I don’t like Russia. Even though I spent parts of my childhood there, speak Russian and consider myself “of Russian culture” I am uncomfortable when visiting it.For me, someone who grew up in quiet orderly Latvia, Russia was always a wild untamable beast next door: its passions and impulses unpredictable, irrational and sudden, both in regards to manifestations of unusual goodness and generosity on one side and unexplainable penchant towards unexpected outbursts of violence and abuse on the other. For all the beauty and depth of Russian spirit and culture I have never visited a country scarier and more volatile. Tempers there flare up suddenly and go 0 to 60 in no time without warning and explanation, only to change into most overbearing forms of repentance and soul-searching.
But out of the sense of historical fairness I have to say that I am perplexed by the state of current American discourse in regards to Russia observable in expressions of official US positions towards Russia, in the speeches of politicians, including both presidential candidates, in media coverage and academic analysis. Listening to this chorus it starts to seem that the Soviet Union never disintegrated and that the Cold War is still in full swing. It seems that US officials, journalists and analysts are for some unknown reason are refusing to see that Putin’s Russia for all its faults is not the USSR of Brezhnev, Chernenko, Andropov.
Let’s remind ourselves for historical fairness sake a few factors that made the Soviet Union such an intolerably bad country:
First of all the SU was a one party system with farce elections and it was driven by ideology. That ideology presumed “liberating” or “bringing socialism” to ALL countries of the world. And I am not joking here, Soviets did have as an ultimate goal on their agenda a “victory of Communism in the entire world.” Therefore the SU was maliciously and viciously expansionist. Aside of 15 republics that it was comprised of it swallowed and enslaved Mongolia, and all of Eastern and parts of Central Europe. It spread its destructive influence to Africa (Ethiopia, Angola), Latin America (Cuba, Nicaragua, even Chile) and it culminated in fiasco of an attempted conquest of Afghanistan. ALL Soviet people were expected to believe in Marxist/Leninist dogma, in utopia of Communist future, and had to pledge allegiance to the party and its dogma, and were nightly and daily indoctrinated and brainwashed accordingly. ALL schools and universities taught this dogma, ALL media was preaching it 24/7. Most Soviet art, literature, cinema and music were supposed to carry this dogma into the masses and to be a vehicle for it. Any form of dissent: political, philosophical, religious, artistic was viewed as a crime against the state and was a punishable offense. There were numerous political prisoners in the Soviet Union. There were political prisons and political camps then. Remember how in Soviet days there was an Iron Curtain? Remember what was it? To put it simply: Soviet citizens were not allowed to travel outside of their country. And foreigners visiting the country were not supposed to mix with the population. Western (and Eastern) art, music, literature, and cinema were severely censored, and only “appropriate” works of foreign origin were permitted to reach Soviet audience. Private enterprise was forbidden and was punishable as a criminal offense. Private enterprise exited only as a black market. Non-governmental organizations of any sorts, even of most benign kind (such as clubs for study of Slavic Paganism, chess or card game clubs etc.) were not allowed. ALL writers, poets, journalists, musicians, composers, artists, cinematographers were supposed to receive a seal of governmental approval and to be members of “creative unions” blessed and monitored by the state. NOTHING could be published, filmed, screened, exhibited, and performed without governmental approval. Every rock band in the country had to belong to a state sponsored “rock club” and every song had to be approved by appropriate officials. Religion was FORBIDDEN. Religious education was forbidden. Religious people were variously persecuted and priests and activists jailed.
And I can go on naming evils of the Soviet Union, but I will stop here.
