Have I got a pair of articles for you readers this week! Since one of them is long and the other contains key detail, I’m posting them ahead of my own commentary on the topics at hand. I highly recommend both of them, but if you can only get around to reading one give yourself some time and read the New Yorker piece by Julia Ioffe.
Julia Ioffe of the New Republic is a rather intriguing Russia correspondent. Accused of anti-Russian bias at times, she is wholly capable of hitting the nail on the head at others. Lately she did just that with this piece, entitled “The Russians Think I’m a Russophobe? They’re Right. A Response to Myself.” It might seem odd that I would endorse an article where the author admits to being a “Russophobe” in the title, but I don’t think the author is guilty of Russophobia even if she says so. I know Russophobia when I see it.
Many of the points in the article, even when delivered in a not-so-diplomatic manner, are totally correct and I know very well the feeling she is expressing. Before I go into detail let me say that I totally sympathize with Russians about their loss to the American hockey team. While it seems that the referee’s decision not to count the goal was correct according to the rules, it does seem like nitpicking. If I were on the US hockey team I would feel rather uneasy about such a victory, and I’m sure some of the players would agree. On the other hand, this loss for Russia wouldn’t burn so much if some Russians didn’t obsess over America and the idea that it is some kind of “historical enemy” of Russia. I’m sure had the scenario been reversed, with Russia winning on a technicality, some American fans might suspect foul play, if only because the games were hosted in Russia(assuming that the judge in question were Russian and not American). However, Russians fail to appreciate that to Americans, this match doesn’t hold the same importance. To them the Russian hockey team is just a formidable team, like that of Canada, Sweden, or the Czech Republic; it’s not some kind of enemy. Anyway, on with the show.
Julia offers a list of “Psychological issues” about Russia, which taken out of context might seem hostile but I would argue that they are not for two reasons. The first is that they are spot on observations. Anyone who finds them unfair or mean-spirited has either not lived in Russia or is probably a confirmed Team Russia fanatic living in denial. Second, Julia does not launch these attacks on Russia as though they are exclusively Russian. She makes a proper comparison with the attitudes of Americans, highlighting the similarity of both peoples, which have far more in common with each other than either does with Europe, but at the same time she doesn’t fully equate both countries. As she points out, America can be horrible to Americans in different ways.
One of the most important points she mentions is the bane of every “information warrior” in Russia, namely that Americans simply do not care about Russia the way Russians care about Americans and what they think of Russians. While pondering this issue recently I was reminded of something a classmate of mine said on our exchange trip to Russia more than a decade ago. He remarked that it was a pity that the Soviet Union no longer existed, because that way this trip would have been so much more important. He was right. I have had trouble stressing the apathy that Americans have toward Russia, but basically the best way I can describe it is like this: I have lived in Russia for nearly eight years now. I have visited the US twice in that time. Most people I meet, including family members, do not rush up to me and quiz me about life in Russia. At several family gatherings I was greeted much in the way I always was when I lived in the States, and then after small talk they’d go off and start conversing with other family members or acquaintances. I don’t blame them; they live in the same country, state, and city. They have common experiences. I am simply not in the picture. Few people, if any, ever send me messages asking about life in Russia. New acquaintances aren’t filled with curiosity if I tell them I live here. I might as well be living in Moscow, Idaho, it seems. I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m a little bit disappointed sometimes. It would be nice to go to a party and suddenly have everyone hanging on your every word when they find out that you’ve spent years living in Moscow. Surviving and succeeded in Moscow for so long as an ordinary working-class American is no easy feat and it would be nice to get some acknowledgement for doing so, but that’s the way it goes.
