Starting from around 1986, it became possible in the USSR to learn things about what was happening on the other side of the Iron Curtain. That’s when we discovered that Westerners had a standard of living that we couldn’t even begin to imagine.
It’s not a trivial thing when your entire sense of self, your whole understanding of how the world works falls apart. Everything we knew about ourselves turned out to be a lie. We had to abandon our entire way of living and adopt yours because we were suddenly told that yours was vastly superior. And that’s after 70 years of hearing the exact opposite. Have you noticed how hard it is for people to abandon the COVID narratives that they have come to believe? Those narratives are very recent. And still, it’s so hard. Imagine throwing away everything you, your parents, your grandparents and your great-grandparents believed and accepting the exact opposite. How easy will that be?
It’s one thing when you have somebody else to blame for this massive, multigenerational mistake. In the USSR, people who lived in the 14 republics that were not Russia could blame the Russians. They forced us into it (which was actually true)! We are not to blame (not entirely true)! It’s not on us (totally untrue but feels good)!
But what were the Russians supposed to do? Who was there to blame for throwing 70 years of the country’s history into the gutter, genociding the best among the population, destroying science, economy, art, education, everything, and falling hopelessly behind other large countries?
Initially, when the truth started coming out, Russia experienced a wave of almost slavish adoration of everything American or Western European. But living with the thought of “I’m bad and this other guy is good” is impossible long-term. It’s psychologically destructive. People need to see themselves as good. Maybe unfairly done by, victimized, persecuted but not stupid pieces of shit. You can’t believe that you are a stupid piece of shit and continue living.
So people in Russia started looking for a new narrative, a different explanation of why the standard of living in the West was so much higher. Why is America the world leader and we aren’t? they asked. Surely, it can’t be because we aren’t as good.
When somebody has something you passionately want but just can’t get, what do you do?
More often than not, you devalue it. “I never even wanted it in the first place. I have something much more important that the other guy can’t have. He only has all that because he’s evil, corrupt, etc.” And all the time that you devalue it, you keep wanting it, wanting it, wanting it.
This is the dynamic that Russia has been stuck in for over 20 years now. It’s in the official statements, on the news, and in every daily conversation.
Imagine that you have a neighbor called Jack. He’s very successful, lives in a mansion, has a beautiful family, and enjoys every comfort. Everybody in the neighborhood listens to him with great respect. Whatever Jack says is accepted as the norm at every meeting of the HOA. You, in the meantime, live in a shack, have no money, drink heavily, carry tons of debt, have no family, and nobody takes you seriously. And Jack loves to stop you in the street to lecture you on how to do better in life because he’s a bit of a preachy asshole. The neighbors see him schooling you, and it’s so humiliating.
All you have is your best friend Brian, and the two of you really enjoy getting together over a beer to bitch about how much Jack sucks. And then one day Brian says, “you are such a loser. I don’t want to be your friend any more. I’m going to try to become friends with Jack and maybe he’ll teach me how to be successful and not a pathetic loser like you.” We all want to think we are a better person and would not feel like socking Brian in his traitorous little face. But it’s hard to resist, especially when you realize that the whole neighborhood will now see what happened. Everybody will know that even your best friend abandoned you for that stuck-up jackass Jack.
This is the situation between Russia, Ukraine and the US. The US is, of course, the preachy rich asshole Jack. Ukraine is Brian who is tired of being a resentful loser and wants to learn to do better. And Russia is the guy who’s being publicly abandoned by his best friend in the most humiliating way possible. We can try to reduce this situation to something small and pedestrian like “Russia doesn’t want the NATO to come closer to its borders” (or, “the abandoned friend doesn’t want to see Brian and Jack hanging out together from his backyard.”) But it’s a lot bigger than that. The truth is that it hurts. Ukraine very publicly announced that it doesn’t want to hang out together any more. Changed its FB status and moved on. And Russia is trying to drag it back by force.
If Jack rejects Brian’s offers of friendship or (and that’s a lot less likely) sees the light and stops being so smug and preachy, will that help the abandoned friend feel less humiliated and resentful? Well, you decide. I believe that it won’t because resentment and humiliation live inside. The friend will need to decide to get over it and make large efforts to stop being resentful loser. Otherwise, he’s stuck in his world of hatred and pain.
15 thoughts on “What You Need to Know about Russia”
That… Seems a bit simple. I mean, Jack is screwing Brian’s neice, his bank owns the lien on your hovel, and your dad kidnapped Brian’s daughter and murdered her.
If Hetalia were updated it’d be a telenovela.
“from around 1986”
Why then? Was there a particular occurrence or innovation or was it a collection of small things… adding up?
“We can try to reduce this situation to something small and pedestrian like ‘Russia doesn’t want the NATO to come closer to its borders'”
Crudely oversimplifying, there are two main theoretical approaches within the study of international politics.
One stresses the primacy of ideas as the motor of inter-state relations (constructivism) while the other stresses material forces (realism) in shaping the international order.
Realists would say that Russia’s security concerns here are far from being “small and pedestrian” but are at the core of this conflict and that cultural/ideological issues obscure the underlying structural reality.
