There’s something very familiar, and very scary, about the tone of the news at the moment.
It took me a while to pin it down, but then I remembered where I’d first heard these worries about ‘Russian expansionism’, allegations of ‘American hegemony’, and concerns about the number of nuclear weapons the US and Russia have chosen to point at each other. I’m a boy of the 1980s, and grew up in England under the shadow of the Soviet nuclear threat. Reading the news recently, I became concerned that these threats have re-emerged, and may in fact present greater dangers than during that strange, paranoid, unpredictable decade of my childhood.
I’m given a lot of latitude in the classroom, and so if there’s a topic which is exercising or bothering me, I tend to bring it to my students and use the subject as an opportunity for language practice. Naturally, politics and economics play a major role, so I choose the topics carefully to make sure I won’t be dragging anyone out of their depth, or into potentially uncomfortable topic areas. I have Russian students, but I didn’t see this as a barrier to discussing the US-Russian relationship; in fact, their presence made the class very vibrant and interesting, and certainly a memorable one for their classmates.
7 Steps of an ESL Class on ‘Cold War 2.0’
Initial Brainstorms: Setting the Scene
There’s no doubt that the superpower relationship between the US and Soviet Union (more recently named the Commonwealth of Independent States, and then the Russian Federation) defined late twentieth-century political discourse. My students were generally aware of the ‘Cold War’ and could identify the main political differences between the two sides. I constructed a simple chart on the board to identify these areas of disagreement, and asked for an overview of this critical superpower relationship. I record all of my classes, though with everyone calling out at once, this one was tricky to transcribe. Here’s how it went:
Teacher: I need the words for describing the politics of each side. Help me out? Student 1: Capitalism, right? Student 2: Capitalism and Communism Student 3: Opposites! Student 4: Left and right. Very different. Teacher: Awesome, thanks. So, basically, what does a capitalist believe? Student 3: Free business, free trade. Student 4: Open markets and not too much rules. Student 1: Anyone can do business, anywhere. Teacher: Those are the basics, sure. And what about communism? Student 5: Authoritarian? Teacher: Say more about that [makes a ‘keep going’ gesture] Student 5: They don’t let people have their freedoms. Very control. Teacher: And is that a part of communism? Students: [Silence] Teacher: Hello? [Looking around] Did you all leave, suddenly? Students: [Laughing] Student 3: Maybe not. But it’s very common. North Korea, Cuba and others. Teacher: What about economics in communism? Who owns everything? Students: The country / The nation / State-owned / The people Teacher: And there’s the biggest difference, right? The ownership of the means of production [writes this on the board]. OK, so why would these two ideologies create such a violent division between the US and Russia? Student 1: It’s about beliefs, right? Student 2: And about economics. They think one is right, one is wrong. Student 3: And their own way is the best way. The only way.
I’ve made this point before on BusyTeacher, but there’s a great strength in asking my students for this background information rather than feeding it in myself. In the latter case, I’d have risked lecturing (something I work hard to avoid), and in any event, my students knew much of this material already; they simply needed a reason to express it, and some help to discover the appropriate vocabulary:
Ideology, capitalist, communist, cold war, superpowers.
Rivalry, competition, world stage, arms race, space race
Nuclear weapons, mutually assured destruction, arms treaties, proliferation
Proxy wars, intervention, advisors, military assistance, intelligence
Cyber warfare, meddling, interference, fraud, hacking, fake news
Getting into the Detail
Relationships of this scope don’t come out of nowhere. We traced the US-Russian connection right the way back to the First World War (1914-18) and the terribly violent follow-on conflict, the Russian Civil War (1917-22). Many of my students were unaware of this very messy stretch of Russian history, where the revolutionary Bolsheviks took power after deposing (and then executing) Tsar Nicolas II and the rest of the Romanov family. Forming the ‘Red Army’ from demobilized soldiers, farmers and workers, Trotsky and Lenin fought off the ‘White Army’ consisting of anti-Bolshevik forces, liberals, monarchists, and troops from several western countries, including the US. The conflict took at least five years to be brought to a conclusion; this was a time of vicious fighting throughout Russia, especially in Siberia and Ukraine. Eventually, the ‘Reds’ won the day, the foreign armies left, and the communist government consolidated their control over the whole Russian landmass.
I asked my students to guess how the new Soviet Union related to other world powers, and they correctly assumed that the USSR would have been isolated from international affairs; many countries even refused to recognize its government until the 1930s, and diplomatic relations were badly strained by the huge ideological gulf that existed between the Soviets and the west. This spawned mistrust and suspicion, never more so than when Stalin signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact in 1939; this gave Germany a free hand in Europe and divided the administration of Poland between the Reich and the Soviet Union. American diplomats were aghast, fearing a military union of the two, but these fears were set aside when Hitler tore up the agreement and invaded Russia in 1941.
