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Monday, March 19, 2007

The Mailbag: Goyal on Russophobia

Letters, we get letters, we get lots of cards and letters every day

We really do. We get dozens and dozens of e-mail messages every day, and we carry on an ongoing dialogue with admirers and critics of every stripe all across the globe. And we have no problem whatsoever publishing the missives of those who have criticisms of our blog -- in fact, we actively solicit such submissions. Here's an example.

In a rare burst of editorial expression
(and after much shamelessly abject begging on our part), Russia Journal publisher and regular LR reader and correspondent Ajay Goyal has contributed the following commentary on Russophobia to La Russophobe and granted publication permission. LR is particularly good at provoking comments in the blogosphere -- indeed, it's fair to say that no other blogger is in her league in this regard (she has previously noted that the blogger interviews on Siberian Light clearly prove this) and she is delighted to be the inspiration for spirited debate on the rise of dictatorship in Russia and the nature of russophilia and russophobia. The fact that we are powerful enough to motivate even Ajay to step out from his publisher's silence and express his views is proof positive of our key role in the debate on modern Russia. Our ability to draw his commentary and our willingness to publish both his praise and his criticism is unlike that of any other Russia blog in existence today. Following Ajay's letter is LR's response.

Dear LR,

When I was first introduced to your website, the name of the blog alarmed me. Anyone, it seemed to me, who fears or loathes a whole nation or culture or a group of people and flaunts it had no place in civilized society.

After some careful reading, however, more dimensions and depth to this website revealed themselves. The initial shock of the title gave way to discovery of a persona more complex than the name would indicate. Instead of hatred or fear or phobia of Russians in general or their country in particular, La Russophobe appeared to me considerably invested in Russia emotionally and deeply sympathetic towards those she perceives to be victims of a despotic political system.

I have no agreement with those who suggest that Vladimir Putin is a dictator– far from it – he is the last in the line of a century of despotic rulers. I believe history will judge his role differently from what it is made out to be by herds of western reporters. But I have respect for those who suffer as victims anywhere, which is what Russians have been for centuries. I compliment the courage of those who stand against oppression and voice their dissidence even if they might at times be misguided and extreme in their judgement. The truth however is that romanticism of a "victim" Russia and her "dissidence" is rooted in an age past that bears little or no resemblance to present day Russia - a society I believe to be free of many of the demons of communist era and Yeltsin years' legacy of criminality. Yet, I am not willing to condemn a rebel who speaks for those she perceives to be voiceless. But perhaps someone needs to wake her from delusion and tell that Russians are neither the last victims nor the worst despots of our times. Nevertheless, for all her immediate flaws, for this romanticist La Russophobe, who cries for and fears Russia -- victim and perpetrator at once -- I feel all sympathy and no grudge.

When it comes to Russophobia, I suffer none and it is perhaps easy for me to be so dispassionate about Russia since I am neither Russian nor a Russophile. Russophilia is perhaps the only other affliction I can think of this context that is worse than Russophobia.

The blog of La Russophobe, after one peels through all layers, is in fact an anti-Russophile publication whose real irritations come from the bigotry and hypocrisy of Russophiles. Her biggest provocations are from foreigners in Kremlin's employ. I, on the other hand, have too numerous experiences of discrimination, primitiveness and violence in Russia and first hand view of corruption and nepotism that persist and thrive through all economic & political changes and permeate through all classes and gender and age groups – to be a Russophile. And I have too many encounters with even greater greed, vulgarity, racism, ignorance, cruelty and cowardice in many European nations (and the at the hands of Europeans and Americans in Russia) to be a Russophobe.

The propensity for violence, violation of individual liberties, rush to wars and absence of shame or democratic retribution in the face of exposed naked lies that we have witnessed in United States in the last six years, frankly makes Russians look like hermits. Not saints, just hermits.

As soon as one acquires a sense of balance about where our western, "civilized and democratic" national governments, political systems and media are – we can perhaps understand Russia and not run for cover.

There is no doubt that life for many in Russia remains a nightmare and not all ills can be blamed on the legacy of political systems and rulers. But Einstein left us with the idea of relativity so we may stop considering all objects and occurrences as absolute, even if they appear stationary and stuck in time, and see them in a relative context.

When I am confronted with the quality of Russian leadership today – I must see it relative to how it was with Yeltsin, or Gorbachev, Brezhnev or Stalin. Suffering today, relative to how life was five, ten or twenty years ago. In international context, we must consider luminaries of our times such as George W, Tony Blair, Hugo Chavez, Parvez Musharraf, and -- name who else you may. We consider the mockery that Russian state-owned media is to be judged relative to the performance of FOX, the Washington Times, the Moscow Times, Helsingin Sanomat or any journals of record from Britain and United States. We find the human rights abuses in Chechnya sickening and unbearable and treatment of young recruits in Russian army appalling till we find what Belgian or German troops have been up to while on "peacekeeping missions" in Africa and Afghanistan, the rings of prostitution run by peacekeepers in Sarajevo or atrocities in Iraq by angels of democracy and freedom. Wait, what about infestations and treatment of heroes of a powerful and grateful nation of freedom warriors at one of the world's premier military hospital and rehabilitation centres?

