Looks like I got duped. I saw this link headline from Der Spiegel which read “Why it is time to stop romanticizing Russia,” and naturally I had to click. After all, combating romantic delusions about Russia of all sorts is the raison d’etre of Russia Without Bullshit. When I read the article, however, I realized that it was more of a bitter rant. That was especially clear when I ran across this:
But Russia isn’t Europe, and it never will be. Russia never went through any period of enlightenment after the destruction wrought by Stalin on the country’s soul. Germans never seriously considered that fact, because it would have interfered with their image of Russia.
The author seems to consider himself quite liberal and progressive, yet it seems he can barely stop from going full Afred Rosenberg here. Unfortunately science isn’t able to measure destruction to the “souls” of countries. Furthermore, the Soviet legacy which is most alive in Russia today is really a product of the Brezhnev era, not Stalin. He also ignores the extent to which Stalin’s USSR was affected by wars and threats of wars, the most notable of which being led by Germany.
I wince whenever I hear Europeans dividing the world into enlightened “Europe” and the other; they may not say it, but the old colonial ideas about the superior West vs. uncivilized savages are still alive and well. True, Germans have done much to acknowledge and analyze their guilt for the Third Reich, but how many today know about the crimes of the Second Reich, i.e. the German Empire, and their genocide against the Herero and Nama peoples of Africa? In Belgium, the de jure capital of the EU, there are still monuments to the butcher of the Congo, King Leopold II. The fact that Europeans and EU propagandists still very openly promote the idea of Europe = superior refutes the idea that they have truly learned from their colonial legacy. Russia’s current imperialist actions are rooted far more in the Tsarist ideology and the desire to equal those great former colonial empires of Europe than the internationalist Marxist ideology of Stalin.
The rest of the rant goes on to attack Russians for not embracing liberal values and idolizing figures which were popular in Germany and the West, such as Gorbachev and Pussy Riot. I find this to be an example of liberal abdication of responsibility. These liberal Europeans and some Americans wish to set themselves up as guardians of human rights and liberty throughout the world, but when they fail, it’s because those stupid unwashed masses just didn’t get it, and they never will because they’re not European. Ironically, the writer’s attitude very closely resembles the popular attitude that Russians have toward Ukrainians, which has once again come to a head. In the case of the author, good, urban, English-speaking Russians who studied abroad and act “European” are good, but now that they’re not so prominent the author decides to write off the whole country as backward.
Before getting deeper into this let me make something absolutely clear. Speaking in the broadest terms, the problems of Russia going back to Perestroika are not the fault of anyone but the Russian and Soviet peoples. Neither the USSR, nor the Russian Federation were ever the kind of small banana republic which could be overthrown via a military coup. Many of America’s intelligence agents were caught off guard by the Soviet collapse, though to be sure their careers were dependent on the Soviet Union’s continued existence. Indeed, Gorbachev was a weak, spineless, and naive individual but he could not have succeeded had it not been for the failure of his opponents and the people themselves. Same goes for Yeltsin. I’m prefacing my analysis with this statement because while I believe that Russians must take responsibility for their plight, I think that Westerners of all political stripes who lament the failure of “Russian democracy” or liberalism ought to consider their roles, and their negligence, in the making of post-Soviet Russia.
One of the most striking things which made an impression on me as a young man witnessing the end of the Cold War was how reality differed from what our leaders and media had promised. The idea in the late Cold War was that one way or another, the USA and USSR would put aside their ideological differences and work hand in hand for the betterment of the world. When the USSR collapsed and socialism(de jure) no longer reigned, this seemed even more likely. With ideology out of the way, surely Russia and the USA would become the best of friends. We even had the same colors, after all. This, of course, didn’t happen.
Nobody seemed concerned that Russia’s population had virtually no understanding of capitalism and markets; the recommendation was privatize as fast as possible. As the country descended into chaos, the best answer Western commentators seem to have been able to come up with was “they did it wrong.” Much of the Western press continued to praise Yeltsin, even when he sicced tanks on the parliament in Moscow in October of 1993 and even as he conducted the Chechen war. Western businessmen flocked to Russia to get bargains and take advantage of destitute women. The era became known as “the wild 90’s,” as though it was some big party. Russia’s humiliation was most fortunate for others.
