American Decline

It’s January 6 and the Warning Lights Are Flashing Red

By The Intercept

We are no longer observers of the distressed futures that afflict other people. We are those people now.

It was the winter of 1991, and the country I was working in, the Soviet Union, was months away from its demise. Yet the collapse, so close, was unimaginable.

Moscow was frigid and miserable. The currency was a wreck, stores had empty shelves, and the Kremlin seemed more of a ghost ship than command center. The country’s Baltic republics were seeking independence, and when I reported on the violence that had already occurred there, struggle and darkness were all that seemed possible.

I was visiting the Soviet Union to help my overworked colleagues from the Washington Post, and on one of my first nights, I had dinner with a few correspondents who lived in the country and knew what was going on — or were supposed to. They talked of a grim era ahead in which the KGB and the Soviet Army would rule the country, because its leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, was losing control; his reforms unleashed only discontent and poverty.

A few years later, after the Soviet Union was no more, I wrote about that dinner and what would have occurred if I had known the future and told my friends about it. “If I would have suggested that, in six months, hard-liners might stage a coup against Gorbachev, and that the coup would fail and that the Soviet Union, which we all had grown up with and believed to be immortal, would die on the spot, breaking into bits and pieces with names like Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, my colleagues would have laughed and wondered whether my water glass was filled with vodka.”

The astounding thing isn’t that every warning light was flashing red in the winter of 1991 and we didn’t see them. We saw those lights. Everyone did. We couldn’t miss them. We knew there was danger. The astounding thing is that we couldn’t imagine their submerged meaning, the future they indicated.

One year after the storming of the U.S. Congress, it’s a good time to recognize that we are no longer observers of the distressed futures that afflict other people. We are those people now. It is we, not the out-of-luck them, who are at the mercy of nightmares. So today is a good day to understand what that means.


Leave a Reply