My mother was puzzled. As she regularly was by this strange country and haven, where they did things differently from the old country, thank God. So she asked my older brother to explain something to her. "Irving," she was saying, "I know the Army fights on the land, the Navy on the sea, and the Air Force in the air. But what do the Marines do?"
"Ma, they're shock troops," he said.
"Shock troops," he repeated. "They go in before all the others, land on the beaches, wipe out the enemy and everything else in the way, so the regular troops can follow."
Recognition dawned. "Ahh," said my mother, "Cossacks!"
Of course. The Cossacks have been called on by every Russian regime, tsar and commissar alike, whenever an enemy needed to be repelled, or another land annexed to the empire and its people exiled, or protesters at home need their heads cracked.
No film about the Russian revolution, any Russian revolution, would be complete without Cossacks on horseback breaking up a demonstration, sabers swinging, whips cracking, blood flowing. Just as every posh Russian café in Manhattan needs a Cossack in full regalia at the door. To give a joint a little class.
It was only natural that this latest Russian tsar would call out the Cossacks, and maybe the Black Hundreds, too, another feature of Russian revolutions, to quell any sign of freedom. Thuggism comes in all kind of uniforms. Or in plainclothes, as an old KGB man like Vladimir Putin would know.
Nothing was allowed to interfere with the great and glorious Olympics at Sochi, the most recent and elaborate version of the Potemkin Village, another long-standing Russian institution designed to impress the gullible. Like a Hollywood façade thrown up to hide the grimy reality behind it.
The curtain parted only on rare occasion, as when a video surfaced of a Cossack caught horsewhipping a punk-rock group that tried to crash the big show and do an anti-government number. The more Russia changes, the more repressive it stays. The cast may change, but the script remains the same.
Raised on a battlefield in eastern Poland during the First World War, my mother could never tell who would be "in control" of her little village, her shtetele Mordt, when the sun came up next morning. She'd seem 'em come, she'd seen 'em go. Germans regular and irregular, correct officers and foraging freikorps. Russians white and red, tsarist and Bolshevik. Even occasional Polish troops. No wonder she grew up illiterate in several languages.
From the glamour and glitter of Sochi, you could almost see Kiev burning as the Ukrainians tried to escape the suffocating embrace of Mother Russia. To make the point, Tsar Vladimir chose this moment to hold maneuvers just across the border. When the Russians mobilize, war tends sure to follow, as during the First World Catastrophe. Now this latest tsar has chosen to invade Crimea, occupying its airport and other key points as the usual irregulars take over its parliament buildings. And the Russian flag is raised. Why pretend?
Did anybody expect anything different? Well, maybe John Kerry, our hapless and hopeless secretary of state. Or maybe our equally out-of-it secretary of defense. No sooner had Chuck Hagel announced plans to cut the American defense budget than the Russians marched into Simferopol. It figured. We've seen this movie before, if by a different title. It used to be called Appeasement, now it's been re-released as Reset.
In the midst of the Cold War, someone once compared Soviet strategy to that of a hotel burglar: He proceeds down the corridor trying every door till he comes to an unlocked one. The comparison isn't exact. It helps if the house detective is taking a nice long snooze. Or better yet, if the house dick has made a deal with the burglar. Only in diplomacy, it's called by a more elevated name. Detente, maybe, or, these days, Reset.
It is the Europeans -- would you believe it? -- who understood what was happening from the first. And why not? They've had lots of experience with dictators and aggression. When they offered the Ukrainians a warm welcome to the European Union, complete with trade and aid, the Russians first tried to bribe Kiev with billions in rubles and, when that didn't work and the Ukrainians rebelled, throwing out their puppet president, the mask came off. And the Cossacks marched.
Ukraine wouldn't be the first fledgling republic to seek foreign support. Another experiment in freedom once sought foreign aid to assure the success of its revolution against a great empire. And drew an array of still shining names to these shores -- Lafayette and Rochambeau and de Grasse, von Steuben and Kosciuszko and Pulaski, as in Pulaski County, Arkansas.
But the Americans were separated from the British Empire by an ocean. What a blessing. Poor Ukraine, so far from the rest of Europe, so close to Russia. Now it is the latest example of what the world can expect when America retreats from it: aggression, chaos, war and rumors of war.
"It's a wonderful world," as my mother used to say. "If only they'd leave you alone. But they won't leave you alone."