Nobody knows

So recently Russians are all laughing their asses off because A. They don’t understand basic economics and thus aren’t aware of how royally fucked they are, and B. Obama said something ignorant about Russian history.  Specifically, Obama made a reference to Eastern Ukraine and the Crimea as lands Russia lost in the 19th century, when in fact they actually lost those territories in the 20th century! What a complete dumbass!  

Now of course Obama could have simply had a slip of the tongue, wanting to say 1990’s but still thinking about 20th century, but who cares? No, seriously, nobody fucking cares when Russia lost the Crimea or “Novorossiya.” I’m saying this as a history buff who still can’t watch period pieces without feeling extreme discomfort at the sight of anachronisms and inaccuracies. I’m saying that most people don’t care about Russian history because Russia does very little to make most people interested in their history or culture. Then when people display admittedly laughable ignorance about Russia, the Russians are suddenly shocked, offended, or amused. Imagine that- They do nothing to give the world a positive opinion about them, nothing to make normal people interested, and when it turns out the mainstream opinion of Russia is either negative or totally apathetic, it’s a surprise! But there are a few important things to keep in mind here when discussing Obama’s gaffe. 

The first is that Russians don’t know their own history either. While it’s not true that Russia suppresses information about the gulag system or the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, i.e.something liberal critics don’t really want people to know the whole truth about anyway, the state and its media generally promotes a ridiculous “Russia is always right” narrative of history. The Russian empire was on its way to become like the United States or modern Germany, but then those dastardly Bolsheviks went ahead and dicked that up in 1917. But it’s okay, because the Soviet Union turned out to be a new Russian Empire that defeated fascism and put the first man in space. All the accomplishments of the Soviet Union were the work of Muscovite Russians. Ukrainians, Belorussians, Tatars, Bashkirs, Uzbeks, Kazakhs, Balts, Armenians, Georgians…They never did anything but relax and enjoy the benefits that the selfless Russians produced for them.  The Soviet Union was basically a flawless society until one day, for no reason at all, Gorbachev singlehandedly destroyed this massive superpower with the help of ungrateful Russophobes in the various Union republics. Then the drunken Yeltsin came to power, but he was still kind of cool because he kept Chechnya in Russia. But it was in 2000 that Russia was saved by the coming of the strong leader everyone needs in order to function in life, Vladimir Putin. 

Now before I say anything more about that fairy tale, I want to preempt anybody who says “But they do that in America too!” Yes, there is this belief of American exceptionalism, but the only people who seriously believe that are pundits or conservative academics who are totally disconnected from reality. Sure it comes up in political races, but when one politician attacks another for not believing in American exceptionalism, nobody gets upset because they seriously think the guy doesn’t sincerely believe in it. It’s something akin to kissing the ass of “small business owners;” you just have to do it. And once again, outside of political races this kind of thing is typically only popular with one *cough! conservative! cough!* segment of the political spectrum. 

Furthermore, America has incorporated self-criticism, albeit severely whitewashed, into its mainstream narrative. It is generally accepted that the Founding Fathers did not in fact create the kind of equality they preached in their written works, and it’s no secret that many of them owned slaves. We talk about genocide and ethnic cleansing of Native Americans. Our mainstream discussion on slavery leaves much to be desired, but if one looks at the fantasies peddled by Neo-confederates or how slavery was portrayed before the 1960’s our mainstream discourse is clearly more enlightened. It’s even popular to see the Vietnam War as a severely misguided mistake, and I would dare say that the Iraq War has taken on a similar judgement as it seems even conservatives started ditching it from about 2008 onward. Is any of this the kind of thorough, scathing judgement America justly deserves? Well no, not if we speak about the mainstream view. However, in radical media outlets and in university campuses across the nation, intellectuals, students, journalists, and pundits openly and freely espouse far more radical views on all these topics, some more progressive, others more reactionary. In other words, debate exists.  So no, America doesn’t “do it too,” but this is straying away from my main point.  

