During my brief winter sojourn in Russia a tiny cold war has erupted between Russia and the USA. First, Mitt Romney calls Russia “our number one enemy” during the presidential election campaign. Then, after the election, the US passes the “Magnitsky Act” which promises to arrest funds and deny visas to certain Russian officials based on a secret list. The Russian legislature then responds with the “Dima Yakovlev Bill,” named after a Russian boy who died of heat stroke after his American adoptive parents left him locked in a car for nine hours. In addition to vaguely symmetric retaliatory measures, this bill bans Americans from adopting Russian orphans. This last little add-on may initially seem rather daft as state policy, but it has some interesting properties as Russian propaganda, of which you may not be aware. Although from the US perspective this move has an inane “...or I will shoot my dog” element to it, spun around the other way it makes it look as if valiant Russian politicians are trying to stop American fiends from torturing and killing innocent Russian orphans.
Because, as you probably already know, that's what Americans are generally known to do: they torture (Abu Ghraib) and kill (60 thousand dead Syrians in that American-inspired régime change operation so far). They allow massacres of children (Sandy Hook Elementary School) and then, in a show of solidarity with the murderer, they run out and buy up the weapon (Bushmaster assault rifle) owned by the maniac who massacred the children. They invade and destabilize countries and overthrow governments (Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya). They also hold the dubious distinction of being the only country to ever drop nuclear bombs on civilians (Hiroshima, Nagasaki) and did that not even as a matter of national survival but more as a matter of convenience. And then they have the gall to lecture other countries about human rights! Obnoxious, are they not?
It should be easy to see why the anti-American button is an easy one for a Russian politician to push. Interestingly, though, pushing this button doesn't seem to achieve much of anything, and this is something that requires an explanation. To get one relatively obvious reason out of the way: the Soviets painted the Americans as the “imperialist aggressor,” and this rhetorical device wore out along with the rest of the Soviet system. A slightly less obvious reason is that many Russians are still plagued with self-loathing, as a hold-over from the national humiliation of the Soviet collapse, and, seeing their own country in an overwhelmingly negative light, automatically entertain entirely unfounded rosy notions about the United States.
But an even more subtle and more powerful reason is this: Russia is busy becoming rather US-like in lifestyle and in social organization, and foreign relations are a hindrance to the smooth running of this process. Russians now watch American TV shows (dubbed into Russian), they lap up American-style marketing and advertising, they have bought into the SUV craze, they like to shop at the new malls and big box stores, to eat out almost every night, and some (those who can afford it) are even embracing the concept of suburban sprawl by erecting mansions in places that are a long drive from city centers. Many of them want to travel to the US, or even to move there, to better soak up even more of the profligate US lifestyle (which fewer and fewer Americans can still afford). What made the Magnitsky Act effective to the point of stirring Russian politicians to action is that they really like the idea of being able to travel to the US, invest in Miami real estate, send their children to overpriced US colleges and universities and so on. It is an effective way to put pressure on them—not to stop mistreating people in detention, like Magnitsky, mind you, but to capitulate to American/transnational corporate interests. But in this the Russian politicians are conflicted: they like having access to the US, but having it would mean nothing if they weren't rich. In turn, the reason they are rich is because, under Putin, Russia has stood up to foreign interests and curbed the power of foreign companies in the crucial oil and gas business. And for this the US officialdom will never forgive them. Post-Soviet Russia was supposed to become an impoverished banana republic ruled by a pliant Western-controlled élite and serve as a playground for Western corporations, its mineral wealth there for the taking. The fact that this has failed to happen (largely thanks to Vladimir Putin) is an affront to everything the US stands for and holds sacred.
This, by the way, explains the nature of the US campaign to vilify Putin. He has been singled out for painting with the archvillain brush not because he is a ruthless dictator (the world is full of ruthless dictators that the US likes very much and actively supports, provided they play ball). The reason is that Putin, of all the national leaders out there, actually gave a reasoned, principled response to attempts at foreign political and corporate domination of Russia: something he has called “sovereign democracy.” Now, the word “democracy” gets thrown around a lot but means ever so little (more on that in a moment) but the word “sovereign” actually does carry a meaning: there is a rather short list of nation-states that one can still call fully sovereign, and all of them are, in the eyes of the Washington régime, pariah states: Iran, North Korea, Libya and Syria (formerly). They are all on the Washington's target list for régime change. Russia is actually big and powerful enough to be able to walk a fine line between being Washington's indispensable partner and guarantor of regional stability and a pariah state, and American vacillation between treating Russia as a friend or an enemy is reflective of its ambiguous position.
Now, on the question of democracy, Western media have tried their best to paint the recent Russian presidential election as riddled with fraud and therefore illegitimate. Like having the Supreme Court effectively annul election results and appoint the president by court order... oh wait, wrong country. In fact, in the elections last autumn, Putin was elected president by a landslide (he's popular, you see) for a third term, after sitting out a term as prime minister, per Russian constitution. As Putin himself pointed out, if he were a tyrant, he could have just changed the constitution. Sure, there was plenty of ballot-stuffing and other irregularities, but the more important point is that none of the other candidates posed a viable alternative to Putin, making the question of whether one likes him or not rather moot. Reminds me of another election that took place last autumn: Obama got reelected because Romney turned out to be a bit too much of a scoundrel. He is a corporate hostile takeover artist by trade, and apparently the US isn't quite ready yet for a corporate hostile takeover. (But let's check back in four years.) The other non-option was the third-party candidate Ron Paul. Now, there is an eerie similarity between these alternatives to Obama: apparently, they are all Ayn Randians.
Ayn Rand was a mediocre Russian-born novelist whose quest in life was to propagandize free market capitalism (as if that were something that one ever needs to do) and to denigrate all other forms of social organization. She stood firm against all forms of mutual aid and social support that could not be effected via the unfettered free market. The avowed free marketeers Mitt Romney and his running mate Paul Ryan definitely had Ayn Randian leanings, and it is hardly an accident that “Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan” is an anagram for “My Ultimate Ayn Rand Porn.” And what about that other non-option, Ron Paul? What did he choose to name his son? That's right, “Rand.” Now, for me, fervent passion for the works of Ayn Rand has served as an accurate litmus test for a mediocre mind. The best that Ayn Rand's thinking can offer is a way of getting in touch with one's “inner asshole”: if you are the sort of person who is driven to distraction by the idea that somebody somewhere might be getting a free lunch at public expense, Ayn Rand is there to help you nurture such feelings. Ayn Rand is beloved of America's self-styled “libertarians.” The real Libertarians were socialists, but Americans have a way of borrowing words they don't know and then using them to mean things they don't understand, like saying “football” instead of “hand-egg” and then having to say “soccer” instead of “football,” never mind that the entire world finds this unintelligent and impolite. As the character Inigo Montoya put it in the film The Princess Bride, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
So here we have a country in severe crisis (the United States) holding an important election, which should, theoretically, be over whether it should stay on course of runaway debt and government spending, or to reinvent itself and so to avoid national bankruptcy and collapse. And it turns out that all the opposition candidates it can field happen to be followers of a mediocre methamphetamine-addled Russian novelist. Now, let me ask you this: does this pathetic excuse for a democracy still have the right to lecture others about democratic governance? Perhaps the wounded beast of American democracy would be better off finding a dark place to go and lick its wounds for a couple of years.
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In case you are somewhat gullible and still think that the Magnitsky Act has something to do with defending human rights, let's see if I can disabuse you of this spurious notion. Magnitsky died in pretrial detention, where he was placed on charges of tax fraud. He didn't get the medical treatment he needed. He was an accountant doing jail-time in Russia, some say, in place of his Western clients. It is therefore beneficial, from a Western perspective, to make him look like a victim of human rights abuse, because otherwise it may turn out that he was shielding crooked Western financial manipulators (who, you may have observed, are legion), and then those crooks would be brought to light, and so on. It is very important to American politicians that the financial crooks (like Jon Corzine, formerly of MF Global) remain at large and continue stuffing the politicians' campaign finance coffers with their ill-gotten gains. Any attempt to prosecute them, anywhere in the world, sets off alarms in Washington.
Let me bring up another high-profile case of an individual who died in detention after being denied medical treatment: the former president of Serbia Slobodan Milošević. He died while waiting for the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia to reach a verdict in his case. Now, Magnitsky was a crooked accountant doing the bidding of law-breaking Western clients, while Milošević was the leader of a once-proud nation that NATO decided to humiliate and bomb into submission as a proxy for Russia (Russia and Serbia are historical allies, but, at the time, Russia was at its weakest and could do little to help). Now, I didn't notice any laws being enacted to specifically bar those responsible for Milošević's death from entering the US or to freeze their bank accounts; why do you think that is? Is it perhaps because Americans have different standards when it comes to human rights—one for those they like, the other for those they don't? If you believe that, then you probably also believe that bears defecate in the woods and that popes have balconies. Perhaps the “Magnitsky Act” should have been called “No Crooked Accountant Left Behind”?
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Back to the Russian orphans: there are certainly a lot of them. Their numbers surged in the wake of the the collapse of the USSR, which caused a great deal of social disruption, especially in the outlying regions and single-factory industrial cities. The orphan population is not as large as it was after World War II, but it is an unfortunate situation nevertheless, especially since the orphanages could be a lot better funded. If wealthy Americans wanted to help Russian orphans, the could certainly do so without adopting them—unless, of course, they are Ayn Randians who turn livid at the idea that somewhere in the world there might be an orphan enjoying a free lunch at government expense. In fact, squandering resources on repeated travel to Russia, local legal representation, immigration filings and (since many of the orphans are in need of medical care) the ridiculously overpriced American medics is far from efficient. It would be far more efficient to help those orphans right where they are.
