The reader may wonder why, after so many months of mentioning Western “Russophiles” or “Team Russia” fanatics, I have hitherto avoided mentioning one of their best representatives, RT’s Tim Kirby. I admit this is strange even for me, seeing as how his writing drives me up the wall at times. The reason, I believe, is largely because there are many bizarre parallels between Kirby’s history and my own. I’m not going to get into what those details are, but suffice to say that they are in some cases incredibly specific. In fact discovering people like him was a relief because I realized that my youthful obsession with Russia was by no means unique. In short, Kirby reminds me of me, particularly during the roughly 7-year period between my first visit to Russia and my return in 2006. It seems highly unfair to go all-out in an attack against someone who writes and sounds just like you once did, and to be honest many things I said and wrote years ago would be far more infuriating to me. If I deserve a second chance, surely he does.
Another reason I go easy on Kirby is because given our similar histories, I see him as a true believer, as was I. It’s not hard to find Western, typically American or British supporters of Team Russia. When you talk to them in person or read some of their work, however, you learn that their “love” for Russia is largely bullshit. These are the types who “love” Russia just because they feel comfortable being a racist, sexist prick in public, and the cultural-linguistic divide makes it harder for people to immediately pick up on what bitter, angry assholes they are. I strongly suspect that Kirby came to live in Russia because he was genuinely interested in Russia and not because he heard tales of beautiful but desperate young women who will throw themselves at the feet of an American man. Sincerity and consistency are admirable qualities.
In spite of all this, I knew when I started a blog called “Russia without Bullshit,” I’d have to take on the Kirb sooner or later. What better time than after I was made aware of a Wall Street Journal article about him, entitled “The American Who Tells Russia How Bad Things Are in America.” In all fairness, it seems Kirby was pretty upset about this, enough to write his own editorial on RT in response. For what it’s worth, that article is linked here, do what you will with that. I’m not going to get deep into the details of either article, but I found it somewhat amusing that Kirby is upset about the WSJ reporter reducing their hours of discussion to a few soundbites. That is what journalists typically do. This was the WSJ and not “An Evening With Tim Kirby” in The New Yorker or something like that.
Anyway, as the article’s name implies, Kirby tells Russians about the bad things in America, and it has a real impact. The article quotes a Russian listener in Murmansk as saying, “It’s so interesting to hear from an American about how America really works…We Russians think that whenever something goes bad here that it must be better in America.” According to the same article, the listener now knows that things in America are either “worse of the same.”
This is my first problem with people like Kirby is that they continually profess their love for Russia while basically bullshitting Russians ever chance they get. I find it surprising that these Team Russia fanatics, who obsess over every little detail of anything remotely Russian, have never heard the Russian saying “better bitter truth than sweet lies.” It’s not that Kirby lies outright to Russians, but what does happen is that when you look at the big picture he and other Team Russia members paint, that image is distorted and false. The fact is that life in America is not worse or the same as life in Russia, so if someone listens to you frequently and gets that idea, you’ve been doing something wrong. So what do people like Kirby do, exactly?
The typical Russophile appeal to Russians is often outrageously patronizing. It usually sounds something like this: “You think there’s no corruption/censorship/poverty in the West? Well let me tell you…” Typically this is being said to an audience of students or young professionals, many of them with higher education and possibly some experience abroad. Now while there are many Russians, some of whom have traveled abroad, who have some pretty naive ideas about the West, I highly doubt that any significant portion of this audience literally believes that there simply is no corruption, poverty, or censorship abroad. What Team Russia fails to understand with its whataboutery-laden arguments is the concept of scale. The UK and USA have their corruption scandals, but the average citizen is unlikely to have been asked for a bribe. Participation in politics and real choices in elections are highly limited in the West, but they are far more limited in Russia. The United States has, particularly since 2001, seen much erosion of civil rights, including the right of free speech and free assembly, but this pales in comparison to the situation in Russia. When activists are unfairly targeted by the state in the US, there is usually a huge outrage, indeed many Team Russia fans rely on this to find their stories of unfair treatment or persecution by the American government. In Russia, publicly speaking out against the government is likely to call down a whirlwind of accusations that you are a traitor, literally in the pay of the US State Department. I was called a traitor for taking part in protests against the Iraq war, but nobody ever implied that I was literally in the pay of Saddam Hussein.
In addition to being patronizing, these people are essentially telling Russians that they don’t have a right to complain, or that they should keep their mouth shut. I find this reminiscent of the attitudes I faced in America from about 2002 till the time I left. Only whereas in America those “patriotic” types are likely to tell you to “love it or leave it,” Team Russia fans from America or Britain tell Russians to love it and stay put, shut up and obey. Western Russophiles are often oblivious to the advantages of their situation. They are often paid far more than native Russians, sometimes for the same work(though not necessarily without good reasons for this). They are foreigners so they’re “allowed” to make mistakes in every day social situations. Much more important than any of that, however, is that they have a foreign passport to a first world country to fall back on. If Russia goes to shit one day, people like Kirby can pack up and go home. Where do the Russians go?