Russians aren’t exactly ignorant of the fact that few of their fellow citizens know their own history, but there is an almost universal assumption that foreigners cannot possibly know anything about Russian history. For years, when introducing myself as American, I would inevitably be asked as to who I thought won the Second World War. Since the Great Patriotic War is actually one of my most-studied subjects in life, I was well aware of the fact that over 70-80% of all Wehrmacht losses were on the so-called “Eastern Front.” Nothing will tell you how dreaded the words Ostfront were than the famous memoir The Forgotten Soldier by Guy Sajer, which I read in 2002, long before I moved to Russia. But of course my interrogator is assuming that I will be confused and think that the United States won, just like in Hollywood movies. And of course we know that’s totally bullshit because the US totally didn’t win WWII, am I right? Again my rage causes me to digress. The point is this question started getting insulting once I began wondering what they would say if I came back with a counter-question of my own. For example, “Can you name the two major counter-offensive operations which followed the successful defense of the Kursk salient?” Oh is that too hard? Okay, let me make this easy. Give me the month and year marking the battle of Stalingrad. Shit, just tell me the names of three commanders, division-level or higher, German or Soviet, who took part in the battle?  I guarantee you most people I ask here would not have a goddamned clue. 

Russians typically complain about Hollywood creating stereotypes of Russia or perpetuating myths, but then again how much effort has Russia put into correcting those myths? Most Russian films are never subtitled into English or exported abroad. They tend to be those which are made with the backing of a major Hollywood studio. Even then they may be laced with modern Russian patriotic nonsense, or they are just plain embarrassing like the work of Nikita “The Adolf Hitler of filmmaking” Mikhalkov. It’s kind of unfair to compare Hollywood to the Russian film industry, but while America does put out a lot of patriotic bullshit, foreign audiences have also seen films such as Good Night and Good LuckTwelve Years a Slave, and even a film highly critical of the previously-sacred Second World War, Flags of our Fathers. The point is though, for better or for worse America exports some semblance of its culture. Obviously this can create stereotypes about America, but it also builds interest and familiarity. This is why you can read about young people in countries like Iran loving American films and music. In fact the people who get fucked the most in this arrangement are actually Americans, as Hollywood studios deliberately gear their movies for foreign and particularly Chinese audiences. 

Back to those stereotypes about Russia. In Russia the common belief is that foreigners think Russia is nothing but bears, vodka, and balalaikas. If only. A more accurate stereotypical view of Russia would be criminals, corruption, prostitutes, mail order brides, and yes, the vodka is still there. I can’t speak for Russians, but I would prefer that people think my country is full of bears(which they totally don’t) rather than know the reality. But whatever stereotypes people have about Russia, and however true or untrue they may be, whose fault is it if foreigners and especially Westerners are still just as ignorant about Russia as they were more than two decades ago? 

Did I miss some massive Russian goodwill campaign, where Russia opened its borders and catered to more tourism so as to promote cultural exchange, or where Russia started sponsoring all kinds of cultural exhibitions abroad? The truth is that the Russians who could have spearheaded such a campaign existed, and even still exist today, but rather than being promoted as Russia’s best foot forward and a bridge to integrating Russia into the world and thus making it competitive in the marketplace of ideas, that community is marginalized, demonized, and even under threat of arrest or harassment by the state in some cases. Instead religious fanatics, cronies, fascists, and belligerent gasbag politicians are promoted, coddled, and given a free hand to define what Russian means. They are “pro-Russian,” and the educated, cosmopolitan people in touch with reality are “anti-Russian” fifth columnists. Never mind the fact that the “patriotic” class has had total dominance for over a decade while on their watch the country descends back into the 90’s. Never mind the fact that their supposed “island of traditional values” is rife with hypocrisy and immorality of all sorts, incidentally a common feature of communities which have nothing to offer save for their supposed respect for “traditional values.”   While they steal, cheat, or apologize for those that do, these are the patriots, and the patriots fervently wish to see Russia isolated and cut off from the world. How tragically amusing it is that their followers among the masses can’t seem to understand why foreigners aren’t terribly interested in their culture or history. 