Russian recruits face abominable conditions, but can we really swear that American soldiers and veterans are in the embrace of a more compassionate nation? Too bad a traitor ate radioactive sushi and a woman reporter got whacked, but must we allow our sympathy to be hijacked by politicians for votes and power in the name of fake martyrs -- in Finland? Where is the relativity in front page hysteria over denial of visa to an American money manager when ten million people are in the streets of America asking for their rights. And thousands in rickety boats off Europe dying -- over inhumane immigration policies of the EU? Has any western reporter that critiques Russian visa and work permit policy ever known what it feels to be a Russian or Asian or African in a visa or immigration queue to Europe and the US? Before we conduct an inquisition of Russians for demanding market price for their gas should we not look into how western oil majors have robbed the neediest and poorest in times of crisis?

Before we chastise Russians for failing to protect innocent victims of terrorism in kindergartens and theatres, should we not judge them against some international standards of emergency management? 9/11? Katrina? A cartoon in Boston? And before we call the imprisonment of Mikhail Khodorkovsky as political incarceration in Gulag should we not weigh it against 100 year sentences delivered on corporate criminals in the United States? Conrad Black, formerly Lord, and of Daily Telegraph could spend 40 years in prison for having a butler. And Russian justice of imprisonment for nine years over tens of billions of fraud, tax evasion to be labelled injustice?

Where to stop? Where to begin? Because seen in any context, Russia may appear to be Nation of Joy. Like Calcutta of Dominique Lapierre, where there is hope and ambition, optimism and courage, compassion and faith, a mighty spirit and great self respect and pride. Only a demented person can hate Calcutta. There is no word to describe the misery of those who fear it. To those of you who nurse a phobia of Russia because you need a demon today so you may scare or provoke yourself tonight, you need not look at Russia. Open your own cupboards.

Back to La Russophobe; it is perhaps the most misleading title for a blog with a conscience. Some cruel spin, if you will, in an attempt to draw some attention. Anyone who manages to enrage so many people at so many cross purposes is worthy of respect.

Ajay Goyal

Publisher, Russia Journal

Dear Ajay,

Thanks so much for your letter. It's an important step forward in continuing the important russophile-russophobe dialogue, giving us the chance to show once again that we're perefectly willing to publish criticism of our blog on our own pages, something few if any other Russia blogs are willing to consider. Our response follows.

People have been writing things like "Russia - a society I believe to be free of many of the demons of communist era and Yeltsin years' legacy of criminality," for hundreds of years about Russia. We're constantly hearing about how Russia is just about to turn the corner -- and every single time, it turns out that Russia is actually going over another cliff. We feel that these types of predictions, in effect, induce us to do less than all we can to prevent another disaster, and in that way contribute to making the situation worse.

Last time we checked, Calcutta wasn't providing weapons to Venezuela or nuclear technology to Iran. We weren't aware of it funneling money to Hamas and Hezbollah, nor had we heard that the mayor of Calcutta had given any speeches recently in Munich. We're pretty sure he isn't a proud KGB spy, since India has never had an organization remotely like that operating on her soil. Therefore, we feel your analogy between Calcutta and Russia is strained (to say the least).

As you may know, Albert Einstein wasn't a political theorist, he was a theoretical physicist. Human history doesn't provide many examples of the latter providing viable roadmaps for political intercourse, and we'd prefer not to take guidance from such a person. Even if we did, we don't think Einstein, who witnessed Stalin rise to power, ever had anything much positive to say about Russia. And we're pretty sure that Einstein would ask you to specify the exact number of people in Russia who are living a "nightmare" as you properly say, rather than using the ambiguous word "some." Therefore, we think talking about Einstein is also pushing it.

You seem to be curious as to why we're called "La Russophobe" and, like many people including some of our fans, to suggest we might benefit from changing our name. But your letter provides the answer! We're fascinated by the willingness of readers to project their own definitions onto this ambiguous term, which might very well mean "hater of Russophiles" as you suggest (La Russophilophobe, however, is a name we feel wouldn't properly call the people of Russia to account for their own actions). It's really amazing how certain people will, while demanding that we not judge Russia, judge us exactly the way they want us to avoid. They attack us while asking us to stop attacking Russia. Doesn't make much sense, does it? And, sadly, it often happens that the people who raise these issues haven't actually read what we write (as you properly point out). We've certainly never said, for example, that Russians are the "worst despots of our times." All we've ever said is that Russians are despots, that their current government is a total failure, and that it ought to be changed before it's too late.

Last night, the 60 Minutes show did a segment exposing a number of American soldiers who had been caught committing war crimes in Iraq and who are facing criminal charges. Can we expect such a program from state-owned Russian television about the innumerable human rights violations documented in Chechnya by such international organizations as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International? It seems unlikely, to say the least.

