Consider what it might be like to live a country which despite having over 140 million people has a GDP smaller than Italy’s and an export market utterly dependent on Fossil fuels, timber and minerals. Roughly one percent of its population has HIV and for a number of years, the life expectancy of males was down in the 50s. Its government has had a brutal string of domestic military conflicts involving its Muslim population (between five and ten percent of the population is Muslim) and the country’s total diaspora community numbers in the tens of millions.
You would be forgiven for thinking just from these selectively negative statistics that I am describing somewhere in central Asia or Sub-Saharan Africa. In fact, I’m describing the modern day Russian Federation.
These statistics, although hardly indicative of all that it means to live in Russia, represent important aspects of the country that are left largely undiscussed in the United States. The way Russia is most commonly experienced in the American psyche tends to paint a far less vulnerable much and much more foreboding picture. Other than the fact that it has a large land area, nuclear weapons and leaders with a reputation for gaudy, sometimes comically macho peacocking, most Americans know close to nothing about Russia – something not unnoticed by American leaders looking for enthusiastic voters, galvanizing stories, and far-away dump sites for their worst mistakes.
This is part of why Russia, for Americans both on the left and the right, is experienced not as a country, but as an ever-changing story. Most typically, it’s a story about a country that’s either magnificent or nefarious based on whatever either the American left or the American right requires from it at a given moment in history. Whether playing the straw man, the dark knight, or the evil empire, Russia is whatever Americans need it to be. That, unsurprisingly, has had many consequences for Americans.
This is freakishly visible in our own times as Republicans shed their Russian boogeyman nightmares and pass them on to Democrats. When the Cold War kicked off, it was s very different story. While McCarthyism was a Hollywood-hating, right-wing witch hunt with a Russian story at its center, the modern Republican party has in growing numbers begun to paint Russia and it’s “Alpha Male” leader in a positive light as they try to bolster the credibility of… well, Donald Trump. Conversely, it’s now the left (and some congressional Republicans) who have repurposed the Russians as their new dragon to slay. This is a partisan 180 if there ever was one.
In Communist times, the atheistic Soviets in Russia and their massive bureaucratic apparatus terrified Republicans and the American right in general. The “communal” collectivism, in their view, was a direct threat to all that was good about America — its democracy, its individualism, it’s choice-dependent view on morality, it’s achievement-oriented protestant work ethic, and perhaps in some cases, even the nation’s approval from God himself. In Russia, America’s right had an archetypal antagonist at the ready.
The American Left, conversely, perhaps beginning with FDR’s Vice President Henry Wallace and continuing into the Summer of Love, sang a different tune. While outside of radical circles there was not exactly an idolization of Russian culture, there was a general solidarity with the idea of the welfare state under communism – something embodied by utopian “communes” among hippies and other groups who sought to deconstruct elements of Western individualism that they believed to have their origins in disproportionately paternal or consumerist cultural assumptions.
There was also among the American left at the very least some kind of link between communism and secular humanism. After all, German philosophers — not Russian farmers, ultimately birthed Marxist thinking. Throw in how the Bay of Pigs became a public humiliation for the CIA and the Vietnam War demoralized the entire US government and one can see how appearing to be least a little bit of communist at that time became a way of being an agitator. Being a commie, i.e. being a little more Russian, was seen in the 60s and the 70s as a middle finger to a supposedly conservative and inward-looking establishment.
Now we have a very different middle finger in our politics. Once again, the raisers of the finger are fans of Russia — and in a similarly cherry-picking and profane fashion. The Cold War is over and Russia is no longer communist. It’s leader, Orthodox Christian. The Orthodox Church, after years of decline under communism, is now to some degree reascending in the former Soviet bloc. So too is Russia’s military budget – though hardly to superpower heights.
On the right, after 25 years of post-Cold-War rhetoric touting a democratic-capitalist ‘End of History’ in the era before 9/11, followed by the legendary Bush-era incompetencies that enabled the Obama, many now see the US government as predominantly liberal, amoral, elitist, and smug. Symbolically, according to much rhetoric on the right, the Ivy-league Obamas of this world are thought to be over-educated (or at least over-confident), and out of touch with the sort of salt of the earth values that are thought among ‘regular folks’ to have helped win the Cold War in the first place (i.e. Christianity, national pride, low barriers for individuals trying to do business). Modern day Russia, in contrast, is thought to have ‘conservative’ leaders in the government, ‘traditional’ masculinity in its media, and at least the appearance of cultural homogeneity at home. Consumers of both Russian state television and conservative media outlets in the United States both absorb caricatures of masculine grit, the church, and of course, that lack of – gasp – political correctness.
Today’s American Left, in contrast, sees Russia as its ideological antagonist in almost exactly the same way that the American right did a few decades ago. Now, however, it’s not ‘God-fearing’ Americans vs ‘godless’ commies, but ‘progressive’ individuals versus right-wing ‘populists.’ Both narratives are arrogantly simplistic and utterly exceptionalist. Both also pick and choose aspects of Russian society that suit their need for a partisan story. Any realistic attempt at portraying a complex and non-caricatured Russia gets steamrolled by a simplistic tale of good guys and bad guys.
Such stories always have consequences. The story we told ourselves during the Cold War of the Russian boogeyman with his finger on the button led to domino theory, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and that disaster we now call the Vietnam war. Today’s new boogeyman story, at least for the left, risks making its political defeats the fault of Russia rather than a fault in the Democratic party, or liberal ineptitude when it comes to constructing an agenda and serving the population (The Democrats are not exactly liberal by global standards). If liberals want to fight ignorance and the authoritarian attitudes that they claim to be against, they need to put together a more relevant and powerful message – not claim that they are doing everything right and that any setback is Russia’s fault. There is a difference between having a Russia investigation and letting the TV spectacle of an investigation stand in for meaningful reform for either political party.
Additionally, 2016 was hardly Russia’s first covert influence campaign against the US. Nor is it as if the US has never had covert influence campaigns in Russia and elsewhere. Did Russia hack entities in the United States? You bet it did. Is Trump colluding with the Russians? Whether he is or not, their interests are aligned in many already obvious ways. Russians did not engineer the social ills and major political divisions of the United States. Russia exploited them as its exploited those of other countries for decades. At most, Russia’s political technologists have nudged things nearer to one side of an already existing divide in the US. This was mainly done due to a fear of NATO and of Hillary Clinton’s signaled adversarial tone with Putin over the Middle East and Ukraine. Putin also exploits anti-US sentiment in the developing world, and among Europe’s and America’s far-left and far-right with media appearances that question the legitimacy of US power and insinuates the occasional conspiracy among Western leaders.
Some videos are uploaded by “Putin Fans” with especially fiery titles:
This does not make Russia worthy of sympathy geopolitically, but it’s hardly baffling why Vladimir Putin would endorse Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton, or resort to cyber warfare, which costs far less than traditional warfare. Conspiracy is not required to explain the situation. Hackers and bots move more cheaply and silently than tanks and planes. That, although still disturbing, is the real situation – not a story.
The boogeyman approach, in contrast, risks once again making Russia into a monster rather than a complex geopolitical entity. Such reasoning leads Americans to think that it’s their holy mission to intervene and eliminate ‘evil’ forces and fill the void with something that is somehow superior, or at least in their eyes, more recognizably American. Though evil acts no doubt exist in the world at large, that kind of thinking on its own can be highly dangerous whether you’re a right wing hawk on the eve of the Iraq war or an NBC anchor that criticizes Russia once again because it’s easier than criticizing Democrats – something that voters are starting to notice.
On the flipside, outlets like Breitbart on the far right want to sell Russia as a stronger, more homogenous and more religious country than it actually is for the sake of promoting belligerent degrees of nationalism. Russians too will get reductive with America for their own political purposes. The Russian psyche, embedded with the painful memory of catastrophic invasions from Napoleon and Hitler, see in America what it has seen in many western Powers — an adversary that must somehow be inhibited before it gets a chance to harm Russia.
This is something that Putin and Russian state television in the form of Ostankino and RT exploit openly, be it through war coverage, the courting of Snowden and Wikileaks, or the cultivation of Putin as a rather simplistic hero archetype. Russia, like America, likes a good hero. Russia is also no stranger to periods of dishonest leadership occurring alongside major national identity crises. In the 90s, Russia had its economic meltdown and its embarrassing Yeltsin years. Many in Russia see the turmoil of Trump as something of an act of karma. In 2017, Russia has largely bounced back from this particularly tough time, but in a notably less democratic form and in an environment where whether ‘Western’ or not, the country lags behind much of the world economically despite having an educated and skilled population.
This set of conditions is complex, but Americans need to engage with that kind of complexity, even reluctantly so, rather than read a bedtime story of their own ideological choosing. The reason I get down to this point is because the bedtime story option makes Russians somewhat sub-human in the minds of Americans on both sides of the aisle. At the moment, perhaps a little ironically, the left is more susceptible to this than the right when it comes to Russia. For all of the talk of racism, cultural appropriation, and privilege at home and in places like the Middle East, no predominant figures on the American left talk about the damage that simplistic portraits of Russia as a country and a people can cause.
Take, for example, the tragedy of the Paris Attacks. “Prayers for Paris” became an international cry of solidarity among many. Conversely, the counter-cry became “why were there no prayers for Ankara, Baghdad, or non-white, non-Western cities that have suffered far more attacks?” Of course, these calls are both largely reasonable and to be expected. Here is what is not. in April, the subway in St. Petersburg was bombed in a terrorist attack. Conspiracy theories aside, it appears to be a lone wolf attack like many others that have gained international attention. This did not make near the international splash that terrorist attacks in the Middle East or the West have.
That, on so many levels, is why American liberals must be careful. By proudly proclaiming their lack of overtly racist behavior (perhaps at the cost of trying to better understand racism), many Americans can inadvertently trade white supremacy for the white man’s burden as a more nuanced form of ethnocentrism. When Paris is attacked, there is empathy. When attacks in the Middle-East go under-reported, there is outrage. But if there is an attack in Russia? Mostly silence in the US. In this case, unlike in America’s other ideological battles, the Russian story has no evocative part to play, so Russia’s suffering can be disregarded. Too poor to be seen as a developed country, yet too white and too industrial to be seen as third world victims, they’re better off not mentioned. America’s right-wingers do the same in a different way. When they claim Russia is some sort white Christian homeland that isn’t afraid to use violence to keep its population safe, regardless of human rights, they don’t exactly have an incentive to say that terrorist attacks occur in less culturally tolerant places too (and frankly, more often).
We’re utterly stuck. Russia is in too many people’s minds either the boogeyman to fear or the badass to become. Neither is a fair portrait. In the meantime, we Americans will keep weaving our stories and the Russians will continue to weave theirs. In its current form, we will continue to express our outrage over forgotten Ankara and always have a few prayers for Paris if something bad happens.
But prayers for St. Petersberg? Not so much.