The Null Device
Posts matching tags 'cold war'
A new book, How The Beatles Rocked The Kremlin, makes the claim that the Beatles contributed greatly to the collapse of the Soviet Union (or at least to the collapse of the legitimacy of the communist regime among its youth; whether glasnost, perestroika and the disintegration of the USSR would have happened as they did without the Beatles is a matter for historical inquiry):
The book's main character, the Russian writer and critic Art Troitsky, makes the claim that: "In the big bad west they've had whole huge institutions that spent millions of dollars trying to undermine the Soviet system. And I'm sure the impact of all those stupid cold war institutions has been much, much smaller than the impact of the Beatles."
A grand assertion, maybe – but widely shared. "Beatlemania washed away the foundations of Soviet society," explains Mikhail Safonov at the Institute of Russian History. And the Russian rocker Sasha Lipnitsky – snowflakes falling on his beret as he talks to Woodhead in a park bandstand – insists: "The Beatles brought us the idea of democracy. For many of us, it was the first hole in the iron curtain."The Soviet authorities didn't quite know how to respond, and alternated between trying to co-opt the new fad and attempting to stamp it out, but to no avail; once music fans contrasted the music with the authorities' denunciations of it, they became more sceptical of the official party line:
Indeed, the repression and harassment of the music ebbed and flowed as the party controls lapsed or intensified. "It went in waves: sometimes you could be approved for an official recording, and sometimes you were banned, losing your job or education. It must have driven them insane," says Woodhead. He not only excavates the minds of the rebels but also the propaganda machine at work. He recounts how a school staged a mock trial of the Beatles – broadcast on radio – with a prosecutor and denunciations in the manner of Stalin's show trials of the 1930s. A critical bulletin shown on state TV, entitled Pop Quartet the Beatles, told the story of how "these gifted guys could be real cash earners" while, "struck down with psychosis, the fans don't hear anything any more. Hysterics, screams, people fainting!" So ran the TV commentary, accompanied by shots of dancing fans intercut with images of the Ku Klux Klan and dire poverty in the American south. "Keep on dancing, lads, don't look around," the programme taunted, "You don't really want to know what's happening. Keep going, louder and faster! You don't care about anyone else."The article also mentions the USSR and its satellite states' interaction with other forms of countercultural and popular music, some deemed less threatening than others. (Disco, it seems, is OK because it's easy to contain. By then, the sclerotic Brezhnev-era USSR must have given up on trying to inspire its youth with Leninist zeal in its vision and was merely hoping that their recreations would remain safely apolitical, and, dare one say, bourgeois.)
Looking through the other end of the telescope, it is enlightening to find what the Soviet authorities approved of. They "positively encouraged" disco music – the Bee Gees' Saturday Night Fever, Abba and Boney M (though Rasputin was officially banned) – because, says Woodhead, "it was musically rigid and could be contained within the dance floor, it wasn't going to spill out on to the streets".
Why the Beatles? There is no hint of the Rolling Stones or the Who in all this. In Czechoslovakia, the underground was being inspired by dark dissonance in the Velvet Underground and Frank Zappa. "I think the Czechs had that recent memory of democracy, before the war," reflects Woodhead. "And their culture has roots in Kafka and the surreal. But Soviet taste was more melodic, they like tunes above all, even a little sentiment, verging on the beautiful – and there, I'm describing a McCartney song, not hypersexual rock'n'roll, or Street Fighting Man.
Recently declassified documents from the German Foreign Ministry reveal that, in 1981, Margaret Thatcher, long seen as a hero of individual freedom and a staunch and fearless enemy of Communism, considered supporting the Polish Communist government's crackdown on the pro-democracy movement led by trade union-centred group Solidarność:
Carrington had earlier outlined the UK's position, saying that his government only backed Solidarity out of respect for public opinion, but that perhaps, from a more rational position, they would actually be "on the side of the Polish government".
Back then, Warsaw was threatened with insolvency and Thatcher evidently feared that the demands of the workers' movement could trigger a Soviet invasion. A few months later, the Polish communist Leader Wojciech Jaruzelski imposed martial law and the US invoked economic sanctions against Poland. Britain, however, avoided levying sanctions on the country.Presumably it was the “trade-union-led” bit that swung Solidarność into the same category as Nelson Mandela (considered a terrorist by the Thatcher government); after all, even if they might overthrow an evil Communist regime, what if in doing so they cause the greater harm of giving the local unionists ideas? In which case, Jaruzelski would have been a bulwark of stability, sort of like Thatcher's close friend, General Pinochet.
This wasn't Thatcher's last attempt to shore up the Eastern Bloc; later, as the Berlin Wall fell, she flew to Moscow to press Gorbachev to stop the reunification of Germany. Presumably freedom was good only where it applied to capital.
