Russians

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

Gore Vidal once declined to take an interviewer’s bait suggesting that he might be hiding a warmer layer beneath his icy, patrician surface. Vidal said if you cracked his frozen surface you would find only cold water beneath it. Not the slightest hint of the warmth the interviewer was going for.

Vidal had a very cold eye for American politics.

Among his more memorable observations, two always stand out in my mind.

There is only one party in America, he said on more than one occassion, and it has two right wings–the party of property. This was to remind Americans that by the 1950s, a whole range of decisions we had been trained to label as “left wing” was, in fact, the stuff of plain old governance, which, for most of our history, ran toward the center-right. This included the provision of schools, hospitals, and the rest of the public infrastructure on which a modern economy depends. Many American adults used to know, for example, that you could not have a road without paying for it and the way to pay for it was agreeing to pay a tax.

Which leads to Vidal’s other standout observation.

He also decried the info-tainment revolution in political discourse, not because it was shabby, but because it forever changed the subject of political debate. Politics, Vidal was wont to say, used to be an adult conversation about who gets what from the state, how they get it, and what they wish to to do with it. This dry sort of talk has been replaced by celebrity trash mongering.

The serious conversation about money still goes on, of course, but its architects have learned they can hold it in private if they just fling to Us the People enough mentions of guns, abortion, and scandal.

Vidal was never what you would call coy in his opinion of the body politic, but by the end of his career he stopped even being polite. “Your lack of education is the joke of the world,” he told Americans in one of his last interviews, in 2009. “And it’s not a very nice joke,” he added, in the spirit of helping, I suppose.

So, looking back at a proposal Vidal had made in a 1992 essay about forming an economic union with Russia, it is easy to read the cynical politics between the lines of what appears to be an all-business deal. What Vidal wrote was:

Although we don’t have much money left to give [Russia], a lively president and a few corporate magnates with no more than average IQs could start making deals to develop Russian oil and other resources. This would generate the money for the Russians to buy our consumer goods, which, in turn, would make us prosperous again.

So far so good. (I find Vidal, the storied leftist, gets far too little credit for his mastery of Realpolitik. He once said with a straight face that the only reason America should go to war, other than self defense, is if it needs the loot.)

But then Vidal tacks on this observation, originally made by an even colder eye, on why an economic union with Russia would be a good fit:

H.L. Mencken noted many years ago that the “Russians were like the Americans. They, too, were naturally religious and confiding; they, too, were below the civilized average in intelligence; and they, too, believed in democracy, and were trying to give it a trial.”

One gets the disquieting sense that Vidal is not making his recommendation in good faith. He seems already to have relegated the American people to the status of a joke. If we are intent on being nothing more than crass, profligate consumers with a very large military, we should go all in, he seems to suggest, and find our natural friends, with whom to make common cause. He is at pains to say these friends would not be the up and coming Japanese or Chinese, who would have no use for us. Drifting downward, and on the wrong side of history, we would be left with the Russians.

Elsewhere (I can’t find the source at the moment), Vidal comes completely clean and says the real reason America should ally itself with Russia is a combination of culture and geopolitics: we are both fighting rearguard actions to defend the industrialized supremacy of a shrinking population of white people in the global North. Of course Vidal did not believe in this cause per se. He abhorred bigotry and all other kinds of narrow-mindedness. What he meant was, we belonged with the Russians, and we should have the courage to say so. When Americans decry Russians as blockheaded, thuggish, parochial and cruel, we should at least have the honesty to admit it is our own image we see in the mirror they are holding up to us.

If we are going to be so monumentally stupid as to turn the 21st century into an age of racial war against Asia and Africa and the whole global South, we should square up and recognize who our closest allies in the fight would be–the Russians. Let the doughfaced pugilists of the moneygrubbing world unite!

Understand, please, I am only commending Vidal’s thoughts on this topic as an intellectual exercise. It is instructive to analyze everything that is “wrong” with Vidal’s position. (I also suspect Vidal of some deep Socratic irony here, so let’s run with that.)

I was reminded last month–more than once–of how grossly Vidal underestimates the Russian national character. Or, to adapt the words of the Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen, how distatsefully close Vidal comes to “us[ing] the word ‘Russians’ to mean goons.” We have equated Russianness with Putinism.

When in 1992 Vidal said, in effect, oh, go ahead America, make common cause with Russia, he was imagining an alliance formed between our lowest common denominators. Deplorables, if you will. (One can see this script being flipped to great ironic effect, by the way. It is all too easy to imagine a Russian Gore Vidal chiding the desperate poor in his country that if they could only buy as many guns as their American comrades, they could accelerate to a mad, Hunter S. Thompson rush what has been depressing, Gogolian slog toward suicidal nihilism. Live free or die? America’s armed peasants show you can have it both ways!)

In actuality, most of the 3 million people who identify as Russian Americans came here seeking shelter from authoritarianism. This authoritarianism was born, furthermore, of the very elements of “Russianness” that Vidal in 1992 wished us to recognize as our own, the potential basis of an alliance with Russia–militarism, materialism, nationalism, and a religious Weltanschauung that was–Mencken war right–below the civilized average in its intelligence.

It should hardly come as a surprise that Russian American are among the most eleoquent defenders of America’s unique brand of political freedom. Also unsurprisingly, they are acutely sensitive to the biggest threats to it.

In a passionate but clear-eyed essay in the New York Review of Books, Russian-American dissident Gary Kasparov warns that the rise of Trumpism, which was consolidated by the U.S. Senate’s refusal last week to hear witnesses in Trump’s impeachment trial, bears too many similarites to the slow-motion coup of Vladimir Putin to ignore. Trump has exploited plain-as-day loopholes in our laws, Kasparov says, left there by our assumption that the president would always be a minimally decent person with a rudimentary commitment to public service. There are lines in the sand, drawn by custom and tradition.

