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Clock Watching

The nuclear threat lingers still

Joyce Wayne

The devices outgrew us. We couldn’t control them. I know; I helped build them.
— On the Beach (1959)

How, they ask, could I, being who I now am and understanding what I now understand, ever have said and done the things I am describing?
 — Tony Judt

They became more common after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: stories about Armageddon. But even as they appeared in the New York Times or the Washington Post, on CNN or CBC Radio, reports of Russia’s nuclear arsenal seldom made the front pages or led off the nightly broadcasts. Instead, prospects of atomic annihilation have hovered at the fringes of our consciousness, always discussed below the fold. A Third World War may be lurking, but let’s try not to think about it.

On the first day of the invasion, February 24, 2022, the Russian military aimed its artillery at strategic targets rather than at civilians. That changed within the week, after Vladimir Putin realized Ukrainians were fighting back more heroically than he could have imagined. An entire nation bent on retaining its sovereignty rose up against the most powerful army in Europe — an army with the largest nuclear arsenal on the planet.

The Doomsday Clock is once again alarmingly close to midnight.


“Violence has nothing to cover itself with but lies,” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once said, “and lies can only persist through violence.” On the eighth night of the war, the Russian military tried to keep Putin’s lies alive a while longer by attacking the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, in southeastern Ukraine. With six Soviet-era light-water reactors, it is the largest nuclear power plant on the continent. Even as a fire broke out less than 500 metres from one of its pressurized cores, soldiers continued their shelling, aiming to shut down electricity across the country. Under such conditions, one or more of Zaporizhzhia’s reactors could have exploded, sending into the air a barrage of radioactive particles that, Ukraine’s foreign minister warned, would cause a disaster ten times worse than that of Chernobyl.

“Fighting around the nuclear plant could have devastating consequences,” the Globe and Mail ’s Mark MacKinnon and Nathan VanderKlippe reported in early March 2022. Six months later, when MacKinnon wrote that “the spectre of nuclear disaster” remained “particularly poignant,” coverage of the ongoing threat had become spotty. Our attentions were divided. It was if Armageddon no longer registered as news. Rather than take the nuclear threat seriously, we have continued to fixate on Donald Trump — his stash of classified documents at Mar-a-Lago, his latest court case, his 2024 presidential bid. We’ve focused on reports of Chinese interference in our politics, on the price of groceries, on the election in Alberta. The brutal war in Ukraine? Not even CNN has consistently sent its top reporters to the blood-soaked battlefields or the bombed-out apartment buildings.

In early 2023, when many of us were no longer looking, Moscow accused Ukraine of launching a spate of drone strikes against infrastructure deep inside Russia, as far as the Kremlin itself. Authorities temporarily closed the airspace over St. Petersburg and banned incoming flights. By then, Putin had accused the United States and its NATO allies of overreaching, even as he put his nuclear forces on high alert. When Politico asked Fiona Hill, a former senior director for Europe and Russia at the U.S. National Security Council, if the Russian president might go beyond aggressive posturing, she replied:

The thing about Putin is, if he has an instrument, he wants to use it. . . . He’s already used a nuclear weapon in some respects. Russian operatives poisoned Alexander Litvinenko with radioactive polonium and turned him into a human dirty bomb and polonium was spread all around London at every spot that poor man visited.

By the time Politico published Hill’s remarks, the Kremlin had announced its suspension of New START — the one remaining nuclear arms treaty with Washington. Decades of negotiations had fallen victim to a lone individual’s czarist vision and, perhaps, his actual desire to use his most dangerous tool.

In mid-March, a Russian warplane collided with a U.S. drone over the Black Sea. Something like this was bound to happen, I said to myself. Three days later, the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Putin, now wanted for alleged war crimes: kidnapping Ukrainian children for either forced adoptions or so-called re-education in Russia. Shortly after that, Putin told the state broadcaster Russia 1 of his plans to station tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, right on NATO’s doorstep. (Tactical nuclear weapons may sound more precise, less foreboding than strategic nuclear weapons, yet they still yield as much as fifty kilotons of explosive power. Little Boy, which the United States dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, in 1945, had a blast yield of fifteen kilotons. Fat Man, dropped on Nagasaki, packed twenty-one.)

Discussions of Putin’s mental stability abound, with some arguing that the seventy-year-old has lost his mind, others that he knows precisely what he is doing. If he does ultimately spiral out of control and chooses to launch a nuclear warhead, I worry that we’ll be toast, as we used to say of potential annihilation in the 1960s.

I was a child back then, and the downing of that American drone in March — the Pentagon released a short video of an Su-27 fighter spraying the MQ-9 Reaper with jet fuel, before clipping its propeller — brought me right back to memories of Soviet missiles, armed with nuclear warheads, found in Cuba in October 1962. In contrast to how we greet such events today, the threat of all-out war really did upset daily life. It certainly filled my eleven-year-old self with fear.

