Hello, goodbye

This is my last True/Slant post for, as of tomorrow, True/Slant will be no more. You will be able to read more of my bloggery, if you so choose, at themoscowdiaries.wordpress.com but for now here my last T/S post.

A debate has been raging here, in the comments section, as well on the blog of Mark Adomanis about what is a Russophobe and what is Russia’s trajectory and do one’s thoughts about the other make one a Russophobe or a Russophile? Addressing the question before my hop to another platform seemed especially fitting.

To kick off the discussion, I wanted to offer commenter yalensis’s taxonomy of a “Russophobe”:

To my mind, the term “Russophobe” mostly involves a constellation of assumptions (stereotypes?) about that person’s political views, i.e., they believe that: (1) Russia was on the right course towards democracy under Yeltsin, but then Putin came along. (2) Khodorkovsky was shafted, he should be released from prison and given his oil company back (3) hopefully during the upcoming Kasparov administration, but (4) none of this matters anyway because Russia is doomed due to low birth rate, alcoholism, and Islamic insurgencies. (5) The thought of Russia’s demise makes the Russophobe feel happy, because Russia has been so mean to the Gruzians and Chechens; however (6) Russians will not go gently into that good night because they suffer from “neo-imperialist” ambitions and want to restore their lost empire, so (7) it is up to the noble West to confront them and keep them inside their shrunken borders…. etc etc
I could rattle off a lot more cliches, but I think everybody gets the point.

I would say it’s a helpful one, except it isn’t. First, there is the fact that yalensis outlines what is basically an alternative political view. How having a different vision of Russia qualifies for hating Russia is unclear except it does reinforce the stereotype — since yalensis went that way — of the Kremlin brute who knows no truth but his truth and sees any alternative view through the sight of a rifle. It also is uncannily reminiscent of the thought process we saw in our mercifully unseated president, George W. Bush, as well as his spiritual heir, Ms. Mama Grizzly.

Furthermore, yalensis offers for our consideration a man made mostly of straw, a collection, by his own admission, of cliches. Because who really believes in the virgin peachiness of the Yeltsin era? Who really thinks Kasparov or his cohort are a realistic choice to lead Russia? And really — and this is a question for all the commenters who accuse me of subterfuge and of preparing the ground for an imminent American invasion of Russia — really who is rooting for Russia’s demise? Who? To be brutally honest: no one in the world give that much of a shit about Russia to actively want America to take over. Maybe you’ve heard about how insular and navel-gazing Americans are? And maybe apathy is a more apt definition of a “Russophobe,” but then it isn’t much of the toothy ogre you’re looking to beat your chest about and make you feel once again to be the fulcrum of world history, is it?

A gallery of agitprop from Seliger, the summer camp for pro-Kremlin youth, really snapped a lot of the comments I’ve seen into focus.

Especially this one:

This is a caricature of Viktor Suvorov, a KGB spy who defected to the West and wrote books about Soviet history as well as its security aparatus. Here’s what the poster says about him:

Way back when he left the USSR and nursed a grudge. Works on the orders of international intelligence agencies. In his books, turns Russian history on its head, calls into question the results of the Great Fatherland War.

It sounds so familiar, doesn’t it? Because I’ve seen it here, under so many blog posts I’ve written and in the comments section of Inosmi when they pick up one of my pieces — except without the virulent anti-Semitism.

Julia Ioffe emigrated and has made a career of hating and defaming Russia in order to justify her decision to leave and betray her homeland.

Right?

Or, better yet:

Julia Ioffe wants to see Russia fail, collapse, become the 52nd American state so that she really, really feels justified.

A Western colleague last night asked me about my “line” and accused me of hating Russia. (That’s right, the Western media in Russia is not monolithically Russophibic, whatever that means.) It was a stupid question. I don’t have a “line.” I have the news and my sources on the ground in Moscow and when something happens I talk to them and then call it as I see it. If it’s in the format of a blog, I get cheeky and pick only the funny things. The hard work I leave for my published pieces. I don’t hate Russia, given all the friends and family I have living here. And I’ve never had an editor enforce “a line,” have never had them turn down a paid assignment because they didn’t agree with “my line” or wanted something more anti-Putin. I don’t get orders for articles except as vague “Can you write about Phenomenon X?”

It’s just stupid, simplistic, and it brings me to Mark’s very apt question about what one believes is Russia’s trajectory. And despite the nuance of his question, it still boils down to this: if you are optimistic about Russia, you are not a Russophobe. But what are you if you — if you had to venture a guess — were to predict that Russia would continue, like any other country, along a sinusoidal path of ebbs and flows, ups and downs. Does anybody really still believe in linear, Hegelian trajectories? Russia’s path, given its history and its present, is likely to have more height in those highs and more depth in those lows. Steps forward, steps back while time passes and Russia changes in ways we cannot predict, not all of them good. You know, like any country, but more pronounced. That may not be optimistic, but it sure is realistic. Does that make me a Russophobe?

