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Night at the Museum

The history of communism is American history

And it is like, negative 50 degrees in the Dakotas right now. What would happen if Russia killed the power in Fargo today? Right? What would happen if all the natural gas lines that serviced Sioux Falls just poofed on the coldest day in recent memory, and it wasn’t in our power whether or not to turn them back on. I mean what would you do if you lost heat, indefinitely, as the act of a foreign power on the same day the temperature in your front yard matched the temperature in Antarctica? I mean, what would you and your family do?

—Rachel Maddow, January 30, 2019


I got screaming drunk at the KGB Spy Museum the other night.

It wasn’t intentional, but I’m trying to get skinny enough to fit inside of carry-on luggage, so I was knocking back the complimentary “drinks” on an empty stomach as soon as the press tour finished. I use scare quotes here because Lithuanians don’t seem to know what cocktails are; instead they set out multiple bottles of vodka with plastic cups, along with rows and rows of shot glasses of Smirnoff, barely sprinkled with a few drops of either tomato juice, cranberry juice or curacao.

I probably could have eaten more, but the hors d’ouevres were far too Russky for my tastes—hard-boiled eggs topped with caviar and sardines, plus little pastry cups full of “herring in a fur coat” (that’s a Russian “salad” of pickled herring, eggs, beets, carrots, potatoes, onion, and mayonnaise). I stuck with the vodka.

My plus one, Angela, insisted I was “so fun,” but that my drunkenness became apparent when I yelled, “Look at these skinny hot Slavs with their curtains of hair. I feel like such an American hag!”

The women I was referring to were actually being exhibited as historical re-enactors, though I don’t believe they were hired for their acting abilities. All very beautiful, thin, blond women (save for the one beautiful, thin, brunette, Eurasian woman), they all appeared to be in their teens to early twenties. When the tour guide showed us a recreation of a KGB office, a beautiful blond in a KGB uniform nervously mumbled something in Russian from a document on the desk. When the tour guide showed us a reproduction of a KGB cell for the detention of political prisoners, a beautiful blond writhed and pouted and arched her back in a weirdly eroticized pantomime of imprisonment. This basic curatorial theme repeated itself through each tableau.

“This lamp was the true symbol of Stalin’s oppressive regime,” we heard the tour guide say.

The collection of Soviet antiques and reproductions was admittedly very entertaining—propaganda posters, awards and war medals, busts of Lenin, lots of communications technology, covert weaponry, and rows and rows of clever little secret cameras (cigarette case cameras, makeup case cameras, necktie cameras, etc). I particularly liked the reproduction of the ricin-tipped umbrella, and the one-shot gun disguised as a tube of lipstick. It’s a private museum, without much information available on the exhibits, and I couldn’t be completely sure of the curatorial standards, nor did I have any sense of who might have verified the authenticity of items in the collection. At the end of the tour, the sexy slavs posed for sexy pictures with the decidedly unsexy press. At this point I turned to Angela and hissed “what is going on here?” She did not know.

I RSVP’d for the Private Press Tour after receiving an email from what appeared to be a left-wing publisher that I had once contacted for a review copy of a book about the European Union. (I later found out the publicist was a freelancer, who apologized and said he had just forgotten to take the publishing house’s signature off of his emails.) “The world’s largest collection of never-seen authentic KGB artifacts sheds light on the secret world of Soviet surveillance and espionage” sounded a bit kitschy, sure, but fun and at least somewhat educational. As I read on, the PR patter aspired to a stirring spirit-of-the-times sonorousness, but landed more often than not in a dubious cluster of disjointed claims:

One of the world’s largest and most sophisticated intelligence operations, the KGB served a multifaceted role as both a spy agency outside of the Soviet Union and a force of secret police within it. Virtually undetectable, the agency used its state-of-the-art tools and ruthless methods to seamlessly monitor the citizens’ lives and keep them in constant fear of repercussions for any subversive behavior. The investment in the spy technology had a devastating toll on the country’s economy yet it was deemed the most effective and necessary way to keep the state isolated from the rest of the world and keep the Western world out. [ . . .]

The museum—one of the Top 3 Espionage Museums in the World – is curated by a father-daughter duo, Julius Urbaitis and Agne Urbaityte.  A prominent collector of spy technology, Urbaitis is also an expert on the history of the KGB, a curator on military and espionage techniques, and a writer and lecturer on the surveillance and KGB.

