Friday, January 21, 2005


Recently on JRL the Serbian World Bank economist Branko Milanovic asked the question: "why are the American media, both liberal and conservative, so unanimously anti-Russian?" He followed this up with a clarification:
"By that I mean, why are the implicit assumptions apparently held by every major analyst and reporters of the most influential US papers, (1) that whatever problem at hand where there is some Russian involvement, it is the Russians who are guilty until proven the reverse, and (2) that the only Russian policy that is to be applauded is a policy that is supposed to serve the interests of other countries but Russia. In terms of (2) Russia is supposed to behave like no other country in the world: it simply must not follow its national interests whatever they are, or better­, according to the analysts, ­these interests must not exist.

Milanovic went on to present 6 points where he sees evidence of such bias and prejudice:
1) For seventy years, commentators have been anti-Soviet and since obviously some of Russia's foreign policy stances will coincide with those of the USSR, their knee-jerk reaction to argue against these positions in the past carried over to the present day.

(2) Russia is viewed as a defeated power, say like Germany and Japan in the late 1940 and the 1950's. Hence Americans are annoyed by Russia's truculence. In other words, Russia should accept that it lost the Cold War, behave like a defeated power and keep a very, very low profile. In other words, do not box out of your league.

(3) Russia is viewed as an ultimately conservative force. This may go back to the socialist pre-World War I view (shared, of course, by Marx and later by the Bolsheviks) that Russia is an anti-progressive and anti-socialist force ready to send its Kozaks in the defense of the capitalist capitals of Europe. Since "progressive" no longer means socialist but pro-market and "pro-democracy" and since the latter is identified with being "pro-US", then Russia is by definition on the other side of the divide.

(4) Similar to (3), Russia is viewed as an anti-progressive and anti-Semitic force, ­again harking back to the 19th century imagery. Although among the Bolsheviks, Jewish and minority representation was very strong, later reversion to grand-Russian policies by Stalin and then ultimately the fall of Communism, turned, as it were, the clock back to the 19th century perception of Russia.

(5) East European propaganda has been very effective perhaps because there was some truth in it (Communism was in most cases imposed by Soviet arms), or perhaps because it is a simple story (big guys oppress small guys), or perhaps because there is a lot of ignorance among the pundits. On the latter, I wonder how many journalists know that Rumanians and Hungarians in their thousands were fighting the Soviets together with the Nazi all the way to Stalingrad (and after); or that "the nice and helpless" East European countries often fought among themselves (Hungary and Poland each taking a slice of Czechoslovakia in Munich in 1938) so that territorial aggrandizement was hardly a Russian specialty.

(6) Analysts and pundits know better but they try to play to the popular prejudices which are anti-Russian (which of course begs the question, why are they anti-Russian?) or to play to the preferences of the US administration (which may perceive Russia as being irremediably anti-American). So, in order to curry favor with the administration officials, they have to express anti-Russian views which they know the administration (whether Democrat or Republican) to hold even if the officials cannot, for political reasons, express them openly.

This interesting but undeniably partisan and question-begging list at once drew a sharp reply from Yevgenia Albats, political journalist and Professor of political science at the Higher School of Economics, Moscow University, who presented an alternative list to counter Milanovic's:
Dear Dr.Milanovic,

The only way for you to get an answer is to come to Russia.

Yet, please keep in mind couple of things.

1.If you have ever written something unfavorable to the current regime and/or Kremlin, Putin, Sechin, and etc. you may have trouble getting a visa to Russia.

The State Duma just last week passed a law that prohibits issuing visas to people who have expressed or made unfriendly stances about Russia ( specs are not provided). Couple of the US based academics, which I know personally, have already experienced problems with getting a visa even before the new law was passed. One can even guess, what experience they are to acquire from now on.