I would like to present a counter-example in the form the United Kingdom. First of all, I must admit I was convinced by British “propaganda” of sorts, largely due to my years of teaching English via British materials. My assessment of the UK is that this is a country which does much, both via the state and the private sector, to promote its ideas and culture around the world. I have to say that this new approach they’ve adopted is far more preferable to the way they used to do that. They do it through the promotion of the English language(though I think the United States truly deserves the credit for making English a lingua franca), they do it with the BBC, and they even do it with Harry Potter. I was too old to get into the books when they first hit the shelves, but I have to say I’m impressed at the way the UK has promoted the hell out of them, and the way they in turn have spread knowledge of British culture. And sure, the media loves to focus on Islamic extremists and nativist thugs, but my experience with the UK has been utterly free of that. If you don’t purposely focus on those margins, the impression one gets as a foreigner is a country which has a sense of humor about itself and its past, a country which still holds some absurd beliefs yet admits that they are absurd, and a country which spent several hundred years identifying the best achievements of the peoples it dominated and then incorporated them into its own culture.  

And what about Britain’s view of its own history? Sure, they tend to give Churchill a free pass and Gordon Brown did say Britain should stop “apologizing for the empire,” but on the other hand most Britons fervently believe that the latter is a “right muppet” and a “proper cunt,” in the local vernacular.  Also just take a look at some of these examples of British documentaries.  

This documentary gives us the Egyptian view of the Suez Crisis, and pretty much reveals Anthony Eden to be a Berkshire. That’s nothing though, check out what they promote to children with programs like Horrible Histories.

Yup, you’d never see a show like that even on American television. Our version would imply that child labor was actually good and enjoyable for the children, and quite possibly implore the young viewers to bug their parents about writing letters to their congressmen asking for the repeal of child labor laws.  Not to mention anything about the medieval era would be weak as hell because we can’t tell children about people slaughtering each other wholesale for centuries.  

If you forgot as to why the hell I’m talking about Britain and British history let me remind you that this is a comparison. You’re reading the work of an individual who quite honestly didn’t give a fuck about England or the UK but then totally changed his mind thanks to the efforts of the BBC, Oxford and Cambridge publishing, David Mitchell, Horrible Histories, and the city of London in general.  For all its faults, and there are many, the United Kingdom busts its royal ass to promote its culture and the best aspects thereof. UKIP, EDL, and the ultra-halal beard-with-no-mustache types are on the margins.  

By contrast, Russia does little to promote its culture, and that which it does promote is often the worst. Symbols of power, threats, xenophobic rants, hypocritical lectures about “values.” I can’t totally absolve the Western media for focusing on the worst elements in Russian society, but on the other hand these people are often allowed to dominate the spotlight and given great, if not illegal power insofar as they support the regime.  Russia makes almost no effort to make its culture appealing to foreigners, and any time it does make a half-ass attempt and fails, it throws a tantrum, screaming, “We don’t care what anyone thinks! We are Russia!”  Meanwhile the leadership continues robbing the majority and funneling it to the  West for its products.  

Basically Russians need to make a decision. If they want the world to know more about Russia, and maybe actually consider Russia’s opinions instead of instinctively taking the side of whatever country is opposing Russia at the moment, they need to open up the country to tourism, fix a ton of shit, act more friendly, and promote a positive, inclusive culture. If they don’t like stereotypes, they need to stop promoting stereotypes not only about Europeans or Americans but first and foremost against their own minorities and other former Soviet nationalities. They need to develop self-criticism and a sense of humor instead of being so fucking ultra-sensitive and flipping out at the drop of a hat, a feature rather amusing for a country which scoffs at “political correctness.”  They can’t necessarily eliminate the neo-Nazis, fascists, or religious fanatics, but they can stop tolerating them in the mainstream.  It might also help to stop pining for a lost empire which in reality was a living hell for most people, including their own ancestors. I realize those ideas might seem repugnant to some Russians, but for those who think so, they’d better get used to the negative stereotypes. 


2 thoughts on “Nobody knows

  1. Pat

    Related to this, the Kremlin recently announced that it was giving the Western PR firm Ketchum (which spell check so badly wants to make into ketchup- it might be on to something there) the boot at the end of their contract. It reinforces the point above, which is that the Kremlin does not understand the value of soft power despite the amount of useful hard power at their actual disposal being an open question. Thuggery as long as the West will tolerate it seems to be the name of the game, although what the actual end goal is (continued power for Putin one assumes) remains open to question. Clearly it is not a healthy economy or the building of a place one would want to actually live.


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