The cold war is getting too hot for comfort
Having been raised in the 50s and 60s during what was called the Cold War, I find it a little sad that after all the decades since, nothing seems to have changed. Russia and the West are doing it again, insulting each other again. But as long as it’s insults, we accept that.
As a child, I remember the gritty newsreels of the mighty May Day parades in Red Square, with the political bureau saluting all those soldiers, tanks, and a seemingly endless procession of scary missiles. Things seemed much simpler back then for us schoolchildren. There was the huge red empire of the Soviet Union (USSR) which was the bad guys. Then there was the West, the good guys. Pretty simple really. In the USSR, everyone ate borscht and military choirs sang hymns. In the West, it was burgers, the Beatles and the Beach Boys.
One of my earliest memories was of a newsreel of Khrushchev visiting Oxford in 1956 on a trip to England. I remember asking my father why university students sang “Poor old Joe” and he explained that it was a reference to former Soviet leader Joseph Stalin whom Khrushchev denounced earlier that year. My next lasting image is of that strange 1960 United Nations General Assembly session in which an irate Khrushchev waved his fists and banged his shoe in anger. It was fun.
Then, in October 1962, there was the Cuban Missile Crisis, which was definitely not fun. I was a teenager and, like most Britons, I knew little about Cuba, apart from producing cigars which no one in Britain could afford.
Cigars were to play an important role in the CIA’s many attempts to “eliminate” Cuban leader Fidel Castro, who is believed to have survived hundreds of bombings on life. The most famous was the exploding cigar which turned out to be a dud, as were the attempts to poison his favorite cigar. Perhaps more imaginative was the trapped conch shell prepared for one of Castro’s scuba diving expeditions. That didn’t work either.
This prompted Castro to comment, “If surviving assassination attempts were an Olympic sport, I’d win the gold medal.”
One of the positive results of the Cold War was that in its early stages it spawned dozens of excellent spy novels by Graham Greene, Len Deighton and John le Carré. These in turn led to numerous films which kept Michael Caine in business for some time, portraying English spy Harry Palmer in The Ipcress folder (1965) and Funeral in Berlin (1966).
Other Cold War thrillers that found me sneaking into the local Odeon in the 60s were The Manchu Candidate (1962) with Laurence Harvey and The spy who came in from the cold (1965) with Richard Burton. Later came the formidable television series of Le Carré Tinker Tailor Spy Soldier and Smiley People with Alec Guinness in great shape.
The Putin Factor
It may seem paradoxical, but some of the biggest fans of Caine’s spy films were the Soviet security agency, the KGB. Caine said he was surprised to learn that a fan of the Harry Palmer series was a certain Vladimir Putin. The actor told the Daily Express that a friend of his met Mr Putin when he was head of the KGB. Mr Putin reportedly said: ‘Tell Mr Caine we used to watch those movies and laugh because he was such a smart spy.’
Caine was proud of his Palmer character, seeing him as a far more realistic spy than James Bond, although Sean Connery’s 007 performed better at the box office. Caine thought Bond “was so obvious that he couldn’t be a spy because he drew so much attention to himself. My spy is the regular guy who does his own grocery shopping at the supermarket”.
Red Square in the rain
Fifteen years after the Cuban crisis, I found myself standing in a very humid Red Square. It was June 1977 and I was en route to England from Bangkok and decided to make the most of an Aeroflot layover in Moscow. The fact that the Russian airline offered the cheapest fares, of course, did not influence my decision.
Leonid Brezhnev was at the helm but the Cold War was still very cold. I admit I had a bit of a buzz about this famous place soaking up the history. Despite constant drizzle, a wedding couple queue for photos against the stunning backdrop of St. Basil’s Cathedral and its minarets. Alas, I did not meet any of these female secret agents who pursued Bond in From Russia with love.
While in Moscow, I couldn’t get out of my head the Beatles irony “Back in the USSR,” which Paul McCartney wrote about a Soviet spy returning home from an extended mission to the USSR. United States and which includes the lyrics “the Ukrainian girls really knock me out”. Beatles music was banned in the Soviet Union at the time. Red in the presence of a certain Vladimir Putin, who told Paul that he liked the music of the Beatles. Funny old world, isn’t it?
Maybe if Joe Biden and Mr. Putin spent an evening together watching old Caine spy movies and listening to the Beatles, things might calm down a bit.
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Bangkok Post Columnist
Longtime popular columnist for the Bangkok Post. In 1994, he won the Ayumongkol literary prize. For many years he was a sports editor at the Bangkok Post.
Email: [email protected]