The loudest Team Russia fanatics are typically not Russian. They are usually American or British expats, but some of them don’t live in Russia and indeed many never have set foot in the country. Yet they all take it upon themselves to lecture Russians about their alleged patriotic duties. I realize some people may not understand the roots of the hatred I have for these people. The simplistic explanation is that from the time I visited Russia in 1999 to the time I moved back, I was one of these people and I was an insufferable little shit. My only redeeming quality was that when I learned through personal experience that Putin’s Russia wasn’t in fact the bastion of morality, stability, pride, and strength I thought it had become, I realized I needed to change my views to fit reality instead of vice versa. Like John Maynard Keynes said, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, Sir?” By contrast, many of those Team Russia fans who actually live here have spent more time here than myself, and despite being able to see the same country they purposely ignore reality. Accepting every day reality in Russia doesn’t mean you need to become some kind of Euro-liberal parroting the line of some Soros-funded
legal tax evasion schemes NGOs.
Yet to truly understand why I rage at these people would require a lot of lengthy explanation and anecdotes. That’s why I decided to compress all that experience into a special parable which will help the reader understand. Imagine the following.
You’re an American citizen, born and raised in the US. As is natural for any civic minded person, you see problems in your town, your state, and your country. You are concerned about those problems not only because they affect you, but because they affect the society you live in. Indeed many of the problems you see may not affect you at all, at least not directly. Nevertheless you speak about those problems and maybe even engage in activism because you understand that they will not fix themselves.
You’re very dissatisfied with the political leadership. You find one party utterly repugnant, while the other basically caves into the former’s wishes on virtually every issue. You feel that American democracy is a joke. You get to choose between two parties and yet the results for you at least are essentially the same. Is this “representation?” How representative can it be when every decision seems to benefit the richest minority of Americans while the working class gets nothing but the occasional lip-service from the Democrats?
You’re also concerned about issues like privacy and militarism. It has always infuriated you that the government pleads poverty when it comes to social welfare programs, education, health care, or debt relief, but somehow they always managed to find tens of billions of dollars for aircraft carriers and drones, or to fund the overthrow of some foreign government. If it’s about spying on Americans, the government will spare no expense. You know from personal experience that other countries do things very differently, and you have seen a lot of ideas you wish were more popular in America. You don’t want to turn America into France, Norway, Sweden, or Denmark, but you can see how a lot of the ways they do things could be incredibly beneficial were they implemented in the United States.
You’re outspoken about all these issues, both on the internet and in real life activism. You criticize America not because you hate it, but because you realize that you are a part of this country, and the country is made up of people. It is not some abstract concept represented by a flag. This to you is a form of patriotism. But then you meet Ivan.
Ivan is a expat from Russia. He had a decent life in Moscow, which he could return to at almost any time if he preferred, but he likes living in America much more. He feels that he has some kind of deep spiritual connection with America and what is more, he’s got a job working for some NGO that is partially funded by the US government. He loves everything about America.
Ivan says you are wrong to criticize your government. It was wrong for you to oppose the bombing of Serbia in 1999; America had to save the lives of those Kosovar Albanians at all cost, even if civilians, including many Albanians themselves, died in the process. You were wrong to criticize Bush’s war on Iraq. Saddam Hussein was a threat that needed to be removed, and America had to bring democracy and freedom to the Iraqi people. You shouldn’t complain about the wasteful spending in Afghanistan either. Those people need freedom. What about when Russia invaded Georgia in 2008? It’s exactly the same as all those American military interventions you’re talking about. Your criticism is anti-American.
Oh do you think countries like Norway don’t have problems? Ivan’s been to Norway. A family member has an apartment there in fact. Norway definitely has problems. Don’t like that Human Development Index or GINI index fool you. It may appear that they have the highest living standards in the world, but there are terrible things in Norway. A Norwegian maniac killed dozens of people one time. They have high taxes. Norway is due to collapse any day now, just like those other “socialist” states in Scandinavia.
Ivan says you shouldn’t complain about the American system of government. It’s much better than all those other systems out there, even those ones with multiple parties and proportional representation. America’s two party system is superior. You should support whatever administration is in power, and the government as a whole, because if the two party system ever changed, America would become an unmanageable mess like India with its myriad of political parties and candidates. America needs a system based on two strong parties, otherwise it will collapse into chaos.
He’s always telling you how superior the American mentality is to that of his own nation, Russia. It’s odd because you were never terribly concerned about the Russians and their alleged values or beliefs, but Ivan assures you that Russia is terrible in a cultural sense, and the American mentality is far superior. You’re not sure what he means by “the American mentality,” as you are well aware of the broad diversity of views in America and how many people scorn the idea of conforming to some kind of “national ideal” or ideology, but don’t worry. Ivan knows that America needs a national idea, and he will tell you what it is. Whatever pundits or intellectuals Ivan personally agrees with are the bearers of the correct American ideology. Follow them or you are a self-hating American.
