Solving “a Riddle Wrapped in a Mystery Inside an Enigma”


Most people have heard Winston Churchill’s description of Russia as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” I also suspect that most took it as I did: Who can figure out that crazy nation?

So it was a real surprise when I read the entire quote: “[Russia] is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.” Now that makes sense!

If Churchill had taken his own wisdom to mind, we might have avoided the Cold War with all of its attendant nuclear risk. But Churchill, as most people, only exercised empathy for potential adversaries when he saw an immediate advantage to himself in doing so. In this case, Churchill’s insight was part of an October 1, 1939 BBC broadcast, in which he was rallying the British people in their seemingly impossible war effort, so it helped him to note that it was in Russia’s national interest to keep Hitler at bay. (Hitler invaded Russia in the summer of 1941, fulfilling Churchill’s hope that Russia would join the fight against Nazism.)

When Churchill saw that it was in his interest to understand Russia, he did so. But when he failed to see anything in it for him, Russia became a rogue nation in his mind. We are doing the same thing today, and not just with Russia. North Korea is seen as a rogue nation run by a nut job, and Iran is portrayed as not much better. But, as I’ve pointed out, most of our puzzlement is due to our failing to understand North Korea’s and Iran’s perspectives.

Whenever we find another nation acting in ways that seem like “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma,” it would be well to remember that our perplexity is probably due to our not understanding how they see things. And, in the nuclear age, it is always in our interest to understand other nations as well as we can. Doing that reduces the risk of needless wars, with their attendant needless nuclear risk.

I can attest from personal experience that it also makes sense to work at understanding others in interpersonal relationships. Since we got our relationship on a good basis, every time that my wife’s behavior has seemed crazy to me, I’ve found that there was a good reason behind her behavior that I was missing.

A good example, occurred recently. I had taken the older of our two cars in to the local service station and, when I picked it up, the owner told me that if I ever wanted to sell that car, he would like to buy it for his wife.

I mentioned this to Dorothie in an off-hand kind of way because the car was only six years old, and we usually keep them for at least ten. Yet, a week later, Dorothie was researching new cars. You don’t buy a new car just because someone has offered to buy your old one! At least that’s how I saw it initially.

But, I’ve matured some over our 48 years of marriage, so I went to Dorothie and told her, “It seems crazy to me that you’re looking at new cars, but you’re not crazy, so there must be something I’m missing. What is it?”

She then told me that the six-year old car lacked safety features, such as a backup camera and blind spot detection, that our newer car had, and with her health issues (heavy medication for migraines) she felt a lot more comfortable driving the newer car. Plus, over the last few years, more safety features had come out, which would relieve even more of her anxiety about driving. Adaptive cruise control, collision avoidance systems, and lane keeping assistance all were new.

As soon as I understood Dorothie’s reasoning, not only did her seemingly crazy behavior make sense. It made my life better. I have been hoping that self driving cars would hit the market before I became too old to drive. While the car we bought doesn’t drive itself, it’s about half way there.

By “getting curious, not furious,” (a great expression that a friend told me when I related this story), not only did I avoid an argument, I got a better outcome than what I thought I wanted going into the disagreement. I got a car that I love to drive, whereas I thought I wanted Dorothie to stop looking at new cars.

If the nations of the world were to get curious before they got furious, and in particular if my own nation were to do that, it would transform the world in unimaginable, positive ways. Let’s start solving those riddles wrapped in mysteries inside enigmas before a misunderstanding blows us all up.

Martin Hellman

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About Martin Hellman

I am a professor at Stanford University, best known for my invention of public key cryptography -- the technology that protects the secure part of the Internet, such as electronic banking. But, since 1982, my primary interest has been how fallible human beings can survive possessing nuclear weapons, where even one mistake could be catastrophic. My latest project is a book, co-written with my wife Dorothie, with the audacious subtitle "Creating True Love at Home & Peace on the Planet." It's on Amazon and a free PDF can be downloaded from its website:
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8 Responses to Solving “a Riddle Wrapped in a Mystery Inside an Enigma”

  1. robert says:

    if their lips are moving they are lying…….Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.” Now that makes sense..

