The Good. The Bad. The Asinine.

Russia and the USA: Competing Visions of History

Putin

When Vladimir Putin first came to power in 2000 he began to attract attention for all the wrong reasons. Various world leaders described him as ‘unsophisticated’, ‘crude’ and ‘breathtakingly ignorant’. It was noted that he had next to no understanding of history or politics and that, on some levels, he was basically a conspiracy theorist and holocaust denier. To be fair, his background as what amounts to a secret policeman probably wasn’t the best preparation for suddenly being rocketed to the leadership of one of the world’s key nations. Dragging people out of their beds at midnight in order to beat them with socks full of birdshot is an absorbing occupation, and doesn’t tend to leave much time for studying the finer points of world history or international diplomacy.

In the last decade Mr Putin has taken himself to school. References to Putin in various memoirs, interviews and Wikileaks revelations show us an arc of evolution for the Russian leader. Sure, he still believes that the Allies deliberately held back in WWII in order to sap Russian resources ahead of the coming peace, but it seems he now agrees that the holocaust took place and no longer believes that Americans are hiding aliens in Fort Knox or wherever. Let’s pause there a minute: Putin believes that the Allies, especially the USA, strategically held back on their assault of Germany so that Russia would be in a weaker position at the end of the war.

We in the West are far too quick to laugh at foreigners. We look at Chinese military parades and the blatant lies they tell through their media outlets, we see golden Kalashnikovs and Gaddafi’s Amazon bodyguard, we hear the bizarre proclamations of African leaders and see their funny costumes and we watch videos of Putin riding horses shirtless and pumping iron in the gym and our first and last reaction is to laugh and assume that they’re just crazy. They’re not.

If we were to set Russia’s history to music, the piece would be used exclusively for funerals. From its first appearance in recognisable form, Russia has been informed by its trauma. It’s aggressive imperial phase can be seen as a direct response to the horrors of Mongol invasion and extortion. Since then, their whole history can be seen as a process of squaring off against the greatest powers in the world and losing. The collapse of the USSR, its second (or third, depending on your definition) attempt at security through empire, is just the latest incident in what could be described as the longest, darkest, coldest winter in the world. For Russia, life is hard and every hand is turned against it.

So how crazy is it, then, to have a culture that worships strength of all kinds? Even to the extent of reacting positively to your shirtless Prime Minister knocking back vodka and doing chest flies? And just how crazy is it to have a foreign policy made up of equal parts of paranoia and bluster? And can we really, in light of their entire history, find it difficult to understand a historical world view that casts Russia in the light of a perpetual victim? It’s not really crazy at all. We in the West are plagued by similar historical delusions. Like the delusion that the war crimes in WWII lie exclusively in the Axis camp. Or the delusion that what the world fixates on when it watches us is our individual freedoms, rather than our power and aggression. We think of ourselves as a beacon of light, hope and freedom but, if we were to attempt to look at Western civilisation from the outside, we’d see a story of greed, exploitation and unending, savagely aggressive warfare. We have the same kind of delusions as Rome. We have winner’s delusions. Russia, for obvious reasons, does not.

Why should anybody care? We should care because we are currently watching the almost exact repetition of a cycle of history. It’s not hard to see our recent failure to enfold the new Russia into the international cool kids’ club as primarily a failure to understand their perspective. Our smug, superior dismissal of Putin’s ignorance and victim-philosophy can be taken as an analogue of the broader relationship. We failed because we don’t really understand the kinds of trauma they have experienced, or the kind of mentality and world view that they can create. We offended and alienated them even as we attempted to embrace them and, somewhat more egregiously, invited them to play a game with us without explaining any of the rules. We expected them to instantly start behaving like a world citizen whose security and wealth made compassion and restraint affordable. And then we had the gall to be perplexed when they did not.

So now we see a Russia that has given up on its brief experiment with global citizenship. The walls are going back up and they are once again securing their border and hinterlands as a buffer designed to desperately hold on to security in a hostile world. It’s the aftermath of Genghis Khan all over again, the cold war 2.0, the realisation of every gloomy dream of persecution the Russian polity has ever had. And while a significant portion of the blame for this rests on their own inability to see past this, a good part of it also belongs to us.

Maybe we’re happy to just let Russia wall itself off again, to search for its living in those parts of the world made up solely of countries we advise our citizens to avoid, but it’s not a good sign for the future. Our inability to understand the wounded national soul of Russia is a symptom of a broader failing which, left unaddressed, will taint our attempts to engage with Cuba, the Arab world and the bulk of East Asia. Because Russia doesn’t have a monopoly on the losing side of history, and nor is it unique in its wariness and resentment of the West.

 

 

Category: Asinine, Bad

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