Russian-American Family Resemblance

Under the heading of etc.:

I have often thought that, in spite of the ways that Russian and American politicians denigrate one another, they are remarkably alike – especially those on the socially conservative end of the spectrum. In both Russia and the United States, there has been an increasing trend of conservative populism that manifests in many ways, but the most striking to me is in the kind of legislation that gets proposed, much of which does not get passed or is later struck down by courts. In the process, conservative politicians on both sides of the constructed West/East divide use the opportunity to make speeches that place their often reactionary discourse into the public sphere and the public record. As they do this, Russian and American politicians seem to remain blissfully (or willfully) unaware of their shared family resemblance.

As someone who has spent a great deal of time in both Russia and America and who has made a habit of following their politics (living currently in more-or-less neutral territory between them), I find the similarities remarkable and ironic. Conservative politicians in both America and Russia use the public legislative system to address private matters of family, sexual preference, and speech, and the similarity of their views on such matters far exceeds the similarities they bear to their own fellow countrymen of differing political orientations.

I listen to Kommersant-FM radio from Moscow every morning during my half-hour commute, and that affords me the opportunity to hear Russian legislative ideas that don’t make it beyond the demagoguery stage. For example, last year a law was proposed that would make illegal any public use of foreign words (such as in a company’s name, or in advertising billboards) and would extract a fine for every instance. Other laws do get passed, such as the so-called “anti-gay law” that prohibits propagandizing a homosexual lifestyle; the American Tea Party, it would seem, could only envy the success of this particular bit of Russian legislative activism.

The anti-gay bill was authored by a coalition of three parties in the Russian Duma (the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, and United Russia), but many of these populist legislative forays originate from the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, led by Vladimir Zhirinovsky. In my less-respectful moments, I refer to Zhirinovsky as “Russia’s Clown”, although this is, I think, not without justification. Zhirinovsky is no dope and understands the power of performance, including that of the court jester; he certainly understands how to get attention, sporting suit jackets in garish colors and having instigated fistfights in the halls of the Russian Duma.

vladimir_zhirinovsky Yellow coat vladimir-zhirinovsky-liberal-party-503.si  article-2284950-17A8E055000005DC-690_634x446 Liberal Democratic Party leader, one of

As I have compared the discourse of LDPR and Tea Party politicians, I have come to think of them as analogues of one another, reinforcing an impression of family resemblance between Russian and American politics that belies their claims to find one another incomprehensible. Each occupies an almost identical proportion of the political spectrum in its home sphere: LDPR holds 56 out of 450 seats in the Russian State Duma, or about 12%; the Tea Party, while not an actual party in its own right, claims 46 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, or about 11%.

Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s most recent demagoguery is his campaign to close down all Macdonald’s restaurants in Russia. In an interview on Kommersant-FM on 4 April 2014, he connects his initiative to the fact that Macdonald’s chose to close all of its restaurants in Crimea. “We’ll be very happy”, says, “if all Macdonald’s in Russia are closed”

“Who will be glad?” asked the interviewer.

“We’ll all be glad”.

“Who is ‘all’?”

“Citizens of Russia. It’s poison. If you like this food, I feel sorry for you.”

The interviewer later commented, “Many of your voters, of course, don’t support you on this issue”.

“They support it. Our voters love Russia, not Macdonald’s”.

Further on in the interview, Zhirinovsky says, “we need our own pel’meny, bliny, vareniki. Why do we need this alien food, so overcooked? Do you know what kind of oil they cook that in? They’ll cook French fries over and over in the same oil. These are carcinogenic substances, and children eat it”.

The funny thing is, when he rails against the poor nutritional quality of Macdonald’s food, he sounds just like many Americans who share the same criticism of Macdonald’s. But Zhirinovsky constructs his position as a purely Russian one.

I recently stumbled upon an interesting little paper by Russian academic Ivan Tsvetkov of the International Relations department at St. Petersburg State University, titled “Americanization and anti-Americanism in contemporary Russia”. In it, he discusses the ways that Russians have adopted American cultural forms without even realizing it. Tsvetkov finds historical parallels between the challenges faced by Americans and Russians; he cites specifically the Ku Klux Klan, robber barons, and the Scopes ‘Monkey Trial’, pairing them with the Russian phenomena of the “anti-immigration movement, oligarchs and their relations with political power, [the] suit by St. Petersburg designer K. Schreiber against the district board of education”.

Tsvetkov argues that some of the recent American cultural borrowings in Russia are recognized and fought against (like Macdonald’s); but some of them are “not comprehended as something alien and dangerous”. He attributes this to the presence of two different modes of Americanization in Russia: the symbolic, and the implicit; “these two modes exist in contemporary Russia and are unfolding independently, without any noticeable interrelation”, he says.

He goes on to point out that all national governments consciously work on “formulating and reproducing the system of cliché, national myths and symbols, which helps to display their cultural identity”. When these symbols are purveyed on an international level, they are called ‘soft power’. Тhis is another conceptual area where I find Russian and American counterparts mirror one another; for example, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has very consciously adopted the theory of ‘soft power’ in its international relations policy.

What is happening in Russia now, says Tsvetkov, is a strange phenomenon by which Russians are waging a campaign of anti-Americanism using quintessentially American tools that recognize American leadership in this area: “The whole mass media mechanism, which is used for creating an anti-American product, was invented and brought to perfection by American newsmen, TV-men and public relations managers” (although here I think the exculpation of my own fair sex is unwarranted); and it is not “a high-accuracy weapon”, he says: there is ‘collateral damage’ in the form of jettisoning “many universal humanistic values which have suffered because of connection with the United States”.

The metaphor of weaponry is very apt, I think. While the March 2014 Ukraine/Crimea crisis has elicited much perversely nostalgic hand-wringing about a resurrection of the Cold War, and one Facebook commenter urged that it is “time to re-arm”, the armaments seemingly have been transformed: swords may not have to been beaten into plowshares, but nukes have certainly been transformed into media bombs.

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