Tag Archives: Russophiles

A new approach

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One way or another, you have a lot of people who come to Russia, heads full of hopelessly out-of-date knowledge they gained in college.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.

Tim Kirby’s Dreamland

The reader may wonder why, after so many months of mentioning Western “Russophiles” or “Team Russia” fanatics, I have hitherto avoided mentioning one of their best representatives, RT’s Tim Kirby. I admit this is strange even for me, seeing as how his writing drives me up the wall at times. The reason, I believe, is largely because there are many bizarre parallels between Kirby’s history and my own. I’m not going to get into what those details are, but suffice to say that they are in some cases incredibly specific. In fact discovering people like him was a relief because I realized that my youthful obsession with Russia was by no means unique. In short, Kirby reminds me of me, particularly during the roughly 7-year period between my first visit to Russia and my return in 2006.  It seems highly unfair to go all-out in an attack against someone who writes and sounds just like you once did, and to be honest many things I said and wrote years ago would be far more infuriating to me. If I deserve a second chance, surely he does.

Image

American “refugee” from a non-existent war of some kind, Tim Kirby is shown here having just spotted Solid Snake. Alert mode activated.

Another reason I go easy on Kirby is because given our similar histories, I see him as a true believer, as was I.  It’s not hard to find Western, typically American or British supporters of Team Russia. When you talk to them in person or read some of their work, however, you learn that their “love” for Russia is largely bullshit. These are the types who “love” Russia just because they feel comfortable being a racist, sexist prick in public, and the cultural-linguistic divide makes it harder for people to immediately pick up on what bitter, angry assholes they are.  I strongly suspect that Kirby came to live in Russia because he was genuinely interested in Russia and not because he heard tales of beautiful but desperate young women who will throw themselves at the feet of an American man. Sincerity and consistency are admirable qualities.

In spite of all this, I knew when I started a blog called “Russia without Bullshit,” I’d have to take on the Kirb sooner or later. What better time than after I was made aware of a Wall Street Journal article about him, entitled “The American Who Tells Russia How Bad Things Are in America.” In all fairness, it seems Kirby was pretty upset about this, enough to write his own editorial on RT in response. For what it’s worth, that article is linked here, do what you will with that. I’m not going to get deep into the details of either article, but I found it somewhat amusing that Kirby is upset about the WSJ reporter reducing their hours of discussion to a few soundbites. That is what journalists typically do. This was the WSJ and not “An Evening With Tim Kirby” in The New Yorker or something like that.

Anyway, as the article’s name implies, Kirby tells Russians about the bad things in America, and it has a real impact. The article quotes a Russian listener in Murmansk as saying,  “It’s so interesting to hear from an American about how America really works…We Russians think that whenever something goes bad here that it must be better in America.” According to the same article, the listener now knows that things in America are either “worse of the same.”

This is my first problem with people like Kirby is that they continually profess their love for Russia while basically bullshitting Russians ever chance they get. I find it surprising that these Team Russia fanatics, who obsess over every little detail of anything remotely Russian, have never heard the Russian saying “better bitter truth than sweet lies.”  It’s not that Kirby lies outright to Russians, but what does happen is that when you look at the big picture he and other Team Russia members paint, that image is distorted and false. The fact is that life in America is not worse or the same as life in Russia, so if someone listens to you frequently and gets that idea, you’ve been doing something wrong. So what do people like Kirby do, exactly?

The typical Russophile appeal to Russians is often outrageously patronizing. It usually sounds something like this: “You think there’s no corruption/censorship/poverty in the West? Well let me tell you…” Typically this is being said to an audience of students or young professionals, many of them with higher education and possibly some experience abroad.  Now while there are many Russians, some of whom have traveled abroad, who have some pretty naive ideas about the West, I highly doubt that any significant portion of this audience literally believes that there simply is no corruption, poverty, or censorship abroad.  What Team Russia fails to understand with its whataboutery-laden arguments is the concept of scale.  The UK and USA have their corruption scandals, but the average citizen is unlikely to have been asked for a bribe. Participation in politics and real choices in elections are highly limited in the West, but they are far more limited in Russia. The United States has, particularly since 2001, seen much erosion of civil rights, including the right of free speech and free assembly, but this pales in comparison to the situation in Russia.  When activists are unfairly targeted by the state in the US, there is usually a huge outrage, indeed many Team Russia fans rely on this to find their stories of unfair treatment or persecution by the American government. In Russia, publicly speaking out against the government is likely to call down a whirlwind of accusations that you are a traitor, literally in the pay of the US State Department.  I was called a traitor for taking part in protests against the Iraq war, but nobody ever implied that I was literally in the pay of Saddam Hussein.

