4 reasons a nuclear war with Russia will be less likely under the Millennials (and some Gen Xers)

16 May

One of the themes–both spoken and unspoken–at the seminar I talked about last post, was that hope for better relations with Russia rests on the shoulders of the younger generation. If you’ll recall, I even noted more optimism from the junior panel than the established panel.

Things are getting better and will stay on a trajectory of getting better simply because we were not born into the boiling pot of the Cold War. I’m throwing Gen-X (1970-1985) into the mix because of the first bullet you’ll see in a bit, and because some were simply too young to remember the hot bed. As my physics professor once said, “we [Gen Xers] rejected authority, wore flannel and listened to Pearl Jam.” So that counts in terms of not being directly exposed to a Cold War culture (unless you want to split hairs and say that they were exposed at as a baby, so that might be just as important, if not more than. But, I don’t want to go down that road.)

So, in the style of the voice of my generation–Cracked–let’s get this show on the road.

4. America and the Soviet Union started really talking to each other through cuteness (aka, a kid)

If this girl didn’t have a white picket fence, I’m going to be highly disappointed.

Samantha Smith might be the most in-real-life b’aww-worthy stories I’ve ever heard.

She was born in raised in the Middle of Nowhere, Maine (Manchester, Maine). At ten years old in 1982, she wrote a letter to the then Premier of the Soviet Union, Yuri Andropov. She said,

Dear Mr. Andropov,
My name is Samantha Smith. I am ten years old. Congratulations on your new job. I have been worrying about Russia and the United States getting into a nuclear war. Are you going to vote to have a war or not? If you aren’t please tell me how you are going to help to not have a war. This question you do not have to answer, but I would like to know why you want to conquer the world or at least our country. God made the world for us to live together in peace and not to fight.

Samantha Smith

It cost 40 cents or so to send the letter to the Kremlin. And, much like sending a letter to Santa, the parents didn’t think much of it, and little Sammie went to bed like hundreds of thousands of children in the United States.

And then this happened. Mr. Andropov wrote back, and said, “I invite you, if your parents will let you, to come to our country, the best time being this summer.” (The rest of the letter is super cute and you should read it)

When the Premier of a foreign country invites you to come spend the summer with them, you accept that invitation. And what took place was a media frenzy. She embarked for Moscow on June 7 and from there, traveled to St. Petersburg (then Leningrad), Artek (from what I can tell, it’s like a year-long space camp–I wanted to go to that so bad as a kid) and the town of Gurzuf on the Crimean peninsula. There, in Leningrad, she said the Russians were “just like us.” In Artek, she lived with 10 English-speaking children in one of the camps. After two weeks, she returned to the United States, where many believed she was being used by the Russian government and that the trip was a PR stunt. And who says Americans are always optimistic and altruistic?

I think Mrs. Smith’s reaction was the best. Something along the lines of, Of course it was. When you invite people to your home, you only show them the good parts, not the dirty corners. No one in their right mind would bring a Russian dignitary to Detroit. Alright, so Khrushchev went to Pittsburgh, but there was a reason for that. Point still stands.

Smith’s journey to Russia was certainly the beginning of a paradigm shift. It was the first time American and Soviet children really saw each other. Penpal programs between the countries skyrocketed (and “penpal” is such an old concept that Google Chrome doesn’t think it’s a word #oldpeoplelulz). Anton Fedyashin, current history department rock star at American University and the opening junior panelist, was about ten years old at the time and  Muscovite. He said that the effect of Samantha Smith’s trip was the greatest on Soviet society.

If you’ll remember, I have embarrassingly short shorthand and don’t really remember what else he said on that point.

(Unfortunately, Samantha Smith’s story ends tragically. A great voice for peace and fostering warm relations with the Soviets, she was killed in a plane crash. That is as bad as the Judith Barsi story.)

But the point being–the massive cultural change, where we started to stop seeing each other as the enemy, started with kids. Adorable, pigtailed and scuffed-knee kids.

3. The Russians have taken over LiveJournal

Here’s a catch-22 for you.

During the Cold War, the government (pick one) funneled money into programs that taught American/Russian culture and language. Today, that sort of open, public support is no more. Why? Because there isn’t a lot of enthusiasm from Millennials for learning about Russia. After 80 years of The Russians are Coming, we’re tired. But! Another reason there isn’t a whole vested interest in the language and culture is because the government isn’t putting the same emphasis on it as it used to. And, I don’t know about you guys–but going to Russia is expensive.

Without public or private encouragement, it’s up to us–as in individuals–to cross those bridges ourselves. Which is where the Internet comes in, and where the last 3 points come from.

For those of you too young to remember LiveJournal–congratulations, you’ve just made me feel older than dirt. But back in the dark ages of the early 2000s, it was the MySpace of its time. Today, there’s still a healthy American presence on LJ, but it’s mostly in the form of fandom communities and angsty teenage girls.

So, in a way, LJ is just a wordier tumblr.

Not too long ago, I stumbled on a pretty funny article from Cracked about LiveJournal and they said that the Russians had taken over that site. I chuckled and thought, well, now it makes sense that every third article that would reach my dash was in Russian. I had simply thought it was a happy coincidence, or that LJ “knew” I dug Russian stuff, so it threw up whatever it could about the country. From Cracked, I thought it was a joke. But seriously, the Russians own LiveJournal. Seriously.

