It’s a notable feat that two of Russia’s most powerful symbols, Vladimir Putin and the Great Patriotic War, could jump the shark on the same day.
Granted it’s possible to argue that Putin jumped the shark a long time ago. The man has so many talents, that the Fonz himself could only awe in amazement. Putin has proved to be a Judo master, jet pilot, tiger wrestler, woodsman, super model, and now, race car driver. All that is needed is for someone to make a Putin action figure with the kung fu grip. Oh wait, someone has already thought of that, though sans the important fighting grip action.
But really, folks. Enough already. What’s next Vladimir Vladimirovich? Is jumping an actual shark on waterskis in your future?
Unfortunately, Putin wasn’t the only Russian symbol that completed the passage from adoration to absurdity.
Yesterday was the 83rd anniversary of the Great October Revolution. Whatever one might think of the outcome of the Revolution, one cannot deny that Lenin and the boys single changed the course of the 20th century when the “stormed” the Winter Palace. Though, any serious student of the Revolution knows that the supposed dramatic storm is a myth.
Sadly, myth-making hasn’t lost its allure.
Indeed, the Revolution remains difficult to sublimate into Russia’s post-Soviet collective memory, and nothing says this more than yesterday’s military parade on Red Square. Since the Revolution remains such a controversial issue, the Russian government can’t commemorate it as such. To do so would give the Communist Party legitimacy as a past modernizing force. Official recognition would renew the “glorify the Soviet past” hailstorm in the press. So what does the Russian government do? Well, it rewrites the Revolution into the only acceptable Soviet historical event: The Great Patriotic War.
As you can see from the Russia Today report, the Revolution, which the original parade commemorated, is silenced. This act as memory revision is the only way I can make sense of this reenactment of the legendary parade held on November 7, 1941. Then, the commemoration of October was defying the Nazi onslaught. It was giving the middle finger to the fascists by saying that we Russians weren’t going to sacrifice the holiest of holy days even though you are some 70 to 100 kilometers outside of Moscow.
But now? While this was all well and good in 1941, in 2010 it just looks like a silly parody. Who exactly is the Russian government defying here? Certainly not the Nazis. The West? If so, I’m sure that gesture fell on deaf ears. Yet another “thank you” to the grandfathers for their sacrifice? Too many thank yous out of context render them hollow. A chance to show off some vintage uniforms and tanks? That’s always pretty cool in a manly sort of way. Or was it an attempt to renarrate an event that tore the nation to pieces by placing it within one that bound it together? That’s my choice. But in sublimating the Revolution into the Great Patriotic War in 2010, the parade made a mockery of the latter. The war’s memory is rendered merely an empty signifier ready to be refilled with an ever malleable, politically expedient kit of signified.
You heard it here. The memory of the Great Patriotic War has officially jumped the shark. So there, “Sit on it!”
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By Sean — 5 years ago
This week’s Russia Magazine column, “Russia’s Widening Wealth Inequality,”
The Putin years have been financially good for many Russians. Petrodollars have trickled down to a large portion of the population. Overall, Russians are wealthier than ever before. Economic stability and prosperity are pillars of the Putinist social contract, Putin’s personal longevity as Russia’s head honcho is tied to the country’s continued economic prosperity. But Putinism is not just based on a rising tide lifting all boats. It’s rooted in the ability of Russia’s wealthy elite to get even wealthier. The concentration of Russia’s wealth into a few hands is bore out in recent statistics reported in Credit Suisse’s Global Wealth Report 2013.
The report presents some startling findings concerning Russia. The gulf between Russia’s haves and have-nots is ever widening. Despite increases in Russian household wealth from an annual $1,650 in 2000 to $11,900 today, a mere 110 billionaires own 35 percent of Russia’s $1.2 trillion in household wealth. According to the report, 93.7 percent of the population owns $10,000 or less, and dispelling the notion of a monetary middle class, a paltry 5.6 percent own between $10,000 and $100,000. Poverty fell over the last decade, but inequality rose. “Russia has the highest level of wealth inequality in the world, apart from small Caribbean nations with resident billionaires,” the report concludes. The report’s authors seem surprised by this wealth concentration. Perhaps it’s because they ascribe to the ideological notion that Russia’s transition from communism to capitalism should have produced a vibrant middle class. “At the time of transition there were hopes that Russia would convert to a high skilled, high income economy with strong social protection programs inherited from Soviet Union days. This is almost a parody of what happened in practice,” the reports states with its own parody of a tired tenet of liberal teleology.