In addition to being patronizing, these people are essentially telling Russians that they don’t have a right to complain, or that they should keep their mouth shut.  I find this reminiscent of the attitudes I faced in America from about 2002 till the time I left. Only whereas in America those “patriotic” types are likely to tell you to “love it or leave it,” Team Russia fans from America or Britain tell Russians to love it and stay put, shut up and obey.  Western Russophiles are often oblivious to the advantages of their situation.  They are often paid far more than native Russians, sometimes for the same work(though not necessarily without good reasons for this).  They are foreigners so they’re “allowed” to make mistakes in every day social situations.  Much more important than any of that, however, is that they have a foreign passport to a first world country to fall back on. If Russia goes to shit one day, people like Kirby can pack up and go home. Where do the Russians go?

What I’m getting at here is that Russophiles often forget that the benefits they may personally have in Russia don’t exist for most Russians, if any. An honest person would remember this whenever they are discussing the benefits of living in Russia or the problems of America.  Personally I could write long articles about things I hate about America or advantages that I personally see in Russia.  However if I were to do so, you wouldn’t see me equating the two nations. If there really, truly are self-hating Russians who cannot think of any better thing in life but to move to some Western nation, who am I to tell them otherwise? If anyone deserves blame it is those in power who have allowed such a society to develop as it has.

In his defense Kirby claims that he points out problems about Russia, but his criticisms of Russia are far different than those of America. In at least two articles he implies that people in the West should seriously consider moving to Russia, yet I’ve never seen him say anything positive about Russians emigrating to America.  Criticisms seem to be along the lines of: Russia is great, but they’re not good at communicating that because they’re bad at PR. On one hand I’m inclined to agree, on the other I’d say Russia has some great PR among bitter, alienated Westerners, because they seem to respond enthusiastically to the works of people like Kirby.

At the end of the day what Russophiles like Kirby are doing is pissing on Russians’ legs and telling them it’s raining. They give horrible facts about America without any context or concern for whether their comparisons are even remotely accurate. They don’t truly empathize with Russians and consider their situation.  They try so hard to be Russian and yet in reality they don’t see Russians as being on an equal footing, to the point that it can be insulting.

In the WSJ article it is said that Tim believes that Russians aren’t suited to “Western-style democracy,” which in all fairness is an idea very common among Russia’s authorities and ideologues from whom he surely appropriated it.  Realistically speaking, most forms of “Western democracy” provide very little in the way of political representation or participation for most citizens, particularly the working class. It is foolish for Russians or anyone else to see that kind of “democracy” as the pinnacle of human liberty and the be-all end-all goal for humanity. On the other hand, that system exists nearly all over the world, far beyond the borders of “the West,” and in many places it does function pretty well according to its own standards. Having said this, it is clear that anyone who thinks that Russians can’t handle that minuscule increase in political franchise obviously has a low opinion of the Russian people.  Indeed, for all their professions of love for the Russian people, Team Russia fanatics, both Russian and foreign, can’t help but reveal how stupid they think the rest of the Russian people are.  They need some kind of strong leader to tell them what to do. Having them vote in new candidates every four years or so is too much for them to handle.  This kind of “love” for Russia is akin to that which an abusive husband supposedly has for his wife and kids.

