Friday, November 21, 2008
Having studied it for several years, there was a time when I was a pretty good speaker of the Russian language. Better, in fact, than a number of high school teachers of it who were fellow participants in a language study tour of the Soviet Union during the summer of 1963. (If I may be self-indulgent for a moment -- what, a blogger? -- I'd add that I was complemented frequently, while there, on the authenticity of my accent, about which I took a modicum of pride, большое спасибо.) But that's not my point.
Even as a naive college sophomore, international politics-wise, it was apparent to me that the Soviet system was built on sand. Housed in huge and ugly buildings, squeezed into small apartments furnished sparsely and with modest and poorly-functioning appliances, citizens wore drab clothes, stood in pulsing crowds forming chaotic lines to purchase goods (worse: you first worked your way to a display to decide what you wanted and learn its price, then fought another crushing crowd to pay and get a receipt, then back to fighting your way to get the product with your ticket...), and worked in deteriorating and inefficient factories. What kept them going, what facilitated their acceptance of their lot, was everywhere: the government-promoted fear and hatred of America. Posters, slogans, billboards, singing it loud. There's nothing like an omnipresent enemy to let a government do what it wants, and have the people toe the line.
I mention this because of an column in today's New York Times, by which it seems we're back to square one:
[At] "a Halloween-themed rally in front of the American Embassy in Moscow...nearly 20,000 young people held pumpkins marked with the names of “America’s victims,” among them the casualties in South Ossetia. In an amateur film shown at the rally, an actor portraying a drunken George W. Bush bragged that the United States had engineered both world wars and the rise of Hitler to expand its power....
...In the post-Soviet era, many Russians are angry because their country has neither the stature nor the living standards that they believe it deserves.... As frustrations mount, it is often easier to blame an external force than the country’s own failings. It doesn’t help that the 1990s, when pro-Western attitudes were at their peak, are remembered as a time of poverty and insecurity. The result is an inferiority complex toward the West and, in particular, the United States, as the pre-eminent Western power and cold war rival. This widespread sentiment combines admiration, envy, grievance, resentment, and craving for respect and acceptance as an equal. Most Russians viewed the recent conflict in Georgia as a victory over the Americans — a matter less of strategic self-interest than of psychological self-assertion..."
I think it bodes ill.
And it can't help but make me wonder about our own sandy structures: two hot wars plus another (the one "on terror") wrapped tightly in the language of fear; the pillaging of the people in the name of promoting plutocrats; the abrogation of the Constitution; etc, ad nauseum...
When George Bush, after the failures of the aftermath of the Iraq invasion, trotted out George Tenant, Tommy Franks, and Paul Bremer, and hung Presidential Medals of Freedom around their necks, it reminded me of nothing so much as the ceremonies on the Kremlin wall, where Khrushchev or Brezhnev did the same to aging generals after the failure of another five-year plan.