In Russia, two distinct, completely dissimilar peoples live side by side, and these peoples have long been bitterly hostile towards each other. (May the Byzantine double-headed eagle that Ivan the Third selected as the country’s emblem go to hell in a hand basket.)
There is Us and there is Them.
We have our own heroes: Chekhov, Mandelstam, Pasternak, and Sakharov.
They have their own heroes: Ivan the Terrible, Stalin, Dzerzhinsky, and now Putin.
Members of the two nations recognize each other at first glance and experience a pang of acute dislike that selfsame second. We do not like anything about Them: the way They look, talk, carry themselves, rejoice and grieve, dress and undress. Their favorite singers, films, and TV shows make us sick. They pay Us in kind, and with interest.
Apart from Us and Them, there are just plain folk, who make up the majority of the population. We and They are constantly trying to win over this neither-fish-nor-fowl, to introduce them to our values.
What do you think should be done with this reality? Should we kill each other?
—Excerpted from Boris Akunin and Mikhail Shishkin, “Conversation between a Novelist and a Writer,” July 30, 2013
While there seems to be a fair amount of self-irony, in the comments, above, by the famed Russian detective novel writer Boris Akunin, I cannot help laughing when I read such exercises in self-praise by the so-called Russian intelligentsia and, at the same time, recall something that happened to me several years ago when I was running a summer study program in Petrograd for an American university.
Our students lived with Russian host families, and fitting student to host family was not always a snap, but it was mostly doable. That particular summer, however, more students had signed up for the program than ever before, and our limited resources were stretched thin. So I was taking recommendations from whomever I could get them, rather than relying only on the list of potential host families provided by our partners at the state university here in town.
That is how found myself visiting a couple in their flat somewhere in the city’s Central District. It was in a Stalin-era building, but the couple proudly informed me right away that Oleg Basilashvili, a well-known screen and stage actor and liberal intelligentsia icon, was a neighbor. They, too, were members of the creative intelligentsia. One of them was a theater critic, while the other had something to do with the Conservatory, I seem to remember.
The point, as I had already told them over the phone, was that I had one student left to place with a family, a male student. They, it transpired, had a teenage daughter. Would it be a problem for them to have a male student living in the same flat as their daughter? No, it would not be a problem, they told me.
Given the reputation of the university I was representing, they might have imagined I would be setting them up with a blond scion of New England old money, so if their daughter was whisked off her feet over the summer or merely made useful connections in high places, what could be the harm?
As we were wrapping up our conversation at their flat, having ironed out almost all the practical details, the couple thought to ask me what the young man’s name was.
“Diego,” I said.
My answer literally sent their eyes spinning in circles and smoke shooting from their ears. All it took was the “wrong” name for them to imagine a summer of their daughter basking in the glow of old American money with a patina of academic respectability turning into the constant threat of rape and ravishment at the hands of a “hot-blooded Latino.”
And they told me that in so many words, all the while denying that they were what they were—racists.
The funny thing was that Diego was gay in every sense of the word: fun to be around, a kind, sweet-hearted young man, and no “threat” to their precious daughter. But since Oleg Basilashvili’s neighbors had already outed themselves as racists, I did not want to hang around and find out whether they were homophobes as well.
I was more naïve than I am now. Although I had already had many encounters with “casual” racism and anti-Semitism Russian style, Petrograd had not yet arrived at the bad part of its mid noughties, when more proactive racists than my intelligentsia couple would ever want to be began assaulting and murdering immigrants, foreigners, anti-fascists, and members of Russian ethnic minorities in especially large numbers.
But I was not naïve enough to try and plead Diego’s case to these assholes. I immediately left their precious den of culture-vulturehood and hit the streets, cursing them out loud while also trying to think of a back-up plan.
That it is when I thought of our long-time acquaintance F.A., who had nannied the young son of a friend for years, and even had cooked for our family for a short while when we were in a bad spot. By no means was F.A. a member of the ballyhooed intelligentsia, which was not to say that she was uneducated or crude or anything but kind, loving, funny, smart, warm, and one of the best cooks I have ever met in my life. Besides that, she had worked in a factory her whole life, doing quality control, and she was Jewish.
When I telephoned her and told her what the deal was, she did not hesitate a second to welcome Diego into her home.
Needless to say, Diego and F.A. hit it off and had a great time in each other’s company that summer.
