“We will bury you!” Thus proclaimed then-Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev — via his translator — at the Polish Embassy in Moscow in 1956. Twelve Western diplomats walked out in protest, as did the Israeli representative.
The allyship between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, forged of mutual self-interest during World War II, had quickly deteriorated into the Cold War — which not infrequently nearly turned “hot.” (For example, the Cuban missile crisis, which nearly caused World War III, unfolded six years later.)
Immediately prior to making his “bury” comment, Khrushchev said: “About the capitalist states, it doesn’t depend on you whether or not we exist. If you don’t like us, don’t accept our invitations, and don’t invite us to come to see you. Whether you like it or not, history is on our side.” While Khrushchev failed at this prognostication, he understood the implications of winning the Cold War.
It is probably not a coincidence that there is ambiguity to his declaration. Alternative translations of “We will bury you” include “We shall outlive you” and “We shall be present at your funeral.” Such language is less belligerent and perhaps merely suggests Khrushchev’s confidence that communism would triumph over capitalism.
The oft-bombastic Russian lent credence to this notion during a speech in Yugoslavia in 1963: “I once said, ‘We will bury you,’ and I got into trouble with it. Of course, we will not bury you with a shovel. Your own working class will bury you.” (The staggering — and still growing — economic inequality in the U.S. may yet make that final sentence a reality.)
Irrespective of the most accurate translation of this infamous statement, the end to official hostilities (i.e., the fall of the Soviet Union) did not prevent the two nations from remaining hostile toward each other. Of course, expelling ambassadors and lobbing sanctions is infinitely preferable to lobbing nuclear warheads. Still, we remain a hair trigger away from international peril.
Today, Russia is (mostly) content to play to role of provocateur, antagonist and bully rather than attempt to work with Western nations to reform its struggling economy. Also, as during the Cold War, that nation fights U.S. interests via proxies such as Iran and Syria. And, as should surprise absolutely no one, our intelligence agencies have concluded that Russia tried to interfere in the 2020 election — as it successfully did in 2016.
The picture gets bleaker. While Russia can merely aspire to continue to punch above its proverbial weight class, our other key adversary, China, has realistic designs on becoming the world’s sole superpower. Its government is investing hundreds of billions of dollars in its economy, its military and its technical capabilities to achieve that end. Both nations’ aspirations are aided and abetted by America’s crumbling domestic infrastructure — and I’m not referring to our dilapidated roads and bridges.
Russia is capitalizing on our deep racial and political divides, while China is focused on displacing our role as the world’s leading economic, technical and military power. And both countries are religiously committed to exploiting holes in our technological security. Even if their efforts are not completely successful, our deepening factions put the U.S. at great risk. Great empires have fallen due to similar — and equally preventable — fissures.
To be clear, I’m not sympathetic to the argument that “the U.S. does it, too.” Especially with regard to Russia, this fight is asymmetric. Assuming that we are equally adept at hacking Russian companies, government agencies and its military, the scope and scale of our economy and military are orders of magnitude larger, and our greater sophistication means a greater impact on our government, our companies and our people.
I vividly recall watching reruns of the feel-good Cold War spoof “The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming!” as a child. (I’m certain that my children would be surprised to know that the movie was made before I was born.) The plot involves an ill-fated attempt by a Russian submarine crew to take over a fictional town in Massachusetts. Reportedly, the movie resonated among Russians nearly as much as it did among Americans.
In real life, today’s Russia is headed by a homicidal, megalomaniacal former KGB agent who shakes down his fellow billionaires to continuously enrich himself. I seriously doubt that this drama will have a Hollywood ending, especially if we don’t unite as one America.
Larry Smith is a community leader. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.