05 May 2005

More on "mourning mother Russia" - don't mourn too quickly!

Last week I commented briefly on David Brooks's New York Times piece, "Mourning Mother Russia." (If you can't get it through the link there because it's disappeared into the Archive$, let me know and I'll send the text.)

Sitting at this reasonably-priced broadband terminal here in Moscow, I wanted to add a few thoughts as I wrote them to a few of my friends here in Russia and in the USA after reading the Brooks essay. Here's what I said, more or less:

First of all, I object to the word "bizarre" to characterize the state of the nation speech of last week by Putin. From the point of view of the Russian people, I would guess that his speech is very much middle-of-the-road. As one Russian commentator [quoted last week] has said, the problem isn't what the speech says, the problem is that it is just a speech.

(It would be sad if Russians felt that the rest of the world was resting easier now that their lives were more miserable. This is not to deny the brutality of the communist reality imposed on Russians and on Soviet imperialism's other victims. But post-Cold-War Western triumphalism feeds a resentment among some in Russia, even a suspicion that the downfall of the Soviet Union and the subsequent indiscriminate flooding-in of capitalist glitz represents a CIA-Gorbachev conspiracy. To risk a generalization, many Russians are quick to remember gratuitous insults, but are even quicker to remember kindnesses.)

But even more than the "bizarre" label, I object to these paragraphs by David Brooks:
When totalitarian regimes take control of a country, they destroy the bonds of civic trust and the normal patterns of social cohesion.They rule by fear, and public life becomes brutish. They pervert private and public morality.

When those totalitarian regimes fall, different parts of society recover at different rates. Some enterprising people take advantage of economic recovery, and the result of their efforts is economic growth.

But private morality, the habits of self-control and the social fabric take a lot longer to recover. So you wind up with nations in which high growth rates and lingering military power mask profound social chaos.
There's a lot of truth here - but I worry about the impression he leaves that there's no private morality in Russia, that the place is full of brutes. Private morality was the FIRST thing to recover because it never died!!

Russians have had to be devious in their relations with authority (there was and is a sort of resentful dependence), and that deviousness did have a harmful effect on their private lives, but I have never met people who have more elemental, innate decency. How else could Russia have survived the first chaotic post-Soviet years, when people weren't getting reliably paid and government was almost non-existent? They continued to do the things that needed to be done for life to be tolerable for each other: they cleaned the streets, ran the buses and trains on time, changed lightbulbs in public places, kept the hospitals and schools going, and on and on. They continued to exhibit hospitality that can only be described as extravagant. Even with the flood of vulgarity coming in from the West, culture remains at a high level.Young people still go to summer camps, go hiking and skiing and school trips to museums and opera; the art of friendship remains at a level I rarely see in the USA.

And public morality was never totally perverted, either - the good of the community and, at a more personal level, the good of the collective, has always been a high value among most Russians. David Brooks's article would be much more helpful, not to mention accurate, if he included these realities.

Of the entrepreneurial spirits that are now flourishing in Russia,even many of them (perhaps most? I don't know) are people of high hopes and ideals. I would not want to condone the double bookkeeping, protection payoffs, and other devices they resort to, but they're just trying to play by the rules they're given. The ones I know would much rather pay taxes honestly, buy insurance instead of protection,etc, etc. There are cut-throats as well, of course, and a highly developed organized crime system, ... Good thing we in the US never had to cope with the like!

PS: That "resentful dependence on authority" is not solely a Russian feature. I wonder how many Americans who criticize big government and are cynical about politics seem to lose their critical faculties altogether when their big government perverts their own ideals on behalf of a foreign adventure, spraying the whole thing in a sickly layer of patriotic cologne.

2 comments:

Joe G. said...

I have little knowledge about Russia. But, I appreciate your personal perspective about it. You offer a much needed counterbalance from what seems to always come from the U.S. mainstream media news outlets.

By the way, all those thoughts that Brook's writes about present day Russia could be made about present day U.S.A., in my opinion at least.

Johan Maurer said...

Thank you! I don't know that I'd want to compare Russia's demographic disasters with USA statistics. (Parenthetically, many Americans don't acknowledge the powerful renewing effect of immigration, whereas Russia seems unable to figure out how to renew itself through immigration, despite possibilities of doing so.)

However, concerning Brooks's comments on the collapse of private and public morality in Russia, you're right - he would have done well to consider whether our standards have truly flourished under unbridled capitalism. It seems as if conservative commentators (not necessarily Brooks) often love to talk about moral decline in the USA except when their point is to claim our superiority over someone else.