A certain unhappy incident happened to my aunt in the summer of 1966. The Cultural Revolution—a political movement initiated by Mao Zedong—was beginning to engulf the country. That same year many American college students were protesting against the Vietnam War and Leonid Brezhnev was keeping his seat warm as the General Secretary of CPSU, having replaced the somewhat volatile Nikita Khrushchev two years earlier. My aunt was then a freshman studying literature at Fudan University in Shanghai.
It so happened that my aunt, then a sensitive and somewhat dreamy young woman, had stubbornly and haplessly clung to certain musical tastes which at that time in China came to be regarded as politically incorrect, being said, in the trendy ideological jargon of that time, to reflect “decadent bourgeois revisionist aesthetics.” To wit, my aunt had kept in her record collection a rendition of “The Urals Mountain-Ash” (Уральская Рябинушка), a Russian folk song in which a young girl meets two nice boys under a mountain-ash tree and must choose between them, performed by the National Choir of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. It was an old-style LP spinning at 78 RPM. It had a red emblem in the middle emblazoned with “CCCP.”
One of my aunt's roommates, who probably had always resented her for one reason or another, found out about it and reported her to the authorities. For this rather serious infraction, student members of the Red Guard made my aunt publicly smash her beloved record, then kneel upon the fragments and recite an apology to Chairman Mao while fellow-students threw trash at her face shouting “Down with Soviet revisionists!” This generation of Chinese young people, who once donned Red Guard uniforms, beat people up around the country and smashed various cultural artifacts, is now mostly living on government pensions or earning meagre profits from home businesses, but some have prospered and can be found among the upper crust of contemporary China’s business, cultural, and political elites.
This episode came to my mind when in the summer of 2014 I came upon video clips of Ukrainian student activists storming university classrooms in mid-lecture and ordering everyone to stand up and sing the Ukrainian national anthem, then forcing the professor to apologize for the lecture not being adequately patriotic. There were also ghastly spectacles of “Enemies of the People” (guilty only of having served under the overthrown president Yanukovich) being paraded around in trash bins. In Ukrainian schools, children were made to jump up and down, and told that “Whoever doesn't jump is a Moscal” (a derogatory term for “Russian”).
Add to this the destruction of public monuments to World War II and the ridiculous rewriting of history (turns out that, during World War II, Germany liberated Ukraine, but then Russia invaded and occupied Germany!) and a complete picture emerges: the Ukrainian Maidan movement is one of a species of “cultural revolution.” The new, fashionable term being thrown around is “civilizational pivot,” but it and the old “cultural revolution” can be understood as approximate synonyms, sharing the need for frenzied spectacles of mass humiliation and destruction.
In 1971 the Vietnam War began to draw toward an agonizing and, from the American government’s point of view, highly unfulfilling conclusion. That same year Dr. Henry Kissinger made a secret trip to Beijing, flying in from a military airport in Pakistan. This was followed by the joint Nixon-Kissinger summit in 1972, which culminated in Nixon's historic handshake with Mao Zedong, completing China's civilizational pivot away from the USSR and toward the west. In hindsight, this dramatic opening could only be properly characterized as a swift dagger-in-the-back against the USSR, in both geopolitical and ideological senses. The decrepitating, inflexible body of the USSR never recovered from this stab wound, leading to its final collapse, from a multitude of internal and external causes, two decades later.
In late February, 2014, just as Ukraine was attempting its civilizational pivot away from Russia and toward the west, I interviewed a senior captain of the Right Sector, a radical Ukrainian nationalist group with neo-Nazi stylings. The burly man looked aggressive in his paramilitary garb, and arrived with bodyguards, but turned out to be rather amiable. He was particularly glad to see me because I look Chinese. He spoke Russian, reluctantly, after announcing that he was ashamed of it. (This is typical; Ukrainians use Ukrainian to spout nationalist nonsense, but when they need to make sense they lapse into Russian.) He said that he had served in the Red Army and had been stationed in the Far East, on the Chinese border. He expressed hope that China would soon do something big in Siberia.
That was my only meeting with the man from the Right Sector. It's safe to guess that the recent Russian-Chinese embrace has dashed his hopes concerning Siberia. The Chinese government’s unambiguous expressions of solidarity with Russia starting in March of 2014 have been noted by all. But he would have been far less disconcerted, and the many international supporters of Russia far more discouraged, had they been able to read the comments on various popular Chinese social sites, which abounded with slogans such as “Crimea to Putin, Siberia to China!” or “Putler will hang on lamppost!” or “Glory to Ukraine! China sides with the Civilized World!”
To explain what is behind this phenomenon, which affects certain Chinese internet users, young and old, we need to introduce a Chinese neologism: “Gong Zhi” (公知). The literal meaning of the term is “public intellectual,” but it is used sarcastically and sometimes even derogatorily. It denotes a cute, successful, popular, trendy individual, who is often involved in the mass media, and who, for various reasons, has millions of virtual followers via Tweeter and various social networking sites. Such individuals make daily, sometimes hourly, witty and biting public remarks on a vast range of social and political subjects, and, to add human interest, on their own kaleidoscopic emotional states.
