Why Do So Many Russians Seem to Dislike the West?News Abroad
Putin with his mother, Maria Ivanovna, in July 1958 (Wikipedia)
Once upon a time there was a boy named Vova and a boy named Gena. They played together in the sandpit. When they grew older, they stopped playing. They were still neighburs, but they did not like each other anymore. Vova wrote a letter in his teenage years asking to join the KGB. Gena discovered the Beatles. Vova became a KGB agent. Gena became a hippie. But this was a long time ago. Vova is now the president of his country. Gena lives as an invalid in the countryside. They have not seen each other for many years. Yet now they have more in common again: they are both Russian nationalists and they both dislike the West.
This is not some abstract, modern fairy tale, but historical reality. Volodimir – Vova - Putin grew up in an ordinary communal apartment in Leningrad, as did hundreds of thousands of others in the postwar Soviet Union. Like a normal child he played with other children in the courtyard that bordered his house. Among his friends were two brothers who would become influential movers and shapers of Leningrad’s underground world of so-called Beatlomany, rock music lovers and hippies: Gena and his brother Volodia. The house on Baskovy Alley, in which both Putin and the brothers resided, soon became famous among the hipsters of the town, who came to exchange Beatles records, talk music and discuss the better world they sensed behind these new and exciting songs they discovered. Gena and Volodia broadcast their Beatles songs through an open window onto the street. They observed people who passed by. If pedestrians gave a smile to the window, it meant they were ‘svoi’ - ‘one of them’.
Vova Putin was definitely not one of them. He was no hipster. Despite a love for the Beatles, which he confided to Paul McCartney many years later, he chose the other side. He did not smile at young Soviet citizens who adopted Western fashion, loved Western music and yearned for the supposed freedom of the West. Instead, Vova Putin devoted his first career to keeping all of the above out of the Soviet Union. In the late 1980s, Putin’s side seemed to have lost. Putin had to vacate his workplace at Dresden’s KGB headquarters when a mob stormed the building. Gena saw Western rock arrive at Red Square and Russian rock go to America.
But this does not explain everything, if it explains anything. Two very different lives came out of one courtyard. Both were, in their own way, extreme. While few people chose the difficult life of a committed hippie in the repressive surroundings of the Soviet Union, few people also believed enough in the Soviet system in the 1970s to want a career in the KGB. Yet if one wants to understand why Vova and Gena ended up with similar views, and why these views resonate so much with the Russian people at the moment, one has to consider that, while they chose extremes, they both were socialized and traumatized in the same setting by the same forces.
The current rift between Russia and the West is not a conflict in which one side is guilty of aggression and the other is a victim. It is not about whose newspapers write the truth and whose politicians are more hypocritical. It is not even really a rift about the question of Crimean nationhood, Ukrainian government or NATO enlargement. Rather, the current conflict is a culmination of historical processes that shaped Russian attitudes towards the West. When Angela Merkel spoke of Putin’s ‘other world’, she hit the nail firmly on its head. It is not, as many in the American media have reported, that Putin is crazy (which is a crass mistranslation of the German original), but that Putin and a great many Russian people live in a universe shaped by forces and experiences that are completely outside the realm of Western imagination and understanding. At the same time, this universe has acted as a very effective barrier to Russian understanding of the West.
To understand how Putin relates to the West, one must remember that the West meant two very different things in the Soviet Union, which at first sight seem incompatible. In official parlance, the West was the ugly face of capitalism: warmongering, exploitative and shallow in its love for consumerism. In unofficial parlance, the West stood for material plenty, exciting music and fashion, and freedom. In reality, both of these parlances rested on imagination rather than knowledge. Interestingly, they also could exist simultaneously in people’s minds.
That was partly possible because the imaginary nature of both of these visions required no detail. Key concepts such as freedom, its limits and consequences were never discussed by a large tranche of the Soviet people who desired more freedom. Simultaneously, the widespread belief that Westerners might be richer materially, but that Russians possessed a deeper spiritual soul, allowed the avoidance of serious consideration of what really made the West 'the West.' While living in very different spheres in the 1970s and 80s, Gena and Vova’s predicament towards the West was the same. They thought about it a lot, but, de facto, they knew very little – and that was true even despite Putin’s deployment on the front line of East Germany. Nowadays, when Putin dismisses the Ukrainian protests as the work of CIA-sponsored provocateurs and Gena speaks about the US-Zionist conspiracy against Russia, they quote different discourses, but display the same idiosyncrasies. They are convinced that the post-Soviet era opened their eyes to the ‘true’ West, but they still suffer from a fundamental lack of understanding about how the ‘true’ West works. Their West is still imaginary.
Their misperceptions rest on a number of Soviet-era tropes. First of all, there remains a tendency to see the West as an abstract, undifferentiated bloc. Zapad – the West – is a term that has never lost its connotation as a force that was openly hated and/or secretly loved. One had to take it or leave it as a whole. Differences between even the larges actors such as the EU and the US are largely ignored – especially in the media and in common parlance. More crucially, the plurality of individual opinions that reigns in the West is brushed aside as immaterial. Consequently, even contemporary Russians find it in general hard to imagine the independence of any single person in the public sphere, may that be the Russian opposition, the Ukrainian protesters or Western commentators. Everyone is slotted into the big building blocs of competing powers and dark forces controlling the public discourse.
