President Donald Trump opened his April 13 coronavirus news briefing with a video compilation of media clips that touted his pandemic-fighting achievements. Team Trump had selectively cut and edited quotes from journalists and governors, who had regularly cited the dangerous lack of White House support during the pandemic, so they appeared to praise his leadership.
At that time, the United States had already endured 23,000 deaths from COVID-19 with 600,000 confirmed cases — more than any other country. But that didn’t stand in the way of Trump’s informercial about “the success we are having.” (Now, American deaths are almost four times higher and confirmed cases more than doubled.)
I hadn’t seen anything like this sort of propaganda display since the 1980s Soviet Union. I was suddenly transported back 40 years to my childhood.
I hadn’t seen anything like this sort of propaganda display since the 1980s Soviet Union. I was suddenly transported back 40 years to my childhood, watching on TV as the aging Soviet patriarch Leonid Brezhnev endlessly pinned medals to his own chest. He awarded himself for, among other things, heroism during World War II, critical contributions to international communism and perfecting the Soviet way of life. The less room left on his jacket, the more the Soviet public came to realize that its much-lauded state was, in fact, based on lies, injustice and disregard for the human condition.
Today’s COVID-19 reality has, in similar fashion, exposed many of America’s sores of inequality as the virus ravages communities of color and deepens the economic divide between the wealthy and everyone else. The United States could likely learn a great deal from the Soviet Union’s attempted program of serious reconstruction — which exposed the Kremlin’s decades of lies and sought to address them.
Exactly 35 years ago, Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev realized that the U.S.S.R. needed major reforms to stay relevant on the world stage. He labeled his transformational policies “glasnost” (openness) and “perestroika” (restructuring). Gorbachev hoped to save the Soviet Union by admitting its past mistakes and duplicity and promising transparency going forward.
He launched an honest public reassessment of the Soviet Union’s secret police excesses, crushing military-industrial complex and tragic unpreparedness for the 1941 Nazi invasion — which resulted in the loss of tens of millions of Soviet lives, more than any other country in the conflict.
Over the last century, the United States and the Soviet Union were often viewed as mirror images of each other’s weaknesses and strengths. Positioned on the outskirts of the European civilization, both possessed messianic intentions to provide universal fulfillment: Soviet Russia through communist equality; America through “rugged individualism.”
The Soviet Union declared egalitarianism for all, yet continually reneged on its guarantees to individual citizens. Thus despite Gorbachev’s efforts to reform, it collapsed in 1991 as a result. The Soviet slogan of a faceless “dictatorship of the proletariat” had proved far less alluring than the “shining city upon the hill” vision of the United States, with the American dream’s promise of re-invention through personal initiative and enterprise. In addition, the United States had Hollywood promoting its dazzling way of life.
The Soviet slogan of a faceless “dictatorship of the proletariat” had proved far less alluring than the “shining city upon the hill” vision of the United States.
The Soviets were destroyed in part by their own hubris. Their delusion of triumph was likely forged by the Russian Empire’s Potemkin village phenomenon. This dated back to the 18th century, when Catherine the Great set out to travel across her vast lands. The empress wanted to observe her prosperous subjects — unaware that prosperity wasn’t exactly a feature of Russian peasant life. Catherine’s favorite, Prince Grigory Potemkin, knew the harsh reality of misery and dilapidation would upset the orderly German-born empress. So he ordered huge façades be built, depicting a panoply of cheerful, brightly painted houses. This is what Catherine saw as her procession passed by. Those illusory constructions became known as the Potemkin village pokazukha.
During the Cold War, pokazukha applied to the entire Soviet Union — the perception of a powerful nation, which had industrialized at lightning speed to support its well-equipped and well-trained armies. Maintaining this façade of strength and Soviet superiority over capitalism came at the price of widespread starvation and a tragically high body-count. Brezhnev surreally standing on the Kremlin podium decorating himself for achievements that never were seemed to embody the decades of state propaganda that had long since lost any connection to reality.
Gorbachev’s policies came too late, the Soviet system was beyond reform. But his perestroika was not in vain. The Soviet Union collapsed peacefully — which can’t be said about the bloody dissolution of communist Yugoslavia that had lacked such reforms. Moreover, with the end of the Cold War, Russia and other communist bloc countries, were finally able to define their own future. They became better for it — at least for a while.
For the last three decades, however, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been able to erect new Potemkin villages — showing off his military muscle in Syria and Ukraine and launching cyberattacks to amplify divisions between Western countries. But Russia’s forceful, yet fake, declarations that its coronavirus is “under control” have brought calls for a new perestroika. Putin’s support has plunged to 59 percent, the lowest since he assumed power in 2000.
Russian shortcomings aside, after the Cold War, the United States suffered from its own hubris. As the one remaining superpower, it stopped perfecting itself and increasingly began to recast its political mistakes as solid victories. Hollywood, the American version of the Potemkin façade, helped shield the public from the truth. The disastrous and devastating invasion of Iraq, for example, was heralded as world-saving patriotism in the critical yet flag-waving hit “Zero Dark Thirty,” directed by Kathryn Bigelow.
The pandemic has ripped away America’s delusion of eternally winning — perfected to absurdity by Trump.
Now, amid the COVID-19 crisis, stirring narratives of courageous sacrifices from the frontline workers — genuinely heroic doctors, nurses, postmen, policemen, grocery clerks and other essential workers — have helped obscure the absence of coherent national leadership and diverted attention from scant health-care resources.
Even so, the pandemic has ripped away America’s delusion of eternally winning — perfected to absurdity by Trump — and exposed staggering economic inequality and racial discrimination across the nation.
The test for America will be its ability to learn from this health crisis, recognizing that political, economic and other priorities should include the public good and a stronger social safety net.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, whose political standing has soared during the pandemic, regularly speaks about “building back better” at his daily news briefings. Cuomo envisions a reformed America, in which primacy would be given to society-relevant jobs in education and health care.
This coronavirus experience could lead to an American version of Perestroika. The United States has a better chance than the Soviet Union to pull through. The world misses Washington’s leadership, which had won over so many people around the globe during the Cold War. This leadership will become even more convincing if it comes from the renewed United States — one that values social wellbeing of the public before the profits of the few.