A set of photographs taken in cold-war Berlin, by an American intelligence officer and amateur photographer; there are some interesting scenes here.
Also, Cold War era maps of the Berlin U-Bahn, from the West and the East. It's interesting to note the differences in graphic design and what information they contain. The West German map is neutral and businesslike, though shows both lines in the West and the East (though the Eastern lines are uncoloured). The Eastern map looks superficially more colourful and friendly (much like the jovially behatted Ampelmann compared with the standard capitalist traffic-light man), but shows only East Berlin; the forbidden capitalist enclave behind the "anti-fascist protection barrier" is terra incognita.
Watch: A US Air Force documentary about the building of Camp Century, a nuclear-powered subterranean city under Greenland's polar ice cap, in 1960 (on YouTube; parts 1, 2, 3, 4). Camp Century was abandoned in 1966 after the ice was found to be less stable than expected.
Details have emerged about the Soviet Union's nuclear "doomsday machine". Officially known as "Perimeter", but nicknamed "Mertvaya Ruka" ("Dead Hand"), this was a nuclear dead man's switch of sorts; a system which, when armed, could launch massive nuclear retaliation against the United States, even in the event of the entire Soviet nuclear command system having been wiped out in a first strike:
Perimeter ensures the ability to strike back, but it's no hair-trigger device. It was designed to lie semi-dormant until switched on by a high official in a crisis. Then it would begin monitoring a network of seismic, radiation, and air pressure sensors for signs of nuclear explosions. Before launching any retaliatory strike, the system had to check off four if/then propositions: If it was turned on, then it would try to determine that a nuclear weapon had hit Soviet soil. If it seemed that one had, the system would check to see if any communication links to the war room of the Soviet General Staff remained. If they did, and if some amount of time—likely ranging from 15 minutes to an hour—passed without further indications of attack, the machine would assume officials were still living who could order the counterattack and shut down. But if the line to the General Staff went dead, then Perimeter would infer that apocalypse had arrived. It would immediately transfer launch authority to whoever was manning the system at that moment deep inside a protected bunker—bypassing layers and layers of normal command authority. At that point, the ability to destroy the world would fall to whoever was on duty: maybe a high minister sent in during the crisis, maybe a 25-year-old junior officer fresh out of military academy. And if that person decided to press the button ... If/then. If/then. If/then. If/then.
Once initiated, the counterattack would be controlled by so-called command missiles. Hidden in hardened silos designed to withstand the massive blast and electromagnetic pulses of a nuclear explosion, these missiles would launch first and then radio down coded orders to whatever Soviet weapons had survived the first strike. At that point, the machines will have taken over the war. Soaring over the smoldering, radioactive ruins of the motherland, and with all ground communications destroyed, the command missiles would lead the destruction of the US.Perimeter is supposedly still operational (though, presumably, not armed at the moment, or at least one would hope not).
Documents recently smuggled out of Moscow have revealed the chaos that immediately preceded and followed the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the Warsaw Pact regimes. In particular, it turns out that Margaret Thatcher, that heroine of freedom who reputedly stared down Communism and brought liberty to the East, actually flew to Moscow to press Gorbachev to stop the reunification of Germany, in the interests of stability.
“We do not want a united Germany,” she said. “This would lead to a change to postwar borders, and we cannot allow that because such a development would undermine the stability of the whole international situation and could endanger our security.”Thatcher wasn't alone in this; French President François Mitterrand was also vehemently opposed to German reunification and was even considering a military alliance with the USSR, under the guise of "fighting natural disasters" to shore up the Iron Curtain.
Two fragments of the secret history of the Cold War have come to light. In 1969, US President Nixon sent a squadron of nuclear bombers towards the Soviet Union, and instructed Kissinger to tell the Soviets that Nixon was "out of control", leading them to believe that they're dealing with a dangerous madman, in order to scare them into leaning on the North Vietnamese government.
Apparently neither Nixon or Kissinger had absorbed another Schelling insight - if you want to credibly pretend you are out of control then you have to push things so far that sometimes you will be out of control. The number of ways such a plan could have resulted in a nuclear war is truly frightening. After all, Nixon was gambling millions of lives on the Soviets being the rational players in this game.Fortunately, the Soviets didn't call his bluff and civilisation as we know it still stands.
Meanwhile, it turns out that the West German policeman who shot dead an unarmed left-wing demonstrator in West Berlin in 1967, touching off riots and enraging the protest movement, had been working for the Stasi.
The most insidious question raised by the revelation is whether Mr. Kurras might have been acting not only as a spy, but also as an agent provocateur, trying to destabilize West Germany. As the newspaper Bild am Sonntag put it in a headline, referring to the powerful former leader of the dreaded East German security agency, Erich Mielke, “Did Mielke Give Him the Order to Shoot?”
In an interview with the Bild, Mr. Kurras, 81, confirmed that he had been in the East German Communist Party. “Should I be ashamed of that or something?” Mr. Kurras was quoted as saying. As for the Stasi, he said, “And what if I did work for them? What does it matter? It doesn’t change anything,” the paper reported.
Missile Gap, a new novella by Charlie Stross, and released on the internet for free, positing a world where someone or something stripped the continents off the Earth and transferred them to the surface of a vast disc in distant space, at the height of the Cold War. It's a cracking good read, filled with unsettling wonder:
"Okay." Gregor thinks for a minute. "Let us see. What everyone knows is that between zero three fifteen and twelve seconds and thirteen seconds Zulu time, on October second, sixty two, all the clocks stopped, the satellites went away, the star map changed, nineteen airliners and forty six ships in transit ended up in terminal trouble, and they found themselves transferred from a globe in the Milky Way galaxy to a disk which we figure is somewhere in the lesser Magellanic cloud. Meanwhile the Milky Way galaxy--we assume that's what it is--has changed visibly. Lots of metal-depleted stars, signs of macroscopic cosmic engineering, that sort of thing. The public explanation is that the visitors froze time, skinned the earth, and plated it over the disk. Luckily they’re still bickering over whether the explanation is Minsky’s copying, uh, hypothesis, or that guy Moravec with his digital simulation theory."
(via Boing Boing)
A fascinating article from the CIA describing, in some detail, the working career of a spy in the Soviet Union, from his volunteering to help the US in the late 1970s, through his delivery of key details of Soviet aircraft technology, and ultimately to his arrest in 1985 (he was subsequently found guilty of high treason and executed), and describing points of tradecraft such as methods of covert communication under the noses of the KGB, as well as mundane details of his daily life and psychological motivations:
Another technique that was used to defeat KGB surveillance was to disguise the identity of the case officer being sent out to meet with Tolkachev. This technique was first used in this operation in June 1980. John Guilsher drove to the US Embassy building at about 7:20 p.m., ostensibly having been invited to dinner at the apartment of an Embassy officer who lived there. Once inside, he disguised himself so that when he later left the compound in another vehicle, he would not be recognized by KGB surveillants waiting outside. Checking to ensure that he was free of surveillance, Guilsher, while still in the vehicle, changed out of his western clothes and made himself look as much as possible like a typical, working-class Russian by putting on a Russian hat and working-class clothes, taking a heavy dose of garlic, and splashing some vodka on himself. Guilsher then left his vehicle and proceeded on foot and by local public transportation to a public phone booth, where he called the agent out for a meeting at a prearranged site.
The periodically heavy KGB surveillance on various case officers, often without any apparent logic, did, however, force the CIA to become more creative in its personal-meeting tradecraft. A new countersurveillance technique that was used for this operation involved what was called a "Jack-in-the-Box" (JIB). A JIB (a popup device made to look like the upper half of a person) allowed a case officer to make a meeting with an agent even while under vehicular surveillance.
Typically, a JIB would be smuggled into a car disguised as a large package or the like. Subsequently Tolkachev's case officer and other station personnel would set out in the car many hours before a planned meeting with the agent. Following a preplanned route, the driver at some point would make a series of turns designed to provide a brief period when the trailing surveillance car would lose sight of the car containing the case officer and other CIA personnel. After one of these turns, Tolkachev's case officer would jump from the slowly moving vehicle, at which time the driver would activate the JIB. The JIB would give the appearance to any trailing surveillance team of being the missing case officer. The car would then continue its route, eventually arriving at a given destination, usually the home of one of the other CIA personnel in the car. The JIB, again concealed in a large package, would then be removed from the car.
One of Tolkachev's former case officers recalls that Tolkachev would periodically brainstorm on the subject, suggesting wildly improbable scenarios, such as having the CIA fly a specially made light aircraft into a rural area of the Soviet Union, where Tolkachev and his family could be picked up. When discussing that particular possibility, he noted that the only problem might be that such an aircraft designed to evade Soviet aircraft detection systems might have trouble accommodating his wife, due to her weight!The piece concludes, quoting grudging praise from KGB officers for the way the CIA ran this model agent, and noting that his son is apparently now a prominent architect in Russia, suggesting that he successfully protected his family from the consequences of his capture.
Bad news for the neo-conservative pipe dream of making Iraq the start of a domino chain of neo-liberal democracies across the Middle East, too busy eating Big Macs, watching MTV and monitoring their Halliburton shares to consider annihilating Israel or supporting international terrorism, thus ushering in a new age of peace and contented consumerism across the entire Middle East. The US Government have indicated that they will accept a theocracy emerging in Iraq. I'm sure John Ashcroft wouldn't object.
Meanwhile, two cities in southern California are designating themselves no-communist zones; very retro.