Salmagundi: A New Low

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An advertisement for hard drugs in downtown Petersburg. Photo by the Russian Reader

“I very often hear from smart and even progressive colleagues, not only so-called conservatives, that we should not exaggerate. The regime, they say, has not cracked down on millions of people, and you can criticize it, albeit on the internet. There are protest rallies from time to time. Intelligent books are published, not burned, and monuments to Stalinism’s victims are erected. The west has many of its own faults, too, and generally speaking, the regime is not all that oppressive.

“What I do not like about this rationale, however, is the constant desire to normalize current Russian reality, turn a blind eye to the crimes and mean tricks that actually do occur, muffle criticism and, ultimately, justify the regime, if only unconsiously. It is somehow especially offensive to hear and read such things when they are said and written by people who have left Russia.”

Source: Sergey Abashin

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“Oil.” Photo by the Russian Reader

“When the Russian Federation occupied Crimea, Russians celebrated. When Donetsk and Lugansk were shelled and captured, they encouraged the vampire and cursed the Ukrainians. When the Russian Federation bombs Syria, our vast country’s deaf inhabitants are out of the loop.

“But why do they got upset when their own children are poisoned? Are the children of the Crimean Tatars, made orphans, and the murdered children of Ukraine and Syria worse than the children of Moscow and Voronezh?

“As long as you agree to kill others, don’t expect happiness. Your actions will catch up with you, sooner or later.

“Some would call it fate, others karma, still others, divine punishment. What’s the difference? Everything in this world is connected.”

Source: Elena Zaharova

DSCN4860Front page of official municipal council district newspaper, Petersburg. Photo by the Russian Reader

“‘My name is Mikhail Safronov. I’m a tenth-grade student and I’m against the decision by the Russian Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs to close the British Council in Russia.’

“According to Mikhail, closing the British Council would deprive Russians of the opportunity to learn about British culture, study English, and attend lectures, seminars, and other interesting events.

“’I think that political squabbles should not affect educational and cultural activities, for when we look at the historical past, we shall see that culture has always been an important element in any situation,’” believes Mikhail.”

Source: Email message from Change.org

lahiorotat-jaloviinaScreenshot from the video for “Skujaa” by Helsinki hip-hop group SMC Lähiärotat

The really hilarious and sad thing is the number of Russians who are convinced that, because they are “victims” of their own regime, the so-called west (the EU, US, etc.) owes them something, everything.

I don’t mean asylum. Under international law, countries are obliged to provide safe haven to people who flee their own countries “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”

Unfortunately, there have been a good number of Russians who have fled Russia for just these reasons in recent years, and many of them have been granted asylum, as they should have been.

But there have been many more Russians who have simply left the country for a better life somewhere else.

That’s cool, too.

Or it would be cool if more or most Russians extended the same right to live the good life to other peoples. But even as they either live happily in the west or think hard about relocating there, which they regard as an entitlement and a birthright, many of them are horrified that Europe, the US, Canada, Australia, etc., have been “overrun” by Muslims, Mexicans, Africans, Indonesians, etc.

The entitlement to a good life does not extend to these people, even if some of then, namely, Syrians, have been fleeing their homeland because the Russian government has allied itself with the Syrian dictator Bashar Assad to crush all opposition to his tyrannical dynasty and been bombing the last opposition strongholds to smithereens with its superior air force and firepower.

I don’t need to tell you how many refugees, displaced people, and asylum seekers the Assadist massacres in Syria have generated, but Russia itself has taken in only a handful, at most, of these refugees, and caused them a lot of problems in the process.

Meanwhile, wherever they are in the rest of the world, at home or abroad, a good number of Russians would deny refuge and asylum to these same people because, in their mind, they are all potential “Islamic terrorists” or otherwise incompatible with “western civilization,” whatever that is and as if Russia were indubitably a part of it, an imaginary construct.

This same sense of entitlement extends to the mostly jejune “battle with the regime” at home. Of course, there are lots of Russian grassroots activists and opposition politicians who fight the good fight without even once thinking about “the west” and what it can or should do for them in their uneven struggle with the Putinist tyranny.