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By Sean — 11 years ago
It is no surprise that the imminent ninetieth anniversary of the October Revolution in Russia has become the object of widespread attention. The events of October 1917 were, indeed, an earthquake that shook the world, altering its economic, social and cultural foundations.
Many media sources depict this world-historic phenomenon as a mere coup d’état, carried out by a handful of conspirators and adventurists with the help of Western security services. All sorts of things are circulated — outright lies, distortion of the facts, and malicious slanders about the participants in and leaders of this mighty event. The old fables to the effect that the “October coup” was provoked by the “German agent” Lenin and the “Anglo-American spy” Trotsky are still being repeated, despite having been rejected by distinguished scholars from various countries. Meanwhile, the Russian people are portrayed as unwitting toys in the hands of “revolutionary extremists”, even though the revolution could neither have begun nor triumphed without the population playing a decisive role.
Not a Conspiracy, But a Social Revolution
The October Revolution was not sparked by conspirators or by agents of foreign powers. It was a social earthquake, a hurricane, a tsunami, which no-one could ever have called forth by mere appeals. The revolution arose out of the internal logic of events, when a multitude of sources of popular discontent converged into a single, all-powerful stream. To interpret it as the product of a conspiracy is strange, to say the least. If this were true, why was a new governing authority set up in place of the old in a gigantic country and in a short time, and why did the Russian people not only support this government, but defend it with arms in hand during the Civil War?
For some reason, the critics of the “October coup” forget the profound crisis into which Russia had been plunged by the tsarist monarchy and the Provisional Government which succeeded it. Mesmerised by the slogan, “War until Final Victory!”, the authorities refused to take account of the real needs of the population. Critics also forget the spontaneous disintegration of the monarchy on the eve of the revolution, despite the direct evidence in the form of the endless intrigues and conflicts within the tsar’s court, the military defeats at the front, and finally, the outright abdication of Nikolai II, the autocrat and commander-in-chief of the Russian army. The bourgeois government that replaced the monarchy also proved impotent, failing to meet the great challenges of the time — stopping the war and giving land to the peasants.
October 1917 marked the culmination of the great Russian social revolution of the twentieth century. It was led by revolutionary social democrats who earlier than others, had recognised the needs and hopes of ordinary people — the pressing problems to which the Russian society of the time required solutions. Among the leaders, it was of course Vladimir Ulyanov-Lenin and his closest collaborators who played the key roles.
None of the leaders of the October revolution were flawless, but it is just as wrong to demonise as to idolise them. The calumnies that are heaped on them nowadays have no real basis. They were not in the service of anyone, only of their revolutionary ideals. None of the earthly temptations, such as money or the other accompaniments of a philistine prosperity, had any meaning for them. They measured their lives against the supreme standard of selfless service to the freedom and happiness of the oppressed and dispossessed.
Revolutions Cannot be Reduced to Violence
The October Revolution is often termed a “violent overthrow”. Yet the actual “overthrow” in Petrograd passed off almost without human victims. While we are not advocates of violence, we recognise that it is inevitable at particular stages of historical development, when it is bound up with the presence of class and national antagonisms. Revolution is indeed associated in many respects with violence, as was clearly evident, for example, in the bourgeois revolutions in the Netherlands, England, France and so forth. The ending of slavery in the United States was accompanied by the bloodiest conflict of the nineteenth century, the American Civil War. In Russia, the ending of feudalism was also accompanied by wars and revolutions.
These developments, meanwhile, were not called forth by the machinations of political intriguers, but by the crisis of the old system and by the impossibility of solving age-old problems by evolutionary methods. People resort to revolutionary violence in specific circumstances, when the ruling classes, blinded by thirst for their own enrichment and for the maintenance of their privileges, neglect the well-being of the population. The dispossessed classes then have no choice except to take their fates in their own hands. This is the main lesson of the Russian Revolution of the twentieth century.
At the same time, social revolution cannot be reduced to violence, and especially armed violence. Its ultimate goal is to lay the basis for a new world, to create better conditions of life for everyone, not just the social elites. In this sense, such revolutions really are the locomotives of history, accelerating its progress.
