Russia’s anti-Americanism may seem odd to many ordinary Americans, few of which ever spend any time thinking about Russia. When Russians rally around a president they were protesting against just a couple years prior, swearing that they’ll give up any and every luxury just to spite the West, it can be quite confusing indeed. What, after all, are they actually sacrificing for? Actually many Russians who haven’t bought into the latest wave of idiotic jingoism who have far more reason to be perplexed. They are far more intimately acquainted with the reality of life in Russia and thus it is it is all the more maddening when people who literally suffer the effects of years of neglect, corruption, and mismanagement stand up and scream about how they’ll make every sacrifice for…for…something. Who knows?
Can anyone actually say why they are opposed to the West? It’s not ideology, because Russia doesn’t actually present an alternative ideology. The government merely promotes an incoherent, contrived narrative based on paranoia and fear of the other. It’s not economics, because Russia doesn’t present an alternative economic model and even if it did, Russia’s current model is nothing to emulate. It seems the reason for fearing the West is fearing the West in itself. At least it’s far easier than actually dealing with any of Russia’s problems. Still, anyone who has actually spent time in Russia, especially provincial Russia, might be at a loss to understand exactly what today’s Russians are so afraid of that they must abandon all their increasing demands and complaints of the past ten or so years and throw in their lot with the state.
Actually I’ve noticed this question isn’t so perplexing once you’re more familiar with Russian history and culture. This is going to get a bit complicated but bear with me. I’m not the first one to notice this. It is generally taken for granted that Russian culture is very homophobic, yet like in many homophobic cultures, only passive homosexuality is seen as negative. Active homosexuality, i.e. being a “top,” is not seen as gay at all. In fact it almost seems to be respected. It is seen as dominance via humiliating someone. This is in contrast to the West, where in spite of being tolerant of homosexuality in general, there is a far more logical view that being attracted to the same sex, regardless of the role one plays in a relationship, is homosexuality or at least bisexuality plain and simple.
Now the thing that ties all this together is something a respected friend of mine pointed out recently. Homophobia goes hand in hand with misogyny. It’s no secret that cultures known for negative views of homosexuality tend to also have low opinions of women, at best. Those same cultures also tend to ignore active, i.e. dominant homosexuality while reviling the passive role. As my friend pointed out, this is because the passive partner is the “woman” in the relationship, and women are weak. There’s even a meme going around the internet that says, “Homophobia is the fear that men will treat you the way you treat women.” How true that is. In both Russian and Ukrainian culture there is a very obvious fear of being emasculated and humiliated, coupled with a desire to humiliate others. This is very obvious from watching videos showing conditions in the Russian army, or videos of Ukrainian soldiers or pro-Russian rebels with their captives. It is also even more blatant when observing Russian and Ukrainian trolls battling online. The weapon of choice tends to be pornographic photos, sometimes depicting homosexuality. Whatever the case, the targeted country will always be portrayed as the receiver.
By now you might be wondering what all this has to do with Russian politics and its relationship to the West, and the answer in one word would be humiliation. This might seem odd, if only because the vast majority of Americans and Western Europeans have no desire to see Russia destroyed, dismantled, or somehow enslaved. In fact, instability in Russia and another economic collapse would actually be detrimental to the industrialized world. It would mean a dangerous, risky investment climate and much lower demand for Western products, not to mention a major decline in tourism. If the West only cared about overthrowing the Russian government and destroying Russia at all costs, it has had plenty of ways to carry that out and could have put that plan into action long ago. Of course one can always find some Cold Warrior hack who fantasizes about bringing Russia to her knees, but these people are few and far between and usually have some kind of specific agenda. On whole whole, the vast majority of Americans at least simply do not care about Russia. I can never stress this enough.
Ordinary Americans, Europeans, and other nationalities don’t really take much notice when Russia puts on rallies and ordinary Russians scoff at the sanctions. In fact they usually only find out about these gestures when some media outlet bothers to report it to them. In any case, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll find many Americans who , when informed of Russia’s defiance, gnash their teeth and curse their misfortune. “Damn! I was hoping those Russians would totally throw up their hands and beg for mercy thanks to those specifically-targeted sanctions,” said no American, ever.