One might expect that the US and Russia patched up their differences in order to focus on their common enemy: Nazism. But deep mistrust continued, despite generous American lend-lease aid to the Russians. The high-level conferences between Hitler, Stalin and Roosevelt (later Truman) essentially divided Europe into ‘spheres of influence’, though none on the allied side suspected that Stalin would subject eastern Europe to a generation of brutal repression, political interference, suspended elections and the machinations of a large secret police apparatus.
The Arms Race
As I mentioned, I grew up in the Cold War, so for me it was a relief, in 1991, to find that those nuclear tensions were now in the rear-view mirror. During the period 1947-1991, however, the two superpowers attempted to economically exhaust each other by proposing or fielding yet more bold and expensive weapons systems.
The zenith of this philosophy came under President Reagan, who proposed the Strategic Defense Initiative, commonly known as Star Wars. This fanciful and preposterously expensive scheme would have used the new space shuttle to ferry hundreds of laser canon into space, along with dozens of mirrors to direct and amplify their power. In theory, orbiting lasers could zap incoming Russian ICBMs before they reached their targets.
We looked at this briefly, and it didn’t take my students long to recognize that Star Wars was a massive ‘boondoggle’ which achieved almost nothing. One student found and repeated the most common criticism of the program: at the 17,500 mph required to stay in orbit, a billion dollar mirror could be wrecked by a collision with a five-cent nail.
We took stock of the world’s current inventory of nuclear weapons. Around half of my students hadn’t realized that the UK, France and China have their own nuclear deterrent, and that Israel almost certainly has a functioning nuclear stockpile. I asked my students whether these numbers were reasonable, but they didn’t see the point of the question. Why, one asked, would a nation state seek the power to destroy all of mankind many times over? The responsibilities and dangers of such a strong strategic position were obvious; one student found it remarkable that the nuclear powers have so far avoided an A-bomb accident, or unintended launch, despite some near-misses.
We had some extra time, so I assigned a quick, ten-minute discussion on the relative merits of nuclear weapons. This produced some good thoughts, and I found that my students are strongly anti-nuclear, and don’t see the sense in deterrence if it means everyone has the means to commit mass murder, anywhere on the planet.
In the second class, which focused on research and presentations, I assigned my students topics from recent news stories about the Russia-US relationship. These obviously change on a weekly basis as events overtake our lesson plans, so I like to keep informed and take notes on the week’s news, choosing elements which might make good classes or discussions.
We analyzed the Russian role in Syria, and we carefully navigated a discussion of this policy with our Russian students. Quite often, they’re caught between a distaste for Putin, and a desire to see Russia take a more prominent position in world affairs. Others were more pro-Putin, and saw the Syria intervention as a necessary and reasonable reaction to this tragic quagmire. These variations in viewpoint seem to depend on where and how the student was educated, and the opinions (and often, importantly, the vocations) of their parents.
I had my class look at recent Russian military deployments, covert operations (such as the murder of former spy Alexander Litvinenko using the poisonous, radioactive isotope polonium-210) and attempted coups (including what seems to have been a failed, Russian-backed coup attempt in Montenegro). We found, in total, that Russia is trying to find a new place in the world, but is economically hamstrung by sanctions and an under-resourced technology sector.
Trump and Putin
I sensed immediately that this was a topic where, if I waited a week and simply kept an eye on the news, my notebook would be overflowing with potential class content, so I took things slowly. As I write, The investigation into links between Trump administration officials and the Russian intelligence services is just getting started, so I’ll be revisiting this with my students. For the moment, we concluded that there was identifiable ‘method, motive and opportunity’ for Trump officials to collude with the Russians. My students found it entirely believable that Trump’s team might offer to scrap sanctions on Russia (which, let’s not forget, chiefly affect super-rich oligarchs) in exchange for secret and unofficial help in winning the election. This was an opportunity for me to remind my students not to jump to conclusions, though I had to admit that the case against Trump’s people is troubling on a number of levelels.
A Rolling Discussion
This topic isn’t going to go away, and I play to revisit US-Russian relations at various points throughout the academic year. Review is always useful, but it’s also key for my students to read widely, discuss these topics with people from other backgrounds, and have their views challenged by teachers and classmates. In the same way as the North Korea people and government are very different things, with different aims in life, we found that the Russian people can’t be blithely lumped in with their government; there is an important strand of dissent against Putin, one which has been successfully quelled thus far. I reminded my students that governments very often do things which they might claim represent the will of their people, only to find that the people object far more strongly than anticipated.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of the US-Russia relationship, especially with two hardliners in charge and a huge amount of global influence seemingly up for grabs.
There will be scary moments of tension, perhaps even conflict, tempered by diplomatic attempts to secure a better relationship. This is how things worked during the Cold War, and the more I read and study this topic with my students, the more it seems we’re heading for a repeat of that strange, hair-trigger era of spies and suspicion. Understanding Russia’s aims is critical to gaining a sense of where this relationship is heading, and spending time on this topic with your students is the ideal method of preparing them for a complex and unpredictable century.