Brooks misses Russia…by a mile

So some of you Schadenfreude-prone readers out there will probably be happy to see my response to David Brooks’ bizarro-world word-vomit about Russia. Well you would be happy, if I had one. Don’t get me wrong, I’m going to provide my commentary here, but that’s just it, commentary.

You see, Brooks’ article about the Russia he “misses” doesn’t really merit a coherent response. There’s no point, no thesis, no argument put forth. If you want to read a response from an academic, who clearly has more patience for this shit than me, I suggest you read this. As for me, this is one of those “not even wrong” moments. In fact, I think if we’re going to speak about a “response” to this, the most appropriate form would be this classic:

What more can I say about this? What bothers me so much about it? Well for starters it’s fetishization. Western people, and let’s face it, better-off white people, have this tendency to fetishize other cultures. There’s the Noble Savage who is one with nature. There’s the trope of the “Magic Negro,” typically an older black man who helps a white man solve a problem with homespun sage advice. East Asian people are believed to be repositories of vast ancient wisdom, if not supernatural powers. While Russians aren’t considered a separate “race” by modern Western social constructs, the truth is that they, like other Eastern Europeans, are often subject to the same kind of fetishization. The most important common thread running through all of these stereotypes is that they are all superficially positive. They are presented as compliments but inside lies an insult.

Brooks’ basically tosses a bunch of stereotypical memes about Russia at us, in an attempt to convince us that he gets Russia on some deeper level. I realize he covered Russia for several years and he has visited the country numerous times, but it seems as though he never did. Anyone could have written what he wrote. Let’s start with this gem:

For more than a century, intellectuals, writers, artists and activists were partly defined by the stances they took toward certain things Russian: Did they see the world like Tolstoy or like Dostoyevsky? Were they inspired by Lenin and/or Trotsky? Were they alarmed by Sputnik, awed by Solzhenitsyn or cheering on Yeltsin or Gorbachev?

Gee Dave, did you cram enough Russian names and memes in there? Maybe you could have thrown in a few more? Putin? Matroyshki? Bears?

Starting off by juxtaposing Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky isn’t exactly Hitlerrific, but maybe, just maybe, some of those intellectuals, writers, artists, and activists were defined by their own opinions, perhaps on less popular Russian intellectuals of the past or…gasp! People who weren’t Russian at all. Next you’ve got Lenin and Trotsky. Now if you actually know your revolutionary history, you know that Lenin and Trotsky were in fact bitter opponents most of the time, contrary to what modern Trots would have you believe. However, if we’re juxtaposing different Soviet revolutionary figures here, the correct analogy would be Stalin vs. Trotsky. That should be elementary.

Also: “Awed” by Solzhenitsyn? Long time readers know I’m not a fan, but I acknowledge the consensus that appreciates his writing, horrible political beliefs aside. Yet is “awed’ the right word? Impressed, perhaps?

Moving on, Brooks drops this one on us:

But Russia stood for something that America has never been known for: depth of soul. If America radiated a certain vision of happiness onto the world, Russian heroes radiated a vision of total spiritual commitment.

Fuck you, Dave. You and your souls.

You see what I mean when I say it’s hard to actually respond to this? It’s just gibberish. And speaking of fetishization:

Even as late as the 1990s, one could sit with Russian intellectuals, amid all the political upheaval in those days, and they would talk intensely about the nature of the Russian soul. If it was dark in the kitchen at night, they wouldn’t just say, “Let’s replace the light bulb.” They’d talk for hours about how actually the root problem was the Russian soul. 

I hate to break it to you, but any intellectuals doing this were quite simply idiots. This is what I mean by fetishization. This is one particular trope, though not a common one when it comes to Russia, the image of the pure kitchen intellectual who is deeply philosophical and spiritual to the exclusion of everything else. It is much like the pro-Kremlin image of the endlessly suffering Russian peasant. Fetishizers don’t want Russians who are practical and who actually care about their well-being. They get some gratification out of imagining them at the center of a terrible situation, generally ignoring their own physical plight in favor of pontificating on the true meaning behind the actions of characters in Dostoevsky’s works.

And while we’re on the topic of Russian literature, let me point out another pet peeve that often makes me livid. This is the constant name dropping of Russian authors or their works in an attempt to sound somehow more educated or insightful when it comes to Russia and its history. You know what? Here’s my awesome Russian reading list:

The Brothers Karamazov, War and Peace, Crime and Punishment, The Sevastopol Sketches, Demons, Prisoner of the Caucasus

All of those I finished no later than the age of 19, save for the last one, a short story, which I read in Russian. Impressed yet?

