Twenty-five years ago, in early January 1990, I was in Moscow on a mission. Driven by the certainty of the simultaneous collapse of the USSR and the US (Americans are still in denial) there was the opportunity, in the words of my brilliant young partner, to “reverse the spin of the globe.”
The high point of my trip came after taking an all night train to Leningrad. I didn’t believe in reincarnation at the time (and still have doubts about it), but as soon as I entered the snow-swept city, I was sure I’d lived there before.
After a tour of the summer palaces of the czars, the cultural leaders that hosted me held a dinner. It followed a memorable, blow-by-blow description in the empty palace at dusk where Rasputin was murdered just before the Revolution. As everyone knows, Russians love to make toasts with their vodka, and I was asked to make the first one.
With the youthful confidence that took me to the Soviet Union alone in the middle of winter, I said, “This city will be St. Petersburg again within the year.” A few looked at me as if I was Rasputin himself, but most wondered if it could be true. Eleven months later, the city where Vladimir Putin was born changed its name back to its namesake, Peter the Great, with all that it implied about the end of one era and the beginning of another.
The intent of my Silicon Valley partners and I was to pour the foundation for an ecologically and ethically sound market in Russia. Growing up in Michigan when winter was winter, my strongly anti-communist mother had often said, “When the Russians finally throw off the chains of communism, we Americans will be there to help them build a democracy and a market.”
How absurd it all now sounds. But how close we may have come. Things could have gone a different way.
Hosting my Russian partner (who had too much power for my comfort) in California as he had hosted me in Russia, we had contracts on the table with major corporations. The money was secondary however; providing a true alternative and doing things a different way was the primary goal.
Things were moving fast, but at the moment of truth, the key person in Russia, my interpreter, a former head of the young people’s (under 40) communist party and a Muscovite woman from St. Petersburg that I’d fallen in love with, wrote with a nyet to the vision and to me. I knew it was over, but followed through. She now teaches at Columbia, confirmed in her bitter self-fulfilling prophecy.
I certainly didn’t see myself engaged in a work of prophecy, but I learned a lot about its true meaning in my splendid failure at that time.
Prophecy is not an Old Testament trope that does not apply to our times. It’s a higher level of vision, rooted in the present world, which applies to all times. The saying, “Where there is no vision, the people perish” is a statement about prophecy, not personal or national goals.
Prophecy is not prediction. Prophecy is what you do to prepare for the aftermath of a foreseen inevitability.
There are junctures along the tracks of the runaway freight train that is human history when not even God can prevent a crash. Of course, I’m being metaphorical, since there is no separate entity that intervenes in human affairs. ‘Divine intervention’ can only come through living human beings.
The point is that genuine prophecies have a foreseen collapse at their core, which drives a responsibility to act before the event occurs, so that a new course can be taken after it does.
Is such an event inevitable in 2015, as it was over a generation ago, when the USSR and the US collapsed?
Russia has plunged into a full-scale economic crisis, the result of a perfect storm of sharply reduced oil prices, steep cuts in state revenues making the national budget untenable, and the impact of American and European sanctions.
What happens when Putin, to save himself, ratchets up the confrontation with the West to gin up Russian nationalism, which is already disturbingly high?
Russia is not Iran, and gloating over its demise, as pundits like Thomas Friedman are doing, is a mirror image of the nationalistic stupidity of the smart people supporting Putin. Especially when, from a Russian perspective, the drumbeat of American triumphalism and exceptionalism has been reverberating in their ears from just beyond their borders for over 20 years.
Given the recent release of the devastating report on torture during the Bush-Cheney Administration, and that people like Dick Cheney are still loose canons rolling around the deck, rather than sanctioned as they should have been, America has nothing to gloat about.
Indeed, America is a bastion of conformity and infirmity. The United States is one big attack by Islamic terrorists away from authoritarianism. On Christmas day, Barack Obama confirmed that he’s a placeholder for totalitarianism when he said, “The greatest Christmas present we have is the finest military the world has ever known.” Right, Jesus couldn’t have said it better himself.
The blow that knocks the last rotten pillars out from under the crumbling world order may not come this year, but if there is no real movement this coming year, if the muddling through ‘leadership’ of the Obama Administration continues through 2015, it will be too late for our age.
From climate change to nuclear proliferation, from gross economic disparity to the spreading of the self-fulfilling prophecy of a ‘global war on terror,’ there is no time, but there is still a little space.
As much as we are overwhelmed by the scale of the multi-faceted human crisis, the individual matters more than at any point in human history. Look within and learn the art of undivided observation, and question and awaken shared insight with others.
As bleak and black as things appear, and are, when we look beyond our self-centered little worlds, great things can still happen, and just may in the new year.