These days, of course, there are no public service announcements explaining how to hide under your school desk or sequester in your backyard bomb shelter (stocked with Spam, powdered milk, water, and iodine pills, as well as a shortwave radio, Monopoly for the kids, and Scrabble for the adults). There are no air-raid siren tests on Saturday afternoons. There is nothing to remind us of worst-case scenarios. Even if we do read the below-the-fold articles about Zaporizhzhia with our coffee in the morning, we sail through our afternoons with relative equanimity. Or, at least, I did, until the gravity of the situation in Europe overcame my desire to look the other way — and forced me to look back.

“It had haunted my world,” the political scientist Reg Whitaker recently wrote of the threat of Soviet missiles, “so much so that I devoted a great deal of my scholarly career to researching and writing about the Cold War, trying to unravel its multifaceted impact on post-1945 politics and culture.” I’ve been thinking about the impact too, particularly how the possibility of Armageddon fuelled an adolescent fantasy of Marxist-minded nations cleansed of inequality, injustice, racism, and misogyny. While I certainly remain a champion of equality and justice and a world free of hate, that hopeful dream of mine unravelled, to use Whitaker’s phrasing, over several decades — to the point that I can hardly imagine believing any of it was possible.

Perhaps it was the Cuban Missile Crisis — those thirteen days in October 1962 — that began to turn many baby boomers like me into socialists and rebels who sought ways to prevent a looming Third World War. We thought we could find them in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century ideologies. We convinced ourselves that Marxism could overcome both capitalist oppression and Western warmongering. If we could end the standoff between the Soviets and the Americans, we’d pave the way to peace. In other words, socialism was how we soothed our overactive imaginations and our recurring nightmares of the bomb.

As my young mind understood it, Nikita Khrushchev saved the world from nuclear destruction, not John F. Kennedy sitting in the Oval Office. After those two long weeks, the Soviet premier withdrew, agreeing to take his weapons off Cuban soil. What did I know of the hare-brained scheme that he had endorsed earlier that year? Planting ballistic missiles so close to Florida was bound to set off alarm bells in the United States. “There would be no way to hide the weapons from the superpower 90 miles to the north,” Sergey Radchenko and Vladislav Zubok recently wrote in Foreign Affairs. Indeed, newly released top-secret documents reveal that there simply wasn’t enough foliage to camouflage the installations. “The palm tree fiasco was just one of many blunders the Soviets made throughout the summer and fall of 1962.”

At the time, I felt a great sense of responsibility. If Khrushchev had averted a world war, was it not incumbent upon me and my generation to replace the Western hawks who had brought us to the brink? To ensure that another doomsday scenario did not develop under our watch?

If we thought we could do better than our Depression-scarred parents then, we became even more convinced after the assassination of John F. Kennedy a year later, on November 22, 1963. Next came the assassinations of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert Kennedy. Everything about capitalist society seemed evil, wrong-headed, violently manipulative, and out of control. The older generation had failed. Those who had attempted to make things better had been murdered.

As I have written in these pages before, my childhood was complicated by the fact that I was a red diaper baby. My father, Harry Vine, had been a big shot in the Communist Party in Montreal, from the 1930s until 1945, when the Russian cipher clerk Igor Gouzenko blew the whistle on Fred Rose, a Communist member of Parliament, and on a ring of spies run out of the Soviet Embassy in Ottawa. Although my father was not called before the royal commission that was set up after those revelations, the episode changed his life and, eventually, mine.

Throughout the 1950s, perennial topics at our family dinner table were the House Committee on Un-American Activities, trying to root out Communism, and Joseph McCarthy’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations in the U.S. Senate. While my father detested them both, he approved of Andrei Gromyko and the speeches he gave at the United Nations as the Soviet Union’s permanent representative. Gromyko was born in what is now Belarus, not far from Nesvicz, the shtetl where my father was raised. Roughly the same age, they shared a common history and an understanding of oppression.

Which side am I on, I sometimes wondered. North America’s, with its comic book caricatures of Soviet leaders and diplomats? Or my family’s, with my father’s thick accent, political beliefs, and classic fedoras? Then came the surprise reappearance of some Russian relatives — those who had remained in the Soviet Union and survived the Holocaust.

In 1921, my father left Nesvicz, near the undulating Polish-Soviet border. Some members of his family followed, but others remained. After the village fell into German hands in 1941, all communication with his overseas family stopped. My father assumed they had perished during the Nazi occupation — until the summer of 1962, when a Jewish relief agency discovered that my aunt Dvora and her three children were living in the Soviet Union. Even as the Cuban Missile Crisis unfolded on our television, onion-skin letters began to arrive from behind the Iron Curtain.

Increasingly intrigued by all things Russia and increasingly disenchanted with the West, I read everything I could about the February Revolution of 1917 and its legacy. By the time I was a teenager, I was writing essays about the brilliance of Marxism and the unfairness of the capitalist class, which controlled the means of production. The United States was rife with murders and riots, its government waging an imperialist war in Vietnam. The Soviet Union, as I understood it, did not discriminate between men and women, did not relegate workers to impoverished lives. From my perspective, it seemed saner, more caring than North American society.

