9 YEARS IN RUSSIA!
In honor of the 9-year anniversary of my move to Russia, I present my readers with…This long political rant:
These days there’s this idea that Russians miss the Soviet Union, as though they are Communists, as though this is what they actually wanted. Obviously when given the chance, the Russian people, like people in the other union republics, utterly failed to put up any fight to preserve either the union itself, just as they failed to do anything about the system which had long since ceased to be anything remotely resembling socialism in a Marxist sense. In reality the rising Soviet nostalgia, nurtured by the state media and state-connected organizations, is totally disconnected with socialist politics or even the actual Soviet Union itself. Instead, the Soviet Union has been reimagined as another Russian empire, and the message of the state is that Russian imperialism is just and right. This has great appeal for a population living nearly a quarter of a century under humiliation, especially when post-Soviet Russia shows little capacity for achievement in recent years.
Yet while we must not nurture modern Russian fantasies about how the collapse of the Soviet Union wasn’t their fault, or that they were wholly unaccountable for what happened next, we also need to stop doing things like what former US Ambassador Michael McFaul did in this tweet today:
Now I don’t mean to sound like Mark Ames here, but the fact is that while Russia and other Soviet republics were already suffering in the throes of Perestroika, the 90’s, especially the early 90’s, were no picnic for Russia and other former Soviet republics, to say the least. In fact, when Ames talks about the crime, violence, corruption, and prostitution of the 90’s, he’s not wrong nor lying. The only problem is that he used all that to build a career for himself, and then shits on anyone who wants to deal with Russia’s problems now, many of which are rooted in the 90’s.
I apologize for the digression but the point here is that McFaul’s comment is akin to the sentiments of many a clueless Westerner, who expect Russians to celebrate the destruction and humiliation of their country. I am not speaking of the break-up of the Soviet Union here; I’m talking about the literal destruction of the Russian Federation, what can best be described as Russia’s “rightful territory” (though that’s debatable). Obviously some of these Westerners visited or lived in Russia at the time, and some of them might have been here even earlier, during Perestroika. These types might tell you that “it wasn’t so bad,” well that might have been the case- for them, and perhaps the well-to-do Russians they knew. The fact is that for millions of ordinary people, it was total chaos. All the while the economic advice from the West was neo-liberal to the core. Privatize everything as quickly as possible. Suffering be damned! Let the market decide everything, even if most of your majority population has little to no knowledge about markets and capitalism. No time to teach them!
Then you also have Western politicians and many journalists turning a blind eye to the violence of Yeltsin’s regime. I’m not just talking about the organized crime ties of his backers, but literal violence against his own people. For before he initiated a campaign of butchery in Chechnya which would later catapult Vladimir Putin to prominence, he used tanks and snipers against his own people in his own capital, all for the sake of defending his violation of the constitution. By comparison, the police response to the 2011-2012 protests don’t even register; they were even more reserved than Berkut during Euromaidan.
I could go on with more examples but I think the point is clear. This kind of behavior is precisely one of the reasons why you hear Russians say things like “The West only likes us when we’re weak! Better for them to fear us!” It’s not a paranoid Russian fantasy that foreign media coverage of Russia seemed to immediately change in tone once Putin was in charge. Putin was trying to project the image of a strong Russia, and the Western media was happy to oblige him, telling us how we should fear what he was doing.
The same phenomenon explains the renewed interest in the Soviet Union and Stalin, who has been stripped of his Marxist credentials and made into a Russian Orthodox nationalist. The thing about Russian liberals, almost from the beginning, is that they seemed to love talking about the horrors of “Stalinism” more than anything else. When people were suffering, not knowing where their next meal would come from, when their daughters were disappearing abroad into sexual slavery- the liberals and their foreign backers want to talk about the purges of 1937. It’s not hard to see where this leads in a country dominated by the politics of opposites. “If these same people constantly talk about Stalin, then Stalin must be the anti-liberal! He represents everything they hate, and they represent everything we hate! Glory to the Great Orthodox Russian Nationalist hero, YAROSLAV (Just you wait.) STALIN!”
This is how rudimentary politics is in these parts; it’s not just Ukraine. You attribute certain things to your opponents and then you automatically take on the opposite of everything you perceive to be on “their” side. There’s no middle ground, there’s no underlying principle or ideology guiding your decisions or choices. Take the outrage at the toppling of Lenin statues in Ukraine. Most Russians don’t know jack shit about Lenin, and even less about his ideology or what “Leninism” is (HINT: It’s largely related to organizational methods for Communist parties). Many Russians actually curse Lenin as a German agent, even an American agent, who destroyed their wonderful empire. Lenin is blamed not only for things such as the execution of the royal family, but I’ve even heard Russians claim that he “invented” Ukrainians, and gave them some of the best “Russian” territory. Incidentally, that territory was called “Novorossiya,” and if they were going by ethnic maps of the era Ukraine could have been a lot bigger today, including such cities as Voronezh, Belgorod, Kursk, and possibly the Kuban. Incidentally Lenin’s nationalities policy that is so-hated by Russian neo-imperialists and vatniks alike today was inspired by the work and arguments of none other than…Josef Stalin, but I’m digressing again. The bottom line is that you have this surreal situation where most Russians think nothing of cursing Lenin for the destruction of their empire, church, etc., but a Lenin monument gets smashed in Ukraine and suddenly their butts emit more thrust than the N1 moon rocket.