What the October Revolution Yielded
The history of different countries has always included numerous struggles by workers against capitalism. Only in Russia, however, have these actions taken on so far-reaching a character. This made twentieth-century Russia the epicentre of world development, where all the main questions of the contemporary world intersected, and where the fundamental sickness of capitalism, the conflict between labour and capital, was resolved. It was only the Russian workers who had the will and decisiveness to find a way out of this conflict, not only overthrowing capitalism, but also beginning the transition to a more progressive social system — socialism.
Like the Paris Commune before it, the October Revolution placed power in the hands of the lower orders of society — the workers and peasants, and those elements of the intelligentsia that reflected their interests. The revolution affirmed the soviets as the most democratic form of political power, granting the war-weary population the long-awaited peace and land, along with the opportunity for national self-determination. By raising millions of workers to the point where they could exercise social creativity, the revolution showed clearly that it is not only the “elites” that are capable of being the subject and demiurge of history.
As a result of the October Revolution two socially counterposed systems appeared in the world, a circumstance which did much to determine the subsequent development of humanity. Thanks to the influence of October, national liberation movements arose, and reforms began in the capitalist system itself. Under the impact of the Russian Revolution the colonial empires disintegrated, while long-outdated monarchical regimes suffered total collapse.
The October Revolution set in motion a supra-national and supra-confessional unifying idea, the idea of social liberation and justice. On the basis of this idea, there arose for the first time in history a voluntary union of peoples with equal rights, the USSR. The ideas and initiatives of October were in accord with the goals and vital purpose of many titans of science and the arts — of Timiryazev and Vernadsky, Platonov and Mayakovsky, Sholokhov and Eisenstein. The progress toward the socialist future that was instigated by the October Revolution was actively supported by such outstanding twentieth-century figures as George Bernard Shaw, Picasso, Einstein and Tsiolkovsky.
Soviet History Was Diverse
The October Revolution marked the beginning of Soviet history, which did not take the form of advancing along a smooth Nevsky Prospekt. Soviet history included both great achievements and appalling tragedies. We know very well that after the peaceful transfer of power to the workers in most of the provinces of Russia, a bloody civil war began, accompanied by foreign intervention and by White and Red terror.
Lacking the relevant historical experience, the Soviet authorities naturally made many mistakes. One particular error was the policy of “war communism”, a product of the general national crisis. To their credit, the Bolsheviks decisively rejected it, and made a deliberate shift to the New Economic Policy — the first historical model in which the principles of socialism and capitalism were successfully combined. Many features of NEP were later reproduced in the context of the development of several European countries and of modern China. NEP also allowed the wounds of war to be rapidly healed, and production in the Russian economy to be raised to its pre-war level.
Relying on the experience of the New Economic Policy, Lenin worked out a plan for the further development of the Soviet state, a plan which included radical economic and political changes. These transformations were aimed above all at achieving breakthroughs in the development of energy generation, culture and education — areas which were decisive in the twentieth century and which remain so in the twenty-first. These changes presupposed democratising the political system through drawing workers into running the state, and through the renovation of the party. Here, one of the moves which Lenin projected was removing Josef Stalin from the post of general secretary. Even then, Stalin was manifesting his traits of disloyalty, boorishness and the abuse of power.
These plans, however, were fated to go unrealised. While declaring socialism to be its goal, the authoritarian regime which consolidated itself after Lenin’s death did a great deal that was incompatible with socialism. The political liberties of citizens that had been proclaimed by the revolution were comprehensively violated. The price paid for industrialisation and forced collectivisation was exorbitant. In sum, the popular power of the initial years of the revolution degenerated into rule by the bureaucracy and its leader Stalin. We consider the massive Stalinist repressions, along with the violation of the rights of the individual and of whole nationalities in the USSR, to have been a crime. All this discredited the ideals of the revolution and of socialism.
While acknowledging these facts, we do not accept scholarly-sounding lies and stupefyingly one-sided propaganda with regard to the whole of Soviet history. This history was diverse; within it, democratic and bureaucratic tendencies engaged in conflict with and replaced one another. Hence, the freedoms of the NEP years were replaced by Stalinist totalitarianism, which in turn gave way to the Khrushchev “thaw”. Later, the Brezhnev authoritarianism was replaced by perestroika, which proclaimed as its goal the creation of a humane, democratic socialism.
