Lately as I watch the posts of Russian and Ukrainian friends on various social networks I have seen many examples of a common meme in Russia applied to the situation in Ukraine. The phenomenon is by no means recent, I’m just encountering it more and more frequently. Using Ukraine as an example, the meme goes something like this: Russian finds an example of far-right wing violence, discrimination, intimidation, racism, etc. real or imagined, taking place in Kyiv or otherwise coming from the side of pro-Ukrainian government or pro-Maidan forces. The Russian presents us with a photo or video and then some sarcastic quip about “democracy,” “freedom,” or in some cases “tolerance.” As we read it, we should imagine that the Russian author is rolling his or her eyes while making the “jerking off” gesture in the air. Actually we shouldn’t imagine the latter, because that gesture doesn’t really exist in Russia although it certainly should. Massive breakthroughs and advances in political, social, and economic fields could take place in Russia were she to appropriate that ever-practical gesture.
Now most of us in the English-speaking world are familiar with this concept, especially those who were adults during Bush’s invasion of Iraq. Here’s a perfect sample of the idea, quite possibly originating in the United States.
Indeed, this particular photo could have been made by anyone, anywhere, but plenty of people in the US, including myself at the time, came to similar conclusions about Bush’s proclamations about bringing “freedom” and “democracy” to the world, and we openly expressed this exact sentiment.
There is a problem with most Russians appropriating and expressing this kind of meme, i.e. the lampooning of American administrations’ pretenses to being the guardians of democracy and freedom throughout the world. There is a huge problem, in fact. I shall elaborate.
See the way this concept works is that the US government claimed to be freeing the Iraqi people and bringing them democracy when what it really did, as in a de facto sense, was bring them the inevitable tyranny of military occupation and sectarian violence. For the American, it is clear that this system is far less free and democratic than American society. On a personal level, I’m an advocate for a form of democracy which is by definition far more democratic than any existing republican system. Therefore I get to roll my eyes at words like “democracy.” For some nationalities, particularly in certain European countries, they have a doubly-effective argument, in the sense that their societies offer more freedom, opportunity, means of political participation, and a more representative political system than those of the United States and the state it created in Iraq. In other words, there are nations which can look down on the US on matters like democracy and freedom.
Russia is not one of those nations. You see, in order for the whole saying “democracy” in an ironic tone while rolling eyes and pretending to jerk off to work properly, your nation must at least equal if not surpass the United States in terms of democracy, freedom, tolerance, etc. Does Russia measure up in democracy, even according to bourgeois liberal standards?
As far as democracy goes, all presidents in past 23 years have been from basically the same party, and won under extremely controversial circumstances. The current president has served since 2000, taking a four year break only in 2008 to be prime minister while a man he chose served as president. Putin’s own supporters insist there is no one else who can be Russia’s president and I’m compelled to agree. By stark contrast and despite having a comparatively un-democratic two-party system, the US has in the same time had three presidents, changing parties each time. Bush’s lead over Kerry in 2004 was about 2% in the end, and Romney lost in 2012 by a margin of about 4%. In other words, these elections were seriously contested. Besides this, one can reasonably imagine a Gore or McCain administration. Anyone familiar with Russian politics cannot seriously imagine Zhirinovsky or Zyuganov in power. If the American reader cannot grasp why this is the case, I recommend imagining Glenn Beck or Jon Stewart running for president. In either case people would see it as some kind of publicity stunt rather than a serious campaign.
What about the abstract and chimerical “freedom?” Well no, Russia doesn’t win here. Pussy Riot and dozens of other cases prove that. Even the US, with its massive incarceration record, would never see people getting two years jail time, if any, for doing what Pussy Riot did. And before you Russophiles tear off your scraggly beards with rage, no, I’m not endorsing Pussy Riot, their activities, or their actions. What I am stating is simple, indisputable fact, and no I don’t give a shit what Saudi Arabia would do to them. You can’t compare Russia to America when it suits your case to do so, and then suddenly switch the standard to Saudi Arabia or Iran when it doesn’t. Lastly, you can scream and gnash your teeth all you want, but we all know which country is more likely to allow a spontaneous anti-government protest. Yes, yes, I know this is totally different because the Russian government has to suppress dangerous rebels wielding signs, even if they number four to six. I realize these are highly-trained agents of Western intelligence agencies and if they aren’t immediately surrounded if not carted off by the police they might suddenly storm the Kremlin and institute a special junta regime which delivers all of Russia’s resources into the hands of American corporations in exchange for 2 million cheeseburgers. This is an entirely plausible concept. You are not delusional at all. You are truly in tune with the Russian soul. Calm down. Shut up.