Whatever you make of this sweeping-yet-slapdash description, it was decidedly political. So I was more than a little annoyed to hear Lithuanian father/daughter curators Julius Urbaitis and Agne Urbaitye insist in an interview that their “mission is to tell the exact historical information, no politics.”

America’s recently reinvigorated Russophobia doesn’t seem a large or lucrative enough phenomenon for the “unnamed American entrepreneur” funding the KGB museum to eke out a profit.

I had recently been forced to break off a collaboration with another writer over her Russiagate sympathies. Though she was smart and talented, I didn’t feel I could work with someone who considered Russian “interference” in the 2016 election to be a politically significant topic or a major compromise to what passes for American democracy these days. I consider the recent obsession with Russia a sort of liberal hysteria that feeds off of resentment over losing the election to Trump—the nadir of elite entitlement and a pathological state of denial over the fact that their candidate was a dud, and that the electorate rightly holds the Democratic Party in contempt. It’s the bitter delusion of an asshole who lost his girl to a different kind of asshole, and responds with incredulity and conspiratorial rage. What’s more, it’s clearly an attempt to conjure up a totally anachronistic paranoia over the late Soviet Union, a country that hasn’t even existed for nearly thirty years.

Nonetheless, America’s recently reinvigorated Russophobia doesn’t seem a large or lucrative enough phenomenon for the “unnamed American entrepreneur” funding the KGB museum to eke out a profit (if you’re in the market for a Chelsea flat above a KGB Spy Museum, you can get a one-bedroom for just shy of $1.9 million).

Julius and Agne themselves don’t own the facility, nor do they own the entire collection, which is heavily supplemented with pieces from anonymous collectors. Owners and contributors asked that their identities be kept private. I saw Julius strutting around the museum proudly, wearing what appeared to be a sharkskin suit with Oakley sunglasses. I complimented him on the opening in an attempt to start a conversation, but he smiled and backed away to indicate that he lacked the English to have an in-depth conversation, which makes sense. Julius and Agne had only been in the United States about three months when our paths crossed, and were still waiting on their work Visas in early February. The eccentric Julius is known in Lithuania as a successful businessman and the president of the Aliens biker club. (I checked, and the biker club also claims to be apolitical, despite the rather unfortunate logo design of its parent organization, the Lithuanian Bikers’ Congress). Julius opened his first Soviet history museum in Lithuania in 2014, in an underground atomic bunker.

Throughout the tour, I was texting with my friend Alex, who emigrated from the USSR as a child and remains my go-to source for intra-former Eastern Bloc gossip.

“There are exhibits like this throughout Eastern Europe,’ he replied. “the worst one is in Budapest, called the ‘House of Terror.” Supposedly about the ‘twin evils of authoritarianism’ but there’s literally one room about the Nazi occupation and the rest of the building about communism.” (Fact-checking indicates it now has two rooms dedicated to Nazis.) He also expounded on the little chauvinisms of intra-Soviet inside baseball:

“Lithuania is probably the most ardently anti-Soviet out of the former republics . . . I think that’s kind of a conscious construction of post-Soviet nationalism. It’s happening in Ukraine too, but I don’t think this kind of sentiment was really there in the post-Stalin period. Hell, my grandfather survived Holodomor and still ended up being a proud party member and recipient of the labor medal.”

This is one of my favorite qualities found so often in the American children of the former Soviet Union; they don’t take things personally. They never know why everyone is so mad all the time, or why American leftists treat political disagreements like moral failings. The most selfish person I ever met was the excessively handsome grandchild of kulaks who had their orchards expropriated for the benefit of the Soviet people. When I asked him what he thought about his grandmother narrowly escaping Hitler only to then have her apples seized by Stalin, he merely shrugged and said, “Well . . . they had to take the land. That’s how expropriation works.”

Lithuanians, however, still tend to be pretty sore about their annexation. Their nationhood (along with that of Estonia and Latvia) has generally been chalked up to collateral damage in the conflict between the USSR and the Third Reich. To be fair to the Soviets, Lithuania actually did have a nasty little Nazi problem, and you really cannot be too careful with that sort of thing.

Of course, none of that is real evidence that some Pantsuit Nation #GirlBoss or Open Society Foundations partisan had funded this kitschy little anti-communist and/or anti-Russian propaganda with the aid of Lithuanian nationalists and sexsploited young women, but there’s a lot of paranoia going around these days and it’s contagious. Also, being that drunk in Chelsea around a bunch of spy paraphernalia is enough to make anyone paranoid.

