; it is researching the context in which their opinions germinate, flourish or wither. What were people watching on TV or reading in the paper during the Cold War decades? How about after? What ideologies, if any, did secondary schools broadcast, and in what ways? What were their parents saying about the Cold War tensions — if anything? Did the respondents receive any military or paramilitary training as children? Was that Soviet Military Training class ideologically lively or largely ritualistic? Did any of the above have any influence on their understanding of the “war” part of the Cold War?

Now, how about the “cold” part? For the rank-and-file end recipient of government propaganda, the Cold War was more about the blocs giving each other one big protracted side-eye than about actual military action; it was a war of judgments. So, I asked my conversation partners for their evaluations of their own countries, in addition to their takes on the “enemy.” Did they believe their home countries to be good places to live? Why? Who or what said they were good, bad or middling?

Then, whether the respondents said their views had changed or remained the same, we could contextualize that change or stasis — or, if we don’t wish to employ a researcher’s lens, we can simply read the interviews as true stories, oral histories, journalism.

Q: Was there anything the interviewees felt they couldn’t have said then but were able to say now?

A: If by “then” we mean the Cold War era and by “now” we mean the stretch between the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the year 2011 when the last interview featured in the book was taken, then yes, a few respondents from the former USSR said they could talk more freely about the Soviet past, in part because they themselves had learned more about it in the intervening years due to glasnost, in part because certain topics were not taboo anymore. I did not notice any self-reported increase in freedom of speech among the US respondents. 

Q: Fear of the Cold War other comes up as a theme in these interviews. One of your interviewees says: “Because I don’t think we were ever comfortable with Russia, but we didn’t know enough of Russia. Because we had so much fear, we never made the effort to get to know Russian people.” Was there a different kind of fear in Soviet Russia as compared to the United States, according to the interviews?

A: The funny thing is, the interviews show that levels of fear cannot be solidly summarized and trend-mapped across the board. You’d have two respondents sitting side by side, of the same age, sex, occupation, marital status, city of residence, and one would say she was utterly terrified of the atom bomb, while the other would state she was not scared in the slightest. Apparently, many things go into fear-making! But if I had to identify one difference which showed itself to be somewhat consistent, it’s this: some respondents from the former USSR testified that they were both afraid of the nuclear war and certain the Soviet Union would win the nuclear war. In contrast, all US respondents who were afraid of the nuclear war were certain that no one would win the war; it was unwinnable, so everybody would just senselessly die. This difference, which tracks across decades, must be due to the government narratives.

Q: I liked the story by your interviewee named Amanda, who rode the Metro and encountered a Soviet general, and this led to her questioning what she has been taught about the Soviet police state and its dangerous international presence. Small incidents like this, close encounters with individuals as opposed to grand ideologies, can be life-changing. Showing up, as individuals, can be so powerful, that physical presence, even without language. It reminds me a bit of the Civil Rights movement, of showing up publicly, as one is. What are some other ways of overcoming fear of the other, Soviet or American, that your interviewees brought up? Are there certain lessons for today in the responses about cultural diplomacy, or that people-to-people approach that Amanda seemed to be a part of?

A: Exposure is a great tool for mind-changing. Exposure doesn’t work wonders every time, but lack of exposure surely aids in further entrenchment of ideologies. Stories of how exposure shattered previously held beliefs abound in the interviews: a real live Army colonel’s armpit sniffed, an international music festival attended for the first time, a new country moved to, and suddenly those imaginary villains who were out to get you morph into just people. I think these lessons hold for today, for yesterday, for tomorrow, for here, for there, for any divided, embittered and terrified place. I’m no hippie, there’s tons of people I disagree with or plain dislike, and I would not go so far as to invite everyone to practice Vonnegut’s boko-maru to come-together-right-now, but there is nothing like exposure and contact for demoting — or promoting — the “other” from demon to human. That, and the theory of mind, and self-awareness, and cognitive hygiene.

Q: How have the dynamics of fear been in the intervening decades? According to your interviewees, is there still fear on both sides of the ocean?

A: It’s important to note that the interviews in the book are ten years old now. I’d have to make a whole new book to see what people say about their current fears. When the testimonies were collected, Dmitry Medvedev was president of Russia and Barack Obama was serving his first term in the US. The situation was more mellow than it is now, though far from rosy. That, in part, allowed me to talk to people who were relatively — though not all, and not completely — chill about their Cold War opponent. I think, today the mood would be a little different, but I’m not certain it would be unequivocally more hostile. For one, we’d be running out of older respondents, for biological reasons. I was lucky to interview folks born in 1928 for the book; today, I would be talking to younger people, who have new technologies, new data, new media narratives and new concerns.

