National self-image

Hands Off Russia’s Sacred Cow

WWII propaganda posters. Photo by author

Soviet WWII propaganda posters. Photo by author

This week the Russian Duma passed a law forbidding the expression of disrespect for “days of Russian war glory and memorial dates tied to the defense of the Fatherland,” as well as “publicly dishonoring symbols of Russian war glory.” Anyone who spreads “well-known false information about the USSR’s actions during World War II” could be fined up to $6,000 and spend up to 3 years in prison. Using the mass media to spread the “lies” would result in harsher punishment. The bill also outlaws any “rehabilitation” of Nazism or denial of Nazi crimes.

If the law goes into effect, it will be risky for Russians to contradict the Kremlin’s official version of what happened during World War II or the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Or the wars in Chechnya. Or events from the 13th through the 19th centuries, according to some sources. Russia has a lot of history to protect.

World War II in particular has long been a very sensitive subject. It’s Russia’s sacred cow. The Soviet army (which included more than just ethnic Russians) defeated the Nazis on the war’s eastern front at an immense cost. That’s reason to feel proud, but silencing any criticism of that history is just one more sad sign of where things are headed in Russia. With some exceptions, the country is still unwilling to publicly discuss and come to terms with the ugly parts of its past, a lot of which happened before, during, and after WWII while Stalin was in charge.

In 2009 a push for this kind of law failed, but this time the law’s sponsor, Irina Yarovaya, has the support. Why now? The government daily Rossiiskaya Gazeta said her colleagues were convinced by “recent events that show that attempts to rehabilitate Nazis or reconsider the outcome of WWII impact the global interests of international security and pose a threat to international peace.”

That means this is about Ukraine, and it’s no coincidence that Moscow’s been using words like “fascist” and “Nazi” lately to criticize Ukrainians it doesn’t like. It’s not a shock that Moscow recently revealed so-called “formerly unknown classified documents” showing that Stepan Bandera, a WWII-era Ukrainian hero whose name has been circulating again, collaborated with the Nazis. That’s propaganda, not news. Bandera’s partisans fought at one point with the Nazi army against the Soviet army, hoping to regain independence from Moscow, so he’s been a controversial figure for a long time already.

WWII vets celebrating Victory Day on May 9. Photo by author

WWII vets celebrating Victory Day on May 9 in Moscow. Photo by author

I’ll bet remembering WWII makes Russians feel stronger, as well as proud. Taking back Crimea and menacing eastern Ukraine must also make some of them feel like they once again live in a powerful country. (Read my post on the subject of Russia’s “great power” status if you haven’t already.) One journalist made a good point when she noted that the “law on glory” had its first reading on “April 4, on a wave of patriotism stemming from the annexation of Crimea and the propaganda war with Ukraine and the West.”

Wouldn’t you know that VTsIOM (the All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion), found in a March poll that 42% of respondents said they considered “having powerful armed forces” a condition for being a great power, up from 35% in March 2013. Last year, 33% thought “providing citizens a high level of material well-being” was a necessary ingredient. This year only 25% thought so. Hhhhmm.

If Russians were free and able to rely on the rule of law, if the leaders actually prioritized the country’s interests over their own, then it could do so much more than grasp at the glory of its military past. But until Russia can create a more benevolent reason to be proud about now and optimistic about the future, it will hold on to the past like a former jock whose life has gone nowhere since he peaked during high school.

 

 

 

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You’re Not The Boss Of Me

Putin subtle bird

Russia’s prickly president, Vladimir Putin

The expression “You’re not the boss of me!” has always bothered me from a grammatical point of view, but it’s been on my mind (on the mind of me?) since the Russia/Ukraine/Crimea story started making the news. It captures my impression of Moscow’s attitude toward Washington and perhaps the West in general.

Ever since the Cold War ended, Russian officials have emphasized their desire for Equal Partnership when interacting with us, and not being dictated to. “We have our own interests, thank you very much, and do not feel the need to do things your way.” They’ve complained about the unipolar world order that resulted when the USSR collapsed, and they have constantly pushed for establishing a multipolar system that would give them more of a voice in international affairs.

They’ve also asserted since then that Russia remains a great power, if no longer a superpower. In other words, “We must be reckoned with, we will not be relegated to the kids’ table, and need we remind you that we still have nuclear weapons?”

Scar Tissue

Rhetoric aside, it’s fair to say that the collapse of the Soviet Union was devastating for Russia. We know Putin has said he considers it one of the greatest catastrophes of the 20th century. Whatever you may believe about who won or lost the Cold War, the aftermath meant political, economic, social, and psychological upheaval for Russians and many others. Not only were people having trouble surviving, but Russia was no longer viewed as a formidable opponent, as the USSR had been. Russia was actually feared for its weakness and the possibility that it wouldn’t be able to keep nuclear material out of the hands of radicals or smugglers.