You don’t love a country or people if you’re so willing to be dishonest with them and insult their intelligence, and that is precisely what people like Tim Kirby do.  I often wonder how people like Tim would feel if they lived in America and encountered some Russian immigrant who continually berated them every time they complained about some American social problem. What if he told them the problem existed in Russia, or that it was even worse in Russia? Would that suddenly make that particular problem go away? We have very limited political choices in America. Would we feel better if some Russian told us that they have even fewer choices in Russia?  If we want to criticize our president, would he call us self-haters and insist that the president represents America? If one of us, for whatever reason, felt alienated and at the same time very interested in Russia, would he accuse that person of self-hatred and attack their decision to move to Russia?  It’s rather hypocritical to deny Russians the right to be like Tim Kirby, that is to not fit in within their society and take an interest in other cultures, possibly to the point of moving abroad. To be sure, that isn’t the reason why many Russians emigrate, but clearly those that do are not satisfied with life in Russia for one reason or another, just as Tim wasn’t satisfied with life in America. Just as I, in fact, wasn’t satisfied.

Nearly every article The Kirb writes makes me want to throw it up on this blog and fire broadsides at it until it’s reduced to matchsticks. Kirby’s real problem, however, is simply that he is politically illiterate. That might sound like a pretty serious ad hominem, but it’s not; political illiteracy is so widespread that it is practically the norm for most of the world.  You can acquire political literacy by years of academic study, but the best way is through years of actual experience as an activist. You have to be a true believer, not just for one cause, but for several. You can’t be that type who joins the masses in the street when your party isn’t in power and who stays home when it is.  You have to have spent time truly believing, taking pride in your consistency and consciousness of your ideological values. You get good at tailoring your talking points, however radical they may be, to any audience. You learn to spot the ideological slant of your opponents. Then you have to be disillusioned, disappointed. You have to suddenly run up against a situation one day where everything you learned, everything you were told, can no longer suffice to explain the contradictions you see before you. You see the hypocrisy of comrades and people you trusted. You speak out and they throw you to the dogs to save their own asses. That’s just a part of the politics, how you acquire that kind of political literacy that can’t be taught in schools.  True believers change and evolve, painful as that process may be. And as I said, Kirby is a true believer.

Your Typical Non-Russian, Western Russophile

 

AUTHOR’S NOTE: The following is strictly satire of others and does not reflect my beliefs in any way. If this reminds the reader of any particular individual I assure you it is largely due to the fact that nearly all these jackasses sound virtually identical.

 

Hello there! I’m your run of the mill dissident from America, here to lecture you Russians on what you should do to be a successful country.  Specifically, you need a national ideology, and who better to teach you about your national ideology than myself, someone obsessed with your country? Of course I didn’t dream up this ideology myself. See, ever since I came to Russia and learned that Russians aren’t as obsessed about their own country as I think they should be, I have managed to surround myself with only those Russians who appreciate my service as a mouthpiece for their ideas.  As a foreigner, you can rest assured that I have totally surveyed the full spectrum of Russian politics and decided that these particular ideas are right for you. How fortunate you are to have me.

 

First off, Russia needs to reject everything Western. Well, everything except me of course.  I’m perceptive enough to understand that I can’t risk telling you to give up your iPhones, Playstations, Xboxes, foreign made PCs, import cars, and foreign fashions, but deep down I kind of wish you would because I would much rather see a Russia that better conforms to my romantic, patronizing idea of your country.  I have serious problems dealing with the pace of modern society and global capitalism, but I’m too ignorant and lazy to actually study and understand these phenomena. Therefore just like an arrogant Westerner who goes to India to have a spiritual experience, I secretly wish you would stick to your old traditions and not advance into the 21st century.

 

The best way for your country to treat my identity crisis is to conform to some kind of contrived, arbitrarily designed national ideology dreamed up by those intellectuals whom I designate.  I left America because I felt alienated by pluralistic society and I don’t want you to fuck things up for me by having controversy, debates, different viewpoints, and interests in other countries which are of no concern to me.

 

Let me just come right out and say it. Even though I swear up and down that I have purged myself of Western arrogance, you are my noble savages. I want to assimilate into your culture while still remaining just aloof enough so as not to have to face the consequences of my words, and naturally I’ll be keeping my American passport! I want to be Russian, but only if I can live in Moscow with a salary several times that of the ordinary Russian worker. Now that we have got all the preliminaries out of the way, let me proceed to lecture you on your national ideology, which you should certainly adopt.

