So the big news is that very soon I’ll be leaving not only Russia, but the Eastern Hemisphere altogether. For the first time in nearly 12 years, I’m finally, truly, “going home.” It’s a weird feeling- when I left the US in 2006 for the Czech Republic, I was leaving behind everything I knew and forging a path into what was more or less the unknown, yet it was exhilarating. Now I’m going back to what should be familiar, and I’m dreading it. Nonetheless I think this is a very necessary step- a chance to learn new skills, acquire new qualifications, and most of all, make money.
Ideally I’ll return to Ukraine with far more resources, enabling me to do more for the cause, but I have no plans to return to Russia in anything but the most extreme case. Because I have no plans to return, when I leave it will be the close of a very long chapter of my life- the majority of my adult life in fact. As such, I have been mentally taking stock of everything that’s happened, everything I’ve done and the lessons I have learned. I plan to distill all that into a very longread for my patrons, but for the rest of you I’d like to share a few of my observations over the years, with special focus on the positive aspects. After all, I started this blog in September of 2013, when Russia was already clearly entering a dark place. Thus a lot of the positive things from the earlier time, the time when there was hope and progress, were overshadowed by the increasingly authoritarian and reactionary nature of the post 2012-Putin regime. And though I’m focusing on the positive, it may turn out more tragic, because it gives you a glimpse of what the regime is destroying. Whatever the case, when you look at everything we associate with Russia today, keep in mind things could have been different.
Before moving on I just want to stress that I’m not saying these features are uniform in Russia and they are certainly not exclusive to Russia. I have made similar observations about Ukrainian culture, for example. But this is Russia Without BS and this is about leaving Russia after all, so Russia it is.
What did I like about Russian culture, especially in contrast to American culture, is first and foremost the lack of anti-intellectualism. Of course Russia, especially today, has more than its share of right-wing populists making all kinds of idiotic claims, but they more often than not present these claims as though they are intellectual and academic. They’ll cite sources or books, or they’ll reference other facts to back up their rhetoric, however flawed or questionable some of those “facts” may be. By contrast, many Americans, including big-name commentators who rake in money by the millions, basically sell their bullshit based on “common sense.” “Common sense” said that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. It told people that the real reason for the economic collapse was the government forcing banks to loan to minorities who couldn’t afford to make their payments. Liberals would try to counter with facts, but who needs “book-learnin'” when there’s common sense? “How are you going to catch the game with your nose buried in some book that was probably written by some liberal Marxist professor because he’s saying things I personally don’t believe despite having no background knowledge of this issue?”
I’m going to be blunt with my fellow Americans here and say that the US, at least as I experienced it, is a country that often straight up hates intelligence. You’ll often hear people use phrases like “useless knowledge” to describe things such as history, which happens to be one of the most important topics a person can study. Meticulous knowledge of professional sports is fine, even respected in American masculine culture, but you’re a complete dork if you happen to know something like the history of Al Qaeda and US foreign policy in the Middle East. I’m also not convinced by the superficial rise of “nerd culture” and the obsession with STEM. I think this is simply driven by corporate interests. In general, I’d say a good portion of America, even its liberals, hate intellectualism.
By contrast in Russia even people who disagree with you show a certain modicum of respect when you couch your arguments in academic knowledge. There’s always a minimum of respect for knowledge and people who pursue it. Russians can be just as fanatical about sports as any American, but at the same time they tend to understand that the mind is just as important as the body. The Soviet Union, which brought Russians (and many other people) universal, compulsory education as well as access to higher education, put a high value on learning, even if politics often hampered the process. By contrast in America higher education has become more or less a giant scam, and you deliberately subject yourself to it because “you’ll get a good job.”
While we’re on this topic, I should devote a few words to Russian sport culture. Obviously it has been tainted by last year’s doping scandal, but I can only speak for what I personally experienced while training in judo and Brazilian jiu-jitsu here. Whereas I’ve always seen a lot of posturing in American sport culture, I find Russian training partners to be very supportive. They are extremely competitive, but not in an egotistical, “I’m the greatest” sort of way. Sports offer the chance of social mobility to some who might not otherwise be able to attain it, so you can understand why some Russian citizens push themselves so hard. Yet somehow they manage not to be such a dick about it.
