Wednesday, March 28, 2018

A Russian interlude

A week ago a friend asked on Facebook if I had any recommendations for what to read on Russia. I came up empty because my reading on the subject lately has generally been from the Czech press, and while this friend happens to speak Czech, she was asking for her circle of generally American FB friends.

But I remembered her query when I was reading this week’s issue of the newsmagazine Respekt, with its cover article on “Putin the Conqueror: The Russian president is successfully building an alternative to the Western world,” by Jiří Sobota, Ondřej Kundra, and Petr Horký.

The authors draw in part on Timothy Snyder’s book The Road to Unfreedom, in particular his point that Putin’s view of the world differs from the West’s.

The West (in Respekt’s summary of Snyder’s argument) sees history as flowing inevitably toward a better future through international connection and cooperation. There will be steps backward and other problems, but they can’t change the course of the powerful river of history.
According to Snyder, today’s Kremlin certainly doesn’t see things that way. In its perception, history isn’t inevitably going anywhere, and certainly not in the direction of “progress” as the West imagines it to be. On the contrary, everything is in essence always the same and history repeats itself. The players in it have their more or less given roles and they repeatedly conduct in essence the same struggles. Russia’s role in them is clear: it represents a dyke against the decayed, morally corrupted West, it’s the defender of true Christian values, the guardian of civilization. The fact that the Russians are a chosen people is given by history, ever since the fall of the Byzantine Empire, when Moscow became in its own eyes the “third Rome,” that is, the aforementioned last outpost of civilization. Russia weakens and strengthens, it goes through rises and falls, but somehow it is given from above that it never stops struggling, and in the sad moments of a crisis when it seems to be definitively losing the ground from under its feet, on its territory there always appears some sort of Dmitry Pozharsky. Or Vladimir Putin.
(Pozharsky was one of the liberators of Moscow from the Polish army during the Time of Troubles in the early 1600’s.)

The article itself also points to significant improvements in the classic “right direction/wrong direction” polling question, first after the improvement in living standards that came with higher oil prices in the early 2000’s (and also Putin taming the oligarchs and bringing them onboard with himself), and then an even more dramatic rise after the invasion of Crimea and the beginning of the war in Ukraine.

“Looked at in terms of statistics, it seems that Russian society is more satisfied in [struggle] than when the Kremlin was offering just a common rise of the middle classes. It’s as if by going on the warpath, Putin has found the key to the Russian soul.”

Of course, if the authors are right, their characterization is hardly unique to Russia, both in terms of war and an external enemy being a force that can energize a people, and in the inadequacy of mere economic success to make people feel like things are going well.

In late November Fareed Zakaria had a column questioning the idea behind What’s the matter with Kansas?. That book and others view social issues like abortion or emotional issues like immigration as sleights of hand that the Republican party uses to distract its voters from the ways that they’ll be hurt by Republican economic policy.

Zakaria asks, “But what if people are not being fooled at all? What if people are actually motivated far more deeply by issues surrounding religion, race and culture than they are by economics?”

In the U.S. as elsewhere, there’s a lot to suggest that our voting has a strong element of tribalism or identity, along with morals, however a given person may interpret that word.

And if that’s true, then maybe we should be spending less time trying to make an economic case for environmental action and speak go back to phrasing it more in moral terms.

If we realized it needs the same urgency with which we approached World War II, could we get people motivated about it?

And could we find common ground with Russia by giving ourselves a common enemy?

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