The history of every country is subject to argument and debate. The cruelties of the British and French colonial wars, and of slavery in the US, were scarcely better than the Soviet gulag. However, this did not negate the social and cultural achievements of these countries. Why then should such achievements be denied in the case of the Soviet people, who achieved a great victory over fascism, created an inimitable culture and literature, set up a broadly accessible system of social welfare for the population, and were the pioneers of space travel? It must not be forgotten that October unleashed an unprecedented creative energy. It set in train the founding by masses of people of a new society; it brought to realisation many of the ideas of internationalism; and it acquainted the formerly most oppressed layers of Russian society with the heights of national and world culture. Nor should one strike out from Soviet history the enthusiasm of the masses that was demonstrated in the mastering of the newest achievements of science and technology. The revolutionary romanticism and heroism of millions of Soviet citizens was clearly manifested here.
Why the Soviet Model Collapsed
It should be noted that we have a range of views on the nature of the social system that existed in the USSR. We are agreed, however, that neglect or rejection of the principles of popular power, internationalism, justice and humanism that were born out of the October Revolution will sooner or later result in catastrophe for a society that is building socialism. This is what happened in the Soviet Union.
The fetters placed on the creative initiative of the population under the totalitarian regime dramatically restricted the opportunities for the growth of the Soviet economy. A shortage of consumer goods was one of its characteristic features. As a result, we did not manage to raise the level of well-being of the working people to that found in the world’s developed countries, and this served as one of the causes of the downfall of the Soviet system. Another vital cause was the lack of real economic and political democracy, which became especially intolerable when technological and information revolution was unfolding in the world. One of the consequences of this was the complete alienation of the bureaucratic authorities and the ruling party from the workers. The attempt to overcome this alienation during perestroika did not yield the required result. In sum, the collapse of the USSR and of the Soviet government became a reality. This was seized upon by the political forces which dissolved the USSR and directed Russia along the road of installing a savage oligarchic capitalism, marked by mass joblessness, falling living standards for the population, profound social stratification, rampant nationalism and growing crime.
The failure of the Soviet model of society does not signify that the ideals of October were false. Just as the ideas of Christianity were not to blame for the practices of the Inquisition, Stalinist totalitarianism could not destroy the ideals of the revolution. Socialism as a historic cause cannot be brought to realisation all at once. A new generation of young people is now appearing, people who do not accept capitalism as a system. There is every reason to hope that this generation will be able to breathe new life into the ideals of the October Revolution.
What the Greatness of Modern Russia Depends on
The ideas of the October Revolution united not only proletarian internationalists, but also supporters of strengthening and developing the Russian state. These ideas opened the way for people who wanted to bring the national culture of Russia to the country’s borderlands and to other countries — for people who shared in patriotic sentiments and who were prepared to defend the Soviet homeland from potential aggressors. The strength of this feeling was shown clearly during the Great Patriotic War, when the sovereignty of the USSR and the conquests of October were defended.
The October Revolution showed the greatness of spirit of the Russian people, who proposed an alternative, non-capitalist road to national development. To view the revolution as a conspiracy by extremist forces is also dangerous because it provides grist to the mill of the anti-Russian interpretation of history according to which Russia, because of its unpredictability, is said to pose a constant threat to the world. From Russia, adherents of this view maintain, only unfavourable developments are to be expected; hence, the country has to be kept under tight rein, and its natural wealth, its energy potential and intellectual resources, have to be controlled and exploited.
Modern-day Russia needs to soberly assess such provocative statements, and to hold firmly to its own course. Russia’s greatness does not lie in the blind copying of foreign examples, still less in national conceit with regard to other peoples, but in relying on the talents and creative strengths of its own population, as well as in the thorough assimilation of the knowledge and experience developed by world civilisation and culture.
Russia is capable of once again becoming a great power, whose adversaries will be forced to take it into account. But this will only happen if the country overcomes the poverty and deep social stratification of its population, qualitatively improves the lives of its citizens, broadens their social and democratic rights, and retains everything that is best from its historic past.
* * *
The historic importance of the October Revolution is difficult to overestimate. Its positive consequences are obvious. A third of humanity travelled part of the way along the road which the revolution opened up. Many countries are continuing this progress today, drawing lessons from the defeats and tragedies of the past. October proved that another, more just world is possible. A range of social and political forces, countries and peoples, are now striving for this new world. This is shown by a new wave of revolutionary transformations, manifesting itself with particular force in a number of countries of Latin America and Asia.