Q: One of the Russian interviewees says something that struck me deeply: “Overall, in my view [the] Cold War existed, exists and will exist. Take sports competitions as an example, even … Learning all those secrets, all the doping they use, it’s the same thing, the same Cold War, it’s not exactly spying, but investigating, gathering intelligence, finding out new info, that’s what it is.”  Did your interviewees note any other tendencies in viewing the other country that was familiar from the Cold War and came back in Putin’s time?

A: The testimonies were gathered during the Medvedev presidency, but for the sake of generalization we can call all post-Yeltsin time Putin’s time. In the book, I don’t have any responses from Soviet interviewees who changed their opinion of the US to fully favorable during perestroika and then changed it back to unfavorable after Putin came to presidency. Perhaps, some flirted with the free-market ideals and then discarded them. I’ve met people in Russia who developed a strong dislike of the US in the past decade, but I have not recorded any interviews with them. As to the US folks, their preoccupation with Russia, in my experience, seems to be generally weaker than the respective Russian preoccupation with the US even in the worst of political times, and the criticism tends to be aimed at the government but not the populace.

Q: How widespread is this opinion about the Cold War persisting–or would it be more accurate to say, returning?–among your interviewees in Russia? Is it more prevalent among the Russian people you spoke to, or among the Americans?

A: In this small sample — the book features interviews with 26 respondents — comparatively more interviewees from the former Soviet Union than from the US reported thinking that the Cold War either never ended, or was returning, or was part of a cyclical relationship pattern. One Russian respondent (b. 1969, in “Bubble Gum”) said she hoped the cyclical pattern was at least a spiral and not a vicious circle. Those US respondents who said the Cold War was over pointed out that it did not mean the end of all hostilities between the US and Russia, just those particular hostilities wound around nuclear weapons and the ideological conflict of the two systems. And only one US respondent stated that the US hands-down won the Cold War.

Q: Many of your Russian respondents live in Chita, a city in the Zabaykalsky Krai, quite a distance from Moscow. How does regionality shape these people’s experience of the Cold War? Do you think it would be substantially different if they grew up in Moscow or St. Petersburg?

A: The book has testimonies from four respondents from Chita, three from Moscow, one from Astrakhan, one from Armenia, one from Sverdlovsk, one from East Germany and one from Yugoslavia on the socialist bloc side of things; the rest of the respondents are from various places in the United States. Ages of respondents vary, as well: the oldest interviewee was born in 1928, the youngest in 1979. If there is a consistent difference between the experiences of my Chita interviewees and my Moscow interviewees, it’s that the ones from Moscow had a greater awareness of Soviet governmental oppression and antisemitism than the ones in Chita, and all three have eventually emigrated to the US. Additionally, not one of my Moscow respondents had any idea about, or fear of, a potential war with China in the 1960s, while all four Trans-Baikalian respondents cited a possible war with China as a concern. But to reiterate, it is four people matched up to three people, not some solid regional opinions pinned against each other. I don’t think solid regional opinions exist.

Q: The Cold War, of course, was several decades long, and you interview people of different ages. Do you see any meaningful differences between people growing up in the early Cold War years as contrasted to younger people?

A: Yes, both in the socialist and the capitalist bloc (though, as we will learn from one of the interviews, the capitalist bloc was known to itself not as capitalist but as free.) The older the respondents, the more informed of potential calamities and the more wary, I would say. There also seemed to be some variance in personal stance between people who were kids during World War II, kids during the McCarthy era, then during the Cuban Missile crisis, then during the detente, and then during the arms race. Those whose formative years fell on the detente reported to be less freaked out by the Cold War than those who marched in anti-nuke protests as teens in the ‘80s, etc.  There appears to be a correlation between levels of fear and distrust, the actual international events of the time, and the respective ramping up or easing down of propaganda, but the correlation is not unequivocal or consistent even among the same demographic in the same country. If we look across the blocs, it becomes even more striking how individual people’s beliefs are. The chapters “A Massive Mission” and “The Die-In” reveal the parallel experiences of a Soviet girl and an American girl, both born 1969, both participating in their countries’ respective peace-promoting activities in high school — yet those experiences and their meanings are radically different.

Q: On a lighter note: If you could go back to the Cold War era and meet one person, from any country, who would it be?

A: I’d want to pick President Ronald Reagan’s brain during the disarmament process in the mid-eighties. The man who first built the US nuclear arsenal up and then took it down: what a fascinating journey of national politics and personal ethics! I’d sit him down, turn on my Dictaphone and just ask away!