And what about the rise of right wing, reactionary ideology in Russia? Surely that can be blamed solely on the Russian people right? Not quite. In the wake of the Soviet collapse, all manner of religious fanatic missionaries and political cranks of the West descended upon Russia. Right wingers, neo-Nazis, holocaust deniers, and other scumbags flocked to Russia to take advantage of naive young minds, and avail themselves of desperate women who couldn’t afford to care if their prospective husband was a hated fascist-sympathizer in his native country. The common right-wing myth was that having now been liberated from Communism, Russia would embrace “traditional” values that the West has abandoned. Sound familiar? Even today, Russia’s Western partisans and Kremlin intellectuals hilariously declare that Russia is rising while the West will collapse any year now due to its evil “tolerance.” They’ve been saying it for over 20 years, much longer in fact.
The author of the Spiegel piece lashes out against Russia’s fascist movements, totally forgetting that this movement doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It has always been intimately connected with Europe’s “New Right” organizations and parties, many of which seem to be immune to the various “hate speech” laws in European states. What about Russia’s homophobia? It got a lot of help from American evangelicals. Incidentally some of those same people are bolstering the Russian government’s laughable delusion that Russia will some how usurp the West due to its “spiritual values,” post-apocalyptic wasteland and endemic corruption notwithstanding.
Surely Western liberals can’t be responsible for the actions of their right wingers, right? Well not quite. Unlike most liberal authors, the writer of this piece actually managed to take a swipe at Alexander Solzhenitsyn. He pulled his punch, of course. Originally Solzhenitsyn was the darling of the Cold War West. Then it turned out that he wasn’t an advocate of liberal freedoms or the Western system. Solzhenitsyn’s ideal society was authoritarian, highly religious, and anti-Semitic. Rather than call Solzhenitsyn out as a reactionary, delusional individual with fascistic leanings, it seems most of the liberal West to this very day prefers to continue lavishing him with praise and keeping silent about his darker side. Maybe if liberals hadn’t invented the ridiculous version of “totalitarianism,” where fascism and Communism were equated, they wouldn’t have so readily embraced anyone and everyone who seemed useful in their ideological battle against Communism. After all, some people oppose capitalism and liberalism because they are Marxist socialists who want to progress beyond that mode of production, and fascists were typically those who wanted to turn back to the clock.
But then again, the West did indeed whitewash and liberalize almost any anti-Communist “freedom fighter” during the Cold War. Vile Nazi collaborators and the authors of atrocities, with the help of emigre organizations, were transformed into “freedom fighters” who actually fought for liberal democracy against Hitler and Stalin. Their atrocities were either pinned on the Germans or said to be fabrications of the NKVD. Similar claims, had they been made by Germans, would be met with accusations of blatant Holocaust denial. In the history of former Soviet peoples, supposedly the victims of Muscovite occupation, it’s par for the course.
That brings up another point. Did Cold War liberals or their progeny even care as to whether or not Russians understood their liberal values? One common theme of Cold War propaganda, was that Communism was inherently Muscovite and Russian. Polish people couldn’t be Communist. If they were, they were total puppets of Moscow. The Pole, the Ukrainian, the Czech, etc. are all inherently, almost genetically anti-Communist. And why is this so? Well because they are so Western! That was the tragedy of the Cold War and the Soviet Bloc, that all these enlightened Western people were supposedly ruled by the backward, Asiatic Muscovite barbarian. As the Soviet Union broke up, the dichotomy of West vs. East was revived, and suddenly countries which in my youth had always been called Eastern European suddenly moved to a new location known as “Central Europe.” Countries too far East to be called Central European, such as Ukraine, magically became countries “bordering Central Europe,” with no mention of which side of Central Europe they bordered. Obviously liberalism’s own history, written by liberals, is full of distortions, half-truths, and a fair bit of nonsense. But I question to the extent to which these supposedly enlightened intellectuals even attempted to educate Russians on their beliefs, especially when they were happy to dabble in old colonial “race science” and promote nationalism in service of Cold War goals.
It is particularly maddening that a German here is washing his hands over what happened in Ukraine. The truth is that nationalism and Maidan were far more intertwined than Western commentators are willing to admit. But a large portion of that nationalism wasn’t exactly the hardcore fascism of Svoboda or Praviy Sektor. A common theme, promoted by the EU and its partisans, was that Ukraine had to choose between “Europe” and “Russia.” Go West or go East, the idea being that if Ukraine didn’t choose the EU’s Association Agreement, it would be “Eastern” and other, uncivilized. This attitude shines through in a lot of the Maidan reportage, as well as the signs and slogans of Maidan. The EU is basically Germany, and Germany promotes this Eastern inferiority idea. Colonialism is alive and well.