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9 Responses to Hello, goodbye

  1. Wohoo first comment?! 🙂

    Pity the old T/S comments haven’t been imported…

  2. Joera says:

    Julia and others,

    The very unfortunate part of this debate is that it’s an echo chamber of continuous arguments and counterarguments about what one is supposed to think or believe about Russia. It’s very preoccupied with it itself and does very rarely generate new views and insights. It’s in fact often the self acclaimed Russophiles who keep alive the preconceptions they aim to oppose, by continuously recycling these preconceptions and just about everywhere seeing Russophobes. In some cases it’s truly a mirror image.

    Now don’t get me wrong. I believe western societies in general have not been getting Russia ‘right’ for ages. I believe ‘loosing Russia’ is to large extent our own failure to understand the country. Getting Russia ‘right’ has very little to do with debunking preconceptions. It is all about changing the agenda, about introducing new points of discussion, about finding new ways to talk about Russia. It’s not the about what Russia should be. It’s not about what the rest of the world should think about Russia. It’s about observing the country itself, about describing and understanding the many changes that are taking place within society, the economy and politics.

    I do get the point about rebelling against the mainstream, but at a certain point one needs to step beyond that and use your talent and energy not to fight the misconceptions of others, but generate concepts yourself. Stop looking at people’s glasses. It doesn’t matter whether they’re half full or half empty. There is a tab with free drinking water over there. Go and fill these glasses to the brim, empty them and repeat the process.

    Before wrapping this up. My words are not targeting anyone in particular. It’s more of a general critique. I’d really like to see that the ‘english language russian blogosphere’ to be less pre occupied with its own classifications and more about Russia.

    Joera

    • marknesop says:

      The truly Russophobic – and they are rare – have no interest in “understanding the country”, and are all about preconceptions, not only feeding their own, but growing them in others that already have a taste for putting the boot in and no motivation to find out anything for themselves. Criticizing the very real social ills and deprivations in Russia, with a view to how they might realistically be mended given today’s realities is not Russophobia. Julia is not typically Russophobic, although she sometimes is a little over the top with sarcasm and employs a bit of projection, but she offers no positive examples and does not acknowledge anything good about Russia. To me, this suggests a view that nothing good exists. I don’t think I’m being unfair. I regularly use the United States as a basis for comparison, but I try to give it its due as the great country it is at the same time, and use it as an example only because the Russophobes to whom I’m currently opposed are Americans.

      Real, loopy-to-the-marrow-of-the-bones Russophobia is deliberate falsehoods and distortion of data to present a picture of Russia that is a great deal worse than reality; it’s purposely offensive and designed to pander to the lowest common denominator. It’s not an iota different from promoting hatred of Jews or Africans. “Generating concepts” is fine, but imagining Russophobia is more some airy flight of imagination merely encourages it to flourish. If I were to suggest (which I’m not) that all blacks are of markedly lower intelligence than whites and were really suited only for field work, people would lose their minds. This is no different – characterizations of all Russians as savages, barbarians and morons. Of course that’s not true. Now, you can busy yourself “generating concepts” (and I hope I don’t sound mocking, because that’s not my intention) , or you can speak up and say, “That’s a lie, and I can prove it”.

      Check out real Russophobia at http://www.larussophobe.wordpress.com.

  3. Joera says:

    Dear Mark, ( I assume that’s your first name or close to it)

    I have no desire to visit the website you refer to. Please don’t think you need to explain the seriousness of the case. I have had that discussion with several people for at least a few years and I know most of the paranoid and not so paranoid theories about who is/are behind that blog. My choice has always been to ignore it. And I will.

    Perhaps you didn’t get my point about generating new concepts. Let me explain. When someone wants to prove false the idea that Khodorkovsky could have made Russia into a prosperous democracy had he not been stopped by Putin, he or she is in fact only writing about Khodorkovsky again. When someone wishes to debunk the idea that Kasparov is a popular opposition leader and a democrat, he or she is only writing about Kasparov again. In other words, they are fighting the agenda, not changing it. When we want western societies to change their understanding of Russia and its policies towards Russia, we need to introduce concepts that frame Russia in different ways.

    The most honest way to do so is to describe new developments in Russia as we see them. And that without asking ourselves upfront if the image we’ll depict will be perceived as positive or negative. Sometimes the general thrust will be positive. Sometimes negative. Most often it will be both at the same time. Have a little faith in Russia …

    Best wishes, Joera

    • marknesop says:

      Well, there’s certainly something to what you say, and I’m all for thinking positive, but I guess we each have our own methods. For instance, a recent article on the Blog That Dare Not Speak Its Name characterized Khodorkovsky as the new Sakharov, and compared him also to Solzhenitsyn. To me, allowing such rubbish to pass unchallenged is tantamount to acknowledging some parallel, implying there might be some truth to it. If Khodorkovsky were free in Russia today and had never been arrested, he’d be the oligarchiest of the oligarchs: Russophobes would puke in the gutters at his corruption, and scream for his blood. Now that he’s a prisoner and critical of Putin, the fact that he’s a wealthy man with no scruples or interest in ordinary people outside his sphere of richness no longer matters – the West never met a billionaire it didn’t like, even a Russian one, provided he’s an enemy of the Russian government.