Crimea has shown that this scar tissue is obviously still relevant. In recent weeks, the Russian press has run plenty of stories about what the annexation of Crimea means for Russia and the world, good and bad. An editorial in Vedomosti said it is “presented by the authorities and accepted by the [Russian] population as an answer to defeat in the Cold War.” The paper says it might seem odd that 90% of Russians support the annexation, according to VTsIOM, but “such a reaction reflects the urge to overcome the post-traumatic syndrome and win back the respect of the outside world, even if it’s through fear.”

An earlier editorial from the same paper wrote, “Vladimir Putin can feel triumphant. Russia refused to follow rules” established in the Belovezha Accords that formally ended the USSR, which Putin “considered unfair. He demonstrated his leadership in the former Soviet space, showing his wavering neighbors his readiness to energetically oppose the West.”

“Leader among the Losers”

Not everyone in Russia is euphoric, however. For example, writer and psychologist Leonid Radzikhovsky was apparently very angry about what this move will cost Russia. After the UN General Assembly approved a resolution rejecting the Crimean referendum on independence, Radzikhovsky railed in a blog post that Russia had voluntarily taken its place at the head of the global “F students.” The 10 countries that voted with Russia against the resolution included “democratic beggars” like North Korea, Syria, Sudan, and Zimbabwe, as well as two former Soviet republics that depend completely on Moscow — Belarus and Armenia.

It’s sad, he said: “The USSR held a similar position, but it still occupied Eastern Europe. And like the Russian Federation, it knew how to build relations only on the basis of brute force and subordination.”

He criticized the pridefulness that says it’s “better to follow your own path at the head of the losers (which Russian society deeply despises…) than to be one among the masses of polite Western countries.”

Ouch.

Culture: A Shopping Cart With A Bad Wheel

Head In Hands

Head In Hands. When will the political posturing end?(Photo credit: craigmdennis)

I haven’t posted on this blog in a while. The aspects of US politics and political culture that have preoccupied me lately are frustrating, and I wanted a break from criticizing.

Plus, I was trying to spend less time thinking about politics as long as the theater of the absurd continued on Capitol Hill.

That continues still, but I read something this week about the US system of government that highlights some things I really love about this country.

Daniel Hannan’s “Saturday Essay” in the Nov. 16-17 Wall Street Journal looks at some values and institutions shared by the US and UK—and English-speaking countries in general. He says what sets them apart is an emphasis on “personal liberty, free contract, jury trials, uncensored newspapers, regular elections, habeas corpus, open competition, secure property, religious pluralism.”

Personal liberty is connected with an emphasis on the individual over the collective, which in my opinion is the root of some serious problems but also a source of great strength. Hannan makes some other interesting points, but the best part is about our legal system.

Talking about foreign observers like Alexis de Tocqueville, Hannan says

Above all, liberty was tied up with something [they] could only marvel at: the miracle of the common law. Laws weren’t written down in the abstract and then applied to particular disputes; they built up, like a coral reef, case by case. They came not from the state but from the people. The common law wasn’t a tool of government but an ally of liberty.

This liberty, “freedom under the law,” is passed on not through blood ties but through shared institutions and culture. So anyone can become a part of it.

Here’s the big “however.”

There is, of course, a flip-side. If the U.S. abandons its political structures, it will lose its identity more thoroughly than states that define nationality by blood or territory. Power is shifting from the 50 states to Washington, D.C., from elected representatives to federal bureaucrats, from citizens to the government. As the U.S. moves toward European-style health care, day care, college education, carbon taxes, foreign policy and spending levels, so it becomes less prosperous, less confident and less free.

We sometimes talk of the English-speaking nations as having a culture of independence. But culture does not exist, numinously, alongside institutions; it is a product of institutions. People respond to incentives. Make enough people dependent on the state, and it won’t be long before Americans start behaving and voting like…well, like Greeks.

When I first read this, I thought “great, I’ve been ambushed by more rhetoric about how Obama and the Democrats are destroying America.” Then I read it again and noticed that Hannan is British, so he’s not running for office here, trying to appeal to voters.  (I put down the Benadryl.)

He has a point. Our political identity is based so much on belief. If our beliefs change, then our institutions, culture, and identity will too. This shift toward European-style institutions does seem to be happening, but this is hard to observe from inside the country. Like standing on a glacier and trying to detect movement. You know something’s happening because you know that glaciers move, but you can’t tell exactly what.

Is there any way to influence where the “glacier” is headed?

A shopping cart filled with bagged groceries l...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I imagine political culture as a giant shopping cart with a wheel that sticks. It’s hard to steer, and when you put a few hundred million people and their mental baggage in it, the cart becomes even harder to control. So you’re along for the ride.

This worries me, but I also think the (apparent) difficulty of steering our culture could be a good thing, because that makes it less susceptible to the influence of any person or group that isn’t looking out for the interests of the majority.

Some People Make It Too Easy

The Guardians

The Guardians (Photo credit: oefe)

Yesterday, the Guardian reported that the National Security Agency has been requiring Verizon to turn over certain information about its customers’ phone calls. The paper said the Obama administration got the ok from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Court in April to demand that the telecom provide on an “ongoing, daily basis” all “‘session identifying information’, such as ‘originating and terminating number’, the duration of each call, telephone calling card numbers, trunk identifiers, International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) number, and ‘comprehensive communication routing information.’”

The Guardian wrote that the collection of such “metadata” does not require a warrant under US law, and that the order does not allow the government to listen to the actual conversations (because, you know, that would be going too far).

As far as I know this hasn’t been confirmed, but it’s probably true.

What irritated me even more this morning was the reaction I heard from an NPR listener, who took the “if you don’t have anything to hide, then it shouldn’t bother you” position.

Oh, well, when you put it that way….

No. That doesn’t make it ok. We have to stop thinking like that.

It’s un-American. In our Bill of Rights, Amendment 4 says

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

What would the reaction be from George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, or someone else who risked everything to create this country: Disgust? Despair? Gape-mouthed shock that Americans would be ok with any government–Democratic or Republican–that holds itself above the Constitution? (after we explained “telephone” and “cell phone” to them, of course)

Could this kind of thinking lead anywhere good?

Three surveillance cameras on the corner of a ...

Three surveillance cameras on the corner of a building (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Using the same argument, the police should be able to come into any home without probable cause. “Oh no, don’t mind us. Don’t let us interrupt your dinner. We’ll be out of your hair in a few hours.” And the people living there shouldn’t mind as long as they’re keeping out of trouble.

According to this mentality, those who object to warrantless searches must be people with something to hide. Not people who actually expect the government to obey the law. Yes, of course the government is run by imperfect, flawed humans, but being cynical about what we expect from those humans doesn’t get us anywhere.

P.S.

Just think about this: The people doing the domestic spying aren’t necessarily the kind of “straight arrows” one might expect to be working at the NSA. I used to know someone who worked there and still downloaded pirated movies at home. As if he couldn’t afford to pay for them. Those responsible for protecting national security should have more integrity than that.

Among the people carrying out this or other surveillance could be the same kind of government employees and public servants who have been caught cavorting with prostitutes while on duty, spending taxpayer money on private parties and dance instruction videos, or providing classified information to foreign governments.

Is that the kind of citizen you want spying on you?

The Mysterious Russian Soul

I wanted to share a great article from the Moskovsky Komsomolets website about aspects of the Russian national self-image—the idea of the “mysterious Russian soul” and certain qualities that are considered uniquely Russian.

Tsarevich Dimitry, by M. Nesterov,1899. in public domain

Tsarevich Dimitry, by Mikhail Nesterov, 1899. In public domain

In the past I’ve read other work by the author, Georgi Yans, but this time I wondered about his name. Is it a cheeky pseudonym? (“Georgians”?)

Whatever the case, he comes across as a frustrated lover of Russia, and I thought his ideas might be interesting for my readers who are curious about Russian culture but don’t know the language.

Yans said a conversation with a disgruntled acquaintance made him think about what Russians typically believe about themselves and their country: That they are a special nation with their own special path. That they have an enigmatic soul and are distinguished by their patience, compassion, love, and capacity for self-sacrifice (according to writers like Dostoevsky). (more…)

Newsroom and “Star-spangled Awesomeness”

This post is bound to offend some, but that would be a bad reason not to write it. So, for the record, let me start by saying that I love America and am grateful I was born here and live here.

I was discussing politics and society with someone at work, who said “hey, you should watch the opening scene from HBO’s Newsroom.” It’s been out for a long while, apparently, but I don’t have cable. I looked it up on YouTube and then had to watch it several more times. Hopefully this show will be available on Netflix.

Jeff Daniels in Newsroom. Photo courtesy of syracuse,com

Jeff Daniels in Newsroom. Photo courtesy of syracuse.com

In case you haven’t watched the scene, here’s a brief description: A moderator sits on a stage in what appears to be a university auditorium with three other people: a liberal, a conservative, and a news anchor (sounds like the setup for a joke….). A young woman in the audience asks all three speakers to state briefly why they think America is the greatest country in the world. (more…)

Stalinism alive and well in Russia?

In Russia, October 30th is a day to remember the victims of the Great Terror under Stalin, and this year is the 75thanniversary of the beginning of that massive wave of repression and show trials, when millions of people were executed, exiled, or sentenced to prison camps if they were seen as “enemies of the people.” So there has been a lot in the Russian news lately about the historical and cultural importance of this Soviet leader.

If you don’t follow Russia, you might be surprised to learn that Stalin is still rather widely admired despite the suffering he caused. While some people acknowledge that there was serious repression under him, a shrinking percentage of Russians believes the Great Terror actually happened, according to the Public Opinion Foundation. In another recent survey of Russian citizens, the Levada Center found that people’s attitude toward Stalin and the Stalin era has improved significantly since the late 1990s. Since 1998, the percentage of Russians perceiving Stalin negatively has fallen from 60 to 22 percent. Currently, 48 percent see him and his role in the country’s history positively. Maybe they forget that he was Georgian and not Russian. (more…)