Don’t be. Studying a nation’s classic literature is of course helpful to building a broader understanding of the nation as a whole, but if you really want to have worthwhile knowledge and you can’t actually live in the place, non-fiction and academic literature is the way to go. Anybody can get a library card and read two to three times the number of Russian novels I read, and yet still not know anything practical about the country.

Let me make this clear: Reading lots of classic Russian literature does not mean you have special insight into Russia or the Russian character. It means you are literate and you read a lot of novels. You’re not an expert on the UK just because you read the entire Harry Potter series.

Name dropping famous classic authors of a country is the cheapest, most pathetic way to pretend you have interest in that country. For some reason when it’s Russia this kind of thing gets a free pass, but imagine going to say, Greece, and dropping names like Homer and Herodotus.  There’s nothing insightful about this. It’s condescending and annoying. Stop doing this.

Now as I was reading this article, I kept asking myself when we would see a point or argument somewhere. Instead, I got this:

While the rest of the world was going through industrialization and commercialism and embracing the whole bourgeois style of life, there was this counterculture of intense Russian writers, musicians, dancers — romantics who offered a different vocabulary, a different way of thinking and living inside.

Uh? Excuse me? When exactly did this happen? Russia, within the USSR, went through industrialization in the 1930’s. Perhaps he’s talking about the pre-revolutionary era, but how could Brooks possibly “miss” something he couldn’t have possibly experienced? Maybe what he misses is a romanticized, non-existent Russian intellectual. How can anyone tell for sure when reading horseshit.

And it just keeps getting worse:

Russia is a more normal country than it used to be and a better place to live, at least for the young. But when you think of Russia’s cultural impact on the world today, you think of Putin and the oligarchs. Now the country stands for grasping power and ill-gotten money.

I have no idea what he means by “normal” country, and I have no idea what he means when he says better place to live. I can imagine what he means, but the problem is I don’t know what era he’s comparing this to because he’s all over the place. I also don’t know what the crap he’s talking about when he says “now the country stands for grasping power and ill-gotten money,” because that has pretty much been the case since 1991, at least when it comes to ill-gotten money.

There’s something sad about the souvenir stands in St. Petersburg. They’re selling mementos of things Russians are sort of embarrassed by — old Soviet Army hats, Stalinist tchotchkes and coffee mugs with Putin bare-chested and looking ridiculous.

Russians are embarrassed by the Soviet Union? If anything they proudly proclaim it, taking credit for all its accomplishments while denying all its negatives. Indeed, many may be embarrassed by the homoerotic Putin memorabilia, but they’re unlikely to openly admit this to foreigners these days.

In case you’re wondering what’s in the finale, well…

This absence leaves a mark. There used to be many countercultures to the dominant culture of achievement and capitalism and prudent bourgeois manners. Some were bohemian, or religious or martial. But one by one those countercultures are withering, and it is harder for people to see their situations from different and grander vantage points. Russia offered one such counterculture, a different scale of values, but now it, too, is mainly in the past.

You figure that out. I tried but my right hand instinctively rose to the level of my shoulder and began doing the “jerking off” sign. I was only able to stop when I looked away.

And so there you have it. A veteran…journalist, with actual experience in Russia, saying literally nothing about Russia. Kids, Russian studies majors- do not do what Mr. Brooks did.

There is no Russian soul. We are all shaped by the environment around us, but at the end of the day we are all made of chemical elements that exist throughout the universe. We are made of the same stuff the universe is made of, as people like Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson pointed out numerous times. It doesn’t matter if you’re professing admiration- stereotypes dehumanize and degrade people.

13 thoughts on “Brooks misses Russia…by a mile

  1. Estragon

    I don’t think Brooks was ever a correspondent in Russia. You may have confused him with someone else. If I’m wrong, correct me.

    “Next, what Russians were “alarmed” by Sputnik, for fuck’s sake?” – I think you’re misreading this bit. Isn’t he talking about how foreigners responded to Russia?

    I readily admit that, as a young person embarking on the study of Russia, I bought into the “Russian soul” business. I thought it made them somehow superior to materialistic Westerners. Closer acquaintance with the actual country, and learning more about it, eventually steered me away from that delusion.

    “Reading lots of classic Russian literature does not mean you have special insight into Russia or the Russian character”

    This is an interesting point. Bertrand Russell, surveying the post-revolutionary chaos of Russia, said you couldn’t expect characters out of a Dostoevsky novel to adhere to Western norms (or words to that effect). But what if Russell had cited the more balanced, less crazy characters one encounters in Turgenev or Chekhov? He’d have a completely different impression of Russian people from these authors.

