I’m writing to begin what I hope will develop into a long-term, ongoing conversation about the crises facing us as citizens of the United States and the world, but also about the past. By training, I’m a historian of the Soviet Union with an interest in food and agriculture, as well as the country’s interactions with trends shaping the wider world—the idea that the “Iron Curtain” completely divided the world notwithstanding.
These academic interests might not seem to have a lot in common with our world today, but I see two important reasons to talk about these issues together. First, the Soviet Union was part of the world system throughout the Cold War, even though it premised itself image on being different. That difference, and the interactions between East and West, throw into relief important developments in the global system.
Second, the Soviet Union was a system, by the 1970s and 1980s, affected by deep social problems. So too is the United States in 2017. Not that I’m suggesting that the US is going to experience the kind of revolutionary social, political, and cultural change that the Soviet Union and its successor states have since 1985. But the symptoms are sometimes eerily similar. Remember that study by Case and Deaton a couple of years ago that found that mortality among non–Hispanic whites—particularly those lower in socioeconomic status—was rising? Yeah, the trend lines look familiar to someone with a familiarity with those shaping the Soviet Union in the 1980s.
Okay, a third reason: a long-term, historical perspective on Russia helps understand today’s Russia in a deeper, more sophisticated way that struggles to rise to the top when so much of the media narrative about Russia and the 2016 election lacks both depth and sophistication.