AN AMERICAN VIEW

Comrade Yanayev, get a life

We Americans would not allow ourselves to be intimidated by anyone unable to keep pace with contemporary fashion

FRED BRUNING September 9 1991
AN AMERICAN VIEW

Comrade Yanayev, get a life

We Americans would not allow ourselves to be intimidated by anyone unable to keep pace with contemporary fashion

FRED BRUNING September 9 1991

Comrade Yanayev, get a life

AN AMERICAN VIEW

We Americans would not allow ourselves to be intimidated by anyone unable to keep pace with contemporary fashion

FRED BRUNING

We do not have coups d'etat in the United States. We are not much for interrupting the President's vacation merely to urge that he

consider another line of work. Rolling a few hundred tanks into Washington only would snag rush-hour traffic and most likely we’d have to call up the National Guard, always a risky proposition for elected officials. If overthrowing the government means dragging citizen soldiers away from the beach and gas-fired barbecues, forget it.

There is of course great comfort in knowing your federal administration cannot easily be undone—that a gang of scoundrels will not suddenly appear on television to announce the President caught a cold while on holiday and, accordingly, has been replaced by the Emergency Committee for Protection of Certain Standards and Unimpeachable Ideas.

For a nation accustomed to taking its coffee with the dapper Bryant Gumbel and the vivacious Faith Daniels, the sight of these assassins in their cheap suits and mail-order ties, these thieves and traitors whose faces seem held together by mucilage and who speak as though reading a Studebaker repair manual—well, terribly sorry, but it would be just too much. If the Soviet clowns who tried to oust Gorby pulled that kind of stunt in these parts, they wouldn’t last until the evening news, let alone their pathetic 72 hours.

We can handle duplicity and double-dealing, yes, we can wink at malfeasance in high places with the best of them and we can accept our share of official incompetence and rank stupidity, but the perpetrators must at least know how to dress, they must spend a few minutes in makeup before staring into the cameras, they must be able to smile a little—is it too much to ask?—and speak like normal human beings, not morticians trying to hustle a line of designer caskets. We are tough enough to take whatever treachery your typical politician is prepared

Fred Bruning is a writer with Newsday in New York.

to hand out but don’t offend our esthetic sense, and, most of all, buster, don’t bore us!

This is what makes America great. We will not allow ourselves to be intimidated by anyone unable to keep pace with contemporary fashion and the lifestyles of the rich and famous. Not only did the Soviet conspirators sit around in clothing that seemed left over from a czarist garage sale, but they had no sex appeal, zero, zilchski. Gorbachev—the man has allure. Yeltsin is now the Patrick Swayze of international politics. But Gennady Yanayev, the mumbling bureaucrat who emerged as chief of the Emergency Committee? Not a chance. In America, Yanayev wouldn’t rate the back page of the National Enquirer. Less than 30 seconds would he earn on A Current Affair. Gennady Yanayev? Not even if he slipped into a pair of baggy jeans, donned the Ray-Bans and did a rap number in front of Lenin’s tomb. Comrade Yanayev, you poor fellow: get a life.

Even with so many shoddy performances, the coup was splendid theatre. We thrilled to the mighty drama of it all and, since the episode lasted but a few days, managed to stick with the subject matter. No network genius could have produced a better show—the maelstrom as mini-series!—and somewhere between the

second bag of tortilla chips and first round of frozen yogurt pops, a peculiar thing happened to the American public. Fifty years of common wisdom aside, citizens of the United States discovered that the Soviet Union was not a colony of socialist Robocops but a nation filled with ordinary folks who, given half a chance, would be downing tortilla chips and yogurt pops, too.

In a front-page story, The New York Times noted that “Watching the distant storm, Americans feel for Russians,” and proceeded to quote Mary Murphy, 72, of Texas, who admitted she felt bonded to Muscovites blocking Red Army tanks. “I realized that they live, they love, they bleed, they die the same as anyone else even though for years we had been taught different.” Were we ever, Mary, were we ever. For Americans forming a view of the world at mid-century, the Soviet Union was an alien planet and its population a breed of cutthroats worse than anything the Mafia could muster. It was us against them, all right, and sooner or later there would be a showdown and Lord help us if right did not prevail. Finally, Khrushchev came over and banged his shoe and said he’d bury us and that just about settled it. For one side or the other, the end was near.

We allocated extraordinary amounts of energy and a ton of money trying to get ready for the battle to be. We began distrusting one another as much as we distrusted the Soviets, and the word “Communist” became an indictment for all occasions. Two guys could be arguing baseball in a bar and if the debate really got going, sooner or later you would hear, “Oh yeah? What are you, a bleeping commie, or what?” Joe McCarthy availed us of his services and so, too, the John Birch Society and a thousand other nutball outfits and two-bit charlatans pledged to rescuing the United States from godless communism, no matter how many decent people got ruined in the process.

Did the Soviets ever represent the peril claimed by Christ-fearing zealots and politicians on the make? Well, no one is about to excuse Josef Stalin for his treachery, nor deny the dangerous xenophobia that paralysed Kremlin leaders, nor whitewash the KGB, nor ignore the treatment of dissidents and oppressed religious groups, nor overlook the rockets that rolled through Red Square on May Day like so many arrows pointed at the American heart. No one is going to say we should have pretended the Soviets weren’t there in the hope that they’d go away.

But in trying to meet what was widely advertised as a cataclysmic threat, Americans made two terrible mistakes. One was to suppose for a moment that the Soviet people were less human, or wise, than us—a renegade notion that inspired demagoguery, lunatic defence budgets, misguided global policies and, perhaps worst, the sort of misanthropy that shrivels the soul of America. The other error was to install a system of mutual suspicion so extensive that it will not easily be crated and stored away. Events in the Soviet Union suggest we won’t have the damn Commies to worry about much longer, but it may be a long time before we learn to stop doubting ourselves.