That sense was only reinforced by the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Like so many my age, I watched from afar as the party nominated the bland Hubert Humphrey for president and demonstrators were attacked outside. “During and following the convention,” Heather Henderson recently wrote in When the News Broke: Chicago 1968 and the Polarizing of America, “viewers across America decried TV coverage as slanted against the Chicago police, who — judging by all photographic evidence and firsthand accounts — had viciously teargassed and beaten protestors.” But millions of others — students, African Americans, draft dodgers, even hippies — saw something entirely other than slanted coverage. We saw unwarranted violence. It was yet one more reason to embrace a socialist ideology.

Whether as part of the peace movement, the student movement, or any of the other tiny splinter groups that made up the left, many of my generation searched for answers to a myriad of problems in the writings of Marx and Lenin. We saw romance in Mao’s 9,000-kilometre Long March. We even looked to the Red Army’s scorched-earth strategy. Perhaps insurrection, aided by the Soviets, would be dangerous. But it would also be exciting — like speeding down a dark highway on a motorcycle without a helmet. Politically, we would rub an older generation’s nose in the detritus of dysfunction they had left us. (Young culture warriors of today remind me of my fellow rebels back then, righteously drawing thick lines between themselves and past ideas, both left and right.)

As I found my identity in the left, the Soviet Union’s nuclear stockpile grew and grew, from 1,600 weapons in 1960 to 6,100 five years later. By 1975, that number had reached 19,000 — on its way to far surpassing the American stockpile, which the Pentagon had already begun to shrink. Six decades after the Cuban Missile Crisis, with a president who views NATO as an insidious totalitarian project, the Kremlin has a larger nuclear arsenal at its disposal than it did when a fleet of Soviet ships headed toward Fidel Castro’s revolutionary island.

“The moral dilemma of Marxist practice,” the historian Tony Judt wrote, was at the centre of “the Western intellectual agenda.” But at least in Western Europe, many intellectuals criticized the flagrant inhumanity of the Soviet bloc, with its dictatorial governments, relentless propaganda, overbearing security agencies, political trials, gulags, and gross inequality between party members and the general public. North American leftists like me tended to ignore those aspects while we idolized the proletariat. If we were aware of such books as The God That Failed — with essays by European and American thinkers who were disillusioned with Communism by 1949 — we ignored them. (Personally, I knew of Arthur Koestler’s classic Darkness at Noon, an allegory of the Stalinist purges, but I didn’t muster the courage to actually read it until this century.) Shortly before she died, Susan Sontag wrote, “Those decades of turning a blind eye to what went on in Communist regimes, specifically the conviction that to criticize the Soviet Union was to give aid and comfort to fascists and warmongers, seem almost incomprehensible now.” That was nearly twenty years ago, and for me the incomprehensibility has only grown.

Long before my experiment with life on the left, my mother took me to downtown Windsor, Ontario, to see On the Beach, based on the 1957 post-apocalyptic novel by Nevil Shute. Directed by Stanley Kramer, the movie boasts an ensemble cast: Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire, and Anthony Perkins. It was the first film to have a global premiere, with screenings around the world all on the same day. Even in Antarctica. Even Moscow.

I was just eight years old, and I’ll never know if my mother intended to warn me about something, to frighten me, or maybe just to expose me to “the most important motion picture ever produced,” as critics were calling it. But the effect of watching Australians prepare for annihilation rearranged my psyche. I can still hear Astaire’s character saying, “We’re all doomed, you know. The whole silly, drunken, pathetic lot of us.” I can still see those scenes of ghostly offices and empty streets. They sent my mind spinning, made it difficult to fall asleep — primed me, in a way, for the Cuban Missile Crisis that would soon come.

I spent years in a constant state of alert, but then the idea of a nuclear winter somehow faded from my waking consciousness, even as the Doomsday Clock would periodically tick closer and closer to midnight. Perhaps it was because stories about the possibility of nuclear Armageddon eventually slipped from the front page, as they are doing now.

Today I spend much of my time reading the greats of Russian and Soviet literature: Fyodor Dostoevsky, Isaac Babel, Victor Serge, Yury Trifonov, and Svetlana Alexievich. Their books help me understand why I misjudged the message of the extreme left, with its roots in the Russian Revolution, its impracticality and impetuousness, its outlandish snobbery and smugness that now leave me speechless. Who but the pampered postwar children of the global North could participate in a politics that threatened to tear down liberal democracy, only to replace it with a dictatorial leader and his central committee?

More than a year into their fight, the people of Ukraine are not ready to concede to totalitarianism or to Russian imperial orthodoxy. I envision Putin, the former KGB agent, sitting alone at the head of his mammoth boardroom table, enveloped in the paranoia and self-delusion of his insatiable hunger for power. To what lengths will he go to control more people, more capital, and more land? Does the Third World War once again loom “on the horizon with nuclear fires,” as Putin’s Belarusian buddy Alexander Lukashenko recently told his country’s political elite?

The Doomsday Clock now stands at ninety seconds to midnight — the closest to global catastrophe we’ve ever come, according to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. As the world inches ever closer to nuclear disaster — to a weapon being launched or to a power plant melting down amid the crossfire — we must find a way out of this war and a path to a solemn appreciation of democratic principles that free people rather than enslave them. We must not forget the danger we all face.

Joyce Wayne was included in Best Canadian Essays 2021 for “All the Kremlin’s Men.”

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