How NOT to criticize Russia

So there’s this Dutch translator who was awarded the Pushkin prize for his work in translating Russian literature into Dutch. He refused the prize, citing Putin and his behavior as the reason. I have nothing to say regarding his criticism of Putin, but refusing the prize for this reason was flat out wrong. This prize, as far as I know, is not chosen by Vladimir Putin. It was actually established in 1999, prior to his becoming president. This is an award from Russia, not Putin.  But this goes to demonstrate a severe problem in the way that many Europeans or Americans deal with Russia. They conflate Russia with Putin, or at least the Russian government. 

Most people realize that George W. Bush was not the United States. The United Kingdom is more than the West Bengal famine. Japan is no longer the Rape of Nanking and the Bataan Death March. Germany is not National Socialism or the Holocaust.  Iran today welcomes American tourism and they are extremely friendly to Americans, a fact which was reiterated to me personally yesterday when I ran into an Iranian acquaintance at a convention. Even as Israel was bombing Gaza, thousands of Israeli Jews bravely protested their governments actions, and even more Jews around the world stood up and refused to accept the equation of the Israeli state with Jewish people.  

Alas, it seems people do not understand this concept when it comes to Russia. Simply living in Russia, especially for a long time, is liable to be taken as some kind of political statement by your own countrymen. Russia is Putin and Putin is Russia; this incorrect, ridiculous, condescending notion is held even by fanatical pro-Russian expats. They decided they weren’t too keen on their American or British society and government, thus they took interest in Russia and moved here. After they arrive, however, they decide what Russia is and what Russians should believe. More often than not, that means supporting the regime and being patriotic. Russians shouldn’t have the same rights as Johnny American expat who didn’t fit in back home. They need to fit into his concept of Russian so as to assuage his identity crisis.  On the flip side, other people hear you’ve been living in Russia so long and they assume you must be supportive of the government and its policies. Heaven forbid that you make a comment on some article, pointing out that it is a bit sensationalist or that it isn’t taking this or that factor into account. Now you are a traitor, probably in the pay of the Kremlin! 

Everything about Russia shouldn’t be political, because like in any other country, there is life outside the sphere of politics. Russia is not Vladimir Putin or the fascist geopolitical theory of men like Alexander Dugin. The state does not control every aspect of life here, and in fact it is often more relaxed in some areas. I often talk about the way Russians don’t care about others, but there is also a good side to that equation. It means that many Russians don’t get ridiculously upset about trivial matters. You can pretty much wear whatever you want in public and not attract rude comments or stares. Even in this political climate I see dozens of people wearing clothing emblazoned with American flags and symbols. People just don’t get so upset about things.  

If you go to Gorky Park, or Maroseyka street in Kitai-Gorod, you would think you are in any major European city. There are hipsters, there are dance classes, flash mobs, bands, and artists. It’s not non-stop Nashi parades and nationalist rallies. You certainly don’t see many pro-Putin rallies either; that would get expensive real quick since people have to be paid to show up to those. A lot of life in Russia doesn’t revolve around Putin and the state. Sure, you can say that the award this Dutch translator refused was issued by the government, but that’s a very large organization and not everyone in it is an asshole, nor do they necessarily support where the regime is going. I highly doubt the officials who choose the Pushkin Prize and award it to foreigners are hardcore Russian nationalists.  

I’ve often noticed that Russians have difficulty distinguishing between individuals and the groups they represent, as well as between individuals and their governments. Truth be told, however, the rest of the world does the same thing to Russians very often. Aside from this example, I recently read about a Polish restaurant owner who put a sign on his establishment saying he wouldn’t serve Russians. Poland has been free of any sort of Russian domination since 1989. There is absolutely no justifiable reason to make what is essentially a racist public statement against a people who are doing literally nothing to you. 

If the West wants to see more progressive thinking in Russia, it would do well to practice it. Not doing that simply backs up the paranoid fantasies peddled by the state media about Russia being surrounded by enemies who hate it. So long as the prize was not awarded personally by Vladimir Putin, you should accept it instead of using this inappropriate opportunity to make a political statement.  

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2 thoughts on “How NOT to criticize Russia

  1. Lucy Sohryu (@sohryu_l)

    Problem is these same people happily cheered on Putin when he annexed Crimea.

    I also wouldn’t affiliate all the people who called me a ‘fascist’ last year with Putin. Most of them were critical of him just a few months before (and still are critical of the government), but that did not stop them from cheering КРЫМНАШ and talking my ear off about how Russian speakers are oppressed in Ukraine and how I am a fascist for denying this (I’m a Russian speaker myself by the way).

    Reply
    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      Actually if you read one of my latest articles(on Eurovision), you can see how I’ve been coming around to this person’s point of view lately. As the Kremlin increasingly cracks down on all dissent and the population cows to it, it gets harder and harder not to politicize things because the populace becomes complicit in it. This just shows how rapidly things are deteriorating, because so little of Russian society is untouched by this complicity it seems.

      Reply

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