The October Revolution was and remains our fate, and we cannot reject this crucially important part of Russian history. Always and everywhere there have been mistakes, and the great revolutions of the past did not avoid them either. Nevertheless, the anniversaries of these revolutions are celebrated in all countries, including at the state level. Only in Russia is this not the case. In Russia, the denigration of the country’s revolutionary past continues.
On the eve of the ninetieth anniversary of the October Revolution, we raise our voices against this practice. The people must have their revolutionary holiday and the truth about October returned to them. It must not be forgotten that we belong to a country whose history includes its own great revolution. We can and should be proud of it.
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- Arslanov V., Dr. of art, professor, Russian Academy of Education
- Bagaturiya G. Dr. of philosophy, professor, Lomonosov Moscow State University
- Buzgalin A., Dr. of economics, professor, Lomonosov Moscow State University
- Dzarasov S., Dr. of economics, Russian Academy of Science
- Galkin A., Dr. of history, professor, Russian Academy of Science Istyagin L., Dr. of history, Russian Academy of Science
- Kelle V. Dr. of philosophy, Russian Academy of Science
- Kolganov A., Dr. of economics, Lomonosov Moscow State University
- Loginov V., Dr. of history, professor, Russian Academy of Education
- Medvedev R., Dr. of history
- Rudyk E., Dr. of economics, Russian Academy of Labor
- Serebrykova Z., Dr. of history
- Shatrov M., writer
- Slavin B., Dr. of philosophy, professor, Moscow State Pedagogical University
- Smolin O., Dr. of philosophy, professor, MP
- Voeikov M., Dr. of economics, Russian Academy of Science
- Vorobiev A., academician, Russian Academy of Science
By Sean — 11 years ago
David S. Foglesong, The American Mission and the “Evil Empire”: The Crusade for a “Free Russia” since 1881, Cambridge University Press, 2007.
“Civilization is spreading rapidly eastward, it cannot stop or go around Russia, and whether with bayonet or psalm-book the march will be made through every part of the Tsar’s dominion.” Such were the words of James William Buel in his 1882 book Russian Nihilism and Exile Life in Siberia. A journalist by trade, Buel was one of the first Americans to set the tone for how Americans would imagine Russia over the next century. In Russia, which he visited in the summer of 1882, Buel was captivated by the beauty of the cathedrals and salivated at the “delicious” music of the church choir. He was also disturbed by the Orthodox Church’s “ignorance and superstition,” which he saw as the main culprit of Russia’s backwardness. The mysterious allure of Russia gave him hope that the Slavic nation would eventually evolve into a “free and fully enlightened government.”
Buel’s optimism for Russia’s free future, however, was not without its road blocks. For many Americans of both Russophobic and Russophilic ilk Russia was a starkly binary place. Its people were both bearers of progressive light as they were of barbarous “Asiatic” darkness. Russia’s system of governance was both a creation of its history and traditions as it was also an alien entity that imposed tyranny over its subjects. Whether that tyranny came in Tsarist, Soviet, or Parliamentary forms mattered little. Most of all, from around the 1880s to the present, Russia was an object that required liberation. And as Buel’s quote reminds us, for many American politicians, missionaries, and intellectuals, liberation would only come via the Bible or the bayonet.
David Foglesong’s main thesis in The American Mission and the “Evil Empire” is not so much about Americans’ desire to “free” Russia as it is about what that meant for American self-identity. For as Forglesong argues, the desire to “free” Russia made the Slavic nation the United States’ “dark double” or “imaginary twin.” The phenomenon of Russia as a mirror for America needs to be considered throughout Foglesong’s text. For the book is not really about Russia at all. His book is really about the United States and how through its strange mission to “free Russia” defined itself.
Why would the United States need a “dark double” to enhance its own national narcissism? As Foglesong argues, America’s desire to liberate those enshrouded in darkness, whether they be inhabitants residing in its “near abroad”—Cubans, Mexicans, Nicaraguans, Haitians, Dominicans—, in its far off geopolitical domains—Koreans, Vietnamese, Japanese, Philippine, Bosnians, Kosovars, Afghanis, or Iraqis, or of its own domestic others—African-Americans, Native Americans, and immigrants of all colors and shapes—always made the “persistent problems that sapped the vitality and belied the United States’ idealistic promise” far more palatable. According to Foglesong, Russia too played a role America’s constant need for self-assurance. “Treating Russia as both a whipping boy and a potential beneficiary of American philanthropy” he writes, “fostered in many Americans a heady sense of their country’s unique blessings, and reaffirmed their special role in the world.”