But there are just as many Russians who take it as a given that “the west” should be ready and willing to provide them with whatever they require when they need it: funding for their endless “projects,” junkets to conferences, research fellowships, lectureships, etc.

You might wonder why a grassroots activists or an opposition politician would need a research fellowship. Most real activists and politicans don’t need them, in fact. But the “struggle” in Russia has generated a rather large academic cottage industry of researchers and “activist researchers,” supposedly engaged in studying the “struggle,” the country’s “social movements,” and so on.

By all means, whenever possible, “the west” should fund this research, too. Russian intellectuals—unlike Syrian intellectuals, Iraqi intellectuals, etc., (do “Islamic terrorists” even have intellectuals?)—are entitled to this support because, in mysterious ways I cannot even fathom at this point, they “share the same values” as “westerners,” whoever they are.

Here’s the kicker. While western leftists and other assorted kooks have imagined “the west” has been doing Satan’s work and trying its darnedest to dismantle the once-mighty socialist utopia, the real story has been that the west actually has been flooding the former Soviet Union and Russia in particular with all manner of aid to civil society, academia, and even governments.

This extends even to the US State Department, rightly condemned as the source of all evil in the known universe. There is probably not a single person in the current Russian government and parliament who has not been the beneficiary, at some time in the surprisingly recent past, of an all-expenses-paid fact-finding junket to the US and/or the EU. A rather large number of Russian law enforcement officers and judges have also been on such trips to the Great Satan, as I know for a fact.

You might argue this kind of aid is ultimately self-serving, and you would be right. It was and has been mostly premised on the crazy notion that Russia was a democracy, and the west just needed to give it a little help and practical advice to get it all the way to the premier league of democracy, so to speak.

In the historiography of the Soviet Union, an important breakthrough was made when a new tribe of then-young historians started doing something that subsequently became known as “revisionist” history. That is, they dared to look at the Soviet Union as something other than a nonstop Stalinist totalitarian nightmare, meaning they tried to examine how ordinary Soviet citizens perceived their society or periodized the country’s history to show how very different the Stalin era was from the Thaw, and so on.

We are in desperate need of a revisionist history of the recent past, meaning the 1990s to the present. I realize no serious historian believes in “histories of the present,” but it’s good to attempt such things anyway, if only to preserve parts of the present or the near past that will not be so obvious to the people who come after us.

What I have in mind most of all is the very successful attempt to hypnotize the whole world into believing what I call the standard narrative about the collapse of the Soviet Union, its aftermath, and the rise of Putinism. Remarkably, the standard narrative is shared by Putinists, anti-Putinists (especially leftist anti-Putinists,) and lazy western academics and journalists alike, that is, by people who would seem otherwise to be at odds in the present when it comes to interpreting Russia’s current morass or, alternately, “resurgence.

I don’t want to rehearse the standard narrative here, partly because at this point it bores me to tears, and partly because I don’t want to give yet another platform to a story that the remarkable US president would call “fake news.”

The upshot is that everyone has forgotten that, during the “savage nineties,” Russian politicians, Russian society, Russian media, and ordinary Russians were not all reflexively anti-American and anti-western. Nor were they necessarily pro-American and pro-western.

Whatever they were, then, and whatever they were doing, it was this that was crucial to what happened in Russia at the time, for good and for ill. Meaning that no amount of American and western aid, advice, and other interventions (including the interventions of capitalist wheeler dealers and carpetbaggers) made a critical difference to the polity or the unbearable chaos, depending on your point of view, that Russians produced collectively at that extraordinarily interesting time

To know that, it helps a great deal to have actually been here to witness it, as I was.

This is not to say that nothing the west and the US did at the time (I’ll leave it you to make up your own lists of those things) had any impact on life in Russia. What I do mean to say is that impact was never so critical as to make inevitable the period that followed, meaning the Putinist period, in which the country’s ruling elite has been engaged, from day one of the post-Yeltsin, in an all-out “cold civil war” (a term coined by a friend of mine) against ever more numerous and ever larger segments of Russian society.