There is hope for America, however. Lately we’ve seen a lot of talk about “toxic masculinity,” i.e. that sort masculinity that is harmful, negative, and at times dangerous for society. Many American men will dismiss the concept as “feminist SJW crap,” but if they’d only take the time to actually read up on what it is, they’d see that toxic masculinity tends to hurt males first and foremost. One could argue that it is a societal tool whereby men oppress and abuse each other in order to force conformity into roles that have long ceased to make sense in modern society. Of course talk like this is almost unheard of in Russian discourse these days, yet it’s interesting to note how in some ways the Russians are ahead of Americans in deed, if not in word.
Another thing that must be said is that Russians seem to be far more tolerant of human fallibility. Okay, maybe sometimes too tolerant, but let me illustrate what I mean. A good friend of mine who was a major motivator for me in writing a blog once explained at length about how Russians tend to be more forgiving of social slip-ups than Americans and other Westerners. If someone gets drunk at a party and gets a little bit too loud or maybe gets sick, no big deal- it happens. People were drinking. By contrast in the US that individual is more likely to be uninvited to future events and the whole circle of co-workers or friends will undoubtedly talk behind their back.
Now when I talk about this, I can instinctively hear an American voice asking something like: “Oh okay, so you think someone should just let it slide if someone comes to their house party, gets hammered, and then sexually assaults women while shouting racial slurs and endorsing eugenics?!” And you know what my answer is to that question? Thanks for proving my point about Americans being totally uptight tightwads, because of course you immediately came up with the absolute worst scenario you could imagine. We need to imagine the worst about people so we can justify not forgiving little social faux pas, as if forgiving them will lead to people forgiving horrible, criminal behavior. By contrast I’ve seen Russian friends get angry and shout at each other at many a drunken party, and afterward everyone makes up and understands because hey- we were consuming alcohol. Drunk people do drunk things.
I think this extends to a lot of other aspects of American life as well. For example, much of what I wear in Russia or Ukraine I’d never wear in the States. I can imagine the weird looks, the weird questions I would get if I were to say, wear my black beret. Yes, a beret, the one that was issued to me in the army with the flash and insignia removed. In Russia and Ukraine I’ve often seen people wearing berets. But in America, like I said, I can just imagine the questions. “Oh my god are you like, French or something? Are you in the army? Were you in the army? Why do you have a beret?!” It’s just a hat, America! Look at me, I’m talking to my own country now. This is what years of upbringing in such a nitpicking society has done to me.
The crazy thing about it is that compared to Russians and Europeans, Americans are by no means more fashionable. And yet in these more fashionable countries, you don’t have to follow fashion trends and you don’t get so much judgment for doing so, at least from ordinary people. If you wear something a bit exotic, it’s not taken as a statement, nor are you deemed a hipster. Since 2015 I have often worn a Ukrainian vyshivanka in public, including to work on one occasion. I got nothing but compliments from the few people who said anything. It’s just not such a big deal.
I think this is as good a place as any to wrap up the main cultural points.
I come from an American city where you have to have a car. Even if you happen to be located within walking distance of good supermarkets, you still need a vehicle because chances are the only job you may find is across town and our public transit sucks. And when you find out why public transit sucks in America, you’re going to be pissed.
During my driving life in my hometown I was fortunate to use a company truck which came with a gas card, especially given the prices at the time. A relatively simple drive across town was a slow, stressful affair. When I had my own car, it was like a ticking time bomb, exploding over and over again to take away a big chunk of my money. Transmission, brakes, water pump, tags- these things could easily wipe out a paycheck.
In Moscow (and Prague, and Kyiv for that matter), I have never felt the need for a car. To be sure, there are a couple good reasons for car ownership in these cities, but you can easily live your life without ever getting behind the wheel.
Moscow has what is arguably the best public transport system in the world. Even with the price hikes over the years, you can still spend less than a dollar to ride literally all over Moscow for as long as you want. If you just want to circle the ring line all day- fifty rubles. That’s nothing.
Sure it can be extremely crowded at rush hour, but I have never had much of a problem getting to any job that was within 15-20 minutes walk of a metro station, and those metro stations keep multiplying across the web that is the Moscow Metro. It is so effective in spite of all the massive problems in the country that you almost wish it would one day become self-aware and overthrow the government. Of course there’s always the danger that it wouldn’t stop there, and instead tunnel its way throughout the globe hell-bent on destroying humanity.
