Rethinking our relationship
When traveling abroad, it is often our first distinct taste of the foreign that uniquely heightens our senses. For me, it was entering the hustle and bustle of a Moscow subway station and hearing the alien sounds of Russian through the public address system. As I descended the steep escalator—and because I understood absolutely nothing—I imagined the announcements as propagandistic Orwellian Doublespeak. I noticed the uniformed guard in the booth at the bottom of the escalator—Thought Police?
Yes, my American mind was clouded with preconceived notions. I’d grown up in Southern California during those final heated years of the Cold War. As a kid I watched Rambo II, Red Dawn, Rocky IV, and had seen countless Russian bad guys in James Bond movies. President Reagan described the Soviet Union as the “Evil Empire” and the media concurred by painting a stark, cold picture of life in Russia.
On my first Moscow subway car, I noticed that half the crowd was staring down into their hand-held, touchscreen products, looking rather satisfied and sedate. Even a feeble gray haired man—old enough to have attended one of Stalin’s speeches—gazed into his iPad. As people got on and off, noticeably exhausted at rush hour, I began to lose that foreign feeling—that sensation of being dropped into an entirely different matrix. Instead, I began to feel that—with the exception of the language—Russia was surprisingly much more similar to America than the media might want us to think.
In Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, a man has been bound and forced to see only the shadows on the wall that the puppeteers want him to see. He is eventually liberated and realizes that his experience has been manipulated. When he emerges from the cave, the truth is almost too much for him to bear. As such, when I emerged from the next Moscow metro station, I began to see Russia in an entirely new light—literally.
First of all, the sun was shining. For some reason I’d always imagined Moscow devoid of any color, including sunlight. (Stupid? Yes, I know.) Illuminated or not, Red Square is a vibrant, impressive setting. The grand, classic buildings are brightly painted, the dimensions are massive, and colorful St. Basil’s Cathedral looks like something out of a fairytale. We walked along the Kremlin walls through Alexander Park, a well-groomed garden with statues of famous dead Russian leaders. It reminded me of similar monuments in Washington D.C. Indeed, every country builds monuments for their best leaders, perhaps out of respect—certainly in an effort to glorify its own past; to foster pride and patriotism in its citizenry. The eternal flame of the Unknown Soldier also reminded me of Arlington, and Paris, and for that matter, any nation that has lost thousands—or millions, in Russia’s case—of lives in war. It made me wonder which is more inane: the kind of extreme nationalism that leads to so many young men dying, or thinking that the sun never shines in Moscow?
Much of recent rhetoric and editorializing has been reminiscent of the Cold War, and old tensions and myopia seem to have re-emerged. The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, has been demonized for his involvement in Ukraine, his annexation of Crimea, his general defiance toward the US, his recent stance on Syria—and all have led to an anti-Putin frenzy in the Western media. Aside from well-deserved criticisms of Putin himself, this kind of blanket perspective tends to paint an entire nation in broad, simple brushstrokes devoid of nuance or variety. It evokes mainly negative impressions of Russia as a whole—most of them undeserved.
As for Putin, it became clear to me that the man has many fans as well as opponents within Russia. Though Putin has been labeled a tyrant by his detractors, his supporters cite that he has made Russia economically stronger and stands in contrast to his weak predecessor—Yeltsin—who became a poster boy for drunkenness, cronyism, and kow-towing to Western interests. Whether by his direct order or not, the few cases of Mafia-style assassinations of political opponents does only harm to Putin’s reputation both at home and abroad. Some Russians who criticize Putin do so on the same grounds that the Western media does—highlighting his aggressive foreign policy, close-minded opinions (on homosexuality, for example) and his ridiculous shirtless photos on horseback. The major difference is that Russian views tend to be much broader and balanced by his successes. Though I’m beginning to understand his achievements, I’m still critical of Putin’s offenses. I condemn his brand of aggression, whether it’s perpetrated by Russia or any nation.
Here—right alongside our mutual addiction to touchscreen devices and tasty cheeseburgers—we have another striking similarity between Russia and the United States. If we look at the last 25 years of post-Cold War foreign policy history, one can say that the USA is guilty of the exact same offenses Mr. Putin has been criticized for, only Washington has committed these crimes on a much wider scale. Violating the sovereignty of independent nations, dropping bombs on Middle Eastern countries, ‘bullying’ diplomacy, and unintentionally killing civilians in the name of “broader national security” have become commonplace in US foreign policy. Referring to drone attacks, airstrikes, “enhanced interrogation techniques” (torture), and “collateral damage” is so standard in the media that many Americans do not question it, or criticize these shameful euphemisms. From Panama City to Baghdad, international acts of aggression are offenses that every American president is guilty of, yet we hypocritically demonize Putin for exerting the same type of force and bold attitude abroad. Believing we are the exception, we do it in the name of spreading freedom and democracy; stabilizing and protecting. Ask Iraqis and Afghans how this is working out for them.
The last day, on the metro back to Sheremetyevo airport, the familiar glared at me from across the aisle: an older man on his Kindle, right next to the Rihanna-blaring head phones of a hip-hop inspired Asian teen. I could have been in London, New York, or San Diego. Going into the trip I’d expected so many differences between Russia and the United States, but I found the opposite. After doing the familiar drill at airport security—taking off my belt, shoes, and emptying my pockets into the bin—it became even clearer to me. With the looming threats of terrorism, climate change, and economic collapse, it will be crucial for Russia and the US—both developed, prideful and powerful—to find common ground and work together on imminent global issues; to develop trust, understanding, and move forward based on real commonalities rather than imagined differences. The bitter alternative to this might prove disastrous.