    In the waning days of the USSR, I had my own “kitchen conversations.” They weren’t about the Russian soul. They were about such things as: How much does a truck driver in America make? How hard is it to get a job in [Western country]? Can you smuggle this letter to my cousin who lives in New York City? I wish they’d wanted to talk about the Russian soul, it would have been more interesting.

    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      He was a correspondent that covered Russia for a brief period in the 90’s, but from Brussels. His bio says he made numerous trips to Russia from there during that time, which I can believe.

      As for the Sputnik thing, it seems I did misread that. I’ll edit it. I was doing a shit-ton of multitasking today. Thanks for catching my mistake.

    2. Jim Kovpak Post author

      Nearly forgot to mention, I totally bought into the “Russian soul”/non-materialistic bullshit too, in case I haven’t mentioned it before.

      I feel like periodically I need to point out that when I go after some annoying bullshit, I was in many cases guilty of buying into the same stuff. It tells people who are buying into it now that I’ve been there, and there is hope.

      If you or a friend are involved in geopolitics, the Russian soul, Sputnik News, or even Russia Insider, please, get help today.

  2. stefanholander

    Thanks for so delectably debunking these demented and noxious ideas, Jim. Sadly, I’ve heard intellectually self-assured Russians talk exactly like this about Russian culture, often to the effect that (as I construe it) ‘being humiliated by our government and authorities is in fact really good, because suffering makes us really deep… and that’s really good for the soul… because that makes it Russian…(because, I take it, such suffering is both deeper and more spiritual than that of Americans).’ Hence: autocracy and oppression with no hope of change = deep as hell; democracy and a rational public debate on important issues = despicably shallow and materialist.

    And of course this dude mimics that ignorance of the literature of others which is absolutely necessary to make this kind of argument. Walt Whitman – shallow and materialist? Hawthorne, Dickinson, Faulkner – ‘radiating a certain vision of happiness’? James Baldwin – rolling down the street smoking indo, sipping on gin and juice? Come again?

    One thing that’s always struck me as significant is the conspicuous absence of the gigantic Mikhail Bakhtin in literary discussions in Russian academe (in my limited experience, certainly, but according to one of my best students Bakhtin’s work is not really part of the discussion) One might understand why – it’s deeply transnational as well as completely incompatible with the nonsense of exceptional spritiual suffering and the ineffable depth of the national soul. So it doesn’t fit into Brooks’ argument, clearly, but it’s also (probably) very, very Russian, as well as absolutely great and enormously relevant.

    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      I don’t like to speak on behalf of America, but we had Ernest “I’m the only guy who can kill me” Hemingway. It doesn’t get more intense than that.

  3. A.I.Schmelzer

    Eh, there is a Russian soul. 142 million of them as a matter of fact, give and take a few millions.

    Russia (as well as Ukraine and Belorus) did have a different historic experience then western/central europe. We are, not exclusively of course, products of our history, both individually and collectively. Needless to say, nationality is far to broad of a category for it, and one would frankly need something more granular to eventually get something like a “Soviet Jewish Immigrant to the USA soul”.

    As far as this “Russian soul” thing, I think part of the reason is that Russians are indeed different from Anglo-Saxon culture, but are also white, and also represented considerable power capabilities. I guess this was more fascinating for some reason. And since studying Russian history actually takes work, and blabbering about Russian souls does not, the latter is more preferable.

    Last but not least, by blabbering of about mythical soul stuff, which by definition is “really hard to understand for uneducated outsiders” the “educated Russia watchers” reinforce/protect their own, still not too shabbily paid, positions.

  4. Siddharta

    I also get totally angry when i hear this russia soul BS from Westerners. I can just laugh about this Russian soul stereotype even when I believed it also some years ago. Thank for this good article.

    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      Ever notice how people will say the Russian soul is so deep and complex, but then proceed to explain it to you? The idea is “I get it, but you can’t comprehend it.”

  5. geotrickster

    Great article. David Brooks seems increasingly to be adopting a kind of Thomas Friedman persona where he rambles off a list of milquetoast analogies seeking to sound profound but in fact is saying literally nothing of substance. People lap it up because it makes the world seem deceptively simple and thus reassuring on some level, but also contains just enough references to stuff that citing or posting it makes one seem well-informed.

    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      It’s kind of like the equivalent of white, middle class, late 20’s people at an upscale bar saying things like: “Well of course you have to factor in things like Iran, and then what about Vladimir Putin? He’ll have an interest in this.”

      Then everyone goes home at the end of the night to crippling loneliness.

  6. EP

    The only thing worse than non-Russian (pseudo-)intellectuals who talk about the “Russian Soul” is their Russian counterparts.

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