Speaking of which Ivan notices you don’t like American pop music. What’s wrong with you? It’s much better than Russian pop music. Why are you always complaining about Hollywood films lately? Everyone knows that Hollywood’s films are superior to all others. You probably just don’t appreciate the deep spiritual aspects of those superhero films, perhaps because you have lost touch with your American roots by spending time abroad. And why do you have an interest in the history of the Crusades, Great Britain, or WWII in the Soviet Union? Is American history not good enough for a cosmopolitan world traveler such as yourself? Your heroes need to be George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and other American historical figures, not stupid foreigners like Richard I or Marshal Rokossovsky.
Ivan’s actual “American idea” changes depending what pundits he happens to be listening to, but whatever he likes at the moment you should too. You need to stop complaining about problems in your country. Other countries have problems too, ergo your complaints are baseless. If things aren’t working out for you in America, it’s your own fault. This is the greatest country in the world. Well okay yeah maybe it has some disadvantages in a few areas, such as health benefits, labor rights, and infrastructure, but surely whoever is president will solve those problems.
Ivan runs a blog where he writes about how great America is to other Russians, and he assures them that what makes America great is this American idea he is constantly talking about. Over time, other Russians with the means move to America, not to live and settle down, but just to hang out and party. They love to talk about how horrible the Russian government is, but they silence you and question your patriotism if you complain about the situation in America, the place where you happen to live. All you know is that Ivan is pretty fucking annoying.
Okay story time is over. If you’re an avid consumer of RT or maybe Voice of Russia, this should sound awfully familiar to you by now. It’s nothing but the mirror image of people like Tim Kirby or any number of other Team Russia partisans I’ve met over the years. In fact, in Russia people like Ivan actually exist, largely in the political opposition movement, though they aren’t nearly as widespread as the Kremlin would like you to believe. In fact I suspect many of them have become fair-weather patriots in response to the past year’s populist offensive and the Crimean annexation. Whatever the case, they do exist, I have met them, and they are rather annoying. It’s annoying when you know the reality of your country first hand, and you meet some Russian who might not have even visited the US, who lectures you on how great it is. In reality, most Russians who think the situation is better in America do not have such an entirely uncritical, or naive view of the USA; the ability to travel has given them a more realistic understanding of the country. But occasionally you do run into these people and it is still irritating.
Having laid all this out, I hope the reader can empathize with Russians who, while strongly disagreeing with their government, don’t in fact hate their country and don’t think the answer to Putin is offering up the entire country to the United States on a silver platter. These people confront Russian reality every day of their lives, and they have confronted it far longer than most Team Russia pundits. What is more, they are Russian citizens who can’t just hop on a plane and head back to their first world economic powerhouse of a country if things go belly-up over here. Their relationship to their state, society, and the rest of the world is far different from that of an American with a highly paid position at RT or in some company’s foreign branch.
Moreover, Team Russia talking heads really ought to consider that maybe people born and raised in Russia have no reason to be as obsessed with everything Russian as they do. Put simply, if you grew up in Russia, Russian stuff is familiar to you. Team Russia wants to deny Russians the rights that they claim for themselves, that is the right to be interested in other cultures and countries, and possibly to move to those countries if they find it better for any reason. I myself have many advantages living in Russia, but I would never tell anyone else that this is the best place for them to move. It takes a strong will, a lot of patience, and the willingness to put up with a lot of bullshit in order to make it here. If you are willing to put in the time, it can be rewarding, but it’s not only not for everybody, I would say it’s not for most. That’s not a slight towards Russia, but rather I am sick of insincere Westerners moving here and magically transforming themselves into Russian “patriots,” especially those whose behavior reveals how little they actually care about Russian people.
Lastly, Westerners who babble on about “the Russian soul” or a Russian national idea are basically fetishizing and dehumanizing Russians. For one thing, Russia is a multi-ethnic country. Always has been, always will be. Second, it is seriously patronizing and condescending to imagine other people as being subject to some mystical soul that controls their mentality. Most of these people I’m talking about would get offended if someone said they don’t properly represent the American idea, whatever that is, but yet they are happy to lecture Russians about their alleged national soul, their collective mentality, and all the orientalist, colonial bullshit that goes along with that. This image of the simple, traditional, spiritual Russian is not far removed from the stereotypical idea of the “Noble Savage” or the wise East Asian monk who speaks in Zen-like riddles. It dehumanizes Russians as individuals an places them among the nesting dolls, the vodka, and the ushanka hats hawked by souvenir sellers on Old Arbat.
If you’re a Team Russia fan reading this, know that the Russian people don’t exist for your personal spiritual quest for an identity. It doesn’t mean you have to accept whatever they say. All claims must stand and fall on their own merit. But don’t come here and decide that Putin = Russia and then proceed to act like the personal experiences of Russians are irrelevant, or that they need to be “good Russians” by standing up and waving the flag. If you’re allowed to be a dissenter from America or wherever you come from, so are they. Don’t be like Ivan.