So when, a while later, I was asked to find temporary summer accommodation in Petrograd for another young gay Latino man, I could think of no better hostess than F.A. They also hit it off famously.
This is my roundabout way of saying something that has only been confirmed ten thousand times since by experiences both personal and vicarious: the liberal Russian intelligentsia is not all it is cracked up to be. It is often not particularly liberal or progressive, and is just as likely to be as Putinist or more Putinist than Putin’s mythical alleged “base” among industrial workers and peasants in the “Russian heartlands” or the “simple folk” in the big cities. If anything, my own experience has been that, on the contrary, these simple folk are not so simple and not so automatically inclined to putinize the world around them, much less racialize it.
There are just as many bigots and racists among the “Russian liberal intelligentsia” as there are among the Russian lower classes, maybe more.
Whatever the case, the fact that many Russian liberals have loose reactionary, racist screws in their brains has become apparent from the rabid reactionary discourse that has sprung up within Russia’s talking, thinking, and writing classes around the “refugee crisis” in Europe and the fresh clashes between Israelis and Palestinians.
Yegor Osipov and Kirill Kobrin’s attempts, below, to counter this utterly irrational discourse might seem mild outside of this context, but they are welcome contributions to a debate that is most remarkable for its near-total absence from Russian public life.
October 21, 2015
“Maybe Israel does not behave perfectly in the Occupied Territories, but this is no justification for terrorism.” This comment on Facebook is nearly the most moderate gesture of support for Israel in connection with the new wave of Palestinian terrorism. Despite the fact that nothing justifies terrorism, the situation requires clarification.
Unfortunately, Russian commentators often forget the fact that Israel occupies around 60% of the West Bank and has been building settlements there for its own citizens. (Despite the fact that the Oslo Accords stipulated this state of affairs was only temporary.) They forget the Jewish settlements are built so as to significantly impede the movement of Palestinians between their towns and prevent the expansion of these towns. They forget that between 2000 and 2012 Israel demolished over two and a half thousand Palestinian buildings, buildings for which it, as the occupying power, had not issued construction permits. They forget that Israel restricts the access of tens of thousands of Palestinians to water, forcing them to pay much more for it than Jewish settlers living nearby. They forget that the IDF keeps troops in the West Bank who are engaged only in maintaining the occupation: a noise grenade there, a noise grenade here, searches of houses (women to the right, men to the left), and so on every other night. This tactic is called “mak[ing] our presence felt,” and sometimes it leads to innocent victims. Without knowing this, you might think that Israel and the West Bank were different planets, but in fact both political entities depend on each other. The West Bank depends on virtually everything that happens in Israel, while Israel (and this becomes clear during waves of terror) depends on the social climate in the West Bank.
The situation with the Gaza Strip, about which Russians also do not know very much, is quite different. In 2005, after the withdrawal of Israeli settlements and military personnel, the Gaza Strip was declared territory to which Israel had no obligations because it had “ended the occupation,” although it continued to implement land, sea, and air control of the Strip. After Hamas came to power and began rocket attacks on the southern part of the Jewish state, Israel proclaimed the Strip a “hostile entity” and established a blockade of the area along with Egypt, essentially locking around 1,800,000 people in an open-air prison.
In July 2014, in response to the murder of three Jewish teenagers by Palestinian terrorists, Israel launched an operation in the Gaza Strip, killing more than 2,200 people. Last summer, Jewish terrorists tossed Molotov cocktails at an Arab house, burning alive three members of the family who lived there, including an 18-month-old baby. Israel has yet to indict the terrorists. Some people manage to include this in the “Jewish people’s struggle for survival.” I think it only plays into the hands of anti-Semites the world over. But anti-Semitism, according to a newly released US State Department report on levels of religious freedom in the world, is once again on the rise, and the bias of the UN Security Council and the world’s leading media in favor of Palestine [sic] has not gone away.
Whether Israel will cope with the current wave of terror is a big question, because what is happening is not an intifada, which involves the coordination of armed protest. Today, we are seeing one-off attacks by ordinary Palestinians in no way linked to terrorist organizations. This is desperation after nearly half a century of occupation and the continuing colonization of Palestinian lands by Israelis. Last Friday, Benjamin Netanyahu, who during the recent elections declared there would be no Palestinian state on his watch, urged Mahmud Abbas to negotiate. But it is very likely that, as Israel’s main partner (just compare Abbas and Arafat), Abbas will be unable to help calm the situation. According to reports by Israel’s security services, the leader of the Palestinian Authority has been trying to resist the current wave of violence as it is. All this only shows that the situation is critical.
