The bitter legacy of the psychological scars of the Cold War

Comments and analysis of Russia’s justification and performance in its invasion of Ukraine are usually framed in a historical context. The desire to remain a military superpower, its need for a security “buffer” against its Western neighbors, and the union of peoples with a common cultural heritage are three common currents.

Under President Vladimir Putin, and stripped of its communist ideology, Russia is trying to reclaim what it perceived as lost when the Soviet Union imploded in 1991. At first it seemed that Russia and some breakaway parts of the Soviet Union would veer towards Western-style democracies. , at least in Europe, eventually becoming consumer societies content to stay within their own borders.

Rise of Putin

But the rise of Putin and the Kremlin’s military intelligence bureaucracy proved more than a match for the economic and political chaos that followed. In less than three decades, the forces that allowed the Soviet Union to last as long as it did have returned – dictatorial control over its people and the ability to fight wars by psychological, non-military means. as well as conventional weapons.

These were first used against former parts of the Soviet Union – Chechnya, Georgia, Crimea – as well as in defense of the Syrian regime of Bashir Assad, all to brutal effect. The whole world has also felt the effects of the Soviet techniques used since its creation in 1917.

Identity card of KGB agent Vladimir Putin issued by the former East Germany.

The non-military menu included a range of political, socio-economic and media tools for subversion, disinformation, falsification, manipulation and, more recently, cyberattacks. Putin learned them during his KGB spy training, which he completed in 1985.

His regime has a well-documented record of using fake news and outright lies to disrupt Western democracies, from elections and campaigns to supporting causes that stoke racial tensions and reduce the effectiveness of police and defense forces. .

The emphasis on psychological warfare – which also encompassed sport, the arts, music and literature – was a notable feature of the Cold War for 50 years from the late 1940s. books have traced this period of history, few have approached it from a purely psychological angle.

This task was entrusted to Martin Sixsmith, a BBC journalist who spent almost two decades as a foreign correspondent in Brussels, Warsaw, Moscow and Washington DC between 1980 and 1997. He studied Russian at Oxford, Harvard and in St. Petersburg, supporting this with psychology at Birbeck and London Metropolitan University.

The result is The War of Nerves: In the Spirit of the Cold War, written with his son Daniel, who did most of the research. The book has 577 pages, not counting the bibliography and source notes, which are available in a dedicated space. website.

Martin Sixsmith
Martin Sixsmith was a BBC foreign correspondent from 1980 to 1997.

Psychological tools

Sixsmith begins with an explanation of his psychological tools, including a theory of mind and why, after the end of World War II, not all victorious Allies followed the same path to peace and prosperity. which also benefited defeated enemies.

Instead, one side promoted the idea of ​​being constantly attacked by the other, with little understanding and knowledge about the adversary. Of course, Western capitalist societies were more aware, if only because of writers like George Orwell.

The eastern half of Europe had no choice after 1945 and was told that democracy on the other side of an “iron curtain” was a sham, where the levers of power were wielded by the hidden hand of industrialists and financiers.

Why did the USSR and its captive nations reject the alternative? This is a psychological issue that Sixsmith devotes a great deal of effort to explaining. Soviet historians blamed “Western belligerence” in the 1920s for why Russia rejected social and democratic reforms.

Churchill and Stalin 1942
Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin at their summit in Moscow, 1942.

three peaks

During World War II, Winston Churchill held three summits with Joseph Stalin, in Moscow, Tehran and Yalta. Stalin knew little about the West (unlike Lenin and Trotsky) and distrusted everyone after being tricked by Hitler into the 1941 pact that divided Eastern Europe between the Soviet Union and Germany.

Churchill’s views and behavior have been well documented. Not so much Stalin, who surprised his British and American counterparts with his intransigence. He was also convinced that victory, with his armies having occupied half of Germany and Austria, should return to him what Hitler had agreed upon.

Churchill was unable to secure American support for an independent Poland, thus meeting Stalin’s demands. But his paranoia could not be assuaged, especially because at this stage he did not have a nuclear bomb.

“The Cold War would have been born out of disagreements over how best to maintain prosperity and peace, not a desire to fight on either side,” writes Sixsmith.

