Tuesday, January 26, 2016

To Russia with Love




Lately, our analytics indicate that we are getting thousands of hits from Russia. We are also getting hits from many other countries - China, Australia, all over Europe, etc. But for some reason, Russia is suddenly surpassing every other country, including the US. I have no idea why, but it’s fine with me.

So I want to welcome Russians, and let them know how I feel about their country, their people, their culture: In four words: respect, admiration, sympathy and ambivalence.

I grew up with Russian culture and people around me: In World War Two, the Red Army invaded my country of birth - Hungary - and kicked Hitler out. In the process, they requisitioned the house by Lake Balaton where we had taken refuge, and we cohabited with several wild Russian soldiers. I was four years old. I remember the soldiers taking apart, showing me and letting me play with their guns. I also remember many of them dying atrociously in the lake’s icy water.


Later, my mother urged me to read the Russian classics. This was a family tradition. I started with Dostoevski’s The Idiot. I got confused by all the Russian names, could only remember that of Prince Myshkin. Starting to read Dostoevski at twelve may be somewhat premature. Even so, although I was bored at first, by the time I read Crime and Punishment a couple of years later, I was hooked. Is there anyone on earth who doesn’t identify with Raskolnikov, at least a teensy bit?

When we lived in Paris, we also had many contacts with the large Russian émigré colony there.

As an adult, I traveled extensively in Russia. That had to wait until I acquired a citizenship. Because until I moved to the United States in 1970, I was a refugee, an “apatride,” a stateless person, a man without a country. Not until 1970 could I travel freely anywhere. So that year, I went back to Europe for the first time since my arrival in the US, and while I was at it, and I also decided to check out the Soviet Union. I wanted to see first-hand what all the brouhaha was about, with that “superpower.”

It was a wild trip. I was twenty-nine. I rented a Volkswagen in Amsterdam, drove up to Helsinki, from where I crossed the Russian border to Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg). I then drove around the Soviet Union for several weeks, camping out in the suburbs of major cities, including Moscow, Smolensk and Kiev. The authorities were omnipresent. They occasionally stopped me, frisked me, confiscated my Time Magazine and my camera. I was once hauled into a local police bureau for questioning because I had taken pictures of some bridge.
But all in all, I had a blast. Under the harsh Soviet regime, the streets were much safer than they are now. I spoke no Russian whatsoever. I picked up hitch-hikers whenever I could (especially women), and I relied on them to guide me to my destinations. I befriended many young, progressive Russians and stayed in their apartments as their guest.

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There has never been any doubt in my mind that Russia and its culture are second to none, whether it is its literature, its music, its ballet, its cinema, or its science. What a talented people! From pop hits like Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker and Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf to Stravinsky’s Petrushka and Rite of Spring, Russian creativity never seems to run empty. And don’t forget Russian science: From Mendeleev to Sputnik and rocket science, the country’s scientific achievements are also second to none.

But Russia is also a contradiction. Its history has often been tragic. It has had difficulty forging a good government, one that is democratic, progressive and benefits the Russian people. The archaic Tzarist regime was replaced by a regime which idealists hoped would bring about justice, but Stalinism turned out to be a monstrosity. When Communism fell, it was hoped that this was finally the dawn of freedom, democracy and justice for that country. Now they have Putin. Not the worst, but not the best either...

Is Russia better off today? Most people (including me) probably agree that its seventy year long experiment in Socialism was a failure.

In my view, that experiment had at least one salutary effect on the West: As long as the specter of Communism existed, the Capitalist world (including the United States, its epicenter), felt at least obligated to avoid inequality’s grossest excesses. The very existence of the Soviet Union was a check on carrying the exploitation of the working class in the West to an extreme.
After the Russian revolution, the Western ruling elites probably thought, ‘there but for the grace of God, go we...’ During the Cold War, most of the Western democracies had vigorous Communist parties and there was a good chance that Communism might be exported to many countries, including large parts of the Third World. Thus, most of Europe became a social democracy, and America had Roosevelt’s New Deal, Truman’s Fair Deal, Johnson’s Great Society, the War on Poverty, and other progressive programs. This defused class consciousness and averted the potential for revolution in the Capitalist world.
Now,the Western plutocracy no longer needs to fear Communist contagion, since its source has disappeared (what China is up to is anybody’s guess). Class consciousness in the US, if it ever existed, is now nowhere to be found. Labor unions are dying. Wall Street CEOs make in ONE HOUR as much as workers earn in five months.
So while Soviet Communism became a nightmare Russia, the fear of it helped the working class in the West by attenuating the worst features of Capitalism there.

Russia is now facing a variety of difficulties, as it has throughout its history. Prime among them is its poor public health, which results in a declining population. Furthermore, it has a one-commodity economy, which makes it highly vulnerable to the vagaries of the free market. And of course, it is not really very democratic.

But the Russians are a resilient people. I have faith in them. I consider Russia a friend of the West. For example, working together in Syria is a no-brainer. Reviving the Cold War would be idiotic. The interests of Russia and the West coincide. I am confident that Russia will be able to muddle through, just like the United States.  It doesn’t take a (Russian) rocket scientist to see this.

© Tom Kando 2016

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