On Dissent in Russia

Anyone who spends time reading this blog will quickly gather that I’m not a fan of the US government. It’s not a matter of bias though; I’m not a fan of any existing government on the planet now save for maybe one or two exceptions.  An American who speaks out against his or her own government is quote welcome in Russia.  It will get you time on RT(if not your own column or show), speaking engagements, and in general lots of attention from Team Russia, including those groups which at least claim to oppose the current ruling regime in the country.  I learned how welcome such “anti-American” opinions can be from my first days in Russia, when some friends sometimes referred to me as an “American dissident.”  Over the years, however, I gradually drifted further and further away from political activism in Russia despite the easy access to publicity(if not a career) my opinions might garner.  Although the reasons for this were manifold, the recent rhetoric over the situation in Syria has brought one formerly subconscious reason to the fore, about which I had not considered very thoroughly in the past.   An old American friend had broached the topic before and recent events seemed to shed more light on it.  In short, I feel a sort of reluctance to publicly voice my opposition to American policies in Russia which I would never feel in the United States or virtually any country.  This is not only because American exceptionalists would surely use my location as “proof” that I am a “traitor”, but rather because there is a sort of patronizing, condescending attitude towards “American dissidents” that one feels coming from Russians at times.

For starters, I have never been so pleased to see the reaction of the American people to the warmongering of the Obama administration toward Syria.  The absolute refusal of Americans to get behind this war clearly cuts across political lines.  It seems as if liberals who held their tongues about Obama’s drone wars and the overthrow of the Libyan government finally reached the end of their patience on the question of Syria.  Conservatives are being accused of hypocrisy for opposing this war while cheering for war in Iraq, but this argument fails to take into account the very different climate in 2002, when widespread fear post-September 11th drove people to seek scapegoats and take irrational positions.  Granted conservatives are known for taking irrational positions, but they are also usually known for blindly supporting any action involving the US military.  Looking back to 1999, for example, conservative pundits joked about Clinton using the war in Kosovo to distract from his sexual escapades, yet rarely did one find any outright criticism of his decision to bomb Yugoslavia.  Here the situation is different; the answer is again and again “no” to war on Syria, to the point that former Republican presidential candidate John McCain can’t find support for his war even among people who most likely voted for him.  Busted clocks are reading right, as Glenn Beck showed his viewers a video which revealed the true nature of the so called “Syrian opposition” which the US claims represents the voice of the Syrian people.  After being told to tighten their belts for more than four years now everyone but the most die-hard Obama supporters, no doubt those with career connections or political ambitions within the Democratic party, is wondering how the austerity-minded federal government can so readily find funds for a new war.  After more than ten years of giving up civil liberties and trillions of tax dollars in the name of fighting Al Qaeda, few are enthusiastic about providing support to a movement whose best-financed and most active organizations consist of Salafist extremists, many of which have ties to Al Qaeda.

Now as the US seems to have taken a step back in reaction to protests from Vladimir Putin, one might be tempted to declare victory.  No doubt many members of Team Russia, the international cabal of Putin-admirers(many of whom are not even Russian) are basking in glory at what they see as an American defeat.  A more sober analysis would show that the recent proposal of the Russian government may in fact be selling Syria out in the long run.  This settlement may not be so much of an American defeat but rather a conscious collaborative effort by the US and Russia to disarm and de-fang Assad, eventually leading to an outcome which may not actually save the Syrian people and could possibly lead to a partition of the country.  While not supporting the use of chemical weapons, that arsenal is most likely Syria’s only deterrent against foreign invasion. Now Russia has proposed that Assad identify the location of his entire arsenal so that the “international community” can take control of them.  Since Obama claims he hasn’t ruled out the use of force, there is a very real possibility that Russia’s proposal may in fact end up being nothing more than target acquisition for the US Air Force and Navy.  These very real possibilities might be more widely discussed if more people would step out of the false Putin vs. USA dichotomy and entertain the very real likelihood that the regime in Russia and the US are in fact not opposed but rather that they have been working together for quite some time.  Obviously that proposition alone merits its own article but now is not the time.

What is it like to be an “American dissident” in Russia?  Imagine the following.  You finally move to Russia after experiencing the first Bush term.  For roughly four years any dissenting opinion you voiced in public was likely to provoke accusations of treason from the flag-waving patriot crowd.  You’re told to love it or leave it so you do.   Initially a place like Russia might seem like a breath of fresh air.  Initially people are suspicious towards you because you are an American, but once you let on that you are opposed to US foreign policy you suddenly start making friends(or so they seem).  What you may not realize is that you would find the same freedom in many other countries around the world. Even in the US the political climate has changed as more than a decade of endless wars and an economic downturn soured much of the population across political lines.  But wherever you find that agreement or at least tolerance of your dissenting views, the motives behind it are very different than what you find in Russia.  As you pick up the language and listen to the conversations your “comrades” think you can’t understand, you start to realize that here, even among people who are supposed to be politically like-minded, there is no solidarity.  You are not one of them.  You are still a traitor, but you’re a useful traitor.  You’re accepted so long as you prove useful to them, particularly if your dissent goes along with praise for Russia.