As for tolerance? Ha ha! No. No way. Tolerance is a dirty word in Russia. Tolerance means you want swastika-tattooed Caucasian immigrants to come into public schools and teach classes on how to be a pedophile. Come on! What else could tolerance possibly mean if not that?! This is why I got a bit enraged at seeing some pro-Russian people on social networks posting an alleged attack on a Kyiv gay club by right-wing militants. The motivation of these right-wing extremists in Kyiv was not a whit different than that of those who have in fact done the same thing in Russia. The sort of Russian who posts stories like this, mocking the hypocrisy of a regime in Kyiv which made no pretense to being more tolerant, generally would approve of the same action had it taken place in Russia. It would have been lauded as a victory for “Russian values” over the degenerate West with its tolerance for LGBT people and far higher standards of living. But of course this attack happened in Kyiv, most likely carried out by the same far-right groups which supported Maidan. Those far right groups reject Moscow hegemony, and therefore they are bad no matter how many other ideologically commonalities they share. They are “fascists,” while Russia’s right-wing extremists are “patriots.” Incidentally you will hear the exact reverse from many Maidan supporters.
In truth, Maidan never really made a pretense to tolerance. The fact that it willingly allowed itself to be associated with radical nationalism, specifically an early-20th century nationalism which has failed Ukraine every single time it has had any influence there, severely contradicts any Maidan apologist’s claims about tolerance or “liberal” values. Indeed the only Maidan supporter I’ve seen making this claim is the hack Timothy Snyder, who was obviously weaving his non-existent rainbow coalition in response to criticism of the movement’s fellow travelers. Who decided Maidan was about tolerance? From my point of view it was Russian opponents of Maidan, who in absence of any coherent argument against Maidan(and there were many), took to pointing their fingers and screaming “Fags!” like a bunch of teenage boys. Maidan claimed to be about integrating Ukraine in “Europe” and as we all know, or at least Russia knows, “Europe” = gay. Strangely though, it seems that when it comes to Russian-speakers in Ukraine, Russians think tolerance is pretty swell, and damn the fanatics in Kyiv for being so intolerant.
So basically what we have here are people who don’t even believe in liberal democracy criticizing shortcomings of Western liberal democracy. People who don’t believe in the idea of free speech strictly protected by the constitution criticizing Western freedom. People who hate the concept of tolerance questioning others practice of the same, and occasionally demanding tolerance when it comes to people they see as their own. How does it get this way?
One thing the reader has to understand is that in Russian politics, there really is no contradiction between someone who is supposedly a neo-Nazi and that same person espousing tolerance. These are not mutually exclusive at all. The idea certainly has its parallels in American politics. The easiest example could be seen in the difference between conservative characterization of their liberal or “progressive” opponents during most of the post-9/11 Bush administration and that which followed the election of Obama. In the former, liberals and progressives were limp-wristed cowards whose plan for dealing with terr’ism involved sending gift baskets to the Al Qaeda and the Taliban and possibly offering them a few US states of their choice. A few years later and suddenly progressives were according to some literal fascists and of course “thugs.” With their Maoist Shia Twelver cult leader Obama in power they would soon receive arms confiscated from
white traditional, Christian gun-owning families, after which they would usher in the People’s Republic of the South Canadian Arab Caliphate, a new Islamic power with surprisingly liberal laws regarding abortion and same-sex marriage.
Now normal people understand that liberals must either tend to be cowardly, hippy pacifist types or thuggish, militant brutes with revolutionary goals, as these two things are basically mutually exclusive. However they are not exclusive in the worldview of certain far right ideologies. If one wants a clearer example, I highly recommend reading this part of Fred Clark’s critique of the Left Behind novels. If anyone asked me where they could find a good analysis of American right-wing Christian ideology, Clark’s work would definitely be on the list. His satirical but sincere reviews, actually coming from a Christian perspective, are simply brilliant and fascinating not only on topic of Christian theology, but also the craft of storytelling and the aforementioned political side of American reactionary Christianity. Clark notes that in the mind of the Left Behind co-author Tim LaHaye, a former member of the John Birch Society, there is no contradiction between a pacifist who commits acts of violence, even killing a person with their own hand. Pacifists don’t actually believe in pacifism, according to this worldview. They are only using it to get what they want.
So it is with the dominant Russian view of things like tolerance, negative freedom(lack of prohibition), and democracy. There is no contradiction when one calls the Ukrainian government a junta of Nazis as well as gays and Jews. There is no contradiction between hating the concept of tolerance but then pointing out how others fail to be tolerant even if they never made a pretense of being tolerant to begin with. Levying sanctions against Russia for actions in the Crimea are “hypocritical.” Getting deeply involved in the internal affairs of a foreign nation to the point of annexing a part of it despite having a president who has routinely spoken out against interfering in the “internal affairs” of other countries is not hypocrisy at all.