However, throught both periods, western governments, including the US, and western organizations of all kinds have been keen to promote democracy, civil society, academic research, and culture in Russia, and have spent a good deal of time, energy, and money on that mission, premised, mistakenly or not, on the notion that Russia was a society not so different from our own societies.

I realize I am deliberately emphasizing the positive side of this relationship and practically ignoring the darker, negative sides of this effort. I am doing so for two reasons. One, I really do believe the positive has outweighed the negative. Two, I think the real challenge for serious “new revisionist” historians of the recent post-Soviet past would be to not take the standard narrative as a given, because once you do that, I would argue, you are a short slippery slope away from full-blown Putinism, which in Russian hipster leftist discourse usually has been camouflaged by a rather dubious take on post-colonialism, namely, that “the west” has attempted to “colonize” post-Soviet Russia, that would make all the pioneers of post-colonialist theory turn over in their graves, that is, if they are not still alive and happily theorizing among us.

The flipside of this wholesale sellout to the Putinist standard narrative, paradoxically, is the widespread belief that “the west” owes each and every Russian a personal debt either for screwing up their country so badly or, conversely, for not doing enough to make it a full-fledged democracy.

So, having spent millions and billions of dollars and euros, and thousands and hundred of thousands of manhours doing our best to help our wartime ally take what we all thought would be a tiny, natural, easy step in the right direction, we are now universally reviled (and revile ourselves) either for attempting to divert Russia from its unique historical trajectory or not doing enough to divert Russia from its uniquely catastrophic historical trajectory.

Concomitant to this “porridge on the brain” (kasha v golove) is the equally widespread and equally false notion that “we” (as if “the west” were a real thing, a monolith centrally governed by me or the Rockefeller family or my Uncle Duane) have not been paying enough attention to “victimized,” “colonized” or “resurgent” Russia (cross out the words that do not apply) both in terms of journalistic coverage and academic research.

In fact, Russia has had so much attention of all kinds lavished on it in the last thirty years, I would wager that, in terms of character counts, minutes of airtime, column inches, and so forth, it would easily outdo all other parts of the so-called non-western world, China included.

Yet I am constantly encountering people, Russians and “Russophiles” alike, who argue that if “the west” would spend more time (and money) listening to this group of Russian or that group of Russians, it would finally get the “real picture.”

In reality, nearly all those groups of Russians with big messages for the imaginary Big Brother have been furiously shuttling back and forth across the frontier for a long time now, wearing a large furrow in the carpet.

This brings me to my non-intuitive and unforeseen conclusion, which would seem to be at odds with everything I have professed and done over the last nearly thirty years.

What if “we” (although “we” know don’t really exist, but “they” don’t know that, even though “they” don’t really exist, either) just gave up altogether on our nonexistent collective project to befriend Russia or bring it to its knees by begging it fecklessly not to turn into a tinpot kleptocracy.

With all the time, money, and manhours freed up, “we” could engage with other parts of the world or take up other worthy pursuits.

What does this have to do with Russia? Absolutely nothing at all. And that’s my point. I think it would have a tremendously invigorating effect if “we” (who don’t really exist) disengaged from Russia altogether, if only because we need to deal with our own ailing countries or other traumas, joys, and dreams pestering our souls.

And also because solidarity, as I have been harping on for years, is a two-way street.

There was a time, in the nineties, when I thought I could see that two-way street being built. It has long ago turned into a one-way street, however, and whatever “we” do do and whatever “we” do not do, “we” are damned and condemned and reviled and told “we” are not doing enough. That is, “we” are in what Margaret Mead’s less-famous but equally distinguished husband Gregory Bateson called a double bind.

I suggest “we” either just give up and get on with our lives or we take seriously the idea that, for the last two decades, we have been feeding ourselves a load of crap about our relationship with Russia and what has really been going on here, and we have let ourselves be fed a load of crap. TRR

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