However, for the Russian intelligentsia, Israel continues to be a place it prefers to discuss with eyes wide shut and using generalizations like the “clash of civilizations.” Divided, like Europe, over the issue of taking in refugees, when it comes to the Arab-Israeli conflict, Russian intellectuals, with few exceptions, adopt an uncompromising pro-Israeli stance. Reposts of videos from Israeli hospitals showing “ungrateful” Arabs are accompanied by captions such as “Watch this!” or “Read this!” Others post pictures of the Israeli flag emblazoned with the slogan “Yes! I stand with Israel! Share if you do, too!”
The rising wave of support for Israel points to the Orientalist bent of Russian minds, with the classic traits of Orientalism. The eastern, Arab world of Islam is incapable, allegedly, of solving its own problems. This world must always be guided by an “intelligent” West, a role that is often assigned to Israel, because Arabs are fundamentally incapable of changing themselves and their societies. The great Edward Said writes in the preface to Mourid Barghouti’s book I Saw Ramallah that the novel’s translator has done her job excellently, and in the English translation “[t]he Palestinian experience is therefore humanized and given substance in a new way.” Russian intellectuals, however, are not yet willing to humanize Palestinians. Indeed, what difference does it make that Asraa Zidan Tawfik Abed, who tried to stab a soldier in Afula and was gunned down, is a mother of three who holds a degree from Technion University in Haifa?
It is unclear how the conflict will end. It is clear only that the conflict is likely to be another turning point in Israel’s history, the next step after the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. What can the Russian intelligentsia do if it wants to help Israel deal with these as-yet-unclear new realities? At the very least, it should cease losing its self-control and speaking the language of the “clash of civilizations,” see, finally, what the Palestinian territories are like and how closely bound the West Bank is to Israel, realize the gravity of the situation in the Gaza Strip, and try and work out a positive agenda. In the end, it is this that has not happened the last twenty years. The occupation of and crimes against the Palestinians are, alas, not the problem. The problem is talking about the occupation and crimes of the Jewish state.
In his popular book Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist, Yossi Klein Halevi, once a member of the radical fringe of American Jewry, describes the process of his transformation from an ultra-rightist radical to a centrist. When Halevi’s first daughter, Moriah, was born in 1985, he moved all his books about the Holocaust (which had once played a key role in his life as a member of the second generation) onto the upper shelves of his bookcases. He noticed that he put away even books with no pictures. He writes that this was his way of saying to himself these books were no longer the center of his life. Just as Halevi put away books about the Holocaust, the Russian intelligentsia needs to remove the imaginary radio broadcasting news either about the Six-Day War or Yitzhak Rabin’s murder and replace it with two maps: a map of the Middle East and a map of Israel and the Palestinian territories. The old threats to Israel are ever fewer, while we have a hard time imagining the new threats.
Yegor Osipov is a Russian journalist living in the Netherlands.
The Intelligentsia and Racism
October 23, 2015
Nationalism was born two hundred years ago. At first, it was the theoretical labor of the early Romantics, poets, folklore compilers, and forgers of nonexistent ancient epics of their own peoples. Only then was it put into practice: amidst the gun and cannon smoke of the Napoleonic epic, in the secret Carbonari societies, on the revolutionary barricades.
In the late nineteenth century, nationalism generated several new nation-states. They became more numerous after 1918, not to mention the post-1945 period.
The process of carving countries up according to ethnicity continued even after 1991. The further disintegration of big countries into small countries, and small countries into tiny countries, was just barely avoided. And yet, until recently it was thought that nationalism in today’s Europe was the bailiwick of football hooligans and political outsiders. However, as recent events have shown, many, many people think in terms of “blood and soil.”
It has transpired that there is no vaccine against nationalism and even racism not only for so-called ordinary people. Wordsmiths, intellectuals, and even liberals chronically suffer from them as well. Russian liberals have proven especially vulnerable, or rather, members of the educated class who consider themselves liberals. We are not engaged in political analysis in this column, but we will look at the ethnic mindset of current Russian liberals as a historic phenomenon.
Russian intervention in the Syrian civil war has excited many people dissatisfied with the Putin regime, even those who resisted the Crimean temptation. For example, one well-known Internet figure, who has somehow passed for a political expert, shook the air with bloodthirsty calls to kill as many Syrians as possible, since they are Arabs and, therefore, enemies.