If I were say, Julia Ioffe, this article might stop here. But I have a certain personal rule which is that even the most scathing critique of Russian society must have a solid foundation. In this case that solid foundation comes from considering the Western role in developing these attitudes in Russia, something that many liberals vehemently oppose. Some Western journalists, such as this German fellow, get frustrated with Russians and just can’t understand why they seemingly reject values like tolerance, liberal democracy, etc. They were just supposed to spontaneously realize all these concepts and integrate them into their society, but they didn’t so they are hopeless. This is shirking responsibility.
First a few key things need to be understood. “Liberal values” in Russia started to be espoused in the late 80’s and then the 90’s. During that same time, Russia experienced economic catastrophe, humiliation, a violent suppression of protesters by a president in violation of his own constitution, and a bloody guerrilla war. Liberalism and liberal values were associated with those who tore down every pillar of Soviet and Russian society. Some of the people who espoused these values got insanely rich at the expense of their fellow citizens, and personally benefited from their suffering. In other cases, good “liberals” or “democrats” served as mouthpieces for those who made off like bandits, or who were in fact bandits. While people faced choices like starvation or sexual slavery, these people were warning how the worst thing in Russian history was Josef Stalin, and the greatest danger to Russia was a Communist return to power. Russia’s present-day liberals haven’t really changed much. Some of them obliviously refer to the 90’s in a nostalgic manner, whereas most Russian citizens remember these times as being humiliating, dangerous, and without hope. I’ve said myself that the horror of the Russian “wild 90’s” is often exaggerated, but this doesn’t change the fact that it was indeed horrible for a great many people.
In addition to this problem, very little care seems to have been directed at helping Russians transition to a liberal capitalist world. Russians were, and it seems still are expected to just understand things which Western societies are only just beginning to realize after decades of social struggle and open debate. Also, as our right-wing leaders all believed Communism to be intertwined with the liberal ideology in their own countries, there was a tendency to promote all manner of right-wing, nationalist, and religious propaganda throughout the Cold War and after its end. Every once in a while you’ll see some hand-wringing article, usually by a European publication, bemoaning the rise of right-wing violence in some Eastern European country. For decades NATO countries spread propaganda hailing collaborationist regimes and figures in Eastern Europe, telling them that Communism was the worst thing to ever befall their poor, unfortunate nation. Russia was no exception. Now years later the Russians any other Eastern Europeans are supposed to be entirely to blame for holding reactionary views?
Listening to Russians attempt to construct arguments against certain liberal values may sound amusing, but the process also reveals how nobody ever properly represented or explained those views in Russia. What about all those political NGO’s that have worked in Russia all this time? I suspect that they have more to do with furthering a neo-liberal economic agenda more favorable to their backers than actually building that “civil society” they always yammer about. This explains why Russian liberals and oppositionists tend to be so out of touch not only with ordinary Russians, but also the Western liberals they so poorly ape like followers of a cargo cult.
Anyone who wants to see a more progressive political culture in Russia has to start to take responsibility for properly representing certain values. They have to explain why the chaos of the 90’s had nothing to do with liberal values. They need to openly acknowledge that issues of human rights cannot be entirely devoid of economic issues. They must explain what tolerance actually means and why it is actually positive for society, as numerous examples have proven both in the past and present. They must show how liberal values, while being seemingly “universal,” do not in fact remove the cultural character of peoples. Only an idiot would claim that one sees no cultural difference traveling through Europe from Ireland to Norway, to speak nothing of the vast cultural difference between Japan and Korea. American culture is vastly different from that of the United Kingdom, and even the differences in mentality and values between American and Canadians are readily noticeable at times.
Double standard have to end, whereby racism and superiority complexes against Russians is tolerated as has been the case in Ukraine. Yes, there was and still is a significant right-wing nationalist component among the Maidan movement. Yes, the anti-government forces in Eastern Ukraine also consist largely of nationalists with right-wing views. Condemn both, not one side.
Indeed, I’ve been seeing a lot of hypocrisy from Russian acquaintances in the past few months, but I also understand where this is coming from. More importantly, I do think that there is possibility for deep learning here, a “teachable moment” if you will. In observing this conflict more Russians might come to realize how tolerance could have saved a lot of “their people’s” lives in Eastern Ukraine. They could see the chauvinism aimed at them by Kyiv’s supporters and maybe one day realize that they have held the same attitudes toward Ukrainians and other former Soviet peoples. They could see the numerous parallels between their own values and those expressed by Ukrainian nationalist organization like Praviy Sektor or Svoboda, and hopefully that will horrify them.
Cynics will deny that this is possible and label Russia as hopeless. But I feel those that do ought to then abandon all pretense to championing progressive values, for this is nothing but a form of racism, plain and simple. I will never absolve Russians of responsibility for their own condition, but likewise I refuse to do so for Westerners who did not set proper examples. Just like the Russian who mock America’s version of “democracy,” those who bash Russia as hopelessly backward are doing it wrong.