RUSSIA AND THE WEST: A BREAKDOWN IN THE MIND
Publication: Prism Volume: 6 Issue: 8
By Peter Silantyev
The West, as represented by “financial-industrial circles,” the United States and NATO, is Russia’s main enemy. This is what most Russian citizens believe, according to surveys conducted by authoritative Russian pollsters. This signifies the need to “build up economic and military might to counter” this enemy. At the same time, more than half of those polled also have a “generally positive” attitude to the United States, as they do to the idea of “strengthening mutually beneficial links with Western countries.”
Opinion polls, as those familiar with them will know, are somewhat conditional things. Their conditional nature may be observed in the results cited above (which also supposedly demonstrate the attitude of respondents to the United States–of which more later). However, opinion polls are conditional only inasmuch as, in the words of the bard, the world’s a stage and the men and women are players. The stage of contemporary reality differs, for example, from War and Peace in the Mariinsky Theatre in that the stalls, the balcony and the gallery all participate in the show: It is, so to speak, an interactive spectacle.
Those who joined Vladimir Putin and Tony Blair for the premier of the new production of Prokofiev’s opera in St. Petersburg saw the might of the patriotic war represented highly realistically on stage. That same might now hangs over Russia’s actual and potential enemies in the form of military hardware, aircraft and troops in Chechnya and weapons with a much longer range, as seen in military exercises involving the commander-in-chief [Putin] himself. Whatever the purely “objective” effectiveness of the military component of Russian politics–the number of dead separatists or advantageous disarmament treaties–its virtual significance carries much more weight for most Russians. Just as the images of the bombing raids on Baghdad or Belgrade did. These images were one of the reasons for the demonstrations outside the American embassy in Moscow. There were, and still are, more serious and longterm consequences, but the main thing is what happened then: For the first time ordinary Russians saw the image, incarnated by television, of a foreign power acting in real time–and of the impotence of their own former superpower.
I remember another poll conducted somewhere in the West. Men today are more afraid of impotence than of the most terrible, fatal illnesses. Certain foreign and homegrown Russianists like to talk about the deficient “masculinity,” the femininity, which has supposedly been characteristic of the “Russian national type” since the days of Baty Khan. But Russian history and the life stories of individual Russians in the pre-Soviet, Soviet and post-Soviet periods (both famous Russians and those known only to the author) bear witness to the opposite, particularly if it is brawn rather than brain that is considered to be the main indication of masculinity in individual cases.
This does not only apply to Russians. Mankind has not come that far since the days of its ancestors who had nothing but “jaws and fur.” The primordial idea of “brawn” still often features in relationships not just between individuals, but also between states. And of course, so-called “spin doctors” are trying to second-guess not the collective intellect of their Russian or Western audiences, but the reaction of the mass consciousness, or rather the subconscious, at the level of protective instincts.
Most Russians have to protect themselves on a daily basis against not virtual but very real misfortunes–the distressing list of which is well known.
And, last, you are deprived of a firm sense of belonging to a strong and therefore respected state.
The eternal Russian question is: “Who is to blame?” To which the eternal Russian answer is: “Not me.” If you endure–and now also elect–your own representatives in power, then it is preferable to look for culprits outside your own environment. The answer is hinted at by several generations of your fellow citizens, brought up under the shadow of the threat from the West.
The situation is complicated by the fact that the West too is bashing on with fighting its own “culprits,” just like in the westerns, with judge and executioner rolled into one. While on the subject of westerns: It is the early 1960s. I remember–as one remembers one’s first love–the premier of “The Magnificent Seven” in Moscow, the Levis borrowed from a friend. The portraits of President Kennedy and the Rauschenberg imitations on the walls of apartments from Leningrad to Novosibirsk. Willis Connover on Voice of America. The first books we read by Hemingway and, later, Faulkner. And before that, land-lease and the meeting on the Elbe. And, later, Russia’s generation X, indistinguishable from their American counterparts in their character, clothes and sometimes even speech.
Despite all the efforts of the Soviet authorities, our people were sympathetic towards Americans even from behind the Iron Curtain. From the little information we had that could be believed, we drew the conclusion that they were “just like us”! Expansive lands and expansive people, the might of the country and of the people, the melting pot of races and nationalities. But when the dam burst and there was a flood of information and people in both directions, it became clear that we were nothing like each other. We “discovered” America (as we did what tends to be called the “West”) in every sense. Uncle Ivan from Ryazan can be pals with Uncle Sam from Hartford, but a replete man does not understand a hungry man. We have different genes, so to speak, a different history, a different attitude to God, to the law, to money, to power. There are of course cases of people with different mentalities becoming friends. But time and again you here phrases like “Those Americans are so dull!” or “Those Russians are mad!”