Now, look at Putin’s Russia and compare it to the monstrosity that Soviet Union was:
Russia still is, if nominally, but a multiparty system. (Why alternative parties do not manage to strongly establish themselves and rise to prominence is a mystery which no Russian can explain and this issue is outside of focus of this essay.) Putin/Medvedev elections were a travesty of sorts, but ultimately Putin did not dare to completely subvert the constitution and to re-appoint himself for the third term as a President, and took the role of Prime Minister. Besides we know that bad elections happen even to much better countries… so who is to throw the stone? But most of all Putin’s Russia is not an expansionist empire hell-bent on world domination. More over Russia does not have a domineering ideology that makes it extremely dangerous. Russian foray into South Ossetia does not mean that tomorrow it will sent “advisors” and “ideologues” to any other corner of the world to turn that corner “Russian,” the way Soviets tried to turn foreign countries into “Soviet” or “pro-Soviet.” Since there is no single domineering ideology Russians are not brainwashed ideologically anymore. Russian art flourishes. Literature is as free as it could ever dream to be. Cinema is living through real Renaissance. Performers and musicians are free to sing and play whatever they choose to, as composers are free to compose what they want without fear of being accused of pro-Western sympathies or any other ideological dictate. Political dissenters though often harassed are not subjected to mass arrests, deportations, jails and labor camps. There are no political prisoners now in Russia to speak of. It turned out that Russians are passionate travelers and after years behind the Iron Curtain now you see them in all, even most remote corners of the world and not as a political operatives but as simple tourists. Thousands of young Russians study abroad every year. And foreigners can freely come to Russia and travel all over the place unharassed and mix with the populace and live among it as much as they want. Capitalism and private enterprise are growing and even flourishing in post-Soviet Russia. There are thousands of non-governmental organizations and social and private clubs in Russia. Even though major media is under the state control, its content is far from mind-numbing propaganda of Soviet times.Russian TV though certainly less anarchic and free than it was in Yeltsin’s times, but it is lively and vibrant and it learned to produce some high quality entertainment including cult TV serials such as the Master and Margarita, Dr. Zhivago, Brigada, Liquidation etc. There is absolutely no subject that modern Russian writer (it is less free for journalists) can not touch. There is no art form that is forbidden for any reason including ideological. And extreme Russian happenings and performance art actions make the ones produced in New York or Washington, DC pale in comparison.
Rock music, the greatest artistic enemy of the Soviet state, is so ever-present and all pervasive in Russia that it even lost its former countercultural status.
Russians are deeply and solidly (not with shameful limitations the way it is in China) plugged into the international World Wide Web structure. On the web you can find many Russian outlets to various degrees openly critical of Putin’s regime.
Religion in today’s Russia is as free as it can be, and probably even more influential than it is healthy.
Looking at these comparisons one has to honestly say that with all its shortcomings Putin’s Russia is no Soviet Union. It still is a much freer and better country. And it would be naïve and stupid to expect, as some analysts in the US obviously do, that a country with such a heavy historical ideological burden, with such a brutal history of disrespect for human rights and human life itself would within some short seventeen years turn into a benign entity something like Slovenia or Bulgaria. It would be moronic to expect that country like that would sit there quietly while being needlessly harassed by senseless NATO expansion and feel good about itself.
Russia’s history is brutal, brutality comes easy to it. Russians have an imperial self-perception that dates back before Bolshevik revolution. They believe in the manifest destiny of their often idealized land. They believe in strong masculine leaders with bulging muscles who can stop a charging tiger with a tranquilizer dart, and kick ass if need be. They believe in force…
This is not going to just go away.
But today’s Russia is far less dangerous for the world the way USSR once was.
Following the brutal August 2008 events in the Caucasus several American analysts, such as Thomas Friedman, Katrina vanden Heuvel, David Remnick, Stephen Cohen expressed ideas of caution and wisdom in regards to how to see and how to deal with Putin’s Russia, cautioning against needless scandalizing, demonizing and ostracizing it. I hope their voices will be heard. It is much better if the US would learn how to be friends with Russia then step on its sore toes and tease the beast that tries to behave, and has learned a lot of good skills, and will learn more if given a chance. But it is still a beast that goes 0 to 60 in 0 seconds…
Mark Yoffe, has a Ph. D. in Russian culture from the University of Michigan. He is a creator and a curator of International Counterculture Archive at Gelman Library of George Washington University in Washington, DC. He is a co-author of two books on Eastern European and Slavic culture and a contributor to the Guardian obit section, writing on Russia-related subjects.