Later, at the vodka table, the sexy slavic uniformed re-enactors joined us all in downing shots.

“Hi,” I said brightly to the the table “you guys are great! How did you get this weird job?”

“Sorry,” said the KGB political prisoner, genuinely apologetic, “no English.”

“Are you Kazakh?” asked the Eurasian in the KGB uniform shyly.

“No, just cute,” I joked. She grinned and knocked back her Stoli.

If you are a fan of romantic melodramas where sexy brooding frivolous people slink their way through largely self-imposed problems, consider Paweł Pawlikowski’s Cold War (2018). It’s the story of singer Zula and pianist Wiktor, two trainwrecks with incredible facial symmetry searching for artistic and romantic authenticity against two primary backdrops: an austere communist Poland, and decadent capitalist Paris (4:3 aspect ratio and glorious black and white for extra arthouse cred, natch).

Zula and Wiktor meet in rural Poland at auditions for a state-sponsored song and dance troupe, the sort of folk project that was very common in communist countries attempting to create a brand new national identity while simultaneously preserving traditional cultures. In addition to commissioning field recordings of regional folk music, the communist state sponsored traveling performance programs as a symbol of national pride, for both cultural enrichment at home and goodwill ambassadorship abroad. (Mazowsze, the real troupe that Cold War fictionalized, was formed by decree one year after the communists took power in Poland; the group actually survived the fall of communism and its current members were cast as the fictional versions of themselves in the film.) Of course, it is only a matter of time before Zula and Wiktor are tyrannized by the state; government surveillance threatens their romance, and apparatchiks corrupt their artistic “purity” by adding a bunch of patriotic fanfare to the previously “apolitical” folk performances. (As an American, I obviously have no idea what it’s like for the state to graft a bunch of cynical nationalism into our cultural spaces.) Lest the audience rush to the conclusion that communism is the culprit, we quickly see that the couple fares no better in bohemian Paris, where capitalism is neither a hospitable system for romantic love or a less bastardizing outlet for untrammeled artistic expression. The French jazz cover of the Polish folk song that brought Zula and Wiktor together is sexy and cool, but it’s also oddly strained, it feels less intimate, affected even. The couple fights terribly. Without the boogeyman of a Great Red Saboteur, there is no political scapegoat; the lovers struggle with artistic and romantic ambivalence. They find their new freedoms lonely and disappointing.

If I had to review the movie in one sentence I’d go with: “Too much romance, not enough ethnomusicology.”

The film does raise some interesting questions, though, as to the role of the state in arts and culture. In America, the arts were an important part of the propaganda war against communism. The political nature of folk culture was highly contested, and while it might be tempting to assume everything old-timey was the purview of reactionaries (Henry Ford astroturfing square-dance performances across the country to fight jazz comes to mind), folkies were red-baited en masse, and not just the more obvious targets like your Woody Guthries. The great American ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax was endlessly harassed by the FBI for suspected communist activity. Soft-left politics, a few hard left friends, and an interest in “race records” were considered evidence of Soviet sympathies. The high arts were just as politicized, if not more so. Many people know that the CIA used modern art like Jackson Pollock’s lacey splatter-paintings to fight the Cold War of hearts and minds, but a lot of the strategy was about exporting American values.

From 1954 to 1955, Eisenhower spent 2.25 million dollars on the arts, “to offset worldwide Communist propaganda charges that the United States has no culture.” Some of that money went to the very first government-funded international dance tour, the New York City Ballet’s three-week jaunt across the Soviet Union. The officials captaining the culture wing of the American Cold War obviously loved Russian ballet dancers who defected from the USSR, but they especially loved the co-founder and Artistic Director of the New York City Ballet, the father of American ballet himself, George Balanchine. Balanchine (born Balanchivadze in St. Petersburg), was such a virulent anti-communist he avoided the USSR at all costs, right up until the American Embassy made it clear that a “cultural exchange” would help America in the war against communism. It’s also balletomane lore that star danseur Mikhail Baryshnikov crossed a picket line of striking ballerinas, declaring that he didn’t go to all the trouble of defecting just to carry lesser talents. Ex-Soviet dancers made excellent poster children for the allegedly artistically stifling nature of communism, and some were all too happy to volunteer.