With Stalin it’s a bit different, largely due to the WWII cult, but the fact is that Russian love of Stalin is highly exaggerated. For one thing, the rabidly anti-Communist, anti-Stalin books of Viktor Suvorov (real name: Vladimir Rezun) are easily found in virtually any Russian bookstore, something I’ve noticed since I first moved here. Other works commonly found in bookstores big and small are the memoirs of various German generals and officers from the Second World War. These books seem to have gained quite a following in Russia, largely because to their audience here they seem like new, forbidden knowledge. I’ve even found works of the Holocaust denier Joachim Hoffman prominently displayed in some of Moscow’s biggest bookstores, including his book honoring Vlassov’s Russian Liberation Army.
What can explain these bizarre disparities, whereby Russians curse Ukrainians for toppling statues of the man who supposedly created Ukrainians? Simple- Ukrainian nationalists are Banderites, and they hate Lenin and the Soviet Union. Ergo statues of Lenin and Stalin are the polar opposite. Maybe more importantly, they enrage Ukrainian nationalists, who are the only Ukrainians worth considering at all, from a Russian point of view. In fact, you could almost say that this is really just trolling politics. Many Ukrainians only tolerate or wave UPA symbols because they know the reaction it will get from vatniks in Russia. They know nothing of the real history of that organization. By the same token, vatniks know that Stalin and Lenin are tools with which to troll their Ukrainian opponents. Thus the memes go back and forth on the internet, interspersed with numerous pornographic images (I’m not even kidding here).
Lastly, one needs to understand that a lot of the darker aspects of Russian politics stem from the kind of ideological garbage that poured into the country from the outside during the 90’s. Russian nationalist groups trying to create a synthesis between ethnic nationalism and the Soviet Union as a Russian empire actually pre-date the fall of the USSR, but after that fall, pretty much every reactionary, right-wing ideology or conspiracy theory flooded into the country. Again Westerners didn’t help. “Throw off all the vestiges of Communism! Bring back the old Tsarist flag! Yes! More religion! Build more churches! The Communists suppressed the poor persecuted church!” and so on. I’ve always found it odd how Western writers seem so perplexed about the prominence of far right ideas in Russia and Eastern Europe. Excuse me, but for roughly 40 years we bombarded them with propaganda that portrayed every Nazi-collaborating fascist as a tragic “freedom fighter” who really fought “against Stalin and Hitler,” sometimes in the ranks of the Waffen SS, no less! The rush to portray anything and everything associate with Communism and socialism as the ultimate evil also led to people questioning the original ideals of Communism, such as anti-racism, internationalism, secularism, science, and women’s rights. If you were led to believe those things were associated with Communism, and Communism is the worst evil imaginable, why would you have any regard for those values under liberal capitalism? Every fascist the world over, from the very beginning, sees such values as creeping Communism.
If Westerners want to actually help the situation, there are a few things we can do in discussions with Russians on these topics:
1. Do not do what McFaul did. Acknowledge that Russia, like many other countries, suffered greatly due to the collapse of the Soviet system. This is not a defense of the system, which was already moribund at that point. It’s not about questioning the independence of any former Soviet republic either. The question of the economic and political system is separate from the question of independence of union republics.
2. Don’t let Russians off the hook, letting them blame all their problems of the 90’s on a handful of “traitors” and the West, but also acknowledge that the West did play a role in the horrors of the 90’s. A lot of it was neglect- lack of concern or criticism over Yeltsin’s actions, giving him a blank check to do as he pleased. This didn’t just hurt Russians. It actually hurt a lot of foreign investors who wanted to do business in Russia.
3. Again, it must be understood that celebrating the humiliation of Russia doesn’t mean you can’t say it’s good that the USSR broke apart. The humiliation in this case was not exclusive to Russia. Sure, today the vatniks long to be feared and to push smaller countries around, but that’s because the original humiliation was never solved, in the right way. That could have been solved if Russia had transformed into a proper democratic state, with separation of powers, rule of law, and most of all- a strong welfare state funded by its vast natural resources. The potential of this state would have been immense, and if it existed today I doubt any Russian would give a shit about Ukraine signing an association agreement with the EU or the fact that it had the Crimea, something Russia only gave a shit about in 2014. Countries that do well, whose governments provide their citizens with a high standard of living, generally don’t harbor dreams about recovering lost territories.