Better yet, why not adopt an American orphan instead? There is no shortage of these either. The majority of American children is born into poverty, and a fair number of these end up as wards of the state, stuck in long-term foster care. Rather than adopt a child from across the world, why not adopt one from one town over? The reason is simple: the children that are available for adoption are mostly Black or Latino while the Russian children are as white as can be. Racism in America has a storied history, but over the past hundred-some years one of its main forms of expression has been the so-called war on drugs. The initial enactment of the drug laws was accompanied by racist rhetoric: opium was first banned in 1875, to keep the Chinese from luring white women into opium dens and having sex with them (while opiates used by the whites remained legal). Cocaine was banned to keep “Negro cocaine fiends” from attacking white women in the South. Marijuana was seen as a peculiarly Mexican predilection, and the cause of Mexican lawlessness. This was many decades ago, but even today the majority of drug users are white (the US has the world's largest illegal drug market) but because drug laws are enforced in a peculiarly race-sensitive way, the majority of those in jail for drug offenses are Black or Latino. (Here is a write up on the subject from a retired American judge.) Thus it is that Americans are eager to fly across the world and adopt a foreign child, no expense spared, rather than adopt an American child from down the road who has been orphaned by their very own “war on drugs.” And this brings us to a rather pointed question: why should Russian state policy condone, aid and abet such blatant racism—with regard to orphans, no less? Is it not better to take this opportunity to shine a light on the gaping chasm between what Americans say and what Americans do?
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The American tendency to see Russia as the enemy is largely an overhang from the Cold War era. Most Americans don't even have a passport and have little firsthand knowledge of the outside world, but have been heavily propagandized to hate the evil Russian Commies. The USSR has been gone for over two decades, but the propaganda is still being recycled, with what was once an ideologically motivated economic and military standoff between two of the world's superpowers slowly degenerating into plain old ethnic bigotry. The US badly needs an enemy, but with the disappearance of the USSR the American propaganda machine has been reduced to barking at its own shadow. You see, Russia just doesn't make a good nemesis. It may still be big, and it is becoming quite rich and prosperous, but it has no interest at all in destroying America. It just wants to buy a piece of it. As an image of the enemy, Russia simply doesn't fit.
According to Sigmund Freud's doctrine of small differences, in order to create an effective image of the enemy one has to start with something quite similar to oneself. The mechanism is simple: if the Other is sufficiently similar to you, then you can successfully project all the things you don't like about yourself onto the Other while denying that you are like that at all. But if there are hardly any grounds for comparison, then this self-delusional tactic doesn't work. Red Sox fans can hate the Yankees, but they can't hate the Zimbabwean Cricket Team, don't know who to cheer when they play Bangladesh, and can't understand what happened when told that one of them won by 130 runs on day five of the test. And so the damn Yankees make a good enemy while the Zim cricketers do not. The problem is, with the collapse of the USSR, Americans have been left alone on planet Earth with nobody to square off against, so they've been trying to get a rise out of Russia ever since, and failing.
The problem is that at this point Russia is about as opaque to Americans as Zim cricket is to Red Sox fans. If you want evidence of this fact, take a look at this recent report from the National Intelligence Council. Titled “Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds” it lists some two dozen countries at risk of collapse—and not a single former Soviet republic among them. It shows trendlines for various countries; for Russia—it's a flatline. There are lots of qualitative statements about Russia (Russians drink a lot, etc.) but as far as an actual forecast of any sort at all—not a bloody sausage! You'd think that they had tried to come up with something—anything at all—on Russia, but the best they were able to deliver is a resounding “dunno.”
Since the National Intelligence Council happens to be so unintelligent on the question of Russia, let me try to plug the gap. The major similarity between the USA and Russia comes down to just one thing: the corrupting influence of free money. For the US, the free money comes from the ability to borrow abroad in their own currency, the US dollar, because it remains (for now) the world's reserve currency, although this particular joyride has been slowing down of late and could stop rather suddenly. For Russia, the free money comes from the ability to export natural gas to a captive market in Europe—a quirk of geology rather than a creature of finance, and since I don't buy into the hype about fracking, it is one that is unlikely to go away any time soon. As I tell my Russian friends, they won't have America to kick around for much longer. (And they look at me in amazement; I suppose the ignorance is mutual.)
As far as America's missing image of the enemy, the lesson is a hard one: you are on your own. Nobody wants to destroy you (especially since you are doing such a bang-up job of it yourself). Nobody wants to play with you and nobody wants to play against you. To figure out why that is, go lock yourself in the bathroom and spend a long while looking at yourself in the mirror, because at this point your image of the enemy is nothing but a reflection of you.