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Forget the Cold War?

“East-West,” the new Franco-Russian film, begins on shipboard on the
Mediterranean at the end of World War II. The ship is bursting with joy. The
passengers have just heard over the loud-speaker system that all refugees
from the Soviet Union during the war have been pardoned and will be issued
cherished Soviet passports. Many of these people had been born in Russia
(czarist Russia), and to return to their native land, victors in a terrible
war, and now the very idea of a socialist motherland, fills them with

Alexis, a doctor, Marie, his French wife, and young son, have every
reason to be overjoyed, but their first inkling that this is not the Soviet
Union of their dreams comes at the foot of the Odessa gangplank, where
Soviet police methodically select the older men — who have presumably
resisted the Soviet regime — and are marching them off — to where we know
not. An even more ominous note is sounded at their passage through a barrier
of frontier officials. A Russian official, who had been warm and friendly to
them aboard ship turns into a different person on Soviet soil. After a
glance at Marie’s French passport, he tears it to shreds. We were now in the
Socialist paradise.

The doctor, his wife, and child are assigned to Kiev, capital of the
Ukraine, but their house has had another life. Now containing 10 to 12
people, the entire house was once the property of a single well-to-do
family, whose sole survivor is now the concierge. The concierge, who had
learned French as a child from her governess, engages in a warm conversation
with the doctor’s wife, all in French — for which she is promptly arrested
— collusion with a foreigner, you see. Next to be arrested is the doctor’s
wife for helping a young friend escape the Soviet Union, for which she is
sentenced to eight years in a Soviet labor camp.

The escape is much publicized in the West and a celebrated French
actress, known for her leftist sympathies (Catherine Deneuve), undertakes to
assist the doctor’s wife and her son to escape via Bulgaria to France. The
doctor himself, for his part in the affair, is deported to Sakhalin off the
eastern coast of Siberia.

And the story stops here for some 30 years. The doctor remains interned
in a Siberian labor camp. His wife returns to her family in France, and
waits. And in the late 1980s along comes Soviet Perestroika, and the doctor
is released from Sakhalin Island. We don’t see him embrace or even meet his
wife who has been waiting heroically all those years. We see no Brezhnev, no
Gorbachev, no Yeltsin, no Putin. The reign of terror has ended in Russia.

But we have no real movie ending. After endless suffering imposed on a
great country for the benefit of only a circumscribed number of political
ideologues, we end up with dust in our mouths. I myself have witnessed much
of what I have told here, but I have seen far worse.

What I often wonder is what my fellow Americans think of such stories. In
my experience, those now old enough believe little of all this and are
either thoroughly bored with it, or think it a fabrication of the CIA. A
later generation believes these stories when they come from the mouth of
Aleksandr Solzhenistyn, but him only. An American specialty, also in my
experience, is the typical left-leaning U.S university person. They
certainly believed it when Saddam invaded Kuwait (or when Hitler crossed the
Rhine), but our defense budget is really too complicated for them. Now
banning prayer before football games? There’s something a man could die for.

But moving whichever way the wind is blowing is perhaps the most
contemptible of all. The people I know who were most ardently opposed to the
war in Vietnam, when some of the same regiments returned from the Gulf War,
were cheering their lungs out. Who would follow such people into battle? The
late French singer Yves Montand, hugely popular in France, was opposed to
the U.S. all during the Cold War. But when the Berlin Wall fell he not only
changed his mind but told everyone he’d been wrong. In a prime time French
television show he confessed just how wrong he had been all those years.

Explaining how he had believed all the Communist propaganda (widespread
as the Communist vote in France in those years was 25 percent) he admitted,
“Nous etions des cons.”

“We were jerks.”