Fight the myth that “The West only likes Russia when it was weak!” First of all, Russia is weak today. Yes, yes it is. It’s economy is smaller than that of Italy and falling fast. It has no plan for what to do after Putin, lynch-pin of the system, is gone. Its attempts at sabre-rattling have only led to catastrophic air crashes and billions of wasted rubles. At best it can intimidate its much weaker members, and that’s about it. To the rest of the world it’s essentially a laughing stock as it babbles on about WWII, “historical justice,” and the so-called BRICS alternative while investing even more in US treasury bonds.
Second, it’s not that people in the West, particularly America, liked or hated Russia during the Yeltsin period- they didn’t care. Nobody cared. So much historical revisionism has taken place in modern Russia that they’ve deluded themselves into thinking there is some 150 year history of animosity between the United States and Russia. This is sheer idiocy that ignores tons of historical evidence to the contrary. Real hostility towards the Soviet Union, apart from Wilson’s intervention and a lack of recognition until 1932, didn’t begin until after 1945. During the interwar period the USSR was not seen as a threat. How so? Well the two main concerns for the US military during that period were Japan and…”The Red Empire,” a military designation for the United Kingdom. Yes, Great Britain. Perfidious Albion. Old Blighty. And I might add that part of the increased hostility during the Cold War stemmed from the fact that unlike the interwar period, the USSR actually gained the ability to strike the USA, and vice versa.
Most of all, Russians seem to have totally forgotten that this was an ideological conflict. Sure, plenty of Cold Warriors would sometimes use “The Russians” or “The Russkies” as shorthand for the USSR, but their real animosity was towards Communism. This is why they spent so much time attacking domestic dissidents and opponents as Communists. The House Un-American Activities Committee wasn’t trying to determine if people had hidden Russian ancestry, but rather if they were Communists or associated with Communists.
Lastly, it was not the US that weakened or humiliated Russia. It was people like Yeltsin and people who benefited from his system. Many Russians were complicit in this. Nowadays its Putin and his elite.
4. Support and spread the truth, that a strong Russia doesn’t mean an empire that bullies other countries. Japan and Germany are both “strong” today. So are Norway, Sweden, Finland, or Austria. Strength can be measured in what the country produces, how the government treats its citizens, its living standards, etc. It’s hard to say whether we’ve hit a point of no return here, but Russia still has a potential edge in two fields- IT and space exploration. Imagine where it would be were it not for boondoggle projects like Skolkovo and someone stealing $127 million from the space program.
5. Stop insisting that Russia adopt the new European-contrived (for lack of a more concrete term) version of history. For one thing, it’s not accurate and rewriting history is bad no matter who does it. Worse still, it sends a message to Russians that it is perfectly fine to rewrite history to legitimize political goals. To this end, stop looking the other way when countries like Ukraine engage in this practice. Just because someone is the underdog in a fight doesn’t mean we should rewrite human history for their benefit. And might I add on that point- if you criticize people like me who prefer Ukrainians to take a particular position on Bandera and the OUN, who are you to insist that Russians adopt every point of your historical narrative? After all, do they not need to build a narrative for the sake of cultural cohesion? In truth the Russian identity isn’t that much more solidified than that of Ukraine. Technically there is no “Russia,” if you think about it. So is anyone ready to apply Anne Applebaum’s logic, that this is fine if it builds national unity, to Russia? I sincerely hope not.
Readers and other writers often talk about how shocked they are to see educated, seemingly worldly Russians mouthing the Kremlin’s line as of 2014. This is due to numerous factors, but one factor is the complete failure at setting up a real dialog in all these years. From my observation there as been a lot of reluctance to accept any Russian argument (not necessarily pro-government arguments either) on any subject, particularly when it comes to history. This is often contrasted with a willingness to pick up and disseminate some of the most egregious examples of historical revisionism when they come from other countries. The lack of inconsistency and the refusal to actually listen leads to a sense of exasperation: “They oppose everything we say! They must really hate us!” That, in turn, has led many of these people, who are quite valuable, to side with the Kremlin. If it isn’t that alone, it’s certainly a contributing factor.
In short, anyone who’s actually interested in supporting democracy and generally improving Russia needs to learn to stop being oblivious to this reality. We cannot get sucked into the politics of opposites, where we choose a camp and any criticism within that camp is taken as treason. Russians, even quite liberal ones, have always complained about being lectured to. And let’s be honest, there are some who have certainly been doing a lot of lecturing. So much lecturing, in fact, that they forgot to really explain what the democratic position truly is. This has left many prey to a system that is adept at the tactics of populism.