When I first came to Moscow in 1999, one of the most striking things I noticed was the large swathes of green territory. At night, from the window of my hotel room near Izmailovsky Market, I noticed the clusters of city lights were interrupted by huge expanses of black. This contrasts greatly with my home town, which is basically paved from one edge of the city to another. At night it’s a flat, electrified waffle with virtually no blacked-out holes in the grid.
Moscow, by comparison, is extremely green. There are large forested parks well within the bounds of the city, easily accessible by metro (there it is again). Even just around the neighborhood it is extremely green during the summer. It’s also nice to get outside the city and feel the difference in the air.
Sadly I was unable to see the Caucasus mountains (those in Russia, at least), or Lake Baikal.
Culture of Resistance
Recently resistance to the regime has been rising in spite of increasingly authoritarian behavior since 2012. Right now the opposition movement, if you can even call it one movement, is far from attaining any kind of serious impact on politics, despite its recent victories in Moscow’s municipal elections. But when you look at the shortcomings of the opposition, you have to consider what they’re up against, and then you see how courageous many Russians can be, from soldiers that face prison for desertion because they refuse to take part in the invasion and occupation of Ukraine, to young people who come out to unsanctioned rallies in droves in spite of several years of this so-called “patriotic education.”
All the scheming of the president’s “political technologists,” the vigilante groups, assassination, jailtime for retweets and “likes” on social media, billions spent on domestic propaganda, including paid internet comment trolls- all this has failed to extinguish the spark of resistance and the desire for freedom among the Russian people.
I know that many of my Ukrainian friends look down on the Russian opposition, which has often had a very poor understanding of the “Ukrainian question.” As they say, it is with this question that the Russian liberal ceases to be. And this viewpoint is not wholly unjustified. Ukrainians are understandably upset due to invasion, annexation, occupation, and a war that has killed 10,000 and displaced almost two million people. More to the point, many Russian liberals, including Alexey Navalny, tend to be against the war in Donbas but for the Crimean annexation, making them irreconcilable with Ukrainian national aspirations.
That said, the behavior of Russian liberals is somewhat understandable when you consider the context of the system they live in. If Navalny publicly states that Crimea is Ukraine, he can be immediately hit with a charge for questioning the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation (which, incidentally, is allowed to question other countries’ territorial integrity). The penalty can be as much as five years. Ukrainians like to make a big deal of overthrowing a dictatorship via Maidan, but they never had to go up against a system like Putin’s- a unified dictatorship with a single purpose. Ukraine has been ruled by competing clans, which makes struggle a lot easier because your interests can align with those of other powerful groups. One should also note that Viktor Yanukovych had a place to run to. Putin does not, and I’m quite confident that if he were facing a Maidan-style revolution he’d unleash far more than snipers on his own people. Hell, Putin’s predecessor Yeltsin did exactly that.
Though it has numerous flaws, some of them quite serious, Russia’s opposition is an ember of hope. It’s not just the marches and the organizations either. It’s the little acts of personal resistance we see from time to time. Each one is a reminder to the system that its oppression and propaganda have failed to fully subdue the Russian people, that it will always fail to do so.
When all’s said and done, I have to admit I didn’t use my time here nearly as well as I could have. I often got so caught up in trivial things and missed many opportunities. But still, in these ten years I feel like I have learned more than I did in my whole previous life- about the country, about the world, about myself. I have had the opportunity to meet amazing people of many nationalities and learn from their experience. From Moscow I traveled not only throughout Russia, but throughout the whole hemisphere, from Shanghai to Tangier. I did jobs I’d never have a shot at in the US before I left. I learned to budget my money, and to cook from scratch those things Americans are able to buy in a box or a cheap Chinese buffet. I lost my hair, but I also lost a lot of weight. I experienced the thrill and ultimately the emptiness of casual flings, but also the fulfillment, exhilaration, and even pain of true love. I came face to face with an untimely death, something I’d never had to deal with before. I experienced war first-hand, something I’d totally missed in the army. I pushed myself harder than I ever have and I offered my life for a cause which I still believe is just.
It’s been a wild ride, one which fails description. When I look back on what I’ve done here, or even how I got here, I feel like I can’t explain it to anyone. It barely even makes sense to me. Hopefully I’ll be able to put everything down in writing one day. At least now I can write the first volume.