2. If you manage to get a visa, be aware that you have to register with the local authorities in a matter of three days: be prepared to hire someone capable of paying a bribe to a local militia, unless you are prepared to do it yourself;

3. You may want to arrange for a cable ($ 250 - installation, plus $ 25-30 monthly fee), so to get CNN or BBC. No news (unless you are for the Soviet style propaganda), domestic or international, is available on the state-owned TV channels. Non-state, which dares to cover news (except for the small one, the REN TV) is no longer in use.

4. Be aware of the expenses should you settle in Moscow: cost of decent groceries are 20-30 per cent higher than those in the US; car insurance is twice more than even in Massachusetts, forget about clothing - the prices are just unbearable; and yes, medical - well, you can get some coverage at about the same price as in the US, but be aware: in case you get shot on the street, as Paul Khlebnikov was, there would be no speedy ambulance available for you regardless how much you paid for the coverage.

5. If you are dark-haired make sure to die it blonde, otherwise you may incur couple of problems with skinheads in the subway (otherwise, Moscow metro is great), or with the police on a street. If you happen to be Jewish (that I hope, you are not), Asian, or G-d forbids, Chechen, Azeri, Armenian, Tadzhik - forget about coming at all. Likely than not, you get bitten by skins or searched by the local militia. True too, some survive.

6. If you do business, be prepared to hire someone who will get you a krysha, made out of the KGB guys; otherwise you are doomed.

7. If you an academic, interested in the Soviet affairs, forget about archives: those documents that were declassified back in early nineties, got re-classified, and no longer available. By the way, the guy, who is running the Federal Archive service is a KGB ( FSB) colonel.

True he is not the only one with the current or former experience with the KGB (FSB): the president, the prime minister, the ministers of defense and police, the first deputy of the Kremlin's chief of staff, the assistant to the President in charge of personal, the deputy minister of the foreign affairs , the deputy minister of justice, dozens or so deputies of the civilian agencies, dozen or so heads of the regional executive and legislative institutions, 13 federal inspectors, 6 senators, 19 members of the State Duma are of the same background with the USSR's notorious political police.

8. Be aware to bring a good supply of Prozac, Zoloft, Celexa along with you to Moscow. Trust me, you will need each and every of those drugs. I trust you, you are not going to go to Chechnya: no Prozac helps to see Groznyy turned into the ghost city, or to talk to mothers whose husbands disappeared in the concentration camps without a trace, or whose children got killed during zachostki by the Russian or local special forces.

9. Of course, having an American passport, a return ticket, and couple of credit cards with a bank account in the US helps a lot while surviving through the Russian realities. Yet, be aware of hearing a lot of unpleasantness about your fellow Americans, and the US in general. I know some expats , who get mad . Don't: it is all about Russia regaining its self-esteem.

On the final note - in case you don't dare to come. It always helps to write something lovely about the current Kremlin, and its politics while sitting in the nice and spacey New York apartment with the view overlooking the Central Park. It is a little bit harder if you happened to live and work in Moscow.

This exchange drew some further responses from JRL recipients, mostly of a rather defensive kind: for example, economist Dmitry Glinski argued that
1) cables are actually installed in most Moscow buildings where they may be looking to rent an apartment, and millions of Russians are able to watch CNN any time; 2) being dark-haired (and even dark-skinned, which is what she probably meant to say) is not an automatic invitation for violence in Moscow, at least not more so than being a pale-colored foreigner in certain parts of the Bronx; 3) explicit hostility toward Americans is, in fact, less likely to be experienced in Moscow than in Amsterdam or Seoul, let alone Arab countries; and even 4) that hoarding Prozac and its analogs in anticipation of the trip was unnecessary, as these essential products are widely available in almost all Moscow pharmacies, often at lower prices than in the US.

