Russians are amazed by the waves of madness washing over the United States. The recent riots, looting, destruction of memorials, hardball election politics and rumours of impending civil war do not fit the US image in Russian eyes. A Latin American country, say, Colombia or Guatemala, perhaps, but not the United States. The country they admired so much is no more, they say. They regret it instead of gloating, as you may expect.
Far from feeling hostility, for many years (at least since the early sixties) Russians considered the US a model to follow. Nikita Khrushchev, the powerful ruler (1953-1964) who ditched Stalin and removed his remains from the Mausoleum on the Red Square, was fascinated with the US. He imported US corn (maize) and considered this American staple the key to Soviet prosperity. Those were the days Russia discovered jazz. The brightest young things of Russia aped American fashion, as recalled in the 2008 period piece Stilyagi (The Hipsters). Under Brezhnev’s ‘mature socialism’ this fascination with things American became more sedate, but it remained a strong element of counterculture, and it allowed for the quick surrender of the Soviet Union to the US in the Gorbachev era. Love of America remained a hallmark of Russian elites, but now it has been supplanted with bewilderment. They can’t possibly understand why this great civilization is committing suicide; but then, who does?
Russians perceived the US as a dynamic and orderly society, allowing ample space for individualism, seeding its pop culture and making no ideological demands. This last quality was so attractive to Russians that they enshrined it in their new post-Soviet constitution. Article 13 states: Ideological plurality shall be recognized in the Russian Federation. No ideology may be instituted as a state-sponsored or mandatory ideology. Russians felt so strongly about this because even though their own ruling ideology had decayed and collapsed, they were still required to pay tribute to it for many decades. While writing a dissertation, a scientific or polemic article, the author was supposed to quote Marx, Lenin and a more recent Party document, and stress a continuity of his own ideas with the ideas of the founders. They did not believe it, but they reflexively repeated it by rote because it was expected of them. Ditching these ideological duties had a profoundly liberating effect on the people, and they naturally thought that following all American customs would lead them to American prosperity and freedom.
Even then the new orthodoxy was already forming in the US, but it took a few years until an awareness of this change seeped into Russian minds. By 2010, the Russians were so free of ideological limitations that Westerners could no longer even grasp the shocking possibilities. Russians had become, and remained so until very recently, completely politically incorrect.
At that time it was perfectly acceptable to advertise a flat for rent to ethnic Russians only; natives of Central Asia and Caucasus need not apply. Ads for employment would specify sex, age and height of the desired applicant, like “A female secretary age 21-33 height above 173 cm (5’7 feet) is wanted by a law firm”. A philosopher might present arguments for slavery. Mass murder and ethnic cleansing weren’t beyond the pale to discuss. Africans could be described as ‘monkeys’, while Armenians and Georgians were ‘greaseballs’. In the politically correct Soviet days such terms of endearment were totally unacceptable, but with the fall of the old ideology, everything became permissible.
The very terms “Left” and “Right” have a totally different meaning in Russia and in the US. In Russia, the Left pushes for nationalization, for the expropriation of large enterprises and natural resources, for empowering workers and for raising the living standards of the working class. Its practical slogan is “Reverse Yeltsin’s privatisation, restore the Soviets”. The American Left had similar ideas until it was revamped by Cultural Marxism into a minority cult for hipsters and severed its connection with the workers. The Russian Left is represented by the Communist Party (CPRF), the biggest opposition party in the Parliament, and by a few smaller communist parties. While the American Left is led by Jews, feminists, gays, some token “People of Colour”, and fights discrimination by gender and race, the Russian Left is predominantly ethnic-Russian and fights for a massive redistribution of wealth and power from the oligarchs to the people.
Only in the last ten years have Russians become aware of the new ideology practiced in the US. The demands of America’s version of political correctness were too outlandish for them. ‘Wokism’ is unknown in Russia, except to tiny pockets of Moscow hipsters who are as foreign and strange to the average Russian as the Précieuses ridicules of Molière to his contemporaries. Russian hipsters attract more ridicule and derision than fear and hatred.
However, there never was much for a moderate ‘woke’ person to complain about in Russia.
Traditional feminism was never a problem there: the Soviets practiced equality between men and women. Women could vote from the earliest days of the revolution. There were female ambassadors and ministers, and female railway workers, too. Female managers and CEOs were not unusual, as you can see in this popular movie. Russian women worked just as hard as men, as depicted in The Girls. Russian women once envied the lifestyle of the American housewives of the 1950’s who did not work and instead took care of home and family, but this luxury soon disappeared in the West as well.
No one fought over abortion: Russia is very liberal from this point of view, and was so for many years, at least since 1956. Before the advent of family planning, abortions were extremely frequent; now they are less so, but they are legal and covered by social medicine.
Jews weren’t a problem either, for the majority of Russian Jews had already emigrated to Israel or to America, while those that remained in Russia were the assimilated children of mixed marriages. After that the Russian Jewish Lobby disappeared (if it ever really existed). Jews were equal but not dominating. Russians weren’t indoctrinated in Holocaust dogma, so this was not an issue, either.
There were no racial tensions; Russia had very few blacks, and they were extremely well treated. Famously, a black man imported by the innovator Tsar Peter I had a good career, married the daughter of a nobleman, and his descendant became a great Russian poet. There were slaves in Russia, but they were white. Russian serfs were integrated with the rest of the Russian people after their liberation in 1861. Anton Chekhov, the playwright, was the grandson of a serf. People with different ethnicities weren’t discriminated against historically. Tatar and Georgian, Ukrainian and Polish nobles were accepted equally at the Tsar’s Court, and later their representatives sat in Soviet parliament. So while Russians could never understand America’s problem with race, they could always congratulate themselves for being cutting-edge progressives.
US ‘wokeness’ is globalist, and is designed to undermine and supplant traditional cultures. However, it seemed at first to be an innocent fashion statement. Russia began to get used to the new crazy standards as though they were any other artefacts of America’s McCulture.
The first showdown was over gay pride. Homosexuality is not a part of Russian culture, as normal boy-to-girl sexual relations weren’t heavily restricted. There are fewer men than women of reproductive age and a man could usually find a wife. Homosexual relations were practiced in jails, not in schools. America’s insistent promotion of homosexuality abroad, with its gay parades, gay marriages and gay adoptions brought the first major jarring note into what was once ideological harmony between Russia and the US. The first quarrel between Putin’s Russia and the US occurred on this ground. In Russia, gays are tolerated, not discriminated, but not celebrated, either; while the new ‘woke’ narrative demanded the glorification of homosexuality and would not accept anything less. Putin’s adamant refusal to accede to this demand bought him many brownie points in Russian public opinion, and started Russia’s drift to ideological independence.
The harder the Americans pushed an issue, the less the Russians wanted to embrace it. An attempt to import #MeToo into Russia was completely unsuccessful. The broad idea of harassment just doesn’t click in Russia. There were no witch-hunts like that of Weinstein, no show trials to entertain the masses. The campaign against males didn’t even register in the Russian conscience. Russian men are still kings to their women, and Russian women are supposed to cook and clean the house and attend to the children besides working a full time job. Men are supposed to pay the bills in the cafes and open doors for the ladies. Russian men are not ashamed but proud of their virility, and the English term “toxic masculinity” has no Russian counterpart.
As time went by, the US mania of ‘wokeness’ has climbed to new heights. Cancel Culture and the destruction of monuments to great historical personalities look familiar to Russians. It appears that Russia and the US have developed in opposite directions, for the folly that Americans embrace today is the same folly Russians embraced and rejected a hundred years ago. After the Great Revolution of 1917, Russians also defaced and removed many memorials of its historical past, but those attacks against history did not last long, and the memorials have been restored back to their previous glory. Moreover, the post-Soviet Russians continued to erect new monuments to people who were disgraced and defeated. While American ‘wokes’ destroyed monuments to the Civil War generals who fought on the losing side, Russians erected memorials to Admiral Kolchak (who fought against the Reds and was defeated and executed by them), and to General Mannerheim (who fought against the Reds in the Civil War and against Russians in World War Two, but wisely made peace with Stalin). Statues of Tsars and Communist leaders embellish the squares and gardens of Russian cities.