You may disagree, but we don't think America's alleged faults have anything to do with Russia. In fact, we can't help but remember how the leaders of the Soviet Union always used to bring up America's faults whenever Russia's were mentioned. Instead of reforming Russia, they spent their energy rationalizing its failure by claiming that America was even worse. As you may know, the Soviet Union is now extinct. It seems you care about Russia, so you likely don't wish it it to follow the Soviet Union into extinction. If that's so, we'd suggest you spend your time worrying about how to stop Russia from losing 1 million people from it's population every year despite being one of the highest recipients of immigrants in the world, or maybe just teach its male population how to live past 60 and staunch what may be the worst AIDS crisis in world history. Say what you like about America, it doesn't suffer from these basic biological afflictions. Moreover, we seriously doubt that it will be a consolation to any Russians driven into the grave by the crazed policies of their state, and by their own outrageous and self-destructive support for that state, that Americans are also destroying themselves. In our humble opinion, focusing on America's ills rather than its own is what destroyed the USSR, and it will destroy Russia to if advice like yours is followed.

It's odd that you express so much personal experience with racism and violence at yet call for moderation and "relativity" where Russia is concerned. When faced with racism in America, Martin Luther King didn't embrace moderation just because other nations were more racist than America. To the contrary, he wrote that his worst enemies were moderates, people who claimed to support his goals but simultaneously undermined his struggle by failing to actively support it. He wrote that they might have been worse than the KKK.

We're also a bit perplexed by your suggestion that there is no "democratic retribution" in America. You may have missed it, but American voters just kicked George Bush's party out of both houses of Congress and replaced them with his hardened foes. He has abysmally low public opinion poll ratings, and there's a huge chance the rival party will take the presidency in the next election. Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin continues to enjoy popular approval ratings above 70%, which we're sure you agree is perhaps a bit excessive, and there is no significant opposition presence in the Duma, much less any possibility that the opposition could take power. America is receiving very intense criticism all across Europe and in many American fora, certainly at least as harsh as Vladimir Putin comes in for on this blog. Apparently, you feel that Americans are also "victims" of circumstances beyond their control; if so, we strongly disagree. If the American government takes actions that the outside world finds outrageous, then the outside world should call the American people to account for their actions. We're currently running a poll on this blog asking who is to blame for Russian dictatorship, and "Russian people" is the runaway leader. Far from expressing hatred of the Russian people, we believe this attitude shows them respect. We're worried that an attitude like yours is one of patronizing contempt, the belief that Russians are inferior beings who can't be expected to control their own destinies. We reject that notion utterly. America is constantly in engaged in an active process of reform and improvement; that's why it bestrides the globe like a colossus today. Russia does exactly the opposite, and we're afraid that places her survival in jeopardy.

In short, we can't agree that America or the American people are remotely as dangerous to the world (much less to itself) as Russia and the Russian people, but whether they are or not is totally irrelevant to this blog. We can't possibly hope to solve all the world's problems, those are for other blogs to deal with. Many blogs savagely criticize America. This one deals with Russia.

It's very brave of you to go on the record predicting that that Vladimir Putin is the last in a line of despotic rulers for Russia, and we're proud that you have chosen our forum to make your prediction. We'd like to challenge you to predict specifically who his successor, Russia's first non-despotic in a century, will be. We're also curious to know why you think the Romanov tsars weren't despots. It seems to us that Russia has never been ruled by someone who wasn't a despot, and for this reason (to say nothing of the willingness of the population to elect a proud KGB spy as president and then let him abolish local elections and independent television news) the pattern is likely to continue.

Finally, we think you go a bit too far in getting carried away with your own ego in suggesting that we need to be "woken from a delusion." Just because you disagree with us as to the urgency of dealing with the problems Russia presents doesn't mean you're awake and we're asleep, or that you are some higher form of being entitled to favor us with sympathy -- that is, unless you think it's impossible you could be wrong. Frankly, that attitude seems perilously close to the arrogance you purport to condemn in Americans. When your prediction comes true and Vladimir Putin is replaced with a non-despotic leader who reverses the massive injuries to democracy inflicted upon Russia, you'll surely be entitled to that lofty status, and we'll be absolutely delighted to publish another letter in which you gloat and condemn our russophobia. It'll be the last post we ever publish; after that, we'll be delighted to go out of business and watch Russia become a great, successful country it has the potential to be. But if Putin becomes a dicatator, of if he is replaced by someone who continues despotism in Russia, and Russia's problems just keep getting worse, and it continues on its path towards becoming "Zaire with permafrost," of course, your prediction will be viewed as one that dangerously sought to encourage the West to lower its guard, hence perhaps contributing to the rise of dictatorship in Russia. And even if you are right, perhaps you ought to set a good example for others and not engage in the same type of rhetoric you'd like to see them avoid.

Best regards,

La Russophobe

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

At least you didn't call him a moron, as you usually do with other commenters.