Nashi big
The pro-Putin group Nashi (“Ours”) wants to make Russia great again [image: RFE/RL]
Well, Kasparov knows better than most what little power custom and tradtition have when systematically challenged. Here, he describes how frail a legal barrier custom and tradition can be when it comes under bold frontal assault:

After three years of his increasingly disgraceful behavior, Trump’s critics still seem to believe there are lines he will not cross in order to protect himself and his power. This is a common mistake, and a natural one. A disregard for anything but oneself is a type of evil superpower in politics (and business). It allows such people to constantly surprise their rivals by doing what others find unthinkable. Every time I hear someone say, “But Trump would never do x,” I recall all the times we were told by tut-tutting Western pundits that surely Putin would never jail his opposition, would never return to the presidency, would never invade Ukraine, etc. He would and he did.

Institutions, we once thought, would always stand up to an autocrat. We were as wrong about that as Putin’s Russians were wrong about Putin. Starting with political parties, our institutioins are failing to do their jobs, as Kasparov warns:

Leading the way to political perdition is the American Republican Party. The party of Lincoln, Eisenhower, and Reagan is now slavishly loyal to a corrupt reality-TV host whose only demonstrable allegiances are to his own image and Vladimir Putin. GOP legislators of the past pushed back against Richard Nixon, against Gerald Ford, and even against Reagan and George W. Bush. That someone of the high crimes and low character of Donald Trump now commands complete Republican fealty says more about the state of the GOP, and perhaps the country, than about Trump—and it says nothing good.

Worse, the GOP sees Trump not as an embarrassment to endure but as a working model to perpetuate. What Trump believes matters not at all; it only matters that he won and holds power. Worst of all, Trumpism looks set to outlast Trump himself—with whichever equally unqualified family member tries to succeed him in the finest autocratic tradition. Trump’s victory in the 2016 election validated his personal bombastic political style. There is still time to relegate it as a terrible mistake, a tragic fluke of tiny electoral college margins, an unpopular opponent, foreign intervention, and media gullibility. But Trump’s reelection in 2020 would validate his political methods and have a long-lasting impact on America and the world.

Russian-American journalist Anastasia Edel describes with great eloquence how fluidly American attitudes toward Russians have shifted since her family fled the USSR for the US in the 1970s:

To be a first-generation Russian-American in the age of Donald Trump is a somewhat nutty experience. As “Russians,” the identity into which we were born, we are now associated less with Dostoevsky and Pasternak, and more with election interference, troll farms, and other subversions of democracy. Yet as “Americans,” our hard-earned new identity, we are the citizens of the very democracy that the “Russians” are believed to have sabotaged. The set-up seems almost purposely literary. In the age of Trump, we are America’s Trojan horse, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Raskolnikov and Svidrigailov in one person. If the Russians didn’t exist, it would have been a good idea to invent us.

And again, it is the Russians’ exposure to the varieties of the totalitarian experience in the old country that shapes their consciousness as liberal democrats in America. They’ve seen the goons, gulags and other forms of state repression arrive on the scene before, and they know authoritarianism sometimes creeps before it runs. Edel writes:

In February 2015, Boris Nemtsov, an opposition politician and a perestroika-era symbol of Russia’s democratic rebirth, was gunned down not far from the Kremlin. That March, the then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump told the Daily Mail about “an award and a beautiful letter” he had received from Vladimir Putin. Over the course of the year, he praised Putin’s “leadership,” called him “brilliant,” and said he would “get along” with him. For Russian-Americans like myself, this was the time when Russia “came home.” No surprise that early warnings against Trump’s authoritarianism came from “the Russians”—public figures like Mikhail Baryshnikov, Garry Kasparov, and Masha Gessen. “Holy autocrats,” “Father Tsars,” and “Fathers of All Nations” have ruled our land for centuries, so we can spot the type even when he comes in the guise of “Make America Great Again.” We agonized when our American friends told us Trump could not win. Our memories of totalitarianism were too fresh to discount gut feeling in favor of opinion polls.

Elections are not equivalent with democracy. They can lead to that broad, sunlit upland, but they can also lead into a wilderness. It takes a full range of robust institutions and a motivated, informed public to keep a democratic republic.

We passed a grim milestone this week, in which our own institutions did not just falter in checking the president’s aspirations for monarchical power, but they actively supported and succored them. Any Russian Americans watching could have easily seen shades of the Politburo in the Capitol rotunda.

Back to Gore Vidal’s sour question, then: Are we Russia?

Edel thinks it’s a comparison worth considering. She writes:

Perhaps the real bottom line, as Nina Khrushcheva says, is that Americans are much more like Russians than they care to admit. Both live in large, multinational countries. Both are not averse to messianic ideas and a belief in their unique path. The other side’s faults are magnified in the mirror that we hold up to each other. The blacker the colors with which we paint our adversary, the brighter we appear by comparison. To believe that Russia is the reason for, rather than amplifier of, the disturbing tendencies in American society is tempting, because if Russia goes away, so will those tendencies. The danger is that we may be taking our desires for reality.

We should listen to “our” Russians. Most of them came here because they recognized their country for what it was and decided they could not be fully themselves there. They would need a new home, and America held out, as it always had, the world’s best guarantees that they could come and pursue happiness unmolested by state repression. They may not have a monopoly on truth, but they know what it looks like when the liberal order gives way to the illiberalism of a strongman. They know it doesn’t have to come to this, to Putinism. That’s why they are here. We should listen to our Russians.

 

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