The lucid analysis of American diplomat George Kennan and psychologist Karen Honey strengthened the determination of Western powers to resist Stalin’s cult of personality. But even they underestimated “the extent of Stalin’s personal power and the depth of his mental aberration.”

The spies who stole the secrets of nuclear war were an added blow, as it reinforced Stalin’s belief in his invincibility.

“The Kremlin was adept at using lies and deception, infiltration and disinformation to misguide both its former allies and its own people,” according to Sixsmith. Its propaganda emphasized demands for disarmament (but not its own), the withdrawal of foreign troops, the inequality of capitalism, the class struggle, and opposition to colonialism and racism.

Success and failure

The Cold War of the 1950s saw successes and failures on both sides, each hampered by a misunderstanding of the other. Sixsmith examines them in detail: the power vacuum after Stalin’s death and the lack of response to the 1953 East German uprising; Nikita Khrushchev’s “secret speech” against Stalinism in 1956 that sparked the doomed Hungarian revolt; and the Soviet Union’s triumph in launching the Sputnik satellite in 1957 as a symbol of technological superiority.

Kitchen Debate Moscow 1959
The Khrushchev-Nixon kitchen debate in Moscow, 1959.

The psychological battle was fought in homes as well as in space. An American exhibition of kitchen appliances in Moscow in 1959 was a consumer’s dream, but Khrushchev was unwilling to concede his inferiority and lied to do so. He promised President Richard Nixon, who engaged in heated debate on the show, that it would be broadcast in its entirety, as it was in America. Sure enough, Soviet television edited it to fit their point of view only.

Khrushchev’s exuberant defense of communism was bolstered by Yuri Gagarin becoming the first man in space, followed two years later by the first woman cosmonaut in 1963. But those efforts had pushed the Soviet space machine beyond its capabilities. , and no Russian has ever walked on the moon. .

Khrushchev’s unpredictability and false knowledge of the West ultimately led to his downfall, as the Kremlin was forced to give up its “adventurism” about Cuban missiles. The Soviet leader’s legacy also included the Berlin Wall, the most obvious symbol of socialist failure to those living in the West.

Gained traction

The only issue on which the Soviets gained traction in public opinion abroad was support for peace groups opposed to nuclear weapons, which also undermined Western military and defense policies. Later, the Soviets were able to add other causes by exploiting misinformation about AIDS among African Americans and spreading fake news through organizations dedicated to anti-racism, decolonization, and policing.

Khrushchev’s successors showed none of his flair or even belief in the superiority of their system as memories of the 1960s faded. The Cold War ended abruptly when the “bright future” could no longer be sustained.

Gorbachev and Reagan 1985
Mikhail Gorbachev with Ronald Reagan in Geneva, 1985.

Despite his reforms and the coup de grace of the collapse of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, Mikhail Gorbachev misinterpreted the psychology of the Cold War. He hoped that his relations with President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher would lift the Soviet Union and its satellites out of their dire economic and social situation.

“But four decades of ingrained hostility could not be erased,” concludes Sixsmith. “With the communist monster at their mercy, the Western powers were barely going to pull the foot out of his throat.”

In the current environment, with Russia in hot war mode to regain control of the westernmost part of the Soviet Union, a successful campaign by Ukraine could make it harder for Belarus and Russia to survive. as the last European dictatorships.

However, Sixsmith says hubris and callousness towards the defeated enemy in 1991 backfired. The end of communism did not mean that the Russian psyche, after centuries of abuse by rulers and enemies, would change overnight.

Putin has never denied his view that the breakup of the Soviet Union was catastrophic and that the chaotic decade of the 1990s did nothing to indicate that the West was as generous as it was. was towards Germany and Japan. The result is a more virulent form of ethno-nationalism, backed by a willingness to use military force, that would surprise even the most warmongering of Stalin’s post-Cold War communists.

The War of Nerves: In the Spirit of the Cold Warby Martin Sixsmith (Profile Books, in association with the Wellcome Collection).

Sixsmith book cover


Nevil Gibson is a former editor for NBR. He has contributed film and book reviews to various publications.

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