What I’m getting at here is that Russophiles often forget that the benefits they may personally have in Russia don’t exist for most Russians, if any. An honest person would remember this whenever they are discussing the benefits of living in Russia or the problems of America. Personally I could write long articles about things I hate about America or advantages that I personally see in Russia. However if I were to do so, you wouldn’t see me equating the two nations. If there really, truly are self-hating Russians who cannot think of any better thing in life but to move to some Western nation, who am I to tell them otherwise? If anyone deserves blame it is those in power who have allowed such a society to develop as it has.
In his defense Kirby claims that he points out problems about Russia, but his criticisms of Russia are far different than those of America. In at least two articles he implies that people in the West should seriously consider moving to Russia, yet I’ve never seen him say anything positive about Russians emigrating to America. Criticisms seem to be along the lines of: Russia is great, but they’re not good at communicating that because they’re bad at PR. On one hand I’m inclined to agree, on the other I’d say Russia has some great PR among bitter, alienated Westerners, because they seem to respond enthusiastically to the works of people like Kirby.
At the end of the day what Russophiles like Kirby are doing is pissing on Russians’ legs and telling them it’s raining. They give horrible facts about America without any context or concern for whether their comparisons are even remotely accurate. They don’t truly empathize with Russians and consider their situation. They try so hard to be Russian and yet in reality they don’t see Russians as being on an equal footing, to the point that it can be insulting.
In the WSJ article it is said that Tim believes that Russians aren’t suited to “Western-style democracy,” which in all fairness is an idea very common among Russia’s authorities and ideologues from whom he surely appropriated it. Realistically speaking, most forms of “Western democracy” provide very little in the way of political representation or participation for most citizens, particularly the working class. It is foolish for Russians or anyone else to see that kind of “democracy” as the pinnacle of human liberty and the be-all end-all goal for humanity. On the other hand, that system exists nearly all over the world, far beyond the borders of “the West,” and in many places it does function pretty well according to its own standards. Having said this, it is clear that anyone who thinks that Russians can’t handle that minuscule increase in political franchise obviously has a low opinion of the Russian people. Indeed, for all their professions of love for the Russian people, Team Russia fanatics, both Russian and foreign, can’t help but reveal how stupid they think the rest of the Russian people are. They need some kind of strong leader to tell them what to do. Having them vote in new candidates every four years or so is too much for them to handle. This kind of “love” for Russia is akin to that which an abusive husband supposedly has for his wife and kids.
You don’t love a country or people if you’re so willing to be dishonest with them and insult their intelligence, and that is precisely what people like Tim Kirby do. I often wonder how people like Tim would feel if they lived in America and encountered some Russian immigrant who continually berated them every time they complained about some American social problem. What if he told them the problem existed in Russia, or that it was even worse in Russia? Would that suddenly make that particular problem go away? We have very limited political choices in America. Would we feel better if some Russian told us that they have even fewer choices in Russia? If we want to criticize our president, would he call us self-haters and insist that the president represents America? If one of us, for whatever reason, felt alienated and at the same time very interested in Russia, would he accuse that person of self-hatred and attack their decision to move to Russia? It’s rather hypocritical to deny Russians the right to be like Tim Kirby, that is to not fit in within their society and take an interest in other cultures, possibly to the point of moving abroad. To be sure, that isn’t the reason why many Russians emigrate, but clearly those that do are not satisfied with life in Russia for one reason or another, just as Tim wasn’t satisfied with life in America. Just as I, in fact, wasn’t satisfied.
Nearly every article The Kirb writes makes me want to throw it up on this blog and fire broadsides at it until it’s reduced to matchsticks. Kirby’s real problem, however, is simply that he is politically illiterate. That might sound like a pretty serious ad hominem, but it’s not; political illiteracy is so widespread that it is practically the norm for most of the world. You can acquire political literacy by years of academic study, but the best way is through years of actual experience as an activist. You have to be a true believer, not just for one cause, but for several. You can’t be that type who joins the masses in the street when your party isn’t in power and who stays home when it is. You have to have spent time truly believing, taking pride in your consistency and consciousness of your ideological values. You get good at tailoring your talking points, however radical they may be, to any audience. You learn to spot the ideological slant of your opponents. Then you have to be disillusioned, disappointed. You have to suddenly run up against a situation one day where everything you learned, everything you were told, can no longer suffice to explain the contradictions you see before you. You see the hypocrisy of comrades and people you trusted. You speak out and they throw you to the dogs to save their own asses. That’s just a part of the politics, how you acquire that kind of political literacy that can’t be taught in schools. True believers change and evolve, painful as that process may be. And as I said, Kirby is a true believer.