Content advisory 18+ When I used to write a lot for SNOB (a once-promising project that I came to by chance in 2009 or ’10), they always wanted me to present the point of view of a foreigner who had been in Russia for a while. Not as some guy who just got off the boat (there are no boats) and looking for polar bears in Red Square, or who came searching for beautiful, frozen-featured blond spy-girls who would lick caviar out of my navel and bathe me in vodka if I told them all the American military secrets — no, it wasn’t that.
I confess I never figured out what it was they really wanted, but I soldiered on (pardon the expression) anyway — as the “veteran” ex-pat, I reckon, making not just observations but “considered” observations. “Insightful, astute” observations. Well, you get the idea… And they didn’t want — it was the last thing they wanted! — for me to talk a lot of smack about the latest political brouhahas. That was for the regular staff. So I was sort of the resident philosopher from Never Never Land whose job was to keep coming up with an interesting point of view on subjects that were not going to disappear as fast as a small Moscow business — or even a whole street corner of small Moscow businesses. The regular staff dealt with those issues.
All of it was done, especially in the beginning, with an intense, perhaps overly-romantic zeal that was born of the passionate love (my love for Russia) which only a borderline lunatic can feel. At long last, I was in the land I had heard about since I was a kid (all negative propaganda, by the way) during the stark, angry years of The Cold War. Understand, please, that I had no interest in becoming some kind of half-ass “Bolshevik” pretender or Champion of the Proletariat. Even since my greenest years, I had been aware of Politics and Religion as the two main diseases that afflict the human race, by comparison with which stuff like cancer and syphilis are no worse than a runny nose.
The reason was that I felt at home in Russia, albeit lacking the ability to speak Russian. I had never felt much at home anywhere, especially not in my own country. But in Moscow, way back on that first night when the driver from the school which had hired me drove (half the night it seemed) clear from Sheremetyevo airport to my new home in Выхино, I remember thinking, “Yep, this is the place for me.” How did I know? Well, I am one of those guys who will pick a certain girl out of a crowd and fall in love with her instantly. And it is always the right choice. A kind of clairvoyance.
And that energy-turned-into-writing was pretty much what I contributed to the SNOB on-line magazine. Ukraine? I defended Putin (the snobby SNOB readers were apoplectic). I sang songs about the tremendous sense of personal freedom I felt in Moscow. Wild dogs were running loose back then, people were drinking beer in the park, and you could smoke a cigarette almost anywhere. OK, OK — these are not great examples of “freedom”. But the point is, you could wander around and do what you wanted without having someone crawling up your ass about it. Like in America. And, for better or for worse, I liked that. Furthermore — though I hate to say it — I kind of admired the way you could make almost anything happen in Moscow just by paying the money: a driver’s license, a certificate at a swimming pool declaring that you were not crazy and did not have a venereal disease, a nice way to say bye-bye Mr. Police Officer, etc. Damn it, I KNOW it was bad. But in America, you could do things the so-called “”right”” way and still get nowhere. Russia was different and I was enchanted. Maybe I am a bad person. So what?
Most of all, I just loved being in the land of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Rasputin, Olga Korbut, and Ludmilla Tourescheva — strange combination, but I am a strange guy. And so it went. I gradually distanced myself from the Brits and Americans who were teachers in Moscow, and led a Russian life. Married a Russian girl from Omsk. The only way I fucked up was that I was always too busy working to devote the time I should have to learning the Russian language. In retrospect, I cheated myself by that failure.
OK. All honeymoons end. And so did this one. Maybe it was inevitable because the same thing seems to happen in most relationships, including simple marriages between men and women (or whatever combination you prefer). Gradually, you see faults you didn’t notice before. You look the other way at first, then they start to get on your nerves. Eventually, thoughts of murder enter your mind. And, all along, the ONLY thing that usually changed was your own perception.
So let me come (it can take me a while, I know) to the point. Interestingly enough — but as is often true– it was the exception to the rule that proved the rule. Two things. After the terrible fire in Kemerovo that killed so many children, the citizens came together and amassed in front of City Hall demanding answers. The local authorities cringed. And even more recently a certain sector of the public — those mostly educated people who use Telegram — more or less successfully resisted the heavy-handed authorities. Not by violence or public upheaval. Simply by refusing to cooperate.
Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, were they alive today, could give great seminars to the Russian people about the principles of non-violent resistance.
For the unpleasant reality that I have come, over the years, to see, is how bad Russian government really is. Probably Vladimir Putin has been good for the country, all things considered, but his mind is mired in Soviet mentality and at this point, he is leading Russia backwards, not forward. In today’s global market it is simply ridiculous — and utterly counter-productive — to try and steer a country as huge and vital as Russia into the same kind of isolationism that has been typical of, say, North Korea (who, if recent developments are to be believed, are actually coming to their senses.)
The government is now better than during the 90’s, of course (well, there WAS no government then), but the reality is that Russia is controlled by a select crowd of serpents known as oligarchs. And this merry crowd is joined by the most buffoonish pack of idiotic jackals imaginable, which are called the “Duma”. Altogether, the cry goes up for Religion, Patriotism, Zenophobia !! And for entertainment, we can turn on the TV and watch First Channel deliver us a most pristine and morally clean Russia, after which we can sit and watch an endless stream of patriotic war films…while we wait for Godot. Russia turning back the Nazis yet again whoopee! — while in the meantime a modernized Germany now commands the EU and Russia tries to deal with one Sanction after another. Apparently, 76% of the Russian people prefer it this way.
It is a shame. For me, and this nails it — the truly astonishing thing that struck me during all my years in Russia was the Passivity of the People. The Russian people as a whole appear to be so cowed and chastened by their own history that they are willing to put up with anything, any inconvenience, deprivation, or injustice from their government. They are conspirators in their own futility and ruin.
Don’t get me wrong. The average Russian guy is no coward — he will fight to the death. So this has nothing to do with physical bravery. A lot of black guys in American ghettos will kill you if you even look at them the wrong way. But this fearlessness at the street level — as with Russians, as with Blacks in America — fails to translate into any real, tangible sort of power because it is NEVER organized. Maybe, given the lessons taught by Russian history, it just isn’t in the cards to materialize, maybe the know-how and collective will-plus-ingenuity simply aren’t there (the authorities certainly don’t want it !).
Moreover, many of the best people in Russia at present are looking for ways to get out of the country. Marvelous !! If, for example, we go back to the Cold War days, we might remind ourselves that people were always defecting (or trying to) from East to West. It was never the other way around (unless your name was Lee Harvey Oswald). Nobody ever tried to break into East Berlin or the Soviet Union, did they? How many people do you know who have tried to break into jail?? Don’t they usually try to break OUT?
So what has changed?. That is why it was very heartening recently when the Authorities cried “Delete Telegram!!”
And the PEOPLE replied, “FUCK OFF!”
That is the secret, if the Russian people could remember it, and finally realize that just breaking the law as individuals — stealing stuff, forging documents, computer-hacking into everybody’s shit, and all that — is not the answer. Brits, Americans (including those Blacks who stopped hip-hopