Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming! *

As a kid in the 1950's I was terrified of the Russians. Everything I knew about them was scary: they were evil Communists, a “Soviet” government controlled all aspects of their lives. Children spied and reported on parents; secret police detained all manner of people, especially Catholics (the nuns who taught me were most emphatic on this point), who disappeared into prisons and labor camps. The Russians had nuclear weapons and were going to take over the US. Hell, my hometown was even captured by “totalitarian” forces for a day before being “liberated” by the 82nd Airborne Division in a pretty big deal (parachutes and armor!) exercise. During the exercise the local paper printed a front page as it would be under occupation, complete with a picture of the “prison camp” for town officials and an announcement that the school day would last from 7:30 to 5:30 six days a week (we’re talking serious scary here). It was a tough time to be a kid, not knowing if my future would be nuclear war or subjugation by the Russians. As I grew older, I began to see much of this for the alarmist hype that it was, although the Cuban Missile Crisis a few years later vividly reminded me that it wasn’t all hype.

America survived the Russian menace, albeit with some close calls, dumb mistakes and a continuing level of alarm and hype. The Russian Communists are no longer a threat but the Russians are certainly still around and operating in much the same way they have for centuries. Their history is grimly cyclic: autocracy versus some form of liberalism. I use the latter term because Russian liberalism, by which I mean open, democratic, humane society, has never really had a chance to flourish. Between Czarist absolutism, economic collapse, revolution and civil awr, Stalinist terror and Communist bureaucracy, liberal thought never had much opening in Russia. Whatever opening followed the collapse of the Soviet Union was soon overtaken with a new round of economic chaos and immiseration.

What frightens me these days about Russia is the return to autocracy. I see that clearly in Anna Politkovskaya’s A Russian Diary. Not so much a memoir but an account of the slow strangling of political space and expression in Russia under Vladimir Putin, which is also evident if you follow events in Russia. She describes abductions, assassinations and criminal gangs within the security services. The truth of her stories lies in her clear observations and understanding of post-Soviet Russia. Her truth is also apparent in her fate–shot dead in the elevator lobby of her apartment building, a crime so far unsolved. Her diary records the developing cult of Putin, an autocracy with a slight veneer of democracy that gives it some little distinction from the Communist oligarchy it has replicated. The recent parliamentary and presidential elections confirmed the new oligarchy’s dominance, something already apparent to Politikovskaya in the years before her murder.

Putin’s Russia is a “capitalist” variant of the Soviet Union, the only real difference being that the Soviets shared at least some of the wealth with the citizenry whereas the new autocracy is more than willing to hoard wealth in the manner of the Romanovs or the Exxons. Russia’s post-Communist journey to freedom seems to have been side tracked; what modernization and change have occurred has simply replicated an all too familiar leadership style and cult of personality in Russia that places the leader above and beyond the control of mere mortals. In Politikovskaya’s Russia, the elections are rigged, the courts are controlled and violence against citizens is common, a state of affairs that is little different from life under the Communists or the Czars.

What also frightens me is that all of this reads like an extreme but possible future America following the logic of CheneyBush unitary executive theory and his rendition of Constitutional government and rule of law as “quaint”. In CheneyBush’s America elections are rigged by the two party monopoly, corporate cash and the odd ballot discrepancy. Courts are bypassed by executive fiat and terror law. Our police are becoming less protectors than a paramilitary force to be used against citizens. I am uneasy reading this book because I see too much of America in the events Politikovskaya describes. I would like to think that our two centuries of somewhat democratic, open government would keep us from devolving into such lawlessness and criminality. I would like to think that but I find it difficult to look past a president who claims unlimited authority and a Congress too timid to challenge that president.

I guess I’m still scared of the Russians but these days it seems as if we are our own Russians.

* Also the title of a very funny movie.



Anonymous Freeman said...

Don't be afraid. The Russian won't bite you before you ask.

8:14 AM  
Blogger Jim Yeager said...

I ain't afraid of the Russians. I like chess and vodka, they love chess and vodka. They can't be all that bad, Rez.

China's the nation that scares me. I hope we never pick a fight with the Chinese, because those people will totally fuck us up if we do, and I don't mean just economically. I'd rather go to Gitmo than a Chinese prison because at least I know what to expect from American sadists...

5:12 AM  
Blogger Rez Dog said...

Actually, the Russians I fear are not its people or even its government. What frightens me most is the idea that a small group of people make all the decisions. Russia is hardly alone in its tendencies but having grown up with the idea of a Russian adversary, it makes an easy metaphor for what's happening in this country.

8:08 AM  

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