The war in Ukraine is the end of a dream of what should have been

The War in Ukraine Is the End of a World

A shroud is settling over the dreams many of us had at the end of the 20th century.By Tom Nichols

A Soviet coat of arms on a high-rise building in Pripyat
A Soviet coat of arms on a high-rise building in Pripyat (DeSid / Getty)

FEBRUARY 23, 2023, 5:27 PM ETSHARE

The war in Ukraine is the final shovel of dirt on the grave of any optimism about the world order that was born with the fall of Soviet Communism. Now we are faced with the long grind of defeating Moscow’s armies and eventually rebuilding a better world.

Today I Grieve

Today marks a year since Russian President Vladimir Putin embarked on his mad quest to capture Ukraine and conjure into existence some sort of mutant Soviet-Christian-Slavic empire in Europe. On this grim anniversary, I will leave the political and strategic retrospectives to others; instead, I want to share a more personal grief about the passing of the hopes so many of us had for a better world at the end of the 20th century.

The first half of my life was dominated by the Cold War. I grew up next to a nuclear bomber base in Massachusetts. I studied Russian and Soviet affairs in college and graduate school. I first visited the Soviet Union when I was 22. I was 28 years old when the Berlin Wall fell. I turned 31 a few weeks before the Soviet flag was lowered for the last time.

When I visited Moscow on that initial trip in 1983, I sat on a curb on a summer night in Red Square, staring at the Soviet stars on top of the Kremlin. I had the sensation of being in the belly of the beast, right next to the beating heart of the enemy. I knew that hundreds of American nuclear warheads were aimed where I was sitting, and I was convinced that everything I knew was more than likely destined to end in flames. Peace seemed impossible; war felt imminent.

And then, within a few years, it was over. If you did not live through this time, it is difficult to explain the amazement and sense of optimism that came with the raspad, as Russians call the Soviet collapse, especially if you had spent any time in the former U.S.S.R. I have some fond memories of my trips to the pre-collapse Soviet Union (I made four from 1983 to 1991). It was a weird and fascinating place. But it was also every inch the “evil empire” that President Ronald Reagan described, a place of fear and daily low-grade paranoia where any form of social attachment, whether religion or simple hobbies, was discouraged if it fell outside the control of the party-state.

Perhaps one story can explain the disorienting sense of wonder I felt in those days after the Soviet collapse.

If you visited the U.S.S.R. in the 1980s, Western music was forbidden. Soviet kids would trade almost anything they had to get their hands on rock records. I could play a little guitar in those days, and I and other Americans would catch Soviet acquaintances up on whatever was big in the U.S. at the time. But once the wine and vodka bottles were empty and the playing was over, the music was gone.


Fast-forward to the early 1990s. I was in a Russian gift shop, and as I browsed, the store piped in the song “Hero” by the late David Crosby. I was absentmindedly singing along, and I looked up to see the store clerk, a Russian woman perhaps a few years younger than me, also singing along. She smiled and nodded. I smiled back. “Great song,” I said to her in Russian. “One of my favorites,” she answered.

This might seem like a small thing, even trivial. But it would have been nearly unthinkable five or six years earlier. And at such moments in my later travels in Russia—including in 2004, when I walked into a Moscow courtroom to adopt my daughter—I thought: No one would willingly go backward. No one would choose to return to the hell they just escaped.

In fact, I was more concerned about places such as Ukraine. Russia, although a mess, had at least inherited the infrastructure of the Soviet government, but the new republics were starting from scratch, and, like Russia, they were still hip-deep in corrupt Soviet elites who were looking for new jobs. Nonetheless, the idea that anyone in Moscow would be stupid or deranged enough to want to reassemble the Soviet Union seemed to me a laughable fantasy. Even Putin himself—at least in public—often dismissed the idea.

I was wrong. I underestimated the power of Soviet imperial nostalgia. And so today, I grieve.

I grieve for the innocent people of Ukraine, for the dead and for the survivors, for the mutilated men and women, for the orphans and the kidnapped children. I grieve for the elderly who have had to live through the brutality of the Nazis and the Soviets and, now, the Russians. I grieve for a nation whose history will be forever changed by Putin’s crimes against humanity.

And yes, I grieve, too, for the Russians. I care not one bit for Putin or his criminal accomplices, who might never face justice in this world but who I am certain will one day stand before an inescapable and far more terrifying seat of judgment. But I grieve for the young men who have been used as “cannon meat,” for children whose fathers have been dragooned into the service of a dictator, for the people who once again are afraid to speak and who once again are being incarcerated as political prisoners.

Finally, I grieve for the end of a world I knew for most of my adult life. I have lived through two eras, one an age of undeclared war between two ideological foes that threatened instant destruction, the next a time of increasing freedom and global integration. This second world was full of chaos, but it was also grounded in hope. The Soviet collapse did not mean the end of war or of dictatorships, but after 1991, time seemed to be on the side of peace and democracy, if only we could summon the will and find the leadership to build on our heroic triumphs over Nazism and Communism.

Now I live in a new era, one in which the world order created in 1945 is collapsing. The United Nations, as I once wrote, is a squalid and dysfunctional organization, but it is still one of the greatest achievements of humanity. It was never designed, however, to function with one of its permanent members running amok as a nuclear-armed rogue state, and so today the front line of freedom is in Ukraine. But democracy is under attack everywhere, including here in the United States, and so I will celebrate the courage of Ukraine, the wisdom of NATO, and the steadfastness of the world’s democracies. But I also hear the quiet rustling of a shroud that is settling over the dreams—and perhaps, illusions—of a better world that for a moment seemed only inches from our grasp.

I do not know how this third era of my life will end, or if I will be alive to see it end. All I know is that I feel now as I did that night in Red Square, when I knew that democracy was in the fight of its life, that we might be facing a catastrophe, and that we must never waver.


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