Monday, 15 June 2015

When a Superpower Was Written Off

     When I was a little boy, we didn't have television, so we had to make do with the wireless instead. After school we would listen to 15-minute serials about such characters as Superman and Tarzan, for our parents were rather tolerant. Then, within a week of the first Sputnik going into orbit, some Australian radio writers started up a new serial, Operation Moon Satellite. By the time I caught up with it, it presented as a Flash-Gordonish fantasy, which soon resolved into a war of wits against a humanoid computer known simply as The Brain. The plot became ever more convoluted - and implausible - as the heroes found their moves checked at every turn by The Brain, and one by one they fell into his hands. They were trapped. The situation was hopeless. At last, The Brain came down and conversed with a woman standing just above a large engine room. All of a sudden, without warning, she pushed him into the machinery, and he disappeared in a flash of blue flame. He was simply written out of the script. Just like that! Next, a voice-over came on and announced that the show was over, and was going off the air.
     I was dumbfounded. It was the classic "with one jump Jack was free" artificial ending. I could hardly believe that such a complicated story line could end so abruptly. But the amazing thing is, several decades later, I watched the same thing being played out on the world stage. An awesome and terrible superpower was simply written out of the script of history. Just like that!
     My generation grew up in the shadow of a great dark empire, the Soviet Union. Almost the whole of our foreign policy revolved around protecting ourselves from its immense power and almost limitless evil. In three wars - Korea, Malaya, and Vietnam - our young men shed their blood to hold the line against the aggressions of its proxies. Like a housebreaker testing every door for one which is unlocked, it went around seeking Third World conflicts where it could intervene and expand its empire. Its spies were everywhere, while its agents infiltrated our universities, unions, and political movements. A long, armed, and booby-trapped fence stretched across the whole of Europe sealing off the land of tyranny from the land of freedom, while its armies were quick to intervene any time its captive nations attempted to free themselves - in East Germany in 1953, Hungary in 1956, and Czechoslovakia in 1968. And all the time, like the sword of Damocles, the threat of nuclear destruction hung over our heads, for we had foolishly allowed it to get way ahead of us in the arms race.
     Then, suddenly, it all ended. Just like that! In 1989 the world watched on in amazement as the people of Eastern Europe spontaneously rose up in one country after another to sweep the Communist system into the dustpan of history. A paralysis of will gripped the power mongers in Moscow, once so quick to act. Like wild animals caught in the headlights, they stood, mesmerised and impotent. Those of us who lived through that time will never forget how rapidly and - wondrous to tell! - how bloodlessly the whole rotten edifice collapsed. Never before had there been such a revelation of how futile are the things on which mortals put their trust. What is the point of having the world's largest nuclear arsenal, its largest and most efficient spy network, and a massive complex of prisons and secret police if, when the day of reckoning comes, they don't so much fail, because they are never even put to the test?
     Let me recite some personal anecdotes. By December 1989 the only East European Communist dictator holding out was Nicolae Ceaușescu of Romania, who had actually fired on the demonstrators. At that time, I had to fly to London as the starting point of a three-month tour of Africa. Before departing on Christmas Day, I quipped to my mother, "I wonder how much of the Soviet empire will be around when I come back." When I deplaned in London, what should meet me but the front pages of every newspaper showing the bodies of Ceaușescu and his wife - the only dictator to stand up to the revolution, and the only one to die.
      But the Soviet Union was still standing, albeit reeling like a drunken man in the face of a surging wave of democracy. Naturally, it provided a topic of speculation on my African trip. "The Soviet Union will last another fifty years," declared one of my companions.
     "It'll be more like fifty weeks," said I.
     Well, it was closer to a hundred weeks. Throughout 1990 it was lurching towards democracy. Then, in 1991, I was on another holiday, this time in Madagascar. In fact, it was meant to be my last night there, and I was dining in a cheap restaurant when some of my fellow diners told me they had just heard that the old guard Communists had seized back power in Moscow with a coup d'état. Well, thought I, that will set the cat among the pigeons.
     The following day was spent vainly trying to leave the country in the face of a strike against the local dictator. Only on the second day was I able to catch a flight, this time to Mauritius. By the time I was able to pick up the news, it was very confused. As it eventuated, there had indeed been a Communist coup, but the very next day the population turned out into the streets in force, and the leaders were compelled to step down. The revolution had rolled on.
     In the following months, the constituent republics of the Soviet Union became independent, leaving only Russia itself. On Christmas Day it was announced that the dissolution of the Soviet Union would be signed off that evening, and that the Hammer and Sickle would be hauled down for the last time on New Year's Day. Well, I thought, that will be an historic occasion, and because of the time lapse between Moscow and Brisbane, I shall be able to videotape it for posterity. I thanked God I had lived to see such a day.
     But it didn't happen that way. The Communist authorities were so demoralised, they couldn't even be bothered to gather a quorum to sign away their power, and when the Hammer and Sickle came down that night, it never went up again. What a pathetic way for the world's most dreaded police state to disappear! "This is the way the world ends," wrote T. S. Eliot, "not with a bang but a whimper."
     That was a quarter of a century ago. A whole generation has grown up without knowing the threats we once lived under, and the emotions we went through at the time. Of course, strictly speaking, it was not the formal end of Communism. China, North Korea, Vietnam, and Laos are still officially Communist, but they have gradually allowed its doctrines to lapse in the face of their very obvious economic failure. They are still nasty, repressive dictatorships, which will ultimately prove a danger to the peace of the world, but their rulers are more interested in holding on to power for its own sake than in any doctrine. They no longer interested in spreading their revolution throughout the world. Castro's Cuba is the last hold-out of doctrinaire Communism. It used to be the running dog of Soviet aggression in the past, but once it lost its rich uncle in Moscow, its fangs were pulled. Communism, or Marxism to give it its other name, is a thoroughly discredited ideology. These days no-one outside of Cuba, academia, or lunatic asylums preaches it any more.
     The Soviet Union wasn't the only superpower to be written out of the script in the twentieth century. Hitler's Third Reich lasted only twelve years - a very long time for those who lived through it, but twelve years just the same. A child born when Hitler took power would not have finished school by the time he committed suicide. Because it ended amidst scenes of unimaginable violence, and with a cast of millions, we convince ourselves that it was our own strength which prevailed. But it was written out of the script just the same.
     It is ironic. Back in 1980, just outside the ruins of Babylon, I took a Bible study. I read out the prophet's curse over the city, and I reminded my listeners that, behind the scenes, God is still the maker and breaker of empires. But we never guessed that, in less than ten years, we would see such a dramatic example of it.
     "Behold, the nations are like a drop from a bucket,
           and are accounted as the dust on the scales;
                                  . . .
      [He] brings princes to naught,
            and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing." [Isaiah 40: 15, 23]