Sure, dozens of NGOs worked in Russia, many of them probably trying to spread liberal ideas, but clearly something went wrong when Russia’s famous liberals include people like Valeriya Novodvorskaya, who praised Apartheid and the invasion of Iraq, or Alexei Navalny, who promotes nationalism and ethnic hatred. And what about the author’s beloved Pussy Riot? Western feminism may have its flaws, but Russia’s “feminism” apparently consists of women carrying out an orgy in a museum, and in one case one woman shoving a frozen chicken into her vagina as “performance art.” At their best, Pussy Riot plays shitty music in public places, their lyrics often inaudible or incoherent, then they release a viral clip where the music has been dubbed over the video, so as to suggest that passers-by could actually understand the message. Why is it that Western feminists get to struggle to be treated with dignity, but Russian feminism is supposed to entail humiliation and publicity stunts? Have Russian and Eastern European women not suffered enough in the past twenty years? It would seem that according to liberals, the Western feminist deserves support and respect regardless of what she says, how she dresses, or how she looks, but Russian or Ukrainian feminism must consist of stripping and loud, incoherent publicity stunts, i.e. things which are entertaining for Westerns, particularly men. Given this situation, is it really so incomprehensible to Western liberals that Russian women aren’t crashing the gates to become “feminists,” so that they too can shove frozen chickens inside themselves?
When it comes to the West, we have far more figures to choose from when it comes to politics. We don’t have to line up and praise Warren Buffet or George Soros because there are radicals like Noam Chomsky or Chris Hedges. In Russia to be a liberal you’re expected to praise robber barons like Khodorkovskiy or right-wing populists like Navalny. By contrast, during the Iraq War many American neo-Nazi groups declared that they were against what they considered “a war for Israel.” In spite of this, leftist anti-war groups did not make any common cause with them due to ideological principle. Again, Westerners get the luxury of having political principles and choosing their ideological figures, Russians are supposed to make do with anyone and everyone who voices an opinion against Putin. Not a good way to build a coherent opposition.
Western liberals can’t understand why they aren’t liked by Russians, totally forgetting that liberalism and “democracy” is typically associated with the humiliation and suffering of the 90’s. I have never seen any concerted effort by Western liberalism to acknowledge its role in sullying its own purported values in Russia. They lament the growth of fascist movements while ignoring those which are conveniently helpful, as those in Ukraine, or ignoring the fact that it was they who promoted the idiotic idea that “Stalin was worse than Hitler.” When you tell Russians that Communism was slavery and the worst thing to ever happen to their country, is any wonder that they will start identifying with anti-Communist figures in history? And given that the most radical anti-Communists were all either reactionaries or full-blown fascists, is it surprising that those figures wind up being turned into heroes, especially when Cold War propaganda might have also elevated them to the status of martyrs or “freedom fighters?” And what of the revival of Stalin we’re always told about? My experience shows that this love of Stalin isn’t connected to any deep knowledge of the Stalin era, much less his politics. From Gorbachev onward, Stalin became the go-to answer for every social ill in the Soviet Union and then in Russia afterwards. Even the author of the Spiegel article blames Stalin for Russia’s current state. I have rarely seen a single social ill in Russia that hasn’t been pinned on Stalin by this or that liberal author, either Russian or foreign. The revival of Stalin as a symbol has nothing to do with the real Josef Stalin; it’s really a revolt against what Russia interprets as liberalism, and Russia’s understanding of liberalism was constructed by Western liberals.
Liberals, even in recent times, continue to sully themselves in the eyes of Russians by praising the 1990’s in Russia as democratic, and generally acting as if this state of affairs was preferable to Putin’s administration. There are people, some of whom are involved in Russian politics, who want Russians to ignore the violence, destitution, and prostitution of the 1990’s simply because that era was supposedly more “democratic,” a highly spurious claim itself. The Russian reaction to this is entirely understandable as it is logical. If all those social ills of the 90’s supposedly represent “democracy” and liberalism, then to hell with both!
It is clear in the end that when the author speaks of “romanticizing Russia,” he’s basically telling his fellow Germans to stop believing these people are civilized. There’s no hope. They’re savages. There’s a different way to deal with them, but the author avoids saying what it is. This is the problem with this whole concept of the “enlightened” West. The intelligentsia wants the rest of the world to emulate and aspire to it, but they must accept it without question. Westerners do not have to answer for their mistakes and blunders. If some nation doesn’t immediately recognize their moral superiority for any reason, fuck ’em. They’ll never get it. It reminds me of how Europeans will condemn and often try African war criminals while never even thinking to indict their European backers who gave them money and arms. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Russia’s government tries so hard to impress the West, and pouts when they don’t respond to their displays of affection. European liberals apparently do the same thing to Russia.