Whoever bombs Syria today, I very much welcome it, and if it is wiped off the face of the earth I won’t be the least bit disappointed. I will only say thank you.
Many have voiced a slightly more restrained variation on this viewpoint, and one progressive media outlet has published an article that discusses, in particular, the indisputable superiority of Jewish men over Arab men in the sense of devotion to their families and courage. In connection with the influx of Syrian refugees, concern for the purity of European is voiced. The article in question is permeated with hidden and flagrant sexual motifs. The subtitle refers to “Raped Europe,” and in the opening paragraphs the author complains it is unfair that “girls love” starry-eyed defenders of refugees rather than defenders of European values.
Fear and loathing towards an alien tribe (the authors of such texts usually do not distinguish Arabs from Kurds, Kurds from Turks, and so on) and an alien religion, Islam (whose sense and essence they are too lazy to understand) have reached a fever pitch. Like all hysterics, Russian “racialist liberals” have been winding themselves up, and the noise level has been steadily increasing.
We are faced with a typical nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century mindset. Take, for example, the motif of the “raped motherland” (or “native culture”). Motherland and Fatherland had become a “mother” back with the Romantics, and later, Alexander Blok, a Late Romantic congenial to proto-fascist views, even proclaimed Russia his wife.
Oh, my Russia! My wife! Painfully / Clear to us is the long road!
In this scheme of things, any outsider is seen as a threat to the mother’s purity, to her sexual serenity. But war and other hostile (or seemingly hostile) actions are attempted rape. Curiously, the identification also works in reverse. An ordinary woman belonging to “our” people is treated as the Mother, the symbol of the nation.
The further we go into the twentieth century, the clearer the purely ethnic and biological features in the countenance of the Woman/Mother become. She is sexually threatened by telltale-looking strangers: Nazi anti-Semitic propaganda was chockablock with depictions of handsome blonde beauties harassed by swarthy apelike creatures.
For current Russian liberals, the role of the Mother threatened by violence is now played by the whole of Europe. It is strange that these folks so rarely invoke the mythological motif of the rape of Europa, in which the maiden Europa is abducted by Zeus in the shape of a bull, who spirits her away—across the Mediterranean!—to Crete, where has his way with her. The discussions of the newfangled national-liberals about the “rape of Europe” naively retell the myth in the most unpretentious racist manner. The “rapist,” “alien” or “suspicious Muslim” crosses the Mediterranean and, once in Europe, rapes her, meaning he bends her to his will. Just imagine that not so long it was said that classic Freudianism and Jungianism were half-forgotten things of the past. But now it turns out that all these things (combined with Social Darwinism and racial theory about the “inferiority” of certain nations) are alive and dominant in the minds of people, moreover, the minds of people whose job it is to reflect on things and generate meaning.
You can, of course, seek out the historical parallels, for example, the steady rightward drift of the liberal segment of the first Russian emigration or the fascist sympathies of such champions of freedom and justice as G.K. Chesterton. But all historical analogies obscure the essence of the matter. And the essence of the matter is this. Suffocating nationalism, moreover, on both sides of the current Putinist divide, is the principal legacy of seventy years of Soviet rule. While preaching internationalism, the communist ideology and the communist regime were weaker than the primitive xenophobia and fear of outsiders that permeated the minds of the Soviet intelligentsia. The collapse of ideology has brought these sentiments to the fore. Aside from everything else, another thing has become clear. The Russian intelligentsia, which considers itself liberal, knows no more about the world than their predecessors from some Turgenev novel.
By the way, have you heard there was a decisive battle on the Danube? Three hundred Turkish officers killed, Silistra has been taken, and Serbia has declared its independence. Don’t you think that you, as a patriot, should be thrilled? As for me, my Slavic blood is just boiling! However, I advise you to be more cautious. I am sure you are being watched. The spying here is horrible! Yesterday, a suspicious person came up to me and asked whether I was Russian. I told him I was Danish.
—Ivan Turgenev, On the Eve
Everything was clear then: we were fighting for our “fellow Slavs” and wishing death on the “bloodthirsty Muslims.” The only difference is that today the names of the people we should be protecting from the villains are very different. We are witnessing a cynical pathetic remake of the novel On the Eve.
Kirill Kobrin is a writer, historian, journalist, and editor living in London.