In a Russian/Ukrainian setting, more or less analogous figures are to be found in the public personae of Ksenya Sobchak, Irina Khakamada, Masha Gessen, Lesha Navalny, and the late Boris Nemtsov. The base audience for such people consists of what in Russia and the Ukraine came to be known as the “creative class,” or “creacl” (креакл) for short. In China such a term does not yet exist, but the reality of a very similar social group definitely does and, by an overwhelming margin, they are inclined to follow and worship the “Gong Zhi.” Many of these, in spite of carefully maintained youthful appearances, are in their late 50s or early 60s—in other words, they are former Red Guards who did well financially by becoming informal spokespersons for what they regard as a hip and new ideology and attempting a new, technologically enhanced “civilizational pivot.”
The trendiness of said ideology comes from the use of a kit of parts that includes canonical words and phrases from which clichéd narratives can be generated effortlessly. It includes: institutional building, civil society, rule of law, enhance democracy, raise transparency, economic growth, entrepreneurship, innovation, privatization, good guidance, western expertise, human values, human rights, women’s rights, minority rights. There is also a mantra; instead of “OMing,” they “west”: the west, the west, the west, western values, western civilization, west west west west. Never mind that this kit of parts fails in application; these are articles of faith, not reason.
And the opposite of all this western goodness is the horrible, unspeakable easternness of Russia. Here we have another kit of parts, from which one can fashion any number of Russophobic rants: Putin/Stalin, tyranny, gulag, low birth rate, alcoholism, mafia, corruption, stagnation, aggression, invasion, nuclear threat, political repression, “the dying nation.” Never mind that this kit of parts does not reflect reality; again, these are articles of faith, not reason. And the reason Russia is so horrible is, of course, the Russian people. When will the Russian people wake up? Will they ever rise up and overthrow their dictator, their tyrant? Will they ever become civilized, cool, happy, normal, WESTERN people... like we already are, or at least, like we will be... someday... if western people pick us up, take us home and make love to us...
The overall goal of this civilizational cross-dressing is one of personal transformation, personal rebranding: “If we look western and we quack western, then we will BECOME western, we will become cool, accepted, rich and prosperous and civilized. And what's holding us back is ‘this country,’ and ‘these people,’ who are so uncool, so un-trendy, so un-western. Ugh! There is nothing to be done about them, so let's just accept funds from western donors who want to destabilize Russia, and spend this money organizing virtual opposition parties like little girls organizing tea parties for their dolls. But we are getting lots of sympathetic western press coverage, so whatever we are doing must be working!”
The above-mentioned events, trends and movements arose in very different historical periods and in distant, non-contiguous parts of the world, but they share a singular emotional overtone and an orientation towards a singular goal: to cut Russia down, in word, if not in deed.
And then there is what is real.
It would also be quite easy to tell an American tourist, reporter, NGO-representative, or Ukrainian wife-hunter apart from the rest of the people in the Kiev metro. The signals would be unmistakable: the demeanor, the style of speech and the facial expression, regardless of ethnic or racial traits. But most of the young Ukrainian students who were shouting and jumping up and down on the Maidan would also take great pride in showing off their English language skills, good or not, and in being seen hanging out with Americans. Why would Ukrainians want to jump out of their Russian skins and try to impersonate Americans?
And are Americans, by some quirk of mystical collective nature, spontaneously anti-Russian? Are ‘we’—the Americans I have lived and studied and worked with for years—anti-Russian? Now, come on, of course not! But we certainly are anti-something else! Take a couple of minutes to gaze at the face of Victoria Nuland, or Jan Psaki, or Samantha Power, or Hillary Clinton. Don't they all remind everyone—that is, us regular American guys of whatever ethnic origin—of that quintessential “cool crowd” we had to contend with during our student days? Aren't they all a bunch of uppity up-tight feminist radical liberal bitches who once made a living hell out of our fresh, green and naïve college days? Well, now that we are not so horny and stupid any more, and they are all wrinkly and saggy (or worked on and Botoxed to hell) don’t we all want to metaphorically get down on our knees and thank Jesus or Yahweh or Allah or whoever that we didn't end up marrying one of these specimens?
But our country, the former land of the free and home of the brave—it has sunk. We all know this, deep in our hearts, don’t we? The Victoria Nuland clone army, like a cruel, evil, insidious high school rumor, like the reflection of a witch’s face in a polluted river, spread and flew into every crevice and corner of this land, high and low, far and wide. We encounter her avatars and lookalikes everywhere—in Hollywood, in the publishing houses, universities, school boards, kindergartens, in elevators on the way to our offices, and of course, on the pages of the Washington Post and the New York Times.
