In response to the Russia-Ukraine war, rock icon Sting recently released an updated version of his 1985 song “Russians” on Instagram. Prefacing the song with words of condemnation for Putin and support for the Ukrainian people, Sting went on to say that he had “rarely sung this song in the many years since it was written, because I never thought it would be relevant again” but that “in the light of one man’s bloody and woefully misguided decision to invade a peaceful, unthreatening neighbour, the song is, once again, a plea for our common humanity." In the weeks that have followed, the song has garnered over two million views and still remains a vibrant topic of conversation on social media, especially among nostalgic Gen-Xers like myself who remember the song and the milieu in which it was written.
Appearing on Sting’s first solo album The Dream of the Blue Turtles, “Russians” was an immensely popular hit in the middle of a decade where the indomitable personalities of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Mikhail Gorbachev stoked the ongoing tensions of the Cold War. Many a musician, when they weren't’ busy denouncing South African apartheid, sang about those tensions during the 80’s. Whether it was ”Russians” or Nena’s “99 Luftballoons”, Alphaville’s “Forever Young” (which oddly enough was a favorite at 80’s high school dances), or even Iron Maiden’s “2 Minutes to Midnight” they all gave a somber voice to feeling that political tensions could at any moment break out into all-out nuclear war.
And yet, providence prevailed and the mushroom clouds of nuclear weapons remained of thing of the past. Of course the music reflected this change in mood in songs like Elton John’s “Nikita” or the West German (remember that?) band The Scorpions’ song “Winds of Change.” Furthermore, the last gasps of the Cold War were finally expressed from the other side of the Iron Curtain as the Russian band Gorky Park enjoyed the freedom to sing on MTV, “We can blow it up or we can blow it all out...get a little or get a lot, it doesn't matter we'll never stop, so wild, young and free” with their 1989 hit song “Bang.”
Today though, the Soviet Union is gone, but the same expansionist spirit of the old “Evil Empire” remains in Russia with Vladimir Putin at the helm, and thus Sting re-released his song from yesteryear. However, are Sting’s feelings about the Russia of today, commensurate with his take on the Soviet Union of the 80’s? How well has the song held up in the age of cancel culture? Let’s look at the lyrics.
“In Europe and America there's a growing feeling of hysteria. Conditioned to respond to all the threats in the rhetorical speeches of the Soviets. Mister Khrushchev said, 'We will bury you', I don't subscribe to this point of view.”
There was indeed a lot of hysteria at the time. Not since the Cuban Missile Crisis did we fear the threat of nuclear war. By the time my generation was in school, duck and cover drills were a thing of the past and the yellow and black fallout shelter signs were just part of the scenery, but the fear persisted. We saw the horrors of nuclear war (and Steve Gutenberg) on the made-for-TV movie “The Day After” (1983) and the even more depressing BBC production of “Threads” that aired on PBS. In theaters we were treated to “Testament” (1983) and the animated “When the Wind Blows” (1986) where David Bowie sang a swan song to a world that lived under the shadow of nuclear death from above. Even after the Soviet Union collapsed and the threat of war diminished somewhat, there was the fear of “suitcase nukes” that supposedly went missing from former Soviet arsenals in the late 90’s or that rogue states or terrorist groups would obtain one and detonate it in a major city.
In regards to citing Nikita Khrushchev’s famous words about burying the West from a 1956 speech, it was an odd choice since that was a throwback to the beginning of the Cold War. However, in one of those history rhymes sort of moments, Khrushchev was the one who was forced to come clean with the Soviet people about the true extent of the horrors of the Stalin regime. Thirty years later, it was Mikhail Gorbachev who dealt with shouts of “Demokratizatsiya” (democratization) as he was forced to admit to and fix the stagnant nature of the Soviet system through perestroika and glasnost. Programs that would, in the end, lead to the Soviet Union’s ultimate downfall.
“How can I save my little boy from Oppenheimer's deadly toy? There is no monopoly of common sense on either side of the political fence. We share the same biology, regardless of ideology.”
When Robert Oppenheimer first saw a nuclear explosion at the Trinity test site in New Mexico, he was shocked at the weapon’s power and supposedly quoted from the Bhagava Gita “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” A few years later, in looking back at his efforts, he admitted that “the physicists have known sin; and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose.” Truer words were never spoken, as once again fears of “Oppenheimer’s deadly toy” are being discussed.
Nonetheless, this verse proves beyond a shadow of a doubt of why you should not turn to rock stars or celebrities for your political advice. The same kind of puerile thinking behind John Lennon’s “Imagine” was present in Sting’s “Russians”, when he implied that a shared “biology” amounts to a “shared humanity.” Of course, it all depends on how he was defining humanity, but in one sense this is true, in that there are certain wants, needs, and drives that are common to all peoples in all times and places. However, that does not mean that people go about fulfilling those things in the same way. It is precisely because of differing ideologies or belief systems throughout all of history, and specifically during the Cold War, that motivated people and nations to act differently, despite being a biological human.