The truth is I’d feel a lot better about voicing my opposition to American policies around Russian people if I had even the slightest inkling that at least some of my audience agreed on principle rather than blind loyalty to Team Russia and the desire to hear anything bad about America.  People in other countries oppose wars for a number of reasons. Some noble, some unrealistic, others for less honest reasons, and in some cases the motive is nothing more than cloaking an evil ideology in an air of morality.  Many of these people sincerely believe that their dissenting opinion reflects what is best for their country, and appeals  to shut up for the sake of patriotism or maintaining unity on the world stage fall flat.  No so in Russia.  Late 2011 and much of 2012 were marked with some of the largest political protests in recent Russian history.  2013 has been rather quiet in contrast.  Could it have anything to do with a stream of populist legislation which seems to have induced many people to stop their criticism in favor of “defending” their country from Western criticism?  I don’t pretend to have the definitive answer to this question, but one thing is for sure that Russia hasn’t really demonstrated the kind of dissent we see in other countries and thus it’s hard to make common cause with people even when it seems they agree on a particular policy.

One wonders, for example, how anti-war the average Russian would be if Russia regained the military strength necessary to intimidate and push smaller countries around.  During the 2008 war in Ossetia I remember the popular press making it seem as though the five-day conflict was comparable to the Great Patriotic War, complete with some idiotic memes floating around which compared Georgian president Saakashvili  to Hitler.  I saw organizations like the KPRF(Communst Party of the Russian Federation), supposedly an opposition party, loyally supporting the government.  What I saw far to little of, was those who condemned both sides in the war and demanded its end.  To be sure, I did see such opinions expressed by a small Communist youth group, but virtually nowhere else.  While Russia was most certainly “right” in the busted clock sense when it came to this war, the conflict simply did not deserve the glorification it got in the press, nor could any thinking person actually believe that the leadership of Russia is seriously concerned about the self-determination of Ossetians or Abkhazians.  The interest of both Russia and Georgia in the region is identical; it is economics pure and simple.

We have seen RT cheering on the likes of Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden in recent times.  In response to the repeated attacks on these two individuals by American media hacks I have often wondered aloud how they would have been treated in the press if they were agents of a foreign government seeking asylum in the US, specifically if they worked for the government of China or perhaps Iran. We all know that such pundits would be praising the Iranian Bradley Manning or the Syrian Snowden.  But suppose there was a Russian Snowden who exposed a program in Russia identical to that of the NSA, but run by the FSB.  Now suppose he was appealing for asylum in the US or UK.  Would we see him receiving the kind of support Snowden has garnered in the US?  Would Russians reject the piss poor “analysis” and distortion of their media and turn their anger at the regime for spying on their private lives?  Surely many would, but the overwhelming majority, judging by recent history and the present, would not.

We can see a case study in the way people react to figures like the late Anna Politkovskaya.  Reading her books I found her political ideology to be naive and in many cases incoherent, even schizophrenic.  Despite this she did expose a lot of things which should be of top concern for ordinary Russians from pensioners to the mothers of soldiers.  Yet in conversations about Politkovskaya it seems her alleged liberalism outweighs the importance of the abuse she discovered.  This is especially common when discussing the problems of Russia when it is known that you are an American.  Even though these social problems hurt Russians, it seems that some people here are willing to deny things which everyone experiences every day and which everyone constantly talks about.   Admitting any of these problems seems to be looked upon as “airing dirty laundry” and such discussions bear resemblance to a twisted form of democratic centralism far divorced from the motivations behind the practice within the old Bolshevik party.  Russians will say some of the most horrible things about their country, sometimes bordering on self-hatred and occasionally made up. But mention America and suddenly some of the same people don the guise of patriotism and form a phalanx around the country. Not the real Russia, the one which consists of living breathing people who suffer the problems which are being discussed, but rather the idea of Russia in the abstract, a flag, a crest.  I barely need mention at this point that the supreme irony of Russia’s patriots is that no matter how much they hate America, they are so perfectly the very mirror image of America’s worst examples of bumper-sticker patriotism.  Both wave the flag and would rather see their country suffer than admit to its faults and fix them; both answer critics with “love it or leave it.”

I started this blog roughly a month prior to writing this.  For several years I have contemplated, from time to time, increasing my exposure by voicing my thoughts on American politics, knowing full well I would find plenty of venues to do so in this country.  Every time I decided against it but until this recent Syrian crisis it wasn’t clear why.  Now I can say it is a kind of fear, a fear of being used, of being flattered by people who see my dissenting opinion as useful rather than being respected by people who share like principles.   Not being an idealist, the day may come when it becomes necessary for me to take advantage of the opportunity provided by the phony “New Cold War.” Till then I’m not exactly eager to engage in criticism of the United States with those who see countries as football teams.  I criticize American imperialism because I’m opposed to imperialism, not America. I would like to think that if the military and economic situation in Russia and the United States were to be swapped tomorrow, I would find Russians just as critical of their own government’s policies as they currently are of the US. For the time being, however, I’m skeptical.

EDIT:  I know there are some individuals, typically leaning to the right, who come to Russia because they see it as a paradise for their backward, reactionary views.  They will insist that their Russian comrades(typically a small coterie of people involved in some kind of political organization) truly respect and accept them based on their ideology, ethnicity, because they converted to Orthodoxy, or whatever other nonsense.  Believe that if you will, but people like those never truly accept a Westerner, especially an American.  Like I said before, to anyone with nationalist leanings you will never be Russian no matter how much kvas you drink or how much kasha you jam up your ass.  You’re just a defective individual who could not fit in with their own people and thus had to go traitor in another country.  It just so happens, however, that you are useful, perhaps as an English-speaking Lord Haw Haw.  If you’re that type and you happen to be reading this I don’t expect you to be happy, but I also have a sneaking suspicion that deep down you feel what I’m talking about.  Rage if you must, but you have only yourself to blame if you thought you could use Russia to assuage your very American identity crisis.  This ain’t Avatar.

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