The questioning, seeking, original, fearless, rebellious, fractious and individualist American soul is expiring on its air-conditioned deathbed. America is not an interesting place any more. When was the last time we heard a new singer who could be compared to Tom Waits, or Suzanne Vega? Which one of you loose-pants hip-hoppers ever heard of Robert Altman, Wim Wenders, Gore Vidal, John Cassavetes? All of them are fading away, dying away, withering away, and this started to occur during roughly the same time period when the lookalikes and talkalikes of Victoria Nuland started to make their appearances around American universities, en masse.
Thirty years was the portion of my lifetime which fate had allocated to America. As a non-philosopher, non-psychologist, non-cultural historian, I attest with my own irretrievably lost youth that America’s unprecedented and unexplained spiritual, intellectual, cultural, romantic, literary, linguistic and political decline did mysteriously and biblically occur during this same period.
Within these same 30 years the world also witnessed the miraculous rise of China’s economy, whose windfalls and overnight profits I had largely missed out on. But observing America’s bitter and terminal illness had taught me something. For example, when people talk about China being the next America, one thing I've got to ask myself is: will the 1.4 billion Chinese people make good neighbors and interesting company? Will they be liked and likable, or will many of them likewise come to be regarded as impudent louts and aggressive, greedy, egotistic, crafty pricks and bitches?
Regarding my own original motherland and my own people I have mixed feelings. The initial signals aren’t promising. The drastic and depressing contrasts in personal manners between your typical Chinese tourist and the meek and quiet locals of Hong Kong, Tokyo, Taiwan, Singapore, indeed all of East Asia, is a dreadful omen. In 2014, the outbursts of hysterical and ludicrous hostility towards Russia from the clueless Chinese Creative Class and the internet mobs who follow them has to be another big sign. Those who have bright hopes for Russia-China geopolitical alliance would be well-advised to keep them in mind.
Keep what in mind, exactly? What we need to keep in mind is the normally hidden collective psycho-mental pathology of populations, which is often embodied in erratic and destructive intellectual trends, and is upheld by their self-doubting and neurotic cultural elites. This pathology has everything to do with self-identity.
For the Chinese and the Russian/Ukrainian “creative classes,” America represents the Ultimate Cool Place, the Olympus of Coolness, to be strived towards intellectually, culturally and emotionally, if not always physically. Because America represents to them not only a theory or a line of argument, but a profound source of emotional self-identification, there arise within them ferocious flames of fury and rage whenever someone is perceived as preventing them from basking within the aura of this self-identification. They become like adolescents who put on the cool clothes and want to go and dance to the cool music, but are told that they can't wear these clothes and can't dance to this music. Why? Because they are not as cool as they think, and because those cool kids don’t care about you, and don’t really want you as their friends.
Actual political, economic and social problems are of secondary importance. What is of upmost importance is that they—the cultural elite, “the creative class,” the cool kids who consider themselves so much cooler than the rest—feel insulted and denied their self-respect. They are angry that real life in Russia/Ukraine or China does not back up a certain concept of their own aspired coolness. Russia gets a special designation in such a line of discourse, or cultural narrative: it gets to be the ultimate spoiler of coolness. Even before the February 2014 putsch, Eastern Ukraine was always referred to as ground zero of “Sovok,” the land of Soviet-era retrogrades—backward, dim-witted slaves who held cool, cute Ukraine back from its well-deserved western coolness.
I will never forget the sight of the torn limbs of a five-year-old Donbass girl, or the bits of blood-soaked shawl and the mangled grandmother's aged body scattered about on the ground. What have they done—and tens of thousands like them—to deserve this end? On the Kiev metro, most people appear modest, polite, humble, gentle, and, occasionally, very kind. Over the last year many of them have also looked weary, worried, numb and exhausted. But I could not detect one iota of disparity in features, skin tone, bone structure, and the modest yet lively style of clothing between these riders on the metro in Kiev and the dead girl or the dead grandmother in the Donbass. Is it all because of someone wanting to be cool, and throwing a tantrum, because they didn't get to feel cool like they wanted?
Returning to America, the supposed Olympus of Cool, trudging through trash-strewn sidewalks of Queens, tramping along the endless alleys of Brooklyn, stepping into a dimly lit Manhattan office elevator and there encountering yet another Victoria Nuland lookalike, I began to understand. The year 2014 was the fatal year when it was suddenly revealed who is who and what is what, like a sharp knife slashing through an old, moldy, dusty curtain. Think not of conspiracies and dark, complex, sinister geopolitical plots. These went with a different generation, when people might have been greedy and cruel, but they also had the ability to distinguish reality from fiction. That was the era of western imperialism, which is long dead. Churchill and Roosevelt and Nixon are all dead; Kissinger is a nonagenarian. Their replacements do not think in terms of Realpolitik; they think in terms of optics, and dwell in a mirrored hall devised to generate an optical illusion of their hallucinated greatness.
[Reported by ClubOrlov's special Kiev correspondent, Yu Shan.]