You remember the Cold War.
They were the commies, we were the imperialist West, and a small percentage of either side’s nuclear stockpile was sufficient to annihilate not only each other but likely the rest of the human race. That all supposedly ended with the fall of the Soviet Union a quarter century ago, but as recent events in Ukraine have made clear, the reflexes are still there. Suddenly we’re talking about zones of influence again while NATO countries draw up plans for military exercises.
Did the Cold War ever really end?
That’s a question for Anton Fedyashin. For the past five years, the American University historian has taught a course in Cold War history—or rather in the stereotypes of the Soviet-American conflict. The readings for his course, one of AU’s most popular, consist of old spy novels: Clancy, Deighton, Fleming, le Carré, and Ludlum, as well as less remembered names like Semyonov and Littell.
The list naturally skews toward Western authors—the Soviets were “a closed society,” Fedyashin says, and wrote very little that afforded insight into their tradecraft. But the Westerners aren’t shy about highlighting Western mistakes, and even such nonpareil heroes as James Bond or Jack Ryan, for whom no task is impossible, shed light of their own. “They teach facets of reality,” Fedyashin says. “They are a form of psychoanalysis in the exploration of conflicts.”
This inquiry fits nicely into his mission as executive director of AU’s Initiative for Russian Culture—created, in part, to “break down stereotypes.”
“What better way is there to deal with stereotypes than spy novels?” Fedyashin asks. “They may not be serious literature, but you can use them to teach serious things.”
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A bluff, good-natured, 38-year-old assistant professor, Fedyashin is well positioned to know the difference between then and now. Born in the Soviet Union but raised in the US, he graduated from T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria and got a master’s at Harvard and a PhD at Georgetown. He’s effortlessly bicultural, speaking unaccented American English and confessing to “a juvenile obsession with James Bond movies,” a trait that has endured into adulthood.
“I never saw them as anything other than entertainment,” he says of the films, despite watching Bond movies on TV as a teenager against a Cold War backdrop. In his view, the Bond movies were really about international crime, not the KGB. (In his course, Fedyashin uses them to show how the themes of the Cold War evolve as they move from book to movie.)
For Fedyashin, the spy thrillers are historical documents. In early Bond novels, set in the 1950s, “it is not nearly a given that the West is going to win the Cold War,” he says. “China becomes Communist, the Viet Minh defeat the French, and the Soviets invade Hungary and launch Sputnik and Fidel Castro takes over Cuba.” Five titles into the Bond series, in 1957’s From Russia With Love, Ian Fleming portrays the Soviets as having “everything they need to go after world domination, whereas the British Secret Intelligence Service has nothing but a handful of dedicated heroes.”
With the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961, the Cold War got more complicated—Fedyashin calls this stage “ritualization.” “The system itself becomes the enemy, and the spies are problem solvers,” he says, citing the ad hoc partnership between rival agents in Len Deighton’s Funeral in Berlin, from 1964, and the byzantine intrigues of John le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy a decade later.
By then, the animosity between the two systems was starting to fade, along with visions of Armageddon. Fleming’s 1955 novel, Moonraker, turns on Soviet efforts to use a British ballistic missile to destroy London. But by the time the movie came out in 1979, détente had eased Soviet-American relations and, under the influence of Star Wars, the intercontinental ballistic missile had become a space shuttle and the villain, Hugo Drax, was bent on creating a new master race. Soviets were nowhere to be seen.
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Fedyashin encountered America during this period. His father, a Tass news-service correspondent, moved the family to Washington in the mid-1980s. By then, Moscow and the other major Russian cities were beginning to be flooded with American films and music, so when he arrived in Alexandria, he acclimated quickly: “People were always interested in me and showed me warmth and openness.”
In tenth grade, Fedyashin entered T.C. Williams, which he describes as “a mini-UN” with students of many races and nationalities. At St. John’s College in Annapolis, where all students major in philosophy and the history of mathematics and science, he studied the original works of Homer, Shakespeare, and Marx. “It was perfect,” he says.
That background led naturally to examining his native culture through the eyes of his adopted country’s writers—and, perhaps, to see primary sources in cheap paperbacks. (Fedyashin encourages students to shop for his course materials on the internet, where he says the entire syllabus can be purchased used “for about $30.”)
If the texts are outdated and heavily symbolic, however, Fedyashin doesn’t present his course as a frivolous jaunt. The symbols are important, as they help inform public opinion and can both reflect and influence reality, a point he makes in his class and in the book he’s writing, Superpower Subconscious: The Cold War and the Spy Novel.
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The Western response to the breakup of Ukraine frames Fedyashin’s argument nicely. “We’re seeing a reversion to Cold War language because of political expediency,” he says, but Russian president Vladimir Putin’s rhetoric has much older roots. “To trace the current crisis to the Cold War is a gross oversimplification” of a relationship between Russia and Ukraine, “which goes back 1,000 years,” Fedyashin says.
The Ukraine situation is a geopolitical dispute largely between ancient neighbors, he adds, whereas the Cold War was a “Manichaean struggle between good and evil.”
It was also a global struggle. “There are no proxy wars in Africa or Latin America, and Russia doesn’t lead a bloc of satellite nations,” Fedyashin says. Nor, he notes, is nuclear war in the offing.
Instead, class discussions in the semester that just ended often turned on leaker Edward Snowden and spying by the National Security Agency. “What the students really took to was the exploration of the Cold War’s effects on American society and America’s role in the world,” Fedyashin says. “There was a lot of soul-searching,”
Many students’ favorite reading was The Ugly American, the 1958 bestseller by Eugene Burdick and William J. Lederer about the tin-eared arrogance of Americans working in a fictional stand-in for Vietnam.
“The overall message applies today,” says Rebecca Ehling, 20, an international-studies major from Los Angeles. “The book is not so much about how conflicts are actually shaping up. It’s much more about attitudes—how the Americans view outsiders and how outsiders view the Americans.”
The absence of that self-questioning is why the fictional spies of Fedyashin’s inquiries—Harry Palmer, George Smiley, and the other Cold Warriors—would have a hard time handling today’s Ukraine dispute, he says: “It’s a world that operates on different assumptions from those which justified their crusade.”
Guy Gugliotta (firstname.lastname@example.org), a former national reporter for the Washington Post, is a writer and author in New York. This article appears in the June 2014 of Washingtonian.