The deluge of statements, articles, and books on Russia in these turbulent (for Russia) times comes as no surprise. What surprises is the ingratiating and monotonously uncritical terms of discourse in which American opinions about Russia are couched. Many of these terms date back to the Soviet era. No country in Europe has ever generated so much obsequiousness.
For months, nearly every issue of the New York Times has featured an article saying in effect: “Let’s help the poor Mr. Ivanov in Moscow, he is in bad economic trouble, he has been humiliated, and there may be more trouble if we do not help him.” While the calls to charity multiply, fawning upon things Russian is also very much in evidence. In recent years, almost every American institution worth its mettle has sponsored a pilgrimage to Moscow, and the pilgrims, awestruck by the Oriental splendor of the last imperial city on earth, have listened humbly to their Russian guides explaining the glories and sufferings of Russian history and telling where and how to send a plane ticket enabling a victimized Russian to visit the West. The notion of Russia’s victimhood, implanted in Russian and foreign memory by Russian writers of the 19th century, survived the years of Soviet military might (indeed it was nourished by Moscow) and continues to find willing followers among American journalists and academics.
The worship of Russia in America crosses ideological boundaries. On the left, the pageant started with the likes of Armand Hammer, who flirted with Russia’s leaders from Lenin to Gorbachev. Many a lesser leftist figure, e.g., Suzanne Massie in her panegyric to Russia, Land of the Firebird: The Beauty of Old Russia, has viewed Russia as a country where life was lived according to Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker—never mind that its libretto was taken from E.T.A. Hoffmann’s tale. University towns in Siberia and museums that routinely stole from conquered peoples get the ah’s and oh’s of American visitors. On the right, there is the idealization of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a man of indisputable courage and patriotism but hardly a reliable source of information about the history of Russia, let alone about what’s best for America.
“For tens of millions of Russians, life has gone from the harsh to the intolerable,” laments Patrick Buchanan. “Ease up on Russia,” urges economist Padma Desai of Columbia University, directing her appeal to the International Monetary Fund, which asked Russians to keep their budget deficit below five percent to qualify for new credits (they never complied). Desai says that foreign investors should likewise disregard Russian budget deficits, because the shock therapy that worked ui Eastern Europe could not work in Russia. She mentions a submarine factory at Severodvinsk that she says would find it exceedingly difficult to produce anything but submarines. But Professor Jeffrey Sachs has noted that Russia has never tried shock therapy. Unlike the Eastern European governments that opened their financial books for the Western world to see, Russia continues to shroud her finances and spending in secrecy. Officials in the Clinton administration believe that Russia continues chemical weapons research, but no investigative reporter has tackled this matter. Ironically, we have given Russia millions to destroy the stocks of her old chemical weapons.
Truly trivial books on Russia have multiplied for years, written by journalists, professors, and ordinary visitors. The New York Times has reviewed some of those I have refused to review for the local paper, while passing over books from countries whose armies do not generate such critical Dane-Geld.
Russia specialist Steven Erlanger once composed a human-interest story slanted to pull the strings of American compassion. It deals with a Russian Army captain, Andrei Tarada, and his wife and daughter, who lived in Soviet-occupied Eastern Europe in a three-room apartment and had their own car. Now back in Russia, they have only one room and no car. Thus, the aggressors from Russia get a full measure of sympathy while the peoples whose lands they occupied get none. What Andrei Tarada and his ilk did to the citizens of the foreign lands they occupied remains totally beyond the area of vision of the American reporter. Imagine this kind of solicitation bestowed on Nazi soldiers returning to Germany from occupied France. Lithuanians once tried to present the Russians with a bill for the damage done to their country, to the accompaniment of guffaws from the Russian generals, guffaws which resonated in the American press. Recently, the Poles attempted to persuade the Russians to exhume and bury (at Russian expense) some of the 20,000 Polish officers Soviet Russians murdered at Katyn and elsewhere. No agreement has been reached yet, under the pretext that the Russian Orthodox Church objects to the exhumation of bodies! As someone said, it is easier to squeeze water out of a stone than to make Russians pay even a symbolic price for the atrocities their regime committed against the conquered peoples.
Even the most unsavory individuals profit from the massive reduction of critical acumen that the American media display when dealing with things Russian, because information from Russia is “cleaned up” before publication. Vladimir Zhirinovsky said that he visited Bulgaria to consult a Bulgarian fortune- teller named Vanga, who, he said, “predicted a very good year” for him. “Next year is the year of the dog, so it is my year, just as it is the year of Clinton. But while Russia will be on the rise, Clinton will have to face problems in the United States,” Zhirinovsky said. The most famous contemporary Russian clairvoyant, named Kashpirovsky, is said to have supported Zhirinovsky in the elections. A Russian professor of psychiatry charged that Kashpirovsky hypnotized TV viewers, thus increasing the pro-Zhirinovsky vote. When Tatarstan protested Russian attempts to reign it into the empire, Ruslan Khasbulatov, then speaker of the Russian Parliament, threatened to “take Kazan by force for the second time, and bring the Tartar leader to Moscow in a cage.” I searched in vain for information about such superstitions and barbarities in the New York Times and in provincial newspapers. The most shocking details about the Russian elites are simply not publicized by the courtier press, so that an impression is created that “we can do business with the Russians because they are so much like us.” Interestingly, no such assumptions are made about the Chinese; nor can one perceive a courtier tone in reports from China filed by American journalists. A whiff of racism, perhaps.
Efforts are also exerted to present Russian social habits and customs as similar if not identical to those of America and to put the most flattering spin on events in Moscow. A UPI article sent out on December 31, 1993, reported that “Russians were shopping like mad Friday to beat a New Year’s Eve deadline for spending their hard currencies” because, starting January 1, “retail trade in Russia will be in rubles or through credit cards.” The article added that “the ruble is now a freely convertible currency.” I have yet to meet a Russian who knows exactly the details of credit-card shopping, let alone owns a credit card. Second, the ruble is not freely convertible. Third, the measure introduced by Yeltsin takes Russia farther away from a market economy and reinforces the black market in rubles and dollars that has never totally disappeared. But the spin the author put on this was that “both Russians and Americans like to shop, especially before New Year’s Eve.”
The ingratiating tactic of the American elites eager to compliment Moscow reached new heights after Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s successes and Yeltsin’s subsequent changes in policy. Whatever President Yeltsin now proclaims is OK with the American political establishment. The 1994 policy, recommended by the Clinton administration and cheered by most commentators, is to allow Russia to slow down the conversion of industry and agriculture from socialism to capitalism (read: disregard the unlimited credits extended by the Russian central bank to the military-industrial complex). We should allow for the temporary increase in inflation and concentrate on the welfare of the Russian people. No one is paying attention to the fact that three years after the dissolution of the U.S.S.R., there is almost no private land ownership in Russia and monopolies still control much of the economy. In Strobe Talbot’s words, Russia has had “too much shock and too little therapy.” Russia is simply unable to convert at the speed envisaged by Western economists, it is argued. We never hear why; if pressed, Russia Firsters say that Russia is too big to adhere to theories that worked elsewhere. This reminds one of Napoleon’s saying that “Russia is a country of the future, and always will be.”
In exhortations and appeals written by Russia-worshipers, Russian realities are expressed in a language steeped in the American tradition, without deflecting its connotations from those applicable to a country of free citizens to those appropriate to a country where the citizens themselves, without a foreign conquest, gave birth to czars and commissars. There seems to emerge a vocabulary pertaining to Russia that enshrines factual mistakes in generally accepted terms of discourse. This faulty vocabulary is somewhat like a sieve through which information essential for analysis escapes unnoticed. For a quick example, consider that the word “Russia” is usually applied not only to ethnic Russia but also to Tatarstan or Tuva or Chechnya, where Russians are a minority and where the indigenous inhabitants clamor for independence. The misunderstanding is partly caused by the peculiarities of American development. Aren’t New Mexico and New England equally American? Aren’t American Indians part of American society? It would therefore seem that Moscow and, say, the Volga River are equally “Russian.” A popular Russian song calls the Volga “a Russian river.” But as Professor Hugh Seton-Watson said in The Russian Empire: 1801-1917, the Volga is in fact a Turkic river, and the peoples who live along its shores are Turkic. If you think Seton-Watson is outdated, consider the recent stirrings in Tatarstan on the Volga, whose inhabitants, 3.7 million strong, are poised to assert their separateness from Russia. To designate as “Russia” those vast spaces conquered but never acculturated by the Russians, spaces teeming with emerging and energy-rich nations, falsifies the discourse from the outset.