It is an exaggeration, in any case, to talk of friendship or of “global partnership” between Russia and the United States in the foreseeable future. There are too many areas–in geographical, economic and military terms–where the conflicting interests of Russia and the West clash (and the United States, of course, does not always voice the thoughts and expectations of its own Western allies). While the globe is covered with a patchwork quilt of states which have to look after the security and prosperity of their own taxpayers in the first instance, there can be no hope of friendship. The other traditional Russian question is: “What is to de done?” And, again, the easiest conclusion for us Russians to come to, having watched plenty of homegrown and Western television images, is that the only argument against a show of force is to match it with another show of force. And how about boosting that show of force by building up military muscle using the steroids of squalid patriotism? Or brandishing it in the international political arena, branding all the other participants enemies and challenging them to a duel?
There is no question that Russia’s armed forces need reinforcing–but the key is the quality, not the quantity, of weapons and generals. Generals, incidentally, have long been aware of the option of an “asymmetric” response (for example dummy warheads to “jam” the latest American anti-missile defenses). The new national security doctrine allowing first use of nuclear weapons is also an asymmetric response. Nevertheless, the problem of quality remains, and not just in Chechnya. A full-scale asymmetric strategy is required for Russia’s future–qualitative, breakthrough solutions in response to the military and foreign policy challenges of the new century. And the implementation of this strategy should be governed, from the word go, by the concept of fair play–as urged for many years both in Russia and the West.
Fair play rules out the idea of juggling with or manipulating facts–and that includes the realms of virtual reality, the “information field” where the efforts of a handful of plowmen are producing weeds such as “all Russians are mafiosi” or “all foreigners are spies.”
It is important that the virtual threats and interests of the here-and-now should not hamper politicians of both East and West in averting real threats. The primary issue here is the potential complications facing Russian-American relations in respect of the development of the United States’s new anti-missile defense system. Complications which were not resolved–and indeed could not have been resolved–by Clinton’s last visit to Russia. It was too late for Clinton and too early for Putin.
The summit was useful, in my view, in that it brought the two sides closer to establishing the new rules of play, fair play–rules which will apply to the next U.S. president as well. While friendship between Russia and the West remains an unattainable ideal, we will agree to be honest rivals at least. With regard to public opinion, which we discussed above, I would advise parliamentarians, journalists and their audiences to accept their victories and defeats in a gentlemanly manner, without histrionics.
There will be no more warm baths of mutual affection–the raptures of the last days of perestroika and early days of Kozyrev’s tenure as foreign minister were left behind long ago. We all have to undergo the invigorating cold shower of a civilized delimitation of interests and a search for common goals to accommodate them. For example, putting up an effective, joint fight against global terrorism, which is disgracefully hiding behind the banner of Islam. The idea of a collective antimissile defense system–not just for the United States and Europe, but for the whole world–fits in with this. All the nuclear powers–China included–could contribute money and brain-power to build it. I do not believe, however, that missiles and generals should rule minds either in Russia or in the West. I am convinced that the priority for all states in the 21st century should be enlightenment.
Commentators practically ignored the closing passage of Clinton’s speech to the Russian Duma. “Come and visit us,” he told Russia’s politicians. Of course, there is a lively “human exchange” going on between Russia and the West already, and not just of politicians–though it is now Western bureaucrats rather than Russian ones who are putting more obstacles in the way of this exchange. We may take Clinton’s invitation to signal a softening of the procedure by which honest Russian citizens can obtain visas. But it seems that the “great communicator’s” main theme was an understanding that, despite glasnost and all that, our knowledge of each other remains extremely superficial.
The key here is not the aforementioned exchanges. We should not forget that there were quite a number of students and graduates from Western universities and even military academies among the organizers of the anti-Western revolutions and regimes in Iran, Afghanistan and Cambodia. Enlightenment begins at elementary school. A contemporary of mine, the Russian artist and writer Vladimir Shinkarev, once said: “Americans are good in the sense that children are good. Children in a good kindergarten. But take a child out of that kindergarten and he will turn bad” (Medved’, May 1999).
The problem is that we are the products of different kindergartens. And it is exacerbated by the childish fanaticism of American congressmen and European parliamentarians, Russians included. What kindergarten, for example, brought up Duma deputy Shandybin, who threatened to throw stones at Clinton?
The Shandybins in Russia and America are equally hopeless cases. So perhaps we can undertake to set up a common kindergarten for the new generation? An American fantasy writer has written about such a kindergarten. Perhaps this will be the breakthrough strategy–the century of the new Enlightenment? Let American, French and British teachers teach about the history and culture of their countries in Russian schools, and let Russians teach American, French and British schoolchildren. Let academics write joint textbooks for them, and let film-makers make joint films based on the works of the world’s best authors. Something is already being done along these lines–but it is not yet a mass, two-way movement reaching Ryazan or Hartford. The political will is lacking–as is the money. Money, say the guardians of this very political will, is needed to “reinforce national security.” Breakdown, a Russian writer wrote, begins in the mind. So does national security.
Peter Silantyev is a Russian journalist working as a consultant with RIA Novosti.