    AS THEY Russian Hypocrites will spend their lives cheating, betraying, conning, and deceiving. But despite this disgusting pattern of behavior, RuSSians still feel entitled to point out (or invent) the most minor mistakes in others—and they’ll point them out repeatedly, to negate & excuse all of their own horrible actions.

    This should not surprise: Russia and Russians are immune to breaking whatever is needed to achieve their Machiavellian ends of global expansionism of the Russkiy Mir also know as the russian world . and that is the key it is the Russian national interest they all work for and they don not care how they forword that or not as the nation has NO morals they are totally morally corrupt ”

    Aleksey L Nikolov (Managing Director of Russia Today), told in a interviewed once to western media when asked.. What does Russia Today stand for and what is the Russian point of view?…

    He answered …“Oh, there is always a Russian point of view,” then he answered. “Take a banana. For someone it’s food. For someone else it’s a weapon. For a racist it’s something to tease a black person with.”

    And there you have it: Russia’s opportunistic foreign policy, all wrapped up in a banana metaphor.

    Thus the Kremlin and Russians preaches non-intervention and sovereignty while defending Assad, yet uses the reverse position to justify the invasion of Georgia and annexation of Crimea. Thus it warns against American exceptionalism while claiming that Russia has a special mission to rule over and enlighten its “near abroad.” The Russian point of view is anything the Kremlin and the Russians wants it to be.

    When it comes to Ukraine, disseminating “a Russian point of view” has increasingly meant helping Russian military and intelligence operations. For example, after Moscow-supported rebels in East Ukraine shot down a Malaysian Airlines jet in July, the Boris and Olga’s the average russians like to puck out a multitude of conspiracy theories (from claims that the real target of the attack was Putin’s personal plane to assertions that Ukrainian fighter jets were behind the tragedy), in order to direct attention away from the real perpetrators the Russians them selfs !!!

    Russians do this cheating, betraying, conning, and deceiving thing thinking at the same time it is OK as they are acting as good patriots and forwarding Russia’s intrest And with that logic they whitewash for themselves the moral aspect of the lei as it in there mind is they are just helping mother russia in Russian interests !!!

    LIKE THE MAN TOLD US That key is Russian national interest.” Now that makes sense..

  2. Nuclear Risk says:

    While I disagree strongly with Robert’s analysis and believe it is misleading, in the interests of freely sharing ideas, I have left it up on the site so others can form their own opinion. Those who agree with me that it is misleading will find that it helps explain some of Russia’s reactions.

  3. Darinka says:

    Can’t believe you are a professor at Stanford, Martin, if you can’t see that Robert is just stating the facts, not even his opinion…As a Ukrainian I guess I can judge on the fairness of the given info better than you.

  4. jiga jaga says:

    Equating a rogue nation with nuclear capabilities to a wife shopping for a car and drawing the conclusion that we are some how responsible because we fail to understand is truly a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. I like the walk softly carry a big stick philosophy as opposed to lets try and understand and sympathizes with the machinations of a mad man philosophy.

  5. I don’t equate my wife with Kim Jong-un, and she would be the first to tell you that. What I was saying is that trying harder to understand others – whether it be one’s spouse or an unstable nation – can avoid a lot of conflict. That might not resonate with you since you like the “talk softly and carry a big stick” approach. Which leads to the question: In the nuclear age, what is that “big stick” and dare one ever use it? Or would it be more in our interests to “talk softly and listen”?

  6. Constanza says:

    Thank you, very spot on.

  7. Ahmed khalil says:

    Most western politicians do not want even to listen to what other nations say and keep listening only to their old age characterizations of other nations.

  8. You are right, at least for most western politicians. But most non-western politicians are no different. The West’s faults are just more obvious since it has so much more power.

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