Charles Cole fully believes in the idea that history repeats itself, especially in the sense of Russian government and current leadership. Cole experienced Russian leadership while the country still functioned under the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and he wrote a book on his experiences there as both a travel log from his 1972 trip and a bird’s eye view of Russian/American relations of past and present.
“Yes, it’s a travel log, but what it really is is a warning from history,” Cole said. “Because as old (George) Santayana said, ‘Those that don’t learn from that are going to risk repeating it,’ and that would be a shame.”
Cole writes in the preface of his book, “In Russian Wonderland,” that he first became interested in foreign language as a ninth-grader in 1960. After a short stint in college, Cole realized he needed to experience the world a bit more before he made a decision on what he wanted to be and do in life.
“I had no more business being in college at the age of 17 then I had working at NASA,” Cole said.
Cole joined the U.S. Army for four years. In several aptitude tests, Cole scored extremely high in language categories, so Army leadership sent him to the Defense Language Institute. He learned the Russian language from native Russians who had “escaped” from the communist-governed country.
Cole knew both Russian and German, so he worked at a listening post a quarter-mile from the East-Germany border monitoring Soviet radio communications for two years.
Cole later returned to college and earned Russian and German degrees in two years. His Russian professor clued him into an exhibit through the former U.S. Information Agency, in which the government sent groups behind the Iron Curtain once a year in exchange for high-end science students to be sent to America for schooling. Cole discovered there were a few more open positions, so the agency accepted him and sent he and 23 other Americans behind the Iron Curtain for six months.
“They put up with us,” Cole said. “We were a thorn in their side and they did not enjoy having 24 Russian-speaking young Americans (around) because at those exhibits we were able to… face-to-face, in Russian, speak directly to Soviet citizens, and that to them was [outrageous].”
In the book, Cole details an experience when a man began speaking dynamically at one of the exhibits and was quickly surrounded and removed by Soviet government officials. Cole explained the audiences at exhibits, which displayed simple American products like cars and appliances, were genuinely curious about the exhibits but were careful in asking questions for fear of negative governmental repercussions.
Cole believes some USSR citizens did not even realize the closed world they lived in because that was all they knew.
Cole wrote the book partially with the help of letters he had written to his parents during his time in the USSR. He also recollected aspects of the trip through old slides he and his wife discovered while cleaning.
Cole believes his 50-year-old experience remains relevant in understanding how Russian government currently runs. he said Vladimir Putin was raised in the time of the communist party’s control and “is who he was trained to be” by Soviet leadership.
After its 2016 elections, the United States was inundated with news about Russia’s interference with both races and voting polls.
“I told my wife that’s a 100-year-old story,” Cole said. “This is definitely a dog-bites-man story; there’s nothing new here.”
In a recent letter to the editor, Cole wrote about the continued relevance today of his book and USSR history.
“My reply is that if one wants to understand what Putin and his minions are all about, one must look to the society which produced them — the Soviet Union,” Cole wrote. “Apparently the Russian leopards have not changed their spots, nor are they likely to do so anytime soon.”
The benefit of Cole’s book in comparison to a dense textbook, according to some reader reviews, is that his book reads more like a conversation.
“Don’t be fooled by the unassuming appearance of this book: Charles Cole has given the world a revealing firsthand account of the true nature of the former Soviet Union in this history, made all the more valuable today as the ideals of Socialism are in vogue and amidst the confusion caused by the facades of relativism and ‘personal truths,’” one review reads. “For anyone who wants to understand the outcomes of Socialism upon society and culture, this is an invaluable (and humorous) read that will be hard to put down.”
Although humorous in parts, Cole uses his book to describe the “grey, oppressive society” that once was the USSR and warns readers that history may eventually repeat itself.
*Note: The text was edited from the print version to accurately reflect the number of people from America traveling to Russia with Cole.