Still Cold War is more about the futility of love and art under any economic system. What’s more, as I sat there in the dark watching one beautiful shot after another, I resented these silly beautiful people. I found Zula and Wiktor somewhat bratty and vacant, respectively. To be fair to the film, it may just be that my hard little heart doesn’t really have the stomach for romance these days. If I had to review the movie in one sentence I’d go with: “Too much romance, not enough ethnomusicology.”

Cold War received an eight-minutes standing ovation at Cannes, another reason why we simply must stop deferring to the French on these things.

As a Hoosier, the only thing I ever knew about Lithuanians growing up is that they love basketball. And they are very, very good at it. So if you are a fan of documentaries, history or The Best Sport, I highly recommend The Other Dream Team, a stirring tale of Lithuanian basketball during and after the Cold War.

For the sports fans, you’ll see fun interviews with the likes of Arvydas Sabonis, the 7’3” “Lithuanian Larry Bird” (his son Domantas, who plays for my own team, the Indiana Pacers, is no slouch either, despite his own wee 6’11” frame).

But even if you have zero interest in basketball, you will be treated to an incredibly entertaining, heartwarming and totally botched attempt at an “apolitical” documentary about the collapse of the Soviet Union. The athletic Cold War was a fascinating component of America’s ongoing  competition with the Soviets, and any result of a game between the two superpowers was politicized; when we won, it was because of capitalism’s superiority. When we lost, it was because they cheated.

After the annexation, Lithuanians obviously played basketball under the red flag. With a different language and culture, many Lithuanians had a sense of the USSR as a Russian state, and with the legacy of the Soviet occupation and annexation still pretty fresh, there was tension. Players snickered in front of Lenin’s tomb. They resented having their public appearances heavily directed by the state, and the constant KGB surveillance. For world-class athletes, they were compensated relatively modestly, and they smuggled aspirin, cameras and blue jeans back to the Soviet Union to sell.

After glasnost, the NBA tried and failed to draft Arvydas Sabonis through the Iron Curtain, but the Soviets wouldn’t let their star player go. In America, the attempt to draft him was met with boos and outrage from fans, who didn’t want a “Russian” on an American team—an irony not lost on unwilling Soviets like Sabonis, who wished to play under the Lithuanian flag. The first Soviet to join the NBA was Šarūnas Marčiulionis—a Lithuanian, of course. Interestingly enough, Marčiulionis was scouted by Donnie Nelson, who remembered him from a mission trip through “Athletes in Action,” the sports ministry of the notoriously anti-communist evangelical organization Campus Crusade for Christ (they changed their name to “Cru” in 2011, noting the bad optics of the word “crusade”). Donnie assiduously wooed Marčiulionis by claiming his own heartfelt support for Lithuanian independence. Marčiulionis was terrified of being labeled a defector, and consequently pretty ambivalent about leaving the USSR to join the NBA. Far from viewing the draft as a blessed rescue, he later said he didn’t enjoy being “a chess piece between the Soviet Sports Agency and Ted Turner.”

As a Hoosier, the only thing I ever knew about Lithuanians growing up is that they love basketball.

Not long before the fall of the Soviet Union, Lithuania declared independence, and the Lithuanian players were suddenly free to play under their own flag, but completely broke. In what must be the most vulgar and self-congratulatory display of capitalist noblesse oblige in our nation’s history, the band The Grateful Dead not only took it upon themselves to foot the bill to send the Lithuanian team to the 1992 Summer Olympics, they designed their uniforms and warm-ups—garish tie-dye ensembles meant to represent the lurid new freedoms of a Post-Soviet world.

The USSR was left to cobble together a so-called unified team, which left an American announcer strangely wistful during the opening ceremony: “The entrance of the unified team, no more red uniforms. No more Hammer and Sickle, which was almost a crest of . . . athletic royalty.”

The women’s unified team got the gold, followed by China, then the United States.

As for the men, in 1988 the Lithuanians won the gold with the Soviet team. In 1992, they got bronze with their own country. Croatia, who had themselves only just declared their independence from Yugoslavia almost exactly a year before the games, got the Silver, and America—of course—got the gold. The 1992 Lithuanian men’s basketball team had beat their old nemeses the Russians, but they had lost to another post-communist little country and—of course—to the Americans.

“They should not deny basic freedom in the Soviet Union, which is the first communist state”

—Arthur Scargill, president of the U.K. National Union of Mineworkers (1982-2002), New Left Review, July/August 1975


“I am not prepared to be party to these attacks on the Soviet Union, which has established a socialist system and wants to improve the quality of life of its people.”

