[the Hermitage, Saint Petersburg]
I am planning a trip to my father's home town in Lativa, formerly Mitau, now Jelgava, and to my grandfather's hometown in Lithuania, formerly Zheimely, now Sonauli.
I don't expect to see much. Since they lived there, the First World War, Russian Civil War, and Second World War have all been fought there. These were the most destructive events in human history. Both Latvia and Lithuania were under Nazi occupation from 1941 to 1944 so it is unlikely that any relative survived.
Last year when I planned this trip, I planned on spending two weeks in Saint Petersburg seeing the Hermitage, a justly famous museum from what I have heard. In the straitened circumstances of 2009, I wondered if I could still afford the Russian portion of the trip. I still have the air tickets from last year so the additional cost is the ground portion.
Poking at possibilities, I checked visa requirements. Latvia, no visa required. Lithuania, no visa required. Estonia, no visa required. Russia however requires, an application, photographs, evidence of paid hotel reservations in Russia, and definite entry and exit dates which limit the validity of the visa. And a $131 fee. All in advance. No visas at the border. Nor by mail. To get a visa one appear in person at the Russian embassy in Washington or at designated agencies in a few cities.
Checking whether this was a scam by some visa-selling no-goodniks, I checked the website of the Embassy of the Russian Federation. I learned that all this rigmarole is part of a tit-for-tat set of restrictions on Russian tourists to the USA, what the embassy website calls "maintaining reciprocity".
Which means Russia and the United States are still peeing in each other's soup twenty years after the Cold War ended. Which is very interesting.
We were told in great detail and with great emphasis that the quarrel between the United States and the Soviet Union was a conflict between two visions of society, capitalism and communism. While that was and is a choice between distinctly unappetizing alternatives, it was easy to see why people devoted to one or the other would be inclined to fight about them.
That is no longer the issue, yet the friction goes on. It doesn't take much critical thinking to recognize that the issue is great power rivalry, a struggle for power and influence. One thinks back to the rivalry between the British and Russian Empires in the 19th Century. While the British may have trotted out a reference to Czarist despotism now and again, no one was under any illusion that the issues were anything other than British imperial interests versus Russian imperial interests.
The conflict with Russia before the Revolution was great power rivalry and the issue now that the Revolution is no more, is great power rivalry. How hard is it to conclude that some large part of the Cold War was also great power rivalry?
Which means that all the debate, contumely, and struggle between communists and their apologists on the one hand, and anti-communists on the other, was a delusion. Which is not to say that the ruling classes in each country did not believe the ideologies they espoused. They did. But underneath their conscious purposes were other reasons, reasons of national and group self-interest and dominance.
Which leads us to two interesting reflections. One is what that tells us about the still-flourishing-in-academia culture of Marxism. Once it could be seen as one pole in a bipolar world. Now it can only be understood as anti-national. Patriotism is the love of country. Marxism without prospect of revolution, regardless of its intellectual pretensions, is no more than disdain of country.
Similarly, today's struggle with Iran is not just, or even primarily, about Islam. It is also about power in the Middle East and in the world generally. Islam, like communism and anti-communism before it, is a pretext for national interest and a struggle for power and influence.
For once, we are fortunate in our choice of adversaries. The struggle with Russia and communism made us focus on capitalism and business, the least loveable features of our society. The struggle with Iran and Islam focuses us on our open-mindedness, tolerance, democracy, and freedom, the best things about us.