As Ambassador Richard F. Staar pointed out, Russians comprise 83 percent of all Russian Federation people but occupy less than half of federation territory. The other half belongs to various national groups to whom Russian rule brought unqualified misery. The British settlers civilized the lands they took away from the American Indians, and they created a new nation in these territories, eventually severing their political ties with the country from which they came. But Russians kept attacking their contiguous neighbors and, having overpowered them, treated them as Mother Russia’s bounty. Russians generally treat wealth as something one can take away from Paul and give to Peter, not as something that can be created. From Peter the Great until 1914, the empire has expanded at a rate of 55 square miles a day, plundering other people’s wealth as it went along.
It can only be imagined what brutalities this rate of expansion created both for the conquered and the conquerors. These brutalities became enshrined in the empire’s social memory and its political behavior. Such voracious colonial appetite also created a land glut that exists to this day in the Russian Federation. It made assimilation and the rule of law practically impossible. The Russian Federation is simply too vast and diverse to be administered in an orderly fashion or to be a unified state. It can be ruled only by a tyrant, whether he be czar or commissar. This rather obvious conclusion emerges as one acquires some knowledge of the geographic, linguistic, and historical differences between the various lands that American courtiers so obligingly call “Russia.” But I have yet to encounter a Russia-watcher who would come forth with a set of coherent suggestions in this regard. The fear of offending Moscow goes far beyond government circles. It is a disease that has affected a good number of American scholars, not to speak of journalists. While the latter may claim that their livelihood is at stake (Newsweek‘s Moscow bureau chief, Andrew Nagorski, was expelled in 1982 for “impermissible methods of journalistic activities”), scholars do not have a similar excuse.
While the empire expanded in an unprecedented fashion, it failed to produce intellectuals capable of fashioning out a modus Vivendi for the vast territories conquered by the brutalized and brutalizing Russian peasants. With a few notable exceptions, the Russia-watchers in this country have refused to notice that very little in Russian history, literature, or social experience provides patterns of peaceful living within Russia’s ethnic borders. The tragedy of Russia is that its culture created no understanding that the military must be subordinated to the civilian, that treaties with weaker neighbors were not to be secretly broken, and that a nation need not constantly think of how to sow discord among its neighbors, with a view to taking them over and running their countries for its own benefit.
Russia has had no political thinkers who could lead it into a peaceful and realistic world. The best ideas Russia has produced are applicable to private lives (as, for instance, some ideas of Dostoyevsky and Solzhenitsyn), but not to the running of a state or to the study of history. On the political side, there have been the expansionists and bards of Russian suffering (including Dostoyevsky); the wrongheaded Utopians like Chernyshevsky or Tkachev, from whom Lenin derived his conception of an elitist Communist Party; and the benign Utopians like Tolstoy, who led Russian social thought down dead-end streets.
Not only did Russia not have its Thomas Jefferson or George Washington or the Federalist Papers, it did not have the dozens and hundreds of civic-minded writers who have abounded in America, France, England, Poland, Czechia, Spain, and Germany. Russia’s writers either refused to provide any political and social answers, like Chekhov, or they pointed in the wrong direction, like Dostoyevsky in his eulogies of Russia or Chernyshevsky in his vision of a Utopian socialist future. Thus Russia entered the modern age carrying on its back a bundle of chauvinistic, Utopian, or socialist writings, with not a single writer offering a realistic pattern of development for the empire. Not one Russian author has concluded that Russia’s troubles stem largely from its having swallowed too much of other people’s land. For generations, Russian intellectuals treated Russia’s military posture as a nonissue. This is the Russian tragedy one seldom hears about. This phenomenon should attract the attention of both foreign researchers and the Russian elites; but nothing of that sort has happened.
Now the nations conquered by Russia, which Russia failed to assimilate because of the rate of its expansion, have emerged from the cocoon of tribalism and begun the laborious process of self-assertion. For starters, they want to put a stop to the kind of accounting by which it appears Moscow subsidizes them, not the other way around. Sakha-Yakutia has been empowering the Russian military for hundreds of years with its gold and diamonds (mined by prison labor in a premodern gulag), yet in present-day economic accounting it figures as one of the provinces that gives less to the central treasury than it receives! This is because what counts is taxes and not the mineral resources of which Moscow gets a lion’s share.
A correction that the discourse on Russia urgently needs concerns these nationality issues. The Russian Federation is not the same as ethnic Russia, yet of its inhabitants only Russians profit from Western attention and largesse. On July 15, 1994, the Senate voted in a foreign aid bill that contained $839 million for the former Soviet states, including over half a billion dollars for Russia. One may be sure that this money will not go to the Confederation of Peoples of the Caucasus, United Nations of the Middle Volga and the Urals, Siberian Independence Movement, Sakha-Yakutia, or the Far Eastern Republic —all created recently to ease the dependence on Moscow of various regions of the former Russian Empire. If these regions eventually succeed in breaking away and allying themselves with Japan, India, Turkey, Iran, or the former Soviet republics, the “inner empire” of Russia may follow the route of her outer empire. “If these vast areas succeed in breaking away,” writes Ambassador Staar, “Russia will be confined to a small piece of real estate in the European part of its former empire—without the size or power requisite for an important role in world politics.” This possible scenario is hardly ever contemplated by the American elites, ever solicitous of Russia’s imperial interests.
The population of the Russian Federation is 150 million; of these, 120 million are Russians. The population of formerly Soviet Central Asia and the Caucasus is about 60 million. Eastern and Central European nations, formerly under Soviet domination, have 170 million inhabitants (excluding Yugoslavia and East Germany). Under the Soviets, these non-Russian Soviet fiefdoms were not exactly favored in terms of industrial and cultural investment. The center was in Moscow, and whatever spoils the empire managed to accumulate— such as scientific institutes, schools and museums, libraries, banks, and centers of learning and information, in short, capital in all forms—were eventually inherited by Russians and by no one else. When the spoils of the empire were divided among various Russian institutions on December 16, 1991, A. Alimzhanov, Speaker of the Council of People’s Deputies, called this “the final act of lawlessness . . . insulting . . . to the non-Russian republics.” When the Soviet Academy of Science was renamed the Russian Academy of Science, its Russian president stated: “In essence, it was always ours.” He expressed an opinion, commonly held by Russian elites but studiously unnoticed in America, that the Russians have treated the Soviet Union as theirs, in contrast to every other nation that was part of it. They were the primary beneficiaries, in terms of cultural and military identity, of the might of the Soviets. The Bolshoi Theater was maintained at the expense of not only Muscovites but also the inhabitants of Tashkent, but only Russians garnered the benefits of owning such a splendid cultural institution. The Red Army with its nuclear arsenal has been the centerpiece of that terrifying Russian splendor before which American elites have been genuflecting, then and now.
Unlike the Eastern European countries that had to start from scratch after 1989, the former Soviet non-Russian republics did not even have the scratch to start with. Their populations were hit by economic earthquakes that the West has discreetly avoided seeing, turning its cameras at, and sending its scores of journalists to, Russian cities only. For every article in the American press about the fate of the poor in Uzbekistan there have appeared several hundred about the poverty of Mr. Ivanov in Moscow. While Mr. Ivanov makes, on the average, $85 per month, his counterpart in Kiev makes $7, while the minimum wage in Kazakhstan was recently raised from $2 to $3 per month. Americans are oblivious to the fact that for every suffering Mr. Ivanov there are two non-Russians whose living conditions are scarcely better than those prevailing in Third World countries. Sixty-two years ago, during the planned Ukranian famine, Walter Duranty was equally oblivious to the state of that nation, even as he fawned upon “that great light from the East” in Moscow.