I, personally, am not aware of too many Russo-American interactions on this proto-MySpace. But there has to be some kind of interaction going on. The only people on LJ really are the Russians and the Americans. LJ in Russia is used for information dissimination; in America, it’s used for fandom bases. Since American pop culture is so saturated and anime has its own solid grasp on groups, I can’t fathom the absence of communication. And who gets into fandoms and anime? A few Gen Xers and mostly Millennials, that’s who.

So what I’m really saying is fandom will unite us.


Look at my shame. Look at it!

No. I’m getting to you next week.

2. Our mutual love for YouTube cats will lower our weapons

If fandom doesn’t bring us together, then surely cats will.

Not too terribly long ago, my friend Amy introduced me to a YouTube show called “This is Хорошо,” where host Stas Davidov takes us through some of the more popular vids on YouTube. He’s like the Ray William Johnson for Russia, but without all the hair gel. And, unlike RWJ, he’s likeable? Doesn’t seem like a douchebag?

Look at him…he’s such an endearing dork.

I think the most fascinating thing about this is that there is obvious exchange going on between American and Russian Millennials. We’re watching the same videos. We’re commenting on the same videos with similar reactions. And even when the vids aren’t exactly the same, they’re very similar in content. Ms. Smith could only dream of an age when Russians and Americans really looked at each other and said, “They’re just like us.” (What’s also super nice is that Stas and his team actually spell check people’s comments)

Stas isn’t the only Russian on Facebook doing this either; a fair amount of Russian “let’s breakdown the Internet’s most popular vids and make jokes about them” hosts exist.

But of the Russian YouTube channels, one of the most popular is FPSRussia. He might exploit some (Post?) Cold War stereotypes about Russians being obsessed with guns and explosives, but he has 716,000 likes on Facebook and two million subscribers on YouTube. Two million. I am one of them.

And just for fun…

They might not be discussing the merits of Dostoevsky’s tomes—but there’s something to be said about lowbrow bonding. People who like FPSRussia aren’t necessarily seeing “a Russian.” They’re seeing a guy who really knows what he’s doing and talking about in terms of guns and explosives, and someone they’d like to crack open a beer with and chat calibers and range. Stas and the TiX crew are kids about my age who make Star Wars jokes, meme references and like videos of cats.

Why on Earth would we go to war with someone who enjoys Nyancat as much as we do?

1. One Book to rule all the Faces

Zukerberg Monster from “The Oatmeal”
In 2010, 1 in 13 people worldwide were on Facebook. By 2011, it was 1 in 9.

It’s late and my subtitles are getting lamer. I know. I’m sorry.

When I first sat down to write this article, I really wanted it to be about Samantha Smith and “the magic of Facebook.” I’m not even kidding, that was my title for three drafts. But really, that’s kind of what Facebook is. It’s this wonderful little portal that lets you talk with people you’ve just met or have been friends with for years. And once upon a time, it wasn’t too hard to talk to complete strangers.

In 2006, when I had started work on my novel, I wanted some real inside knowledge on Russia. Stuff I knew I couldn’t get from a travel guide-book. And I didn’t want to have to rummage through giant texts at Borders (which was still a thing). I just wanted to ask and get a relatively quick response. Back in the day, non-American countries had their own “Page,” so to speak, where natives could write on the wall and meet other local users of Facebook. It was pretty neat. So, what did this extremely naïve and stupid girl do? Asked questions about Chechnya and possible research buddies in the future. A lot of the feedback I got was mostly, “stupid American,” and “why are you here?”

Granted, not the bridge over troubled waters we were looking for, but out of the blue, someone took pity on me and decided to friend me. Her name is Irinia and we’ve been on and off communicating since 2007. Since my novel has just been as on and off, I haven’t really talked to her much about Russian culture in context to my novel, but we have spoken occasionally. She helps me with my Russian (which is atrocious by the way) and I help her with English.

In 1982, it took a will of government agencies to get communication going between the youth of Russia and America. In 2007, literally, it took me a day for Ira to finally see my post and twelve seconds for me to select “accept friend request.”

I know that this has been said before. I know that it’s almost cliché when someone talks about the wonders of technology and how quickly and efficiently we can talk. But when you compare the prowess of the Internet to where we were during the Cold War, it is quite astounding that we’ve gained so much ground in so little time. When you look at the Arab Spring and how much success that had because of platforms like Twitter and Facebook and YouTube—getting the word out around the world and to their local peers. Sometimes, it just makes you wonder. If we lived in an alternate universe where the Internet gained ground sooner, what would have the ’91 revolution looked like? If it was around even during the height of the Cold War?

Ok, sorry, I have an image of stilyagi hanging out at a Starbucks with their Mac laptops on tumblr. I’m trying hard not to laugh and wake up my cousin.

It really does make you sit back and wonder. And it makes you realize how much for granted we take modern technological conveniences. When I go abroad to St. Petersburg in the fall, I’ll have the option of calling home for free through the Internet. Unheard of, even ten years ago.

Which, as a reminder for most people my age, was 2000, not 1990.

So much of our misunderstanding of Russia and their misunderstanding of us comes from the fact that neither of us talk to each other. So, maybe instead of discussing Dostoevsky and Twain, we need more venues where we can watch shit explode while sharing a pint. Once this Pandora’s Box has been opened, it won’t close. It can’t close. YouTube, LiveJournal, Facebook—they’re all integral parts of our lives. We talk to millions of people across the globe in seconds. The barriers that were there simply aren’t there anymore. And because we didn’t grow up in the Cold War, when someone says, “Hey, don’t talk to that guy. He’s from Russia.” Most of our first responses will be, “Why the hell not?”

*obligatory anti-SOPA/PIPA/ACTA/CISPA banner goes here*


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