Jeffrey Wasserstrom: Reading about Moscow (With Beijing on My Mind)

Roundup: Historians' Take

Jeffrey Wasserstrom is Chair of the History Department at the University of California, Irvine, and the author, most recently, of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford University Press, 2010). His reviews and commentaries have appeared in newspapers such as the Los Angeles Times and a wide range of magazines and journals of opinion, including New Left Review, the TLS, the Nation, the Huffington Post, Time and Newsweek. He is the Editor of the Journal of Asian Studies and co-founder of the UCI-based China Beat blog/electronic magazine. Read his first piece for LARB, "Hot Dystopic," which appeared in May 2011.

Once upon a time, specialists in Chinese studies, like me, felt we had a lot in common with scholars who focused on Russia. We each shared an interest in large countries that had command economies and Leninist systems of rule. We each struggled to make sense of comparably opaque and often misleading official pronouncements. And when it came to works of dystopian fiction, we both studied places that were widely considered “Orwellian” in nature. But then came a pair of events whose twentieth anniversaries have just been marked: the collapse of the Soviet Union and the founding of a new Russian Federation. In the wake of these major changes, the comparative landscape began to shift. Soon, the contrasts between China and Russia seemed to far outweigh their similarities. After all, 1992 began with a new government in Moscow striving to leave the Communist era behind, while an old one in Beijing expressed its determination to keep China under Communist Party control and territorially intact.

And yet 2012 begins with the Russian and Chinese constellations once again falling into alignment. China is still sometimes referred to as Orwellian, but neither it nor Russia is now seen as the closest real-life approximation of a “Big Brother State,” a title that now belongs to settings such as North Korea where harsher forms of authoritarianism are the rule. Some China specialists, myself included, have recently argued that consumerism, materialism and a culture of distraction have come to play such a pivotal role in keeping Hu Jintao and company in power that Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World may now supplant the previous fictional template through which we once viewed Chinese authoritarianism: Orwell’s 1984. My reading of commentaries and reportage on Putin’s Russia suggests that the same shift from Orwell to Huxley makes sense when we look toward this fledgling, and questionable, democracy....

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