Another psychological issue she points out is what I would call in my own words a desire to have one’s cake and eat it too. Russia’s self-proclaimed “patriots”,some of whom might have been at various anti-government demonstrations just two years ago and some of whom are not even Russian, can’t seem to decide if Russia has really “risen from its knees” and is now equal if not superior to the dreaded West, or if it is still suffering from the humiliation of the 90’s, all of which is America’s fault, of course. When Western reporters start complaining about deficiencies in their living quarters, the reaction is to call them pampered. Well maybe they wouldn’t have been in such a nitpicking mood if the Russian government hadn’t sunk so much money into this sport venue while making such a big deal of it. Maybe if they hadn’t been trashing Europe over “tolerance”(GASP! What a horrible idea!) or America over every goddamned little thing, this wouldn’t have happened. See when you run around grandstanding, badmouthing other countries, pretending to be a big superpower, and generally waving your dick around in public, eventually reality is going to bite you in the ass. I can’t tell you how many times I see Team Russia fans insisting that Russia is not only equal to the West, but that the West will “collapse” any day now, usually because of the allegedly corrosive effects of tolerance. Yet strangely enough, gay parades have yet to bankrupt Sweden or the Netherlands, and if either country were to offer jobs and residency to the first thousand Russian citizens they’d have a riot on their hands in front of their respective consulates.
In short, if Russia wants to pretend it is a superpower and an economic powerhouse with high standards of living, it needs to put its cards on the table and show results. If it isn’t, that’s nothing to be ashamed of, but doing something about that situation requires some serious self-criticism and introspection. Blaming it on Yeltsin(or Putin for that matter) and America doesn’t cut it.
In the finale Ioffe goes on to compare Russia to a teenage girl who craves the attention of what it sees as “the cool kids”, represented by the West, but then lashes out at them when they fail to respond favorably. I think this teenager comparison is rather apt, but I have another based on my interactions here. Lately Russian populists have basically been acting like a bully, a wannabe tough guy who talks shit about everybody but who folds the second he’s suddenly faced with a real challenge. Nerdy little countries learn to deal with negative press and even garner sympathy, but for the wannabe tough guy who gets called on his bullshit, the humiliation cuts right to the bone.
In my time I’ve met a few genuinely “tough” guys and a shitload of wannabes. One thing about the former is that you almost feel like you’re doing them a disservice by insinuating that they are “tough” because they are never concerned about appearing thus. I have a friend back in the US who was an ex-football hooligan. He was probably in more fights than he can remember, but he always remembered that he lost some of those fights. There was no shame in it because it’s inevitable that if you fight often, you will be beaten from time to time. You would never hear him talk about being “tough” or a “badass.” Actual “tough” people are not concerned about being or more importantly appearing to be “tough” to other people. Something about getting whacked over the head with so many bottles or having so many pool cues snapped over your back must do something to that part of the ego which feels the need to prove itself to other people. Every person I’ve known who I can honestly call “tough” was generally laid-back, easy going, and often humorously self-deprecating.
The untested tough guy wannabe is completely different. They’ve got to tell everyone they meet about their “street fight record”, which of course was always something-0. They’ve mastered one or more martial arts, typically traditional East Asian ones. They’re ex-military, almost always snipers, and of course they had to be Rangers, SEALs, or Force Recon because Lord knows an ordinary 11B in the 82nd Airborne or 10th Mountain division is just too ordinary. They’re always oversensitive, trying to intimidate people who are their own friends. You need to know that this guy is a stone-cold badass. The perception of toughness is everything. Strangely, it doesn’t seem to go away with age. Many top grade bullshitters do not “grow out” of this phase, which is why you can encounter people like this who are well into their 40’s. When one of these people gets called on their shit, often in the course of bragging to someone who has actually done some of the things they claim, the result is often ugly. The humiliation is so awful you often feel sorry for them no matter how much you hate them.