U.S. foreign policy since the end of the Cold War has been driven by a curious alliance between its constructivists -(who have engaged in long wars of “virtue” to promote “democracy” [ Afghanistan and Iraq] and “national self-determination” [the dismemberment of Yugoslavia]) – and its military-industrial complex (the permanent war party).
American journalist Tucker Carlson has been presenting a no-holds-barred realist critique of his country’s foreign policy elites in regards to the Ukraine. I am surprised, frankly, that has not yet been taken off the air.
“American journalist Tucker Carlson has been presenting a no-holds-barred realist critique of his country’s foreign policy elites in regards to the Ukraine. I am surprised, frankly, that has not yet been taken off the air.”
I’m sure you aware that, through his sun Hunter, Biden received bribes from Russian oligarchs and Ukrainian pro-Russian oligarchs. Why would the Biden administration be motivated to do anything against Russia? Tucker unwittingly is saying exactly what Biden wants to be said.
“Realists would say that Russia’s security concerns here are far from being “small and pedestrian””
The problem is that these security concerns are an American narrative. It was invented here for domestic consumption. At the time when Russia invaded Ukraine in 2013, there was no support in Ukraine for joining the NATO. There was no political force or popular initiative to seek NATO membership. NATO fears are not how Russians themselves explain what they are doing. It would be strange if they were given that it then becomes complicated to explain Russia’s military adventures in Africa, Syria and Latin America. I suggest looking into how Russians themselves explain their foreign policy.
“these security concerns are an American narrative”
I do not want to be disagreeable, you have a right to your opinion, it was hard won, I respect it.
Nonetheless – realists would say that narratives don’t matter very much, it’s the underlying structural realities of “interests defined in terms of power” that determines the course of international relations.
It’s simply my point that the alliance between western idealists/constructivists and the west’s military-industrial complex created destabilization, destruction, and death in the international order since the end of the Cold War. Full of their own zeal, it’s these folks who expanded NATO membership right up to Russia’s borders. The resulting international instability serves the institutional and ideological interests of the west’s permanent war party.
“folks who expanded NATO membership right up to Russia’s borders”
And who was the driver of NATO expansion? Hint…. it wasn’t the US or NATO itself, it was the citizens of the countries that have joined who really, really really want a hedge against Russian military aggression (a very well founded and realistic fear).
Who should decided whether a country should join NATO, the Russian government or the citizens of the country in question?
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A shared problem on both the left and the right in America is the desire to attribute everything, the good and the bad, to America. But sometimes things are just not about you. These countries are afraid of Russian aggression because they experienced 300 years of it. This all started before the US even existed. The world isn’t a blank slate for Americans to write on.
Quite a bit of the aggression over the last 300 years was directed at Russia as well. I would expect that is the part the Russians focus on.
“the citizens of the country…”
Have almost no influence on determining their state’s international politics. Ever. Anywhere.
But the governing elites of the post-Soviet states are acutely aware that they would be out of business (and likely in prison) if their fiefdom was ever to fall back into the Russian sphere of influence.
This I completely agree with. Where I disagree is that Russia is motivated to do anything by the NATO expansion. If NATO were disbanded – which I support – that would not make Russia desist from invading Ukraine. Putin said openly many times that he wants to reestablish the USSR.
“he wants to reestablish the USSR”
Which will not be enough as Soviet mismanagement meant its abundant potential was largely wasted and could only be kept going if it had a set of colonies to exploit (like the Warsaw Pact). Why would anyone think it would be different the second time around?
“Putin said openly many times that he wants to reestablish the USSR.”
“International politics, like all politics, is a struggle for power. Whatever the ultimate aims of international politics, power is always the immediate aim.” Morgenthau
“The international system has several defining characteristics. The main actors are states that operate in anarchy — which simply means that there is no higher authority above them. All great powers have some offensive military capability, which means that they can hurt each other. Finally, no state can know the future intentions of other states with certainty. The best way to survive in such a system is to be as powerful as possible, relative to potential rivals. The mightier a state is, the less likely it is that another state will attack it… The best outcome that a state can hope for is to dominate its own backyard… In the anarchic world of international politics, it is better to be Godzilla than Bambi.” Mearsheimer
Btw, I don’t always see the world through realist eyes. Sometimes the constructivists have more to offer in understanding events or regimes international politics – but not in this case, methinks.
I’m learning so much from Clarissa’s posts and this discussion. I just read an article from Peter Zeihan about Russia’s demographic winter and it’s ramifications should they go to war. Would love to hear what you think about this. https://zeihan.com/a-ukraine-war-and-the-end-of-russia/
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Absolutely true about Russia’s demographics.
However, there’s one thing that this author overlooks. Putin is an open-border globalist. He’s not in the least wedded to the goal of preserving Russians as an ethnic group. He began Russia’s Great Replacement years ago. If the ethnically Russian boys die en masse (or altogether), he has a much more pliable and cowed population all ready. That’s why Russian nationalists hate Putin so much and why he’s had so many of them killed. He’s the original Great Replacement politician.
And it’s really, really sad that so many people (I don’t mean you, I mean people on the news) confidently offer opinions about Russia and have absolutely no knowledge about its demographic situation, the great replacement, the grievances of Russian nationalists, etc. I’ve even heard people seriously refer to Putin as a nationalist! It’s like calling Biden a brainiac.