Before going on to why Russia was a deemed a potential recipient of the United States’ “unique blessings,” it’s important to ask why America has this need to displace its problems onto the Other in the first place? Why does this tendency translate into the belief that its system is not just universal, but that America has a right and duty to realize its universality? Unfortunately, Foglesong doesn’t provide an adequate answer except to say that it did. True, the origins of American democracy’s universal tendencies are difficult to place and surely can occupy a whole study in and of itself. But considering that he (and myself for that matter) both occupy a discipline that was created out of the very discourses that inform the desire to “free Russia,” these questions are not too far a field from his study. Perhaps this is where Foglesong might have consulted some of the voluminous literature on how the “idea of Europe” and its cultural and political demarcation from “Asia” relied on Orientialism. Here the ideas of Edward Said, though not cited, but certainly no stranger to Foglesong, might have been utilized as a way to think about America’s strange fascination with Russia.
That said Foglesong cannot be faulted for not splashing Said’s name across the page or devoting the proper number of footnotes to him. Academic name dropping is not necessary for a good book. My desire to know what Foglesong thinks of Said is because American Mission and the “Evil Empire” suggests that there is an interesting conversation to be had between the two. Still, something approaching an answer to the above questions seems in order. Perhaps the universalism of the American system is found within America’s own self-imposed uniqueness. Or maybe it’s rooted in American religiosity which suggests that the United States is a new temple on the mount; a divinely given tablua rasa where first “old” Europe’s dejected, persecuted and poor, and then the world’s sought refuge and a bright future. Ironically, and perhaps most importantly, American’s self image as unique did not allay its desire to use its very mantra of freedom as a means of imperial control. This last point is hardly new in world history. Europe’s great powers own imperial impulses were always “forked,” as Homi Bhabha once wrote. American imperialism was and is no different in this regard. American soft power always accompanied hard power. The ambivalence at the heart of the “liberate-subjugate dyad” has proved and continues to prove an effective means of domination.
Luckily for both countries (and perhaps the world), Americans’ fascination with a “free” Russia involved far more soft power than hard power. Throughout the history of American-Russia relations, the two never formerly met on the battlefield (except for President Woodrow Wilson’s dispatching 13,000 troops to Northern and Siberian Russia in 1918). Americans, beginning with fin de siècle Russophilic and Russophobic figures like Buel, Wendell Phillips, George Kennan, William Walling, Ernest Poole, and Arthur Bullard to Cold Warriors like George F. Kennan, Richard Pipes, Zbigniew Brzezinski, James Burnham and many others, tended to emphasize the virtues of Protestantism, free markets, and democracy as the main weapon against Russian despotism and darkness. If the sword was ever to be an instrument of liberation, it would be wielded by Russians themselves against their own oppressors. This fetishism with revolution in Russia was best seen in Americans like Wendell Phillips’ justifications of the nihilist use of “dynamite and the dagger” to cast of Tsarism’s yoke.
American’s early fascination with a “free” Russia from 1880 to 1917 is perhaps the most interesting contribution Foglesong makes. It was in this period that American ideas of freedom, capitalism, and Protestantism led the charge for a free Russia. Foglesong points to two contexts for this political convergence of God, money, and freedom. First, was the fact that many advocates of a free Russia were either Protestant ministers or grew up in heady Protestant homes. Some, and perhaps this is the most interesting convergence, were former abolitionists or sons of abolitionists. In fact one of the first “free” Russia organizations, the Society of American Friends of Russian Freedom (SAFRF) grew out of the abolition movement. As Edmund Noble, secretary of SAFRF and editor of its paper Free Russia noted in 1894, “There has always seemed a true and close analogy between the agitation which aimed at the abolition of slavery in the United States and the movement that now seeks to bring the blessing of free institutions to the political serfs of Russia.”
