by James Brown
There is continual debate in journalism and academia as to whether a new cold war has begun. The main motivation for claiming there to be a new cold war is the growth of competition between the United States and China over the past two decades. In his analysis of US-China relations, Robert Kaplan has gone as far to attest that ‘future has arrived, and it is nothing less than a new cold war.’ This author is not yet as ready as Kaplan to conclusively state that there is a new cold war comparable to the original one. The cold conflict that gripped the world from the end of the Second World War till the collapse of communism during 1989-1991, had a bipolar and ideological character which does not exist to the same extent in the current Sino-American economic confrontation, though ideological differences have become more pronounced in recent years, as Kaplan says.
A second factor that leads others to suggest we might have a new cold war on our hands, is the revanchist revival of the successor to the other key combatant of the original Cold War: Russia. Russia’s aggression in Ukraine in 2014 made clear how far Putin was willing to go to assert Moscow’s influence in the post-Soviet region and brought Russo-West relations to Cold War levels of cool. Again, we cannot call the current confrontation comparable to the Cold War, lacking as it does that conflict’s overtly ideological and bipolar appearance, though culture and Russian values are increasingly important to the Russian state. Yet what we can conclusively say has resurrected itself from the Cold War world, is the use of the era’s trademarks, namely communism and dissidents, by interested, usually conservative, Western political parties to wage the culture wars of right versus left that grip Western democracies today.
As conservatives reach for new rhetorical weapons, they increasingly seek to revive the Cold War. Recently, for example, a group of British libertarian conservatives, ‘Brexiters’ as they are known locally, established a ‘museum of communist terror’ ‘to advance the education of the general public in the subject of totalitarianism’. The intention seems to be to persuade British voters that their democracy once faced a great threat from left-wing radicals in the form of the Soviet Union and that somehow this threat exists once again today.
Meanwhile, the intensification of political persecution within Russia and the emergence of Alexei Navalny as the standard bearer of opposition to Putin, as well as ongoing events in Belarus, have made East European dissidents politically fashionable once more in the West. Historians of the Cold War increasingly identify the ways in which dissidents were used by politicians in the West for political capital. Conservatives and Cold War liberals opposed to détente with the USSR, which entailed a degree of Western muteness on Soviet human rights abuses, made common cause with Soviet dissidents arguing staying silent on their persecution entailed a betrayal of Western values. Both Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan evoked the spirit of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a famous Soviet dissident, in their speeches calling for the need to take a hard-line in relations with USSR.
Today we find contemporary politicians and commentators invoking historical, as well as present-day, dissidents in a similar way. Dominic Raab, the British Foreign Secretary, in calling for sanctions against Russian officials in an act named after Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer who died in prison after accusing the Russian government of corruption, described Magnitsky as the ‘Solzhenitsyn of his generation’ seeking to add moral weight to his case.
Solzhenitsyn’s name is also often invoked on the alt-right, most of all by the commentator Jordan Peterson. Peterson perceives there to be an assault on free speech and Western values of freedom in present society. He appropriates Solzhenitsyn, who wrote powerfully about the threat of totalitarianism and his experiences as a political prisoner in the Gulag. Solzhenitsyn argued that communism was responsible for the crimes of the USSR and warned the West that it too faced becoming totalitarian if it did not stand up for itself. Peterson has sought to revive this argument in his attacks on political correctness within Western society today, even writing a foreword to a new edition of Solzhenitsyn’s magnum opus, The Gulag Archipelago, developments which have understandably alarmed prominent historians of the Gulag and USSR.
What this revival of Cold War tropes goes to show is the indelible imprint left by the conflict on Western political consciousness. The experience of the Cold War has clearly not been forgotten, nor has its potential political capital which will only rise in value as cultural and political debates become more fractious. Yet the appropriation of Cold War tropes also has implications outside politics for the academics who study the topic. As the Cold War is increasingly appropriated within simplistic political narratives, there is greater urgency for historians to continue to interrogate this period to ensure the shape of our understanding of it stays balanced.
James Brown is a PhD candidate in history at Northumbria University. His focus is on Soviet dissidents and their use in the politics and international relations of the Cold War. He previously studied at Glasgow University, doing a Master’s in East European, Russian, and Eurasian studies. During this time he studied Russian and wrote his thesis, ‘Returning to Machiavelli: Giving Belarus-Russia relations the Original Realist Treatment’, which received the prize for best dissertation from the Centre for East European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies at Glasgow.