It’s become pretty clear that Russia interfered in the American presidential election in the hopes that Donald Trump would win. Russian intelligence hacked the Democratic National Committee emails for the purposes of damaging Hillary Clinton. The effort succeeded, peeling off just enough votes to help The Donald pull ahead in key swing states by a mere 80,000 votes. While Clinton won nationally by almost 3 million votes, those 80,000 votes in the right states landed Trump in the White House. The Donald, of course, is downplaying this, even denying it, despite the fact that 13 federal agencies have confirmed Russian interference. Most Republicans are wishing the story would go away because, after all, the interference helped them gain control of all three branches of government. A few brave Republicans, like John McCain, are raising the alarm bells. While McCain sold his soul for the chance to become president back in 2004, he is not backing way from this issue. I am thankful for this. If only Democrats demand answers, the Republicans could easily say that this is about sour grapes and Democrats licking their wounds from the drubbing they received in November.
What I’ve noticed, though, is that a lot of Americans, especially young Americans, aren’t really sure why this is a big deal. There are the expected alt right (read “white supremacist”) and Trump supporters who are convinced by their own propaganda that reports of Russian interference is a big lie. They are beyond reach and are believing what they want to believe. But it’s people my age and younger who are my concern, Gen Xers and Millenials, right of center, moderate, liberal and progressive people who don’t seem to get how serious this is.
These are young people who have no memory of the Cold War, who didn’t grow up with the fear of being vaporized by a nuclear attack. They didn’t grow up with school drills where you practiced huddling under your desk in the event of a nuclear attack (as if a desk could protect you, but if you were far enough away from the blast you wouldn’t be cut to shreds by windows blowing in over your head or be blinded by the flash of the explosion).
In the spirit of transparency, I didn’t either. I was 20 when the Soviet Union imploded. But what I have is family history. My family are Mennonite and at the time of the Russian Revolution lived in Mennonite colonies in Southern Ukraine. After the Russian Revolution, their status as landowners, as German, and as religious did them no favors. Between 1917 and 1939, 75% of Mennonite men died, either at the hand of executioners, in prison, or in Siberian hard labor camps. My great grandfather was sentenced to five years of hard labor in the 1930s for being a minister. My grandfather and his brother were shipped north to Siberia in advance of the approaching German army with other Mennonite men, destined for labor camps where most would die. They jumped the train figuring it was better to die fighting for freedom than to die imprisoned. My family experienced starvation in the man-made famine in Soviet controlled Ukraine in the 1930s where 10 million died, in addition to collectivization, bread lines, Communist schools, and relatives-turned-informants. To this day, my one surviving grandmother shudders when she sees a black car with tinted windows.
When the few Mennonites who survived came to Canada as refugees, most contact with relatives was cut off. The odd letter was sent and received. Some letters arrived with heavy black lines indicating that the letter had been read and censored. Mostly, my family did not initiate contact, knowing that contact with the West could be mean surveillance, unemployment, prison, even death. My mother’s family came in 1947 to Canada. It took 12 years for my grandfather to receive notice that his mother had starved to death in a labor camp. That’s just how it was.
With Gorbachev coming to power in the 1980s, and with the period of Glastnost he ushered in, my grandfather was able to bring his half brother over to Canada for a visit. I will never forget my grandfather’s tears of joy and how they savored their shots of vodka before dinner. They hadn’t seen each other in 50 years. When the Soviet Union fell, the doors opened fully. Some family relocated to Germany and there was much visiting between countries. When I spent a summer in Germany as a young adult I was under strict orders to visit family in Bielefeld. We began receiving regular letters from family who lived in Russia proper. It was wonderful to be in touch. There was so much hope for the new Russia, a Russia moving towards democracy and open markets. These were good years.
It was also clear that we were very different people. There was a haunted look in the eyes of family members who had lived under Communist rule. There was often a hardness in their emotion. Even once free, they were still careful not to feel too much and always to control their speech, their bodies, sometimes even their thoughts. It’s hard to turn around a lifetime of conditioning ushered in by the reality of living under constant surveillance.
The transition to capitalism was hard and for some their standard of living fell. We would get reports about the state of their gardens. A good garden meant a good winter. A bad garden meant a lean winter. The open market hadn’t guaranteed food supplies or the income to afford groceries . A letter saying, “The potatoes did poorly this year,” would spur my grandparents to send money. We learned that a cousin had served in the cleanup of Chernobyl and that he died of cancer within a few years. We learned that relatives who worked in the mines sometimes weren’t getting paid. Again, my grandparents would send money. They were so thankful to be able to send money after years of no contact. Family was everything to them.
Then Vladimir Putin, a former KGB official, rose to power. Internationally, we heard about murdered journalists and opposition politicians and the imprisonment of Pussy Riot. Privately, our family has experienced a gradual cooling in the communication from our relatives. The emails and letters first became more cryptic, less specific and detailed, less frequent. Then they asked that my family stop sending money. Now all communication has ceased. We don’t know who has died, who has married, who is working where, who has children, who is living where, all the normal things that families share with each other. We are once again separated.
A few years ago an uncle and aunt visited the Siberian village where my paternal grandmother was born. They received subtle clues about the changes in politics and culture. Academics are told certain research subjects are no longer appropriate. There are certain books that have disappeared from the shelves. This is not just happening because of edicts from above. Ordinary people are proactively self-censoring to protect themselves from what could come. This is being harder on the young than the old. The young have no training to survive this and are having to learn how to curb the normal things that go with living free. But for the old, they know what this means and they are resurrecting old survival skills.
News that Putin annexed Crimea was chilling. After the fall of the Soviet Union and the independence of Ukraine, many of my North American family members joyfully returned to Ukraine to visit the former Mennonite colonies. Tours took Mennonites through the old villages, schools, churches, cemeteries, and factories. For many of my first generation immigrant relatives, going back was a way to finally say good bye properly to the country they fled in haste. It gave many of them peace. These visits have now virtually ceased. It is no longer safe to go.
This is the Russian nation that is interfering in American elections. And lest you protest that we are a long way from the atrocities of the Soviet Union to the Russia that exists today, I tell you, the signs are all there. The same people are in charge. We should be aghast that Russia attempted to sway our election and even more horrified that it succeeded. We should know without a doubt what Russian support says about the man they favored for the White House, a man who uses the double speak typical of a fascist state, who hides his assets and his business connections, who has threatened to deport millions from American soil, who is questioning first amendment rights while valorizing second amendment rights, who wants to build a wall, who declines intelligence briefings and rejects those that he doesn’t like, who is the beneficiary of voter suppression unparalleled since Jim Crow, who surrounds himself with white supremacists and billionaires, and who has given his children security clearance.
If you are Gen X or Millenial, I strongly encourage you to pay attention. We need to know what we are up against. Under no circumstances should we minimize the significance of Russian involvement in Trump’s rise to political power. We need to pressure our elected representatives unceasingly to continue the investigation into Russian involvement. We need to watch the Republicans who claim to be pushing for investigations very carefully. They may very well make it look like they are doing something concrete while actually creating a diversion from the truth. We have to keep the heat where the heat needs to be, on the Russian-supported administration that will soon gain access to the White House. We need to draw on all hallmarks of our democracy to shine a piercing light on those who have taken power. We need to keep repeating over and over that Donald Trump does not have a mandate. There is no mandate when your power is secured using the illegal resources of a foreign power with a terrible track record on human rights.
To use the words of Hillary Clinton, we have a puppet in the White House. It’s up to us to cut the strings animating that puppet.