It is time to pose the question of why the American media and intellectuals display so much tender solicitation toward Russia and the Russians, while treating 300 million non-Russians of the former Soviet Empire as unpersons. One answer is that the media and intellectuals, of the left and of the right, are attracted to displays of brutal power. Our value system has evolved in such a way as to put on a pedestal those who are leaders in that regard. Such people and such nations have acquired immunity to criticism and that magic quality which encourages worship. This is why the twin powers of Russian art and Russian army are irresistible as objects of fawning attention, why the holes in Russian children’s clothes generate more concern than birth defects and starvation in a Central Asian countryside poisoned by chemicals. Power attracts; its trespasses are blurred by its might. Stalin’s famed question “How many divisions does the Pope have?” underlies many a learned article and book written by think-tank gurus. American culture has been increasingly hospitable to the language of violence and power. Russians have mastered that language to perfection, and American elites seem to be mesmerized by it. Rudyard Kipling’s “The Truce of the Bear” captures remarkably well that singular quality of pitifulness and terror that Russians have so often projected in the West for their exclusive benefit.
It is of course in Russia’s interest to encourage admiration and alarm, pity and sycophancy in those who deal with her on behalf of America: journalists, scholars, statesmen, and ordinary citizens setting up countless “exchange programs,” which bring Russians here to study high tech and send Americans to Moscow to study Russian literature. The song of “Let us help Russia for this is in our interest” is being sung in unison by vastly divergent groups, and thus it is perhaps not entirely spontaneous. The more people hear it, the louder it becomes, as new voices join in. And a country so wounded, a population so desperate are unlikely to be hostile. This increases the good will of Americans and also helps to create a climate for American reductions in military spending.
The tender solicitation bestowed on the Russians is a form of fascination with the power of the gun and of oil fields. Among professional Russia-watchers, it is also related to a desire to keep and strengthen their own professional standing. The concern with the plight of Russians in non-Russian republics (has anyone ever shed tears over the plight of Ukrainians or Uzbeks in the Russian Federation?) and sentimental waxing over the multiplicity of beggars in Moscow (how different the accounts are of beggars in India) are hardly caused by a sudden upsurge of Christian compassion.
The oft-repeated opinion that the Russians have been “humiliated” by the troubles of their empire is of similar provenance. Russia is one of the most imperially successful states ever to exist. She has subjugated numberless peoples and nations over the last 300 years. The Russians profited enormously from their conquests. The history of Russia equals ceaseless expansion since the fall of the Mongols (whose empire, incidentally, coincided with the territory of the former Soviet Union). This expansion is like kleptomania, like an addiction. Long before the Soviets appeared on the world scene, Russia was an army with a country, rather than a country with an army. Russians are land-hungry, even though they have not been able to populate, assimilate, or civilize the lands they have conquered. Yet instead of turning a searchlight on this problem (the way we have done with the Nazi conquests), we become, like Linda Richman, verklempt at the mere mention of the aggressor’s humiliation at going home. What about the humiliation of the peoples whose homes the aggressor invaded?
The idea that the Russian Federation in its present form can evolve into a benign authoritarian state, let alone a democracy, is Utopian. The federation is torn by disparate interests. Russians dumping nuclear waste in the Sea of Japan while installations capable of processing that waste stood idle near Murmansk illustrate this point. If Russia aspires to normal statehood and freedom for its citizens, it has to disintegrate. If the Russian Federation does not disintegrate, it means that it has remained a tyranny, regardless of appearances. Telling the Russians that they are victims rather than creators of their own fate is like offering drinks to an alcoholic. Instead of trying to develop a dialogue with their Russian counterparts, American intellectuals have preferred to adopt the vision of Russia that comes from that country’s propagandists.
For Russia to choose normal statehood would mean making a radical turn away from its own history, which the Russians have been indoctrinated to adore. Americans are delaying the process of Russia’s maturation by their persistent courting of the empire’s elites, whether they be socialists or nationalists. Kibitzing and flattery from abroad prolong the status quo rather than helping the Russians face up to themselves.
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