This, however, is exactly how the Russian media and many political actors in Russia portray their country’s relationship with the West. This is why some Russians will openly spit at words like “freedom” and “democracy.” Whereas most people would accept that these ideas are inherently good, in Russia it smacks of submission to the West. Therefore the only way not to submit to the West and suffer emasculating, feminine humiliation is to totally submit to one strong leader and his political clique, no matter how much contempt they receive in return. Some people just know that the second Russia becomes a functioning liberal democratic country all of Europe, North America, Korea, and Japan will point and laugh. “We beat the Russians,” they’ll surely say. “Now they have competitive elections, constitutional rights and limitations on power, and greater press freedom! We sure bent them over!”
Of course in reality nothing of the sort would happen. In fact, had Russia created a stable democracy based on concepts like human rights and rule of law, it would be far more powerful today. Russia has tons of advantages over its Eastern European and former Soviet neighbors. Those advantages, however, have been squandered. This is why Russia’s potential allies desert her. This is why Russia doesn’t get the regard it deserves in the realm of international diplomacy. This is why it is so easy to levy sanctions against her. It is also why the country is in a panic about the price of oil, the decline of Russia’s natural gas monopoly, ad the plummeting ruble. Putin and his clique failed to develop a diverse economy that attracted investment and produced products and companies capable of actually competing with the West. That could have led to the rise of individuals outside of their control, and therefore dangerous. Hence the future of the nation was discarded in favor of more control.
So now we confront a paradox. In order to appear strong and not be humiliated by people who don’t even think about them, let alone desire to humiliate them, many Russians this year have decided to take up what is essentially a humiliating position. They publicly pledge loyalty to their abusive government. They say they’ll endure any hardship, even though their leaders clearly will not. This they will do in spite of the fact that every one of them is keenly aware of how the government has robbed them. Even as they protest budget cuts against teachers and medical personnel, they phrase their struggle not as a conflict between them and the government, but rather against some hidden sixth or possibly seventh or eighth column, i.e. traitors within the Russian government doing the will of the United States by cutting the education and healthcare budget. No matter how undignified and compromising their position is, this domestic humiliation is preferable to the wholly irrational notion that Russia instituting functioning democratic norms will somehow be followed by the complete destruction of their country and of course, American gloating.
Now one might ask if there is any rational basis to Russian fears of humiliation. Has not Russia been humiliated before, specifically after the collapse of the USSR? I would say yes, but the same could be said for many other Eastern European countries, many of which seem to have gotten over that difficult time in the 90’s. Few of these countries see their admission into the EU or NATO as some kind of act of submission. However unrealistic, people in these countries believe this makes them part of a partnership of advanced, industrialized nations. Russia actually has far more potential to be a real partner in such a relationship, but the idea of Russia in the EU or NATO is commonly seen as some form of surrender and submission, as though this membership will come at some horrible price. Again, it’s humiliation only for Russia.
Oddly enough, when I think of real humiliation in the wake of the USSR’s collapse, the sort that makes my blood boil, it seems that what comes to my mind differs greatly from what most Russians have in mind. For me, the humiliation of the late 80’s and 90’s is the sexual exploitation of women and young girls. This includes everything from women trafficking abroad to the “mail order bride industry.” It is a shame not only for Russia, but all the former Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc when countries which once made such rapid and groundbreaking advancements in women’s rights experience such a crass, callous commodification of their women. Indeed, Russian woman has become so synonymous with prostitution that in many countries the slang for prostitute was “Natasha.” Even women and girls who are not ethnically Russian have been encouraged to market themselves as such, as this is what many customers expect and few can tell the difference, much less care.
One thing that struck me when I moved to Russia in 2006, however, is that neither Russian men nor women seemed terribly concerned about this. Even politically-minded people preferred to ignore it. The idea that Russian women are seen as commodities was not only ignored, but in some ways popular culture encouraged this view and it still does. I can’t tell you how many times I was asked, either in English or Russian, if I thought “Russian girls” were the best. Every time I’m asked this question, particularly in English, I can’t help but be reminded of the infamous scene in Full Metal Jacket, where Private Joker and his friend are approached by a Vietnamese hooker. Even supposedly conservative types like to virtually pimp out Russian women to foreigners or in the case of some Westerners, their fellow countrymen. Russian women are great commodities because they’ll supposedly fulfill every desire a self-entitled man has without asking for anything in return. None of this is seen as humiliation because it’s just women doing what women are supposed to do, according to this culture. As it concerns Russia and Ukraine, nationalists on both sides are fond of pointing out the humiliation of their enemy’s women via prostitution and commodification, but they deny that it happens to their own. Hence nothing is done to address that actual problem.
