Thirty-three years ago, a gifted professor nearly persuaded me down the road not taken.
Frank Smist’s political science course took stock of a world of Cold War conflict. Those days held relentless awareness of the prospect of nuclear annihilation. To be sure, as the 1980s wound down, Mikhail Gorbachev’s efforts at glasnost and perestroika were welcome, and rumors of a McDonald’s planned in Pushkin Square were sensational. Yet such developments tamped down rather than resolved superpower tension. In spring 1989, no one imagined staggering changes coming later that year when the links of the Iron Curtain broke apart.
Dr. Smist said I should spend my summer in Washington, D.C. with a man working on an interesting project. He promised heady work in contrast to Capitol interns making xeroxes and answering constituent mail. Thus, I entered the orbit of Jerrold Schecter. Jerry had been Time-Life bureau chief in Moscow during Leonid Brezhnev’s era. Later, he served as press officer for President Carter’s National Security Council, working with Zbigniew Brzezinski, Robert Gates, Madeleine Albright, and Samuel Huntington. Jerry knew things and people. Leveraging both, he was writing a Cold War espionage history. I was his research assistant.
The Spy Who Saved the World tells the story of Colonel Oleg Penkovsky, a Soviet spy who turned double agent and worked for American and British intelligence. Arguably, he saved the world from the Cuban missile crisis. It was the heady stuff Dr. Smist promised, with forays into just-declassified transcripts of CIA and MI6 debriefing sessions with Penkovsky. (Penkovsky is favorably portrayed in The Courier, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Rachel Brosnahan.)
In the summer of ‘89, Sovietology and Kremlinology interested me as much as philosophy. Staying ahead of the Russians seemed consequential, a matter of preserving civilization. But in under six months, the Berlin Wall toppled and President Bush met Chairman Gorbachev in Malta where they declared the Cold War over. Suspicion gave way to nascent trust. Worry about nuclear holocaust was not cast off, but it was lessened. The world rejoiced. Without consciously choosing it, I gravitated to philosophy, delighting in wisdom secure from the vagaries of politics.
Had I taken the other road, I might have known of a KGB officer who, in December 1989, watched an exuberant crowd storm toward the East German secret police headquarters in Dresden. A brief argumentum ad baculum later, and the people dispersed. Despite a reconfiguration of the global order precipitated by the Bush-Gorbachev announcement mere days before, that lieutenant colonel, now Russian President Vladimir Putin, apparently has wished for three decades for the world to be like it once was. His devastation of Ukraine has taken the world to a darker, more dangerous place. We grieve to see the innocent suffer, millions rousted from homes, schools and hospitals bombed, and horrific injuries and lost lives. Putin’s nuclear saber-rattling has also rekindled apocalyptic worries suppressed for thirty years.
Boethius writes that “The world stays rarely long the same, / So great its instability,” and he compares the “relationship between the ever-changing course of Fate and the stable simplicity of Providence” to a “moving circle and the still point in the middle.” Philosophy cannot eliminate suffering or overthrow tyrants. However, it puts them in perspective. And if, like Boethius, we take Lady Philosophy’s road, we learn: “Hope is not placed in God in vain and prayers are not made in vain, for if they are the right kind they cannot but be efficacious.”
Please celebrate with me the following updates and news within the Honors College: