Unfortunately, work has prevented me from writing on of the posts I’ve got planned for this week. Luckily The Moscow Times just posted a brilliant article from Mark Galeotti.
I’ve been saying for quite some time now that there needs to be a changing of the guard when it comes to Russia expertise. It’s not just a matter of aging Cold Warriors who stand to benefit from poor relations between Russia and the West; it’s also a lot of people who see Russia in terms of abstract ideas rather than in a more humanist way.
One way or another, you have a lot of people who come to Russia, heads full of hopelessly out-of-date knowledge they gained in college. They arrive and attempt to project this onto Russia and they’re mad when Russia doesn’t fit. This describes both sides of the spectrum.
Long before the degeneration of Russia-Western relations in recent years, I’d seen plenty of idealistic Russian/Russian studies major types who had obviously read a lot of Russian liberal literature. They couldn’t understand why the locals weren’t interested in constantly exploring the horrors of the Soviet Union and Stalin, or why they weren’t orgasmic over the fall of the USSR. Today these people are seen as “vatniks” and die-hard Putin supporters, and to be sure many of them are. Based on my own experience and research, however, I suspect that in the past many Russians were more than willing to engage in an open and honest discussion about the problems and tragedies in the Soviet Union, it’s just that many Western or Russian liberal academics and writers seemed to be interested in nothing but the tragedies, while totally ignoring the positive aspects. This is very different from the critical history we’re used to in our own countries. Rather than listen to some of the counter-arguments it seems many followers of this school prefer to consider the Russian people brainwashed and still under the effects of Stalin, even if they were born after the fall of the USSR. Their agency is removed and they are dehumanized.
On the other side of the spectrum you have the idealistic Russophiles, again obsessed with stereotypical symbols of Russianness. They were upset to see Russians interested more in Latin American dances and learning German or English instead of doing Russian folk dances, quoting Pushkin, and supporting their president so that Russia could challenge NATO and build a “multi-polar world.” They expected Russia to be some kind of bastion of what they consider “traditional” morality, and yet they discovered a country where things like adultery, prostitution, and gold-digging are far more acceptable if not celebrated at times. Of course they couldn’t put the blame on the system, one which rewards lying, corruption, and stealing, so it was the West’s fault. In spite of their professed love for everything Russian, they actually believe the Russian people to be stupid children who need a father-like dictator figure to protect them from falling for “Western” ideas and imports. Well, not all Western things. They should be totally accepting of pro-Kremlin Russian wannabes from America, Britain, or wherever, but it must stop there! Everything else “Western” must be rejected.
Both these people have the same problem- Russians don’t fit their preconceived notions of what they are supposed to be, and so they are to blame. Whether the claim is that they are still brainwashed by Stalin or developmentally stunted by the Mongol yoke, or that they are stupid cattle who need to be protected from the dastardly influence of the West, the conclusion is the same. Russians are not people with agency, differences of opinion, different experiences, etc. In many ways I’d say that Russians are the target of a “noble savage” myth that goes undetected because Russians are “white” to Western eyes. Well, that is they aren’t “white” until someone gets called out on this racism, in which case they are suddenly, temporarily granted “whiteness.”
Galeotti’s idea of the unsentimental Russophile is intriguing to me because it’s probably the first time in many years that I’d actually identify with the term Russophile at all. That one qualifier changes everything. In my youth I was a very sentimental, romantic, fanatically idealistic Russophile, but even before I learned the truth of Putin’s Russia that obsession with superficial aspects of Russianness was already waning. I’d already read my requisite share of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, and so I spent my time reading up on the various social problems facing Russia at the time. When I bought into the Putin mythos of that time, his alleged opposition to “the West” was utterly secondary to my mind. What was important was that Russian living standards were rising, and I hoped that this process was further reducing things like corruption and exploitation of women and children. To me this was what saving Russia from the horrible 90’s was all about.
I think this is what made it so easy to make an about face once I got a more accurate picture of life in Putin’s Russia. I was expecting concrete things and they weren’t there. Corruption was rife as ever, it was just ordered in a different way. The humiliating exploitation of Russia’s female population was still in force as ever, almost as if it was promoted by the state and its media. If I’d been obsessed with superficial cultural things like Master and Margarita or Pushkin’s poetry, I wouldn’t have been disillusioned; all those things were readily available after all. Same thing with all the patriotic propaganda. It was there in 2006 and 2007 just as it was today, only back then people saw it for the cynical ploy that it was.
Last year there were times when I started seriously wondering if I could some how just cut Russia (and now Ukraine) out of my life somehow. Physically leaving is only part of it; I imagined a peaceful future life somewhere in the States where I pretend that I just have this missing decade. I imagine changing the channel if a story about Russia comes on the news. But in a rational sense I know this is no less a fantasy than the grandiose dreams I had as a child and a teenager. I’d sooner become a goddamned astronaut before I’d ever be able to hear a story about some injustice or outrage in Russia or Ukraine and not feel a deep visceral anger, as though it were happening to me or someone close to me.
The problem is that with a lot of the current experts, you don’t have that kind of connection. They’re able to talk about abstract ideas and appreciate superficial gestures without showing too much concern about their effects on the ground. That’s why you have Russia critics who still back and praise Khodorkovsky without seeing how incredibly problematic this is, and it’s why you have Russia supporters who insist that Russian endure ever worsening conditions under Putin because…uh…anti-imperialism! Multi-polar world! Neocons! It’s kind of hard to quantify exactly who sincerely cares about a people more, but anyone who is able to hold either of the aforementioned views certainly doesn’t give a shit about the consequences their ideologies hold for Russia.
Obviously one can question Galeotti’s recommendations about expats being the best source. There are many expats who before fawning Kremlinophiles because life for them in Russia, as it is for expats in many countries, is like “easy mode” for real life. Enjoying the fruits of Putin’s corrupt system and the attitudes it engenders (which are essentially preserved 90’s modes of thinking), they happily decide that the Kremlin must be the source of their cushy lifestyle and thus pay homage in return.
On the other hand, what he says about people who work for companies like RT or who have lived here long term is especially true. While long-term expat may not equal trustworthy, I can’t really see how you could have a credible expert without long-term living in Russia, in spite of whatever academic credentials they might have.
I guess now I can admit that I am a Russophile- an unsentimental one. I don’t give a shit about Russian “traditions,” only that their leaders are held accountable to the people, that their natural wealth is put towards their material benefit, that their streets are clean, that they have opportunities for advancement in life, and that their society is progressive and free. I suppose I could say I’m an unsentimental Ukrainophile for the exact same reason. I’m sick of the endless victimhood and tears for those who died in the past, an excuse for not doing anything for those living today and their descendants.
Once again, let us not forget that Russia-Western relations went to hell in a handbasket on the watch of our old guard experts. How long will leaders keep giving them chances before admitting that maybe it’s time to start listening to the next generation, one with far more hands on experience. Will they continue using command “push” instead of recon “pull?” Time will tell.