“There is no historical precedent to put the words in the mouth of the president. There's no such thing as a winnable war, it's a lie we don't believe anymore. Mister Reagan says 'We will protect you' I don't subscribe to this point of view.”
For someone who had once been a school teacher, Sting should’ve known that there actually was a precedent for Cold War tensions during the 1980’s: the aforementioned Cuban Missile Crisis. Granted our fears of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) were greater in the 1980’s than during the 60’s because of the advent of more powerful and more numerous nuclear weapons. And while most of us may not be comfortable with the fact that the world’s survival would come down to a geo-political game of chicken of seeing who flinches first, that is precisely what happened in 1962 when John F Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev tested each other out over the placing of nuclear arms in Cuba. Through careful negotiations that took into consideration what each side wanted, nuclear armageddon was avoided.
As for Sting’s denial of there being no such thing as a “winnable war”, well sort of. The lessons of history generally demonstrate that wars are indeed winnable, but to do so requires the will to use all available force to crush your enemy. Such resolve has not been seen since World War 2, as the world opted for a tit-for-tat or gradual escalation theory of conflict in all of the unresolved proxy hot wars around the globe during the Cold War. And yet, looking back over those years, whatever your opinion of Ronald Reagan was at the time or is now, sorry Sting but he did protect us during the 80’s. Through negotiations mixed with some heavy-handed posturing, as well as an American economy that could provide us with both a “greed is good” yuppie lifestyle, as well as a robust military that could win any conventional war. To say nothing of the threat of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) that would’ve made a nuclear war harder to win for the Soviets.
What Did Get Us Through Those Times
At long last the Cold War came to an end and on December 25th 1991, and a year after the Berlin Wall was demolished, the world got the greatest Christmas gift they could ask for when Mikhail Gorbachev resigned and the Soviet Union came to an end. And while Sting may not have liked “Mr. Reagan” (interestingly enough he also never said he disliked Gorbachev), the West’s systems of democracy and individual liberty overcame the East’s rule of collectivist tyranny. Still, Sting’s song was not without merit and the power of rock musicians like David Bowie, David Hasselhoff, and Bruce Springsteen (who all performed concerts at the Berlin Wall in the 80’s) to influence the times should not be dismissed out of hand.
What should be questioned is the facile manner in which they expressed their ideas about the Cold War. The common refrain in “Russians” was the hope that we could avoid nuclear war if only the “Russians love their children too.” The words are certainly well-meaning and are effective in pushing all the right emotional buttons, but once again are overly idealistic. For one thing, you can love your children dearly enough that you are willing to do almost anything to protect them, including going to war. In fact if I knew for a fact that a bomb was being built specifically to destroy my nation, I would feel justified in per-emptively attacking the place where the bomb was being made, even at the risk of collateral damage or a retaliatory strike. Of course, the fear of MAD made all such first-strike strategies an almost insurmountable gamble, and was in large part why we never came to nuclear blows.
This reluctance was seen in another iconic Cold War film WarGames (1983). In the opening scene, we see a U.S. Air Force nuclear missile silo operator fail to launch his missile because he cannot bear the thought of the death and destruction he is about inflict. That’s when we find out that the supposed incoming nuclear attack was only a test to see whether or not soldiers would carry out orders to launch their missiles. As it turns out, too many of them didn’t. This leads the military brass at NORAD to opt for a fully-automated defense system that will involve no human intervention. This decision sets in motion the rest of the film as a young hacker (played by Matthew Broderick) breaks into NORAD’s system to play a series of war games that appear to the military to be a real attack on the U.S.
The movie was based on a real event in 1979 when a technician at NORAD accidentally inserted a training tape simulating an attack scenario into their computers, and it was thought to be real. But in that case, it was not ideology or biology that prevented disaster but simple common sense and an instinctual reluctance to commit to a path of utter annihilation. It was people like Stanislav Petrov, a Soviet officer who in 1983 made a huge gamble that the incoming missiles he saw on his radar screens were a mistake (which they were), and took the time stop and to think about their situation, rather than mechanically following orders.
In this respect, Sting’s song was close to capturing what kept the nuclear war from happening in the 80’s, but on the whole the song has not aged so well. In the end, perhaps the best takeaway from that era, and one that certainly applies today also comes from the film WarGames. When it is discovered that the nuclear attack seen on the radar screens is really just a war game being played out, the computer program’s inventor says to just let the computer rapidly run through hundreds of first-strike scenarios. When all of them end in a mutually assured destruction, the computer gives the one line that Gen-Xers have remembered to this day, “A strange game. The only winning move is not to play."
Thus, when it comes to the current conflict in Russia and Ukraine or any other war that will come our way, let us hope that common sense and prudence prevails, rather than ideology or catchy pop tunes.