The easy transformation of the abolitionist into a “free” Russia crusader is one example of how Russia functioned as a “dark double.” Abolitionists’ embrace of liberation in Russia was an effective, even if unconscious, displacement of the realization that a racially equitable America was an utter failure. The increasing comparisons between the United States and Russia allowed many Americans de-emphasize the fact Jim Crow ruled the South, the lynching of blacks was at its peek, and “liberated” blacks were “re-enslaved” into sharecroppers. Pointing to Russian Tsarist despotism allowed Free Russia to declare that Americans should “be thankful” that “we don’t live in Russia.”
The second context for the emergence of a desire to “free” Russia was the fact that this period was also America’s first foray into imperialism. Foglesong is correct to note that the “free” Russia movement emerged precisely at the time when the Bible and bayonet marched lockstep into the Philippines and Cuba and American Protestant missionaries made their first penetrations into East Asia, Latin America, and Russia. The development of evangelical and Baptist sects in Russia is a story that has already been told in Heather Coleman’s Russian Baptists and Spiritual Revolution, 1905-1929 and in Segei Zhuk’s Russia’s Lost Reformation: Peasants, Millennialism, and Radical Sects in Southern Russia and Ukraine, 1830-1917. What Foglesong adds is how American missionaries saw their work in Orthodox Russia.
Indeed, Protestant missionaries play a major role throughout Foglesong’s story. Like their European competitors proselytizing in India, Africa, and Asia, American missionaries saw conversion as a means to “civilization.” This push to convert those shrouded in “darkness,” therefore, was not just about religiosity. It was about politics. Missionaries assumed that conversion to Protestantism would facilitate Russian’s political transformation into Americans.
Interestingly, the mission to free Russia also tantalized the desires of America’s “gentlemen socialists.” Inspired by the 1905 Revolution, American socialists like Ernest Poole, William Walling, and Arthur Bullard sought Russia’s salvation in the mythical democracy of the peasant commune. If only the peasant’s democratic seed was cultivated with Enlightenment, argued Russophile Walling, could a “United States of Russia” bloom.
Throughout the 20th century, American hopes and disillusionment that a “free” Russia was on the horizon oscillated as the United States and Russia designated each other friend or foe. The February Revolution was a new dawn. The Bolshevik takeover eight months later cast a new shroud of darkness. Light appeared to peak through in the 1920s, until the Bolsheviks engaged in a full fledged crackdown on missionaries and sectarians. The 1930s until the outbreak of WWII was the darkest period of Russian “freedom.” Surprisingly, “free” Russia advocates had glimmers of hope during late Stalinism. Outright “freedom” was all but abandoned for “liberalization” in the Khrushchev and Brezhnev periods. For your average Cold Warrior, Soviet containment was paramount. If Russia was to change, the aforiegn advisors of Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson reasoned, it was going to do so internally. All America could do was employ the technologies of “psychological warfare” to help that process along.
By 1970, Cold War détente served as low point for the “free” Russia movement. The realpolitik of the Ford Administration, led by Henry Kissinger’s desire (in private Foglesong says that Kissinger “repeatedly expressed utter disdain” for promoting human rights and saw their provisions in treaties with the Soviets as a “joke.”) to get actual results from negotiating with the Soviets coupled with America’s defeat in Vietnam, made the desire to “free” Russia appear more utopian than ever before. However, as Foglesong shows, two events led to the movement’s revival: the rise of the new American conservativism and the Carter Administration’s adoption of the language of human rights.
The emergence of both American conservativism and the doctrine human rights were both a response to the realism of the Nixon-Ford administrations. For Nixon and Ford, the Soviet Union could be dealt with and pressuring them on human rights was seen as counterproductive. All of this changed with the arrival of Solzhenitsyn in the summer of 1975. But it wasn’t the “bearded prophet’s” appearance that spurred a “free” Russia revival. It was the political mileage the Democratic opposition got out of using Solzhenitsyn to bash White House Republicans. Gerald Ford ‘s utter snubbing of Solzhenitsyn upon his arrival to the US proved to a major political mistake. In a meeting with Soviet Foreign Minister Gromyko in 1975, Kissinger told him that “If the Soviet system toppled today, . . . I am not sure the successor government wouldn’t be more of a problem. The government Solzhenitsyn would establish would be more aggressive.” When Ford rejected meeting Solzhenitsyn before the Helsinki summit, he called the Soviet dissident “a goddamn horse’s ass.”