The witch-hunt formed against J.K. Rowling by the Trans Lobby echoes similar stories about Russian writers who were “debunked” and “disgraced” in the 1920’s through the 1930’s, though for different reasons. If you read The Master and Margarita, the novel by Michael Bulgakov, you will encounter the art critic, Latunsky, who hounded the politically-incorrect writer. ProletCult and NaPostu were names of some of the Russian ‘woke’ movements of that time, and many Russian writers came to grief for not conforming to their procrustean requirements.
American Universities were the battlefield of the ‘woke’ culture war, where the defeated side has been defenestrated or at least forced to leave. Russians went through this stage too, 70 years ago, when Lysenko and Vavilov solved their differences by appealing to Stalin. Nowadays, Russians do not campaign against politically incorrect scientists. A Russian scientist may say and write whatever he wants. He will not lose his Nobel Prize like James Watson. No Russian scientist will be described as “disgraced”, a “conspiracy monger”, or that he has “lost credibility” as Dr Mikovitz was, though Russians recognise these terms as a feature of their long-gone past.
Russians now argue over what period of Russian history corresponds to the present day America.
The riots and race problems correspond to the latest Soviet period of Perestroika 1988-1990. Then there were riots in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Georgia. Armenians rioted in Qarabagh and Azeris in Baku and Sumgait. There were riots in Baltic states, and the security forces hesitated to interfere.
The present attempt to rewrite American history by anti-colonising scholars resembles the 1986-1990 campaigns to completely rewrite Russian history. The Tsarist Empire was presented as the pinnacle of development, while Stalin besmirched as the destroyer of Russian culture.
The advanced age of American candidates for Presidency resembles 1984-1986 of Russia, when three Soviet leaders of advanced age died in the course of three years. This parade of superannuated leaders was terminated by election of Gorbachev who was relatively young and able to speak without a prompter. Russians compare Biden with their Chernenko (76) who led Russia in 1984-1985.
Witty Viktor Pelevin in his new novel suggests a different date:
“Modern America is a Brezhnev-style Soviet Union circa 1979, with LGBT in the place of the Komsomol, corporate management in the place of the Communist Party, sexual repression in the place of sexual expression, and the dawn of socialism in the place of the death of socialism. However, there is a difference. One could escape Soviet Russia, but one can’t escape America (meaning its influence is global). In Soviet Russia, one could listen to the Voice of America, and there isn’t one now. Only three slightly-different Pravdas and one many-faced immortal Brezhnev, who fiercely fights with himself for the right to suck Bibi Netanyahu”.
The popular blogger Dmitri Olshanski disagrees. For him, America is like the Russia of the 1930’s. He looks through recent American movies:
“Biopic of the feminist icon Gloria Steinem… Two women at first do not get along, then they are friends, then they merge into one… Bassam Tariq tells the story of a Pakistani rapper taken down by a hereditary disease… the consequences of an environmental disaster caused by industrial pollution of local water with mercury. Feminism – Lesbianism – Greenpeace – Pakistani Migrants. It is not like Brezhnev’s Russia, where artists knew how to cheat censors and smuggle forbidden subjects; it is Soviets 1930s, when with increasing ferocity the unfortunate cinema-goer was overwhelmed by steel foundry, rough workers’ hands, plan fulfilment”.
Olshanski concludes with a call to vote for Trump, as “he is the only statesman able to block matriarchy, thirty-eight genders, canine language of triggers and privileges, dumping Shakespeare and Churchill off the ship of modernity”.
“Dump Pushkin overboard the modernity steamboat” was the slogan of Russian wokes in 1912.
Apparently, some American follies remind Russia of 1912, of 1920, of 1935, of 1970s and 1980s. Being all lumped together, they show that Russia and the US learned a lot of each other, and not always the best things. But that is just human: we often adopt bad habits of our friends, and keep these habits even after parting company.
Israel Shamir can be reached at [email protected]
This article was first published at The Unz Review.