Second, conspiracy theories run high. Much has been written about why conspiracy appeals to human nature, but it has always appealed particularly to Russians. Decades of exposure to only limited information have fostered a tendency to see a hidden, guiding hand in the many calamities that have befallen the world, and Russia in particular. Although few people believed in the censored press in Soviet times, Putin’s censored press enjoys an astonishing degree of credibility. But that is because it successfully transplants the skepticism and distrust that characterized popular views of the Soviet domestic press onto the Western press. Disbelief and suspicion of foul play are undiminished, only now they have found a new target. Ironically, CIA-funded stations such as Voice of America and Radio Liberty were once considered mouthpieces of truth; now independent media such as the New York Times and Reuters are seen as agents of Washington.
Third, the Russian universe is still – and more than ever - divided into ‘us’ and ‘them.’ The power in this world order is so strong because it has been around in various incarnations for many generations and was applied to anything from geopolitics to culture, from morals to sports. In modern Russia it is not the appreciation of the Beatles that marks out a person as ‘svoi,’ as ours, but attitudes vis-à-vis a number of litmus tests. Putin subjects his oligarchs to visible displays of loyalty, which has to be reinforced through financial assistance. Those who break rank and finance opposition projects, lead a precarious life. His subjects are divided into Russians and ‘national traitors’, a category that is as broad as Stalin’s ‘enemies of the people’ and includes opponents to ecological crimes in Sochi as well as anti-corruption activists. Much as it was in Soviet times, it is not the content of opposition that matters but the act of disagreement. In theory, Putin also professes disdain for governmental corruption and the destruction of the environment. Yet when people championing these causes infringe on more sacred ground – the superiority of the state over the individual – they become the ‘other.’
And the fight can quickly become personal. The lack of distinction between the personal and political is also rooted deep in the Soviet psyche. In the later Soviet Union people filled the void of trust in their institutions and systems with trust in personal acquaintances. The term ‘svoi’ could also mean a network of friends, which was of help in times both ordinary and desperate. Help could range from getting children out of jail to repairing the toilet. Russia and many other Soviet successor states still do not vote in elections for parties but for individuals. Several observers of Russia have written about how Putin personally felt rejected by the West, especially by his erstwhile ‘friends’ George Bush and Tony Blair. To Putin, the extension of NATO was both a political and a personal affront. It is hence no surprise that he personally reached out to Obama by telephone a few weeks ago. Institutions, including diplomatic ones, have always been executioners rather than executives on the battlefield of Soviet and Russian power. They were and are only as powerful as the men who ran them.
Gena also has little good to say about the West, despite a life-long devotion to its music. He too feels personally betrayed by America in particular. Sometime in the 1990s, he was rejected for a visa to the fabled land. Yet for him as for many other Russians the disenchantment is more profound. The post-Soviet years dismantled the image of the West as freer, better and happier than the Soviet Union. For Russians in general, the promises of the West were fatally undermined in a single decade of grinding poverty, political chaos and rising crime. Democratic choice, capitalism, and existential angst all arrived on the same plate. And it all felt very personal both to those who had always fought the West, like Putin, and to those who had dreamed of it, like Gena.
Putin and Gena experienced 1991, the year in which the Soviet Union was written out of history, differently. Putin famously called the demise of the Soviet Union the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century. Gena was overjoyed to see the end of the system that had harassed him for decades. Yet while most Soviet people were prepared to see the Soviet system go to hell, the Russian part of them was by no means ready to accept the decline of Russia as a world power. There is little appetite among Russians to go back to communism. There is an enormous desire to see Russia do things the ‘Russian’ way again. This desire is as vague and as undefined as the term ‘freedom’ in late socialism. This ambiguity has been bolstered by equally vague geopolitical assertions. The idea of Eurasia – an old concept rejuvenated lately as both a political and economic program as well as spiritual utopia – serves well, since it turns its back on the West while simultaneously challenging the primacy of Western thought in general. It is thus defensive and aggressive at the same time. Yet, most important, the idea of Eurasia touches on a trope that is even older than Soviet times: the preeminence of physical territory in political thought and policy.
Russian identity has always been linked to the very earth on which it exists. And it is here that Gena and Vova meet once again. Gena lives in a remote village in the Leningrad region, connected to the world by a potholed road and the internet. He relishes the beauty of the nature around him, grows vegetables in his garden, scavenges for mushrooms and writes pamphlets on the superiority of the Russian nation. He thinks his life in and with Russian nature as spiritually purer than his former existence as an internationally-minded hippie. Putin is President of the Russian Federation. He loves presenting himself as a man in concert with, and control of nature: he flies with cranes, tames tiger cubs and rides horses bare-chested on the steppe. He too has chosen to shun a complicated relationship with the West in favor of something more simple and physical: a concentration on his lands and his people – wherever they may be.
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