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From Seventeen Minutes to 100 Seconds - Julie Whitehead

Remember Christmas 1991?

I was twenty-one years old when the news came on CNN that Mikhail Gorbachev had resigned as head of the USSR, and the end of the Cold War brought new hope to the world, which had labored under the threat of nuclear annihilation for fifty years since the end of World War II and the start of the nuclear arms race.

While I had cheered in my college dormitory room while watching the Berlin Wall be attacked by hundreds of Berliners armed with hammers, knives, and fists in November 1989, I watched Boris Yeltsin, the former mayor of Moscow. stand on a tank and face down the Kremlin in August 1991 with tears streaming down my face thinking, “I am about to watch him die.”

History unfolded at a rapid pace, and Gorbachev’s resignation sealed the doom of the USSR and the emergence of the Commonwealth of Independent States, which reincarnated itself later as the Russian Federation. Independence came to Poland, Belarus, Latvia, Estonia—the list of the breakaway republics marched on, led by the drumbeat of freedom. We cheered the coming of peace in our time. We thought the lesson of World War II—never again—had finally been learned. The doomsday clock, a measure of how close the planet was to nuclear annihilation, was set back to seventeen minutes until midnight. We thought we had won the Cold War.

How naïve of us.

In 1999, when Yeltsin resigned his final term as president of the Russian republic, on his way out the door, he appointed a former intelligence officer, Vladmir Putin, to be acting president.

And now we see that you may can take the man out of the KGB, but you can’t take the KGB out of the man.

With nuclear weapons at his disposal, Putin clearly dreams of Russia Resurgent and is methodically re-establishing his dominance over his neighbors, aiding and abetting repressive regimes around the world, and generally acting like the last decade of the twentieth century never happened.

My generation has been accused of everything from laziness and apathy to cynicism and nihilism, but I don’t even think the most jaded among Generation X thought that we would be faced with a doomsday clock set at closing in closer to midnight than even during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The past few years brought uncertainty on a global scale—but that was to be expected when faced with a pandemic the likes we had not seen for over one hundred years. Very few people who are alive now still remember the Spanish Flu.

But World War II? We all had grandfathers that fought in Europe’s last great conflict. If we remember nothing else about school, we remember learning that war and the horror it unleashed. And wondered at the men who survived it, came home to build our nation into what we know it today, and grandfathered us into this world.

(How many of our grandfathers, if they were alive then, would have shaken their heads at our youthful optimism in 1991 that we had seen “the end of history”? Didn’t we win the Cold War? Didn’t we?)

We cheer on Ukraine’s Zelensky, the man who makes us think that maybe Gen X can rise to the occasion if, God forbid, we see the movie “Red Dawn” come to life in front of our weary, disillusioned eyes. A TV actor and comedian turned lawyer and politician who came to power in Russia’s shadow in 2019, Zelensky has become an American hero with his fiery rhetoric and consummate political skills on display as he tweets furiously from Kyiv where he has reportedly survived three assassination attempts by Russian military and paramilitary forces. We pass memes around on Twitter and Facebook of his courage, and clips of his spoof of a Ukrainian boy band climb to millions of views on YouTube.

What else can we do?

Uncertainty is the hallmark of our time. Conviction that God even exists has fallen to a new low of sixty-four percent of Americans. Thrown off kilter by the instability of the world order that marked the term of the first Generation X president, Barack Obama, America wanted the good old days back so badly it elected another Boomer, Donald Trump. (That didn’t work out so well, in case you’re still wondering.)

So we tried to go back for Obama 2.0—by electing yet another Boomer, Joe Biden. Biden experienced a State of the Union bounce to the tune of a forty-seven percent approval rating—meaning that not even all of those who elected him think he’s doing a good job. And so America is poised to return the other party to power in Congress—with the same results as always: gridlock and yet another set of continuing resolutions to keep the government open for business.

My point is: the global situation under the Cold War was very, very bad—but at least you knew where you stood. Ever since that collapsed, America has been an empire looking for its meaning, its purpose, its reason for going on. No longer was danger centered in one enemy; we had a multiplicity of them, from Khadafy in Libya who had survived Carter, Reagan, Bush I, and Clinton to Osama bin Laden to the ISIS leader al-Baghdadi in Iraq. Russia was considered a much lesser power player in a world split into jihadists and their sympathizers and the rest of us. We even looked the other way when Russia invaded the breakaway republic of Chechnya for a second time--because Putin was rooting out jihadists.

(In retrospect, a fatal miscalculation.)

We shudder at the thought of a protracted war in Europe. But we get downright incoherent at the thought of Putin using his still-formidable nuclear arsenal on us. The principle of mutually assured destruction no longer works when faced with someone who doesn’t remember what havoc a nuclear bomb can wreak on a population (instant incineration, radiation sickness) or what the aftereffects can do to the entire world, poisoning the planet and everyone on it. How can we survive besides watching helplessly as Russia grinds Ukraine down to rubble?

Maybe I really am naïve. Maybe I think that the world can be saved from this craziness by some decisive action unknown to us at this time. But history is not on our side. And America, along with the rest of the world, cannot afford to make the wrong choice. Not with the clock ticking down to the end of the world.


Julie Whitehead lives and writes from Mississippi. A reporter for the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, she writes on topics concerning mental health, mental health education, and mental health advocacy. Julie was diagnosed with bipolar I disorder in her midthirties in 2006. She blogs about her experiences and daily life with bipolar at the site Day by Day. She has a bachelor’s degree in communication, with a journalism emphasis, and a master’s degree in English, both from Mississippi State University. In August 2021, she completed her MFA in creative nonfiction from Mississippi University for Women. Julie can be found on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram. This essay is a blog post, nonfiction

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