      I realize all that is talking about Khodorkovsky, but it’s not like (a) it’s giving him good press, or (b) the Russophobes are going to stop casting him as the reincarnation of Jesus if rational people stop talking about him.

      I’m not blind to Russia’s faults; I just don’t like to see the negative agenda move along on a foundation of lies and distortions. That said, I wish the transformative thought initiative every success, and would be delighted to support it. Best regards,

      Mark

    • Igor, AU says:

      The key in the word Russophobia is not “Russo”, but “phobia”. “Phobia” is a psychiatric condition defined eg. as “ an intense and persistent fear of certain situations, activities, things, animals, or people. The main symptom of this disorder is the excessive and unreasonable desire to avoid the feared stimulus.“ The “Russo” means not the country per se, but the Russians. Country is then included automatically.

      For example, children of emigrants and particularly children of “refugees” from Soviet Union in US, sometimes automatically form **subconscious** irrational fear of – or just a contempt towards – or automatic denial of anything good about – Russia and the Russians. They get it when observing behavior of their parents and their friends (who need to assimilate into existing anti-Russian environment). Later – from reading “western” publications about “Russian-built” airplanes crushing, Russian mafia, prostitutes etc

      This stereotype formation happens in most cases, and not only with the refugees – but by no means with everyone. What is the case with Julia, I, of course, don’t know. But if the feeling is there, it will find its way into the writing. Political or not. And through the writing – back to the environment, reinforcing already biased views.

      Otherwise, yes, of course – everyone should say or write what they think. The best one can ask of the writer, is to be aware of the possible *subconscious* bias & try to avoid the embedded on *subconscious* level cultural stereotypes.

      This was not intended as a personal psychoanalysis, but rather as a generalization.

  4. erasure says:

    Julia, I know the subject I am writing about is irrelevant at this point, but I want to bring to international media’s attention this particular story ( sorry I’ve just discovered that you’ve left True/Slant as well as Mark Adomanis.)
    http://www.newsland.ru/News/Detail/id/539116/
    http://newsland.ru/News/Detail/id/540001/cat/42/

    A gang of drunkards has beaten to death a four-week old baby moose, whom they took away from his mother. They’ve broken his skull, ribs and legs with bats and left him to die. The conservancy workers are trying to open a criminal case, ( there are witnesses there) but utterly corrupted police is refusing to open a case.
    Any ideas how to make this case as public as possible? Your help would be much appreciated.

  5. @delibash says:

    It would be helpful to see hyperlink references to those InoSMI comments you refer to above.

  6. Hi Julia. I’ve been on vacation, so I’m late to the party (I also missed the memorable evening in which the Western colleague in question offered his criticism), but this part of your post stuck out at me:

    And I’ve never had an editor enforce “a line,” have never had them turn down a paid assignment because they didn’t agree with “my line” or wanted something more anti-Putin. I don’t get orders for articles except as vague “Can you write about Phenomenon X?”

    I think that’s a fair point you make – but then again, I feel like everyone has a certain “line”, and it’s just that these lines are not articulated. Or when they are, they are taken for granted. For example, the description of your blog is as follows: “It is a blog about the absurd and funny happenings in Russia.” It can be argued that this is in and of itself a line. After I bookmark it, I will return with certain expectations. I won’t come back with a “and I wonder what Julia will write about some new exhibit she sees at TsDKh.” It will be more of a, “and I wonder what Julia will write about the smog/Nashi/Yury Shevchuk/etc.”

    But that’s a small point. I think the bigger point is – there’s a reason why stories about cannibals in Perm, for example, get picked up by everyone, in a way that more positive or nuanced stories often do not. Anyone who’s spent any time writing about Russia in English will surely notice this. There are images of Russia that “sell”. It can be argued, of course, that gore and crime and violence tend to sell across the board, but I think that with some countries, there is also a certain narrative that’s already in place, which makes a big difference. I notice this difference in the way Ukraine is often written about, for example. Ukrainians aren’t scary! They’re scrappy underdogs, oppressed by barbarian Russian brutes! We won’t talk about how they’ve had 5 shitty years under Yuschenko, because that goes against the narrative! I see it over and over again. It was especially interesting to see Western journalists scrambling for the appropriate words on Ukraine during this winter’s election – and I say this as someone who was initially enthusiastic about Yuschenko myself.

    I don’t believe in the myth of the unbiased journalist. We’re all biased to one extent or another, on multiple issues, because we’re human beings. I think that articulating our biases, though, isn’t always such a bad thing.

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