Russia was seen to be the victim of double standards:
the pull of economic interest that makes American media, and especially the liberal ones, as soft-spoken and circumspect vis-à-vis China as they are abusive towards Russia, is plain to see... just as the cautious treatment of China (and, by the way, of the Chinese immigrant community in the US) can be explained, at least in part, by the attraction of cheap and undemanding labor force, emotional assaults on Russia (as well as discrimination against individual Russians in visas' processing, academic funding, and employment, without regard to whether they are supportive or critical of the Kremlin, unless they agree not just to criticize their government but to vilify and hurt their country and people as well) seem at least partly related to the frustrations of the U.S. capital in Russia, starting with the default of 1998.

At length, as is customary on such occasions, the charge of "Russophobia" was brought against Professor Albats and what was perceived as her constituency in the West. presenter of the charge was ex-head of Moscow News and editor of Intelligent magazine, Sergei Roy:
Dr. Milanovic compiled a list of six possible sources of widespread, even "unanimous," anti-Russian sentiment in the American press, both liberal and conservative. His arguments are well-reasoned, often acute, but in my view they cover only a part of the general problem of Russophobia.

The problem is much wider in both its geographical and historical scope. US media are probably infected with a more virulent type of the Russia-hatred bacilli, but the phenomenon is ubiquitous, it crops up all over the world, Russia included (see below). One keeps stumbling across its manifestations all the time.

Russia is seen in the role of victim:
In terms of international relations and ethnic feelings, Russia fits the figure of external enemy quite nicely, sometimes through no fault of its own. For centuries, it was a vast terra incognita, for which ancient cartographers had a rule: Where you know nothing, place terrors say, two-headed monsters and the like where Scythia (later Southern Russia, still later the Ukraine) lay. Residually, this sort of attitude lives on even in the minds of quite advanced and civilized people.

Roy believes one major source of Russia's current problems to be what he calls "oligarchic capitalism", and "a new KGB", singling out three names in particular - Khodorkovsky, Gusinsky and Berezovsky. But the real trouble lies abroad:
Smearing Russia with filth has always been a hot commodity in a global economy, even before there was a global economy. Where there is demand, there is sure to be supply. The supply coming from Russia is real plentiful these days, and its very provenance lends it added weight, for the stories come from "Russian sources." If I read on JRL something like "Russian radio slams Putin" or whoever for whatever, don't give me two guesses as to what radio that is: it's Ekho Moskvy, a "Russian source." Since it is there on the spot, whatever comes from that source must be true, and who cares where its owner is based.

The letter's author is almost in despair:
Sadly, there is very little likelihood of this unfortunate state of affairs coming to an end in the foreseeable future. After an initial ebbing away of that nasty mood in the mid-1980s and early 1990s, over perestroika, glasnost, the fall of the Berlin Wall and other pleasant occasions, old, ingrained attitudes are returning, have returned, with a vengeance. I personally place my hopes on the generations to come, generations that will see Cold Wars, old and new, for what they are: a silly anachronism. But I am totally pessimistic about the present generation living to see that fine future; prejudices die hard, and sometimes not at all.

Coming away from this outpouring of resentment and bitterness, one doesn't quite know what to say. One thing seems clear, however: the "Russophobia" invoked by some of the participants, including Sergei Roy, is largely a projection of their own making. For the object of the "phobia", far from being an ethnic grouping or a culture, is rather what Natan Sharansky calls "the mechanics of tyranny": the workings, still so obviously in place within the Russian Federation, of government strategies and manipulations that are based on the instilling of fear and the denial of moral clarity - such processes can be seen today in the Russian government's handling of the long crisis in Chechnya, in its threatening statements to its neighbours in the Baltic states, in Georgia, and elsewhere, in its disregard for the rule of law and human rights. To be hostile, or "phobic" to such a government is not to be anti-Russian: rather, it's an assertion of what Sharansky means when he says in his latest book that "at a time when freedom and fear are at war, we must move beyond Left and Right and begin to think again about right and wrong."

1 comment:

John S. said...

Thanks for the interesting reading, it took me a while to get through it but it was worth it.