That’s what Russia’s been acting like lately. They need the world to know that they are ever so strong and powerful, every bit like the West, except they’re even better because those European countries are on the verge of collapse from the 24/7 gay parades marching through their streets. The news media is happy to point out everything that goes wrong in America, but when journalists or even ordinary Russians point out serious problems within Russia the “patriots'” eyes begin to well up with tears and they scream that this criticism is unfair, that it’s Russophobia, and any Russians who speak about it are dastardly traitors. It would be useful to look at the example of the United States after 9/11. The Bush administration was characterized by what was termed to be “swagger,” as the US flexed its military might and insisted that it would be bound by no one in its global struggle against terrorism. Oddly enough, it seems that the anti-American rhetoric coming from Russia was curiously more muted than it has been in recent years. By contrast, Obama won a Nobel Peace prize by giving a conciliatory speech which admitted to America’s arrogance and basically gave him a free pass to expand America’s wars at the time. That the speech was hypocritical or dishonest is not relevant in this case; the point is that Obama advanced the interests of the ruling class, possibly far better than Bush, because he made it seem like American leaders had seen the error of their past ways and that they would endeavor to engage other nations as equals. Russia on the other hand, has been recently been going into George W. Bush mode, and it’s eerie to see how many similarities there are between the political discourse in Russia today and that which dominated America during the Bush years, particularly his first term. Back then, any criticism of America’s policies at home or abroad made you an anti-American traitor who hated freedom.
I should also mention that Ioffe makes an interesting point how the Russian establishment continually compares Russia solely with “the West”, meaning Europe and the USA. She mentions how China and Japan are totally ignored despite the fact that Japan has been a serious competitor of the US since the 1970’s, and China is set to become the world’s major economic power by 2016. You don’t see Japan or China constantly ragging on America or Europe. A major problem which sabotages Russia’s ability to deal with genuine anti-Russian racism is that those who often complain about it are themselves racist. They want Western nations to accept them as equals, but they don’t want to see themselves as being part of the same struggle as countries like Turkey, Tunisia, the Philippines, or even major powers like China. See the thing about racists is that they believe in biological determinism, i.e. Africa must be poor because there’s something wrong with African people. Therefore when someone like a German or Norwegian nationalist takes a good look at Russia and sees dirty streets, crime, corruption, and post-apocalyptic cityscapes, all the excuses about the traitor Gorbachev, Communism, Yeltsin, the US State Department, or the CIA aren’t going to do shit to change their opinion. They would conclude, according to their logic, that there is something wrong with Russian people. If you want to fight that kind of prejudice, it doesn’t help when you think the exact same way about Central Asia or the Caucasus. It is in the interest of Russians, for their own sake, to speak out against biological determinism, which is one of the major roots of anti-Russian racism. Moreover, Russia need not compare itself to the West. If Russia had decided back in 2000 to go all-out and attempt to be more like China, for example, it would have worked out very well. China has seen the biggest reduction in poverty in human history over the last twenty years. But Russia’s patriots were too concerned with being “European”(except for that awful tolerant quality) to consider China as a role model.
Lastly Ioffe touches on something very important, though she does not mention it by name. It is that notion of “the Russian soul.” In the context of her article she is referring to the way some Russia defenders will dismiss all criticism by insisting that the critics don’t “understand” Russia, this despite the fact that many of the same criticism are made by actual Russians and the defenders are sometimes not Russian at all. In other situations defenders will sometimes admit to Russia’s weaknesses but insist that Russia makes up for this with some kind of “spiritual” quality which, conveniently, can’t be observed or measured by anyone. This is not the article to go into this subject in depth, but it is my observation that the “Russian soul,” however much Russians may cherish the idea, is a profoundly negative idea. Within Russia, it is wielded by authoritarian and reactionary individuals as a way to keep people in line. Since nobody can observe or measure this “soul,” what constitutes being truly “Russian” is left entirely in the hands of self-appointed leaders or their supporters, once again including many who are not Russian at all. Speaking of non-Russians, the Russian soul is a myth which serves the basis of anti-Russian stereotyping and anti-Russian racism. It is something like the “noble savage” stereotype about Native Americans, or any number of stereotypes about East Asian peoples which give them mystical qualities. It deprives Russian people of their individuality or agency and places them beyond rational thought. To be Russian, according to this stereotype, means one must be very emotional, superstitious, cynical, obedient, and tolerant of their own suffering. In Russia this means submitting to authority, outside of Russia it justifies racist attitudes. I realize that to the Russian reader giving up on this myth of the Russian soul may sound highly counter-intuitive, but I would remind the reader that not all stereotypes are overtly negative, though they can lead to negative consequences. But that’s a subject for another, much longer article.
