Thursday, May 9, 2019

Why Are We Always Wrong about Russia?

Source: Russia Insider

May 8, 2019 | by Suzanne Massie

Suzanne Massie is a 50 year phenomenon in the field of US-Russia relations. A brilliant and passionate writer, she is author of some of the greatest classics about Russia. She became a close friend of the Reagans in the course of advising them about Russian culture and psychology. Her life story, and how it became intertwined with Russia reads like a best-selling novel. See RI's profile here. A resident of Maine, she keeps an apartment in St. Petersburg. Raised Episcopalian she converted to Russian Orthodoxy. She is an outspoken critic of how dishonest the media is about Russia and is brilliant in explaining to Americans why Russian culture is one of the most exciting phenomenona ever.

This brilliant speech was given in Washington in 2001, when everyone thought Russia was a hopeless basket case. But Massie was on the ground watching and listening and she clearly saw even then that Russia was on a rise, evidence of which she lists in detail here. Remarkable.

I have been studying, working and going to Russia for 34 years. From the beginning I was lucky enough to meet and get to know a wide variety of Russians. During these many years whenever I went, it was always apparent that what I saw and heard was often diametrically different from both the official and the journalistic perception in the United States. I came to call it my worm's eye view. The more I studied Russian history and culture the more I saw that the picture was always far more nuanced and complex than the judgments often characteristic of the American approach to affairs Russian. Today I can offer some glimpses -- but the most important thing is the question itself.

A Russian proverb says: Ignore history you lose an eye. Forget history you lose two eyes.

It is perhaps not too far out to suggest that historians may one day look back and write that in the 20th century there was once a Soviet regime in Russia that would not have lasted very long if the Western world had not helped to keep it there.

For 85 years, close to a century, successive American administrations have been dominated by basic premises about Russia based on selective and often narrowly focused views of an establishment that have led to a succession of wrong assessments and wrong policies. This has been true whether these policies came from left or the right. Strangely, despite increased communication and contact this process has been most particularly marked during the 20th century -- a time when one can say that we have often been almost as mistaken about the state of affairs in Russia as Europeans were in the 16th century when it was confidently believed that Russia had plants that grew lambs and that Russians worshipped an image of a giant Golden Goddess.

To make sense of these errors we must look at cultural representations that began to grow at the beginning of the 20th century and have continued unchanged to this day. The simplistic bottom line being that Russian history was dominated by Bad Tsars (especially Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great), a dark and backward national church subserviently allied to them, and that on the whole the Russian people were irrelevant; an apathetic people with a "slave mentality" who "loved the whip". When the revolution came it was seen to be on the whole good, but was eventually corrupted and failed not because of the basic idea but because of defects intrinsic in the Russian people and their flawed history.

This kind of talk applied to other peoples might be called a racist view. What is remarkable is the fact that even when in the 50's the official line switched from they are "good" to they are "bad" the major elements of this culture have persisted, along with a completely secular approach that has emphasized virtually to the exclusion of anything else, a materialistic and statist view with no room for any other significant component and no sense of the importance of national identity or the search for meaning in life.

Obviously through the years there have been other voices and many who have objected to this approach--including our first Soviet specialists in the State Department -- but taken over time opposing views have been treated as aberrations and even sometimes suppressed entirely.

This was not always true. From the earliest beginnings of our young republic and during the entire 19th century the United States enjoyed warm relations with Russia -- indeed mutual admiration, and much trade. A fleet of clipper ships sailed regularly from what is still known in Boston as Russia Wharf (the ropes on our sailing ships and the quill pens that wrote our great pronouncements came from Russia). The high point came during the reign of Alexander II, the Tsar Liberator, who was hugely admired in US for his reforms, especially the ending of serfdom three years before Lincoln emancipated our slaves, for his timely support of Lincoln and the Union during the Civil War, and for the sale of Alaska. The letters exchanged between Tsar and President were both signed "your very good friend". The good will visit in 1872 of Alexander's third son the young Grand Duke Alexis-- our very first royal visitor-- captivated the entire nation. The young prince hunted buffalo on our great plains with Buffalo Bill, George Custer and the Sioux Chief Spotted Tail and went on to New Orleans where his visit permanently changed the celebration of the Mardi Gras.

After the assassination of Alexander II by terrorists in 1881, his son Alexander III instituted a series of repressive measures. One very visible result of these was a huge wave of Jewish emigration mainly from Ukraine and Byelorussia (then part of the Russian Empire.) From 1898-1914 one and a quarter million people infused with bitter memories of repressive and discriminatory policies of the Imperial Government landed on our shores, mainly on the East Coast and were quickly integrated into the main stream of American society. Among them were political activists and vocal supporters of revolution. This was to have its effect on the development of the culture of the left in the United States.

In 1918 every message which the US government transmitted to the Bolshevik authorities took at face value the Bolshevik professions of peaceful and democratic intentions and ignored the calls for world revolution. Woodrow Wilson seems to have believed that the Bolsheviks" truly spoke for the Russian people" on March 11, 1918, addressing a note to the Congress of Soviets, (presumably on the assumption that this body was equivalent of the US legislature) "The whole heart of the people of the United States is with the people of Russia in their attempt to free themselves forever from autocratic government and become masters of their own fate". (Lenin drafted an insulting reply addressed not to the President but to "the laboring and exploited classes of the United States.") Despite the fact that in 1918 the National Geographic published a lengthy article detailing the methodical destruction of church and wholesale massacre of priests, William Bullitt, (who was married to the widow of John Reed and was to be named our first ambassador to the Soviet Union) sent by the president on a whirlwind mission in 1919 returned to inform congress that "tales of terror were greatly exaggerated." In 1925-26 the testimony of floods of refugees and many articles detailing tactics of terror were equally ignored. The collapse of the American economy in 1929 was to strengthen the Marxoid culture and feed the chorus of support for the great social experiment in Russia.

Please go to Russia Insider to read the entire essay.


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