—Arthur Scargill, Sunday Telegraph, Aug 28, 1983

Branko Milanovic is probably best known for creating “The Elephant Graph,” a chart that plots out global income distribution post-Cold War (it looks like a cute little elephant). For my purposes though, you need only to know him as perhaps the world’s only romantic economist. His beautiful essay “How I Lost my Past,” was quietly published on his blog, where he mostly generates dense, often quite technical posts on economics and history (some of which contain far less adorable graphs). It’s not the sort of blog most people would read for literary enrichment, but when he has a personal reflection, his talents as writer and his genuine benevolence are almost startling. (“He has a humanity about him,” as my mother would say.) In the post he admits his ambivalence, then and now, regarding the End of History, and his distress at the war and poverty that followed. He also struggles to recognize the “horrors” of communism in his happy childhood.

In a deluge of literature that was written or published after the end of the Cold War, I just could not find almost anything that mirrored my own experiences from the Yugoslavia of the 1960s and 1970s. However hard I tried I just could not see anything in my memories that had to deal with collectivization, killings, political trials, endless bread lines, imprisoned free thinkers and other stories that are currently published in literary magazines. It is even stranger because I was very politically precocious; without exaggeration I think I was more politically-minded than 99 percent of my peers in the then Yugoslavia.

But my memories of the 1960s and the 1970s are different. I remember long dinners discussing politics, women and nations, long Summer vacations, foreign travel, languid sunsets, whole-night concerts, epic soccer games, girls in mini-skirts, the smell of the new apartment in which my family moved, excitement of new books and of buying my favorite weekly on the evening before the day when it would hit the stands. . . . I cannot find any of that in Judt, Svetlana Alexeevich or any other writer. I know that some of the memories may be influenced by nostalgia, but as hard as I try I still find them as my dominant memories. I remember many details of each of them to believe that my nostalgia somehow “fabricated” them. I just cannot say they did not happen.

As an American socialist, I find it very easy to fall into whataboutism while strolling through a museum dedicated to the “horrors” of life under the USSR. Torture, political imprisonment, surveillance, espionage, political repression, interference in the affairs of other countries—these are also Uncle Sam’s bread and butter. If I felt compelled to debunk the Yankee presumption that these sins are more endemic to communism than they are to capitalism, I could prattle off a thorough list, but frankly, that would make for a boring read. (If you catch me at the bar at the right moment though, I could probably be persuaded for the price of a Miller High Life.)

My friend Alex isn’t too concerned with this sort of thing at all, saying, “I’m not even sure how important ‘reckoning with the Soviet Legacy’ is to modern politics really, at least in the west. They really did make great contributions to aesthetics though,” he added jokingly. For my part, I’m not so sure (about the legacy part I mean, not about the aesthetics part; tie-dye should be a criminal offense).

Just as I believe that Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus, I believe that the history of communism is the history of mankind, of our greatest and noblest ambitions.

Just as I believe that Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus, I believe that the history of communism is the history of mankind, of our greatest and noblest ambitions. And  I believe the history of communism is American history. America owes a great debt to the Red Menace. After all, the threat of Communism inspired us to our greatest achievements. The communists forced our hand on issues of poverty, lest the entire American capitalist project be swept away in a tide of home-grown Bolshevism. They held us morally responsible for our quotidian atrocities. They made us appreciate the arts. They made us stronger and faster. They sent us all the way to the moon.

Watching Rachel Maddow babble and hiss about Russians cutting your gas lines, one might come to the conclusion she’s merely a xenophobic paranoiac—which she indeed is. But when you catch all the anachronistic hammer and sickle iconography that so often accompanies our recent Russophobia revival, it’s clear that we’re not merely panicking, we’re mourning, and that we’re nostalgic for a worthy opponent. We miss the Soviets. Sure we make eyes at China, (who yes, looks stunning in red), but it’s just not the same. We are all the poorer for the loss of the communist states. The whole world is.

Our greatest enemy is dead, and we’re stricken with unresolved grief. Why else would we be thrashing and wailing over a long-gone foe? Because she was the one who kept us sharp, the one who kept us on our toes, the one who held us accountable.

At the post-tour reception, one of the guests—a noticeably handsome young man with dark hair and a square jaw—approached the accordionist and started making requests. He began to sing along in Russian in a deep baritone voice. He sounded classically trained, even as he weaved along with his plastic cup of vodka high in the air. I sent Alex a video of it.

“They hate the USSR but they can’t escape it,” he said.