 

1. The ideology should reject anything Western.  Well anything but the fun stuff. Also me; you have to accept me even though I’m not Russian and barely Slavic (if at all). I’m still not decided on potatoes yet. They are from the Americas and the most popular strains originate in the United States. On the other hand, I haven’t yet worked up the gall to demand that Russians give up potatoes.  Give me another year of hanging out with my small coterie of Russian fascists and I’ll give you an answer later.

 

2. The ideology should not be exported. Never mind the fact that I’m rooting for Russia to “win” in a global economy, or the fact that I clearly take inspiration from fascists who have preached about creating a new Russian Empire which stretches to the Atlantic. Clearly the most positive thing would be for Russia to create a contrived, Russians-only (and me too, of course) ideology and then force that on other ethnic groups and countries.  I get upset when America exports its culture and uses military or economic pressure to bully or even overthrow governments which don’t cater to its interests, but I’m totally cool with Russia doing the same, or even worse. Why? Because I like Russia, of course! Anyway, the Russian ideology has precedents which clearly didn’t work out well, perhaps the best example being the Qing dynasty in China. Luckily I’m too politically, economically, and historically illiterate to know any of these historical cases and therefore there is nothing to prevent me from recommending a reactionary, fascist ideology which has only lead to disaster everywhere it’s been tried!

 

3. Russians need strict rules and someone to tell them how to behave; it’s just your nature. Yeah I know it sounds like old Western imperialist arrogance, but it’s really not, because I say it’s not. I love Russia, I really do. But when I say that I don’t mean I love the actual people in Russia, but rather the fantasy of Russia that exists only in my minds and the minds of the narrow groups of Russians I associate with (others I write off as Western-corrupted liberal self-haters).  So you need some people such as me to lay down strict codes of behavior for you to follow.  I totally can’t see the irony in the fact that I support this while simultaneously claiming that Russia is freer than the West.  Freedom is the problem, because many Russians don’t behave the way I think they should, nor do they take as strong of an interest in Russia as I do.  I’m allowed to be a black sheep in my country, but you are not allowed to do the same in yours.

 

4. The ideology must be totally neurotic and focus on petty aspects of life rather than systemic problems or injustices. That’s the beauty of ideology- if someone tells you what to believe you can obey and just pretend those bad things don’t exist.  Neither I, nor my Russian fascist buddies have any real analysis or solutions to Russia’s problems other than to demand that people conform to our cooked-up ideology so that we can feel special.  Or in other words, we need to spend a lot of time thinking about and agonizing over homosexuality and masculinity.

 

5.  Although I hate American exceptionalism and those who tried to ram it down my throat in my native country, I think it would be great if a new elite in Russia did exactly that to you people. Did I mention I love Russia?  If it sounds like I see you as a herd of stupid cattle, you’re merely being shocked and confused by the fire hose stream of Russia love I’m dousing you with.

6. I’m not really religious myself, but you should be. One reason is that religion and national identity were closely linked in Eastern Europe, though my actual knowledge of history is quite pathetic for someone so obsessed with Russia.  Religion is also useful because it is the antithesis of critical thinking, a skill which leads to nothing but problems.  Ideology solves those sticky problems.

 

I realize that some Russian readers may be too stupid to understand why they should adopt a national ideology without question under pain of being excluded from their national community, but please try to keep up.  I’m only doing this because I love Russia. I love it so much that I purposely downplay, ignore, or even flat out deny serious ongoing social and economic problems which severely impact the lives of millions of Russian citizens, thus helping to suppress discussion about them so that there is no hope of solving them.  I’m very sorry but I’m rooting for my team, and my fascist friends taught me that admitting anything wrong with your country, even for the sake of suffering people, is treason.  Of course it’s perfectly fine for me to criticize my native country, the United States.  It may sound a bit hypocritical, but don’t be fooled, I don’t really care about poor people in the US either. I’m just using them as a prop to score points with my new masters.

 

So remember to be good Russians and do what I and the various obscure Russian intellectuals I admire say, otherwise you’re a self-hating liberal wannabe Westerner. I decide what Russian is, not you.  You’re too stupid to think for yourselves, much less go out into the world and see how other countries work, taking those things which could be beneficial to your own nation. Trust me, I REALLY love Russia!