All of this provided fodder for first Ronald Reagan’s Republican nomination bid and Carter presidential challenge in 1976. Solzhenitsyn became a cause celeb in both politicians attempt to charge Ford with a loss in “faith” in America’s special historic mission.
As President, Carter and Reagan would return this “faith” in their own way. For Carter’s foreign policy gurus, most notably Zbigniew Brzezinski, adopting human rights as a means to pressure the Soviets coincided well with the belief that America’s defeat in Vietnam sapped the American people of their tolerance for crusading in the name of “freedom. Carter saw human rights as the cure that could “arouse the spirit of our people” and Brzezinski argued that it would “overcome a spreading pessimism” and “infuse greater historical optimism into our outlook on the world.” Like the late 19th century, Americans would be lifted out of their own domestic doldrums via the demonization of the “barbarous” Russian other.
The “free” Russia movement would only return to its roots of God, capitalism, and freedom with the inauguration of Ronald Reagan. Foglesong paints Reagan as a sincere, albeit naïve, crusader who believed that freedom would come to Soviet Russia through a combination of Jesus and sending Sears Roebuck catalogs to commodity starved Russians. After all, it was Reagan who called the Soviets the “evil empire.” But Reagan, more than anything, represented the epitome of the American “free” Russia tradition. Like Carter, he hoped that direct confrontation with the Soviet Union would facilitate “an American recovery from the self-doubt and polarization caused by the Vietnam War.” Luckily for Reagan, the appearance of Gorbachev allowed him to dismiss the hardliners in his Administration who questioned the Soviet reformer’s sincerity.
While Foglesong devotes a lengthy discussion of Reagan’s ability to make the crusade American policy, the reader can’t ignore the place of religion in the President’s efforts. Reagan is famous for placing the Cold War within a religious discourse. If the Soviets represented the “evil empire” then the United States played the role of God’s angel charged with the task to vanquish that evil. This binaried view of Russia gelled well with American sentiments. As George F. Kennan wrote, “A large segment of the American population has the need to cultivate the idea of American innocence and virtue—which requires an opposite pole of evil.” True enough, and this fact should not surprise us that good/evil continues to play well into logic of the War on Terror.
The fact that Reagan saw Russia through a religious lens cannot be reduced to rhetoric alone. In private conversations, he tended to preach to Gorbachev that “there is a God” urging the reformer to allow “church bells to ring out again” in Russia. He even believed that Gorbachev “might [have been] a closet Christian.” And like “free” Russia crusaders from the 19th century, Protestant missionaries weren’t too far behind. Billy Graham, a “free” Russia crusader since 1959 and Reagan’s spiritual advisor visited the Soviet Union in 1982 and 1984 where he went on a twelve day preaching tour from Leningrad to Novosibirsk. Graham believed that there was a “quite religious revival going on throughout the Soviet Union”—a view that came not so much from his permission to preach, but a perception that Russians “must be born again” (emphasis mine). If the yoke of Soviet “totalitarianism” was ever to be cast out of the Russian consciousness, tracts from King James’ Bible would serve as that exorcism’s script.
Gorbachev’s opening the religious door had a profound effect on Reagan. While many of his advisors (and presumably Reagan himself) saw glasnost and perestroika as Soviet trickery, it was Gorbachev’s evoking God at a summit in Geneva in 1985 that touched Reagan’s heart and proved the Soviet leader’s sincerity. It “stuck in my mind,” said Reagan, “and stays a nagging question that won’t go away.”
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the “free” Russian crusaders got their wish. Interestingly, the Bible’s revolutionary force lost power in Russia’s “transition” to democracy. Perhaps it was because the Clinton administration adopted the religion of globalization and “TINA” rather the universalism of God. “Shock therapy” displaced the Bible, revealing that capital was perhaps the real mantra of the “free” Russianists. Foglesong never really explains why this change in discourse occurred. It’s likely that such an explanation requires a study all on its own.
As a whole, Foglesong study reminds us of how deep Americans’ vision of Russia as either “tyranny” or “freedom” runs. It also gives us food for thought when we read proclamations like like John Edwards and Jack Kemps’ Russia’s Wrong Direction: What the United States Can and Should Do. The idea that the United States can and should do something about Russia’s “democratic backsliding” is hardly novel. In fact, it is merely a recycling of a mentality that has longstanding historical roots; roots that are never too far from the United States own understanding of itself.Post Views: 940