All in all, I don’t see Ioffe’s article as “Russophobic,” and I suspect she was using the term somewhat ironically. I see it as a natural reaction to the kind of rhetoric which has been increasingly dominating Russia in the last few years, much of it directed at Americans. When I say Americans I don’t mean at the country or its government but at actual individual Americans, in Russia. This is why I understand her feeling so well. The British and many other European nationalities are known to make plenty of jokes about Americans based on the common stereotypes- obesity, prudery, gun worship, and religious fundamentalism. Yet when you encounter a Brit in a pub and say you’re American, you don’t meet this sort of passive-aggressive hostility you’re likely to meet in a Russian bar, even in the center of Moscow. You’re never asked to answer for the actions of the American government. You’re not asked who won the Second World War, with your inquisitor ready to berate you if you’re ignorant on the subject or gloat if you correctly point out the Soviet Union’s contribution to victory. If you voice criticism of the American government, you don’t get the feeling that your British counterpart sees you as some kind of useful traitor but rather you are likely to feel a sense of solidarity because chances are they hate the British government just as much. And I might point out that this kind of behavior, which I and many others have experienced personally for years, is pretty much limited to Americans. The British and European press is often merciless in its treatment of Russia, to the point of re-writing the history of WWII so that the Soviet Union shares as much of the blame for the war as Germany, but I have never seen British, European, or other nationalities face this same kind of hostility. One might think the difference might have something to do with the fact that the US is allied with the UK and most other European countries via NATO, but I know of a few other countries where Americans don’t receive this kind of treatment. From personal experience, there is China, for one. Another such country is, interestingly enough, Iran. Yes, apparently despite constant threats of war and endless demonization of Iran in the American press, Iranians are generally polite to American tourists they meet, apparently even too polite. To some that might seem like weakness, but if anything it gives Iranian people a sort of moral high ground.
I strongly believe that Ioffe’s “Russophobia” is in fact just a natural reaction to this kind of behavior, perhaps specifically due to conversations like the ones she reported in this other article of hers. If some people still think her words are indeed “Russophobia,” I would remind them that during the Bush years it was common for conservative pundits to constantly tell their audiences about all the “anti-Americanism” in the world, all of which was of course totally groundless and unfair. What actual anti-Americanism existed was mitigated by the fact that millions of Americans routinely voiced their discontent about US foreign policy, largely in the form of the anti-war movement. Those who stuck to the party line justly deserved the hatred which was intended not so much for the American people but rather the government. In a similar vein, if a significant portion of Russians get behind the government’s propaganda campaign, they are going to provoke this kind of “Russophobia.” I realize that once again, this might seem to many Russians as weakness or submission. What if the West continues its “information war” or provocative actions similar to the Magnitsky Act, and Russia does nothing in response? Well to be honest, Russia isn’t really doing anything concrete to oppose the West, with which it does a great deal of lucrative trade, nor can it. More importantly, if the West is genuinely behaving badly toward Russia, at least Russia will have the moral high ground and eventually gain more sympathy throughout the world. Russia certainly held that ground when the Magnitsky Act was passed, but they pissed it all away by taking it out on their own orphaned children. If Russia wants to be loved, it must be more appealing. If it wants to be feared, it needs to accept the consequences of that kind of behavior.
In case the reader is still not convinced that Ioffe is sufficiently balanced, I would recommend this other article of hers.