So, I guess I want to give you some reasons to check out Breaking Silence. I don’t usually do this. I let my books stand on their own merit and figure if you finish the Look Inside and decide to but it, yay.
But this one’s a little different. While my work generally has something to say, Breaking Silence is damn near a call to action. For Russians.
Like everyone else who survived the Cold War, I relished in the defeat of the Soviet Union and then was inspired by the warming relationship with a rival who once ensured that I could not watch a jet cross the sky without wondering if it was loaded with nuclear bombs. Yeah, growing up during the Cold War was all kinds of fun. Life had an edge, because the knowledge that it could end in a flash at any moment hung in the air like a choking mist.
And so, for years, I didn’t really pay much attention to Russia. We were all building a space station and swapping technology. You could buy a Big Mac in Red Square. Figured all was good, moving along now. Somewhere along the way, I heard something about Georgia and then Chechnya. To me, it all blended in with the whole Serbia thing. We were building a space station together, everything must be alright.
And so it was with great heartache that when I looked at Russia again, I saw a reincarnation of Nazi Germany. To a T. What the hell happened? I watched in shock as Putin repeated Hitler’s performance in Poland of 1939, complete with false flags and a corrupt narrative. Frankly, it scared me. The Cold War was back. And then some. The good news was that the main line would now be Poland, not the Fulda Gap. I was ready to deal with that.
Then, a funny thing happened. Ukraine fought back. Russia revealed the corroded core of its military and then they retreated from Kyiv. Hello?
It was around the time of the 40 km convoy that I started paying attention. Being a student of military history, I knew that a stalled convoy was bad news for any attacker. And they didn’t seem to have cavalry to protect it. Three days later, it was still just sitting there. What is this? What is this? The military historian in me perked up and started paying attention. This was not going to go the way everyone thought it would. And a lot of things we believed about Russia were about to evaporate before our very eyes. Including their sense of humanity.
Somewhere around the same time, I struck up a conversation with an acquaintance in Russia. This person was preparing to leave and I’m sure was part of the first wave of the brain drain that departed Russia in early 2022. But before this person disappeared, we talked about Russia and Putin and the war. This person gave me a lot of insight into the Russian mind, especially its systemic nihilism.
And then Bucha happened. We learned, nearly in real time, of atrocities that we all thought had been left behind in history or the darker, less-civilized corners of the modern world. We did not expect this from a country that builds space stations and feeds Europe gas and oil and has billions of dollars of Western investment. You can buy a Big Mac in Red Square. Why would a country that seemed so much a part of the modern world produce the horrific tragedy of Bucha?
It was then that I realized Putin, for whatever reason, was using Hitler’s playbook. It was as if the Einsatzgruppen had risen from the grave to wander the streets in rural Ukraine.
It was then, too, that I detected a seismic shift in history. Bucha sealed the deal. The west was in it for the long haul now. Russia will be in a corner for at least a generation. You just can’t do these things in the age of the Internet and the context of a highly interdependent world economy. We were supposed to have outgrown these things, at least if you’re a big, modern nation that builds space stations.
And that’s when I decided to write this story. As I pondered the things my Russian friend had to say, I noticed among them no mention of speaking out or trying to fix what was wrong in Russia. My friend just wanted to leave.
Here in the West, we take it for granted that we will speak up when our governments do things we don’t like. We disagree with them. A lot. But Russia has a kind of schizophrenia. There is the Old Guard, which has no problem with revanchism, all the way back to Catherine the Great. Then there are the Gen X types who fondly remember a Soviet Union that crushed their rights under a boot heel. Yes, this really is a thing. Many Russians miss the good old days of the Soviet Union.
Then there are the Millennials, who grew up in the shadow of Russia’s stumbling attempt at democracy and Westernization. The remnants of that shadow hang on bayonets in Bucha. But the kids, they do have a dream.
If only they would speak… And I’m not saying that’s easy. But it is essential.
And that’s what Breaking Silence is really about.