What this one example shows us is how something that really is objectively humiliating for Russia and other Eastern European or former Soviet republics is ignored, often out of fear or at least more concern over some hypothetical, often unrealistic humiliation that will supposedly come with increasing respect for human rights, rule of law, and cooperating with other countries. Again we see this paradox; when Putin and Medvedev actually experienced some positive progress in terms of attracting foreign investment in Russia and integrating the country into the global economy in the middle of the last decade, they were unable to claim or at least receive credit for it. The very path they were taking which promised Russia some measure of success was one which the populace at large had been trained to hate, by the state run media at least. In other words, Putin couldn’t boast of how Russia was attracting investment, becoming a better, stronger, market, and on the road to better relations with Europe and the US, even though all of these things, if carried to their logical conclusion, would have immensely improved the lives of Russian citizens. Even though this would actually increase dignity of life in Russia, this would be seen as surrender. By contrast, he could throw away the future of Russia in an instant by seizing the Crimea and many of those who marched against him a couple years ago suddenly switch sides. Cooperative, open, and outgoing with economic success are rejected in favor of authoritarian, closed, and decaying. The obsession with preserving pride undermines the effort to build something to be proud of.
Which path would be more conducive to Russian pride, dignity, and success, and which is truly surrender? Putin’s current path is true surrender, to himself and to a coterie of incompetent cronies. It projects an outward appearance of strength but on the inside it is hollow and rotten. By contrast, a Russia with strong guarantees of constitutional rights for all, rule of law, and an actual competitive liberal democratic system would be truly strong. Russia’s natural wealth could be put to use for the good of the public, much in the manner of Norway; the Russian public isn’t so paralyzed by market worship as in the United States. Much of that wealth could be used to fund real start-ups, where people earn their positions by merit instead of by virtue of who they know or to whom they swear absolute loyalty. This, plus the repair of infrastructure on a nationwide scale would lead to higher standards of living that could make both brain drain and the even more humiliating phenomenon of “mail-order brides” a thing of the past. A Russia that produces innovative new products and solutions would be a true match for the US, EU, and even China. Happier citizens who get along makes for a more polite, friendly, and altogether unified and cohesive society. How could that society ever fall victim to some kind of foreign-sponsored “Orange revolution,” assuming the US or EU are indeed only concerned with ruining Russia? That Russia could never be cracked.
Alas, for the time being at least, most Russians are too afraid to contemplate that future Russia. That will require effort. Worse still, if Russia adopts that kind of political system and stops constantly defining itself by opposing the West, the Americans might think they’ve won! They’ll look at Russians with their increased rights, wealth, and better healthcare and say, “Ha! We sure gave it to you good, didn’t we?” Nothing could be more humiliating. So for the time being, the course of action for most is to find themselves a protector. Someone who promises he’ll keep them safe and occasionally give them a little dessert time to time. America and the West won’t be able to humiliate them now. Daddy Putin will look after them. Sure Daddy gives their country’s wealth to his friends. Sure he cheats on them by living the very same lifestyle he says they should spurn. Of course he makes it clear again and again how little he thinks of them. But when the Americans see that we’re with big Daddy Putin, they’ll realize that we’re taken! They won’t touch us! Thus the cycle continues; the fear of non-existent humiliation leads to the willful embrace of actual humiliation. As much as Russians claim they don’t care what Americans or Westerners think, it’s obvious that they not only care, but obsess over those thoughts. That obsession is what leads to this humiliating relationship with the current regime. If they realized that the vast majority of Americans not only wish no ill will toward Russia, but actually don’t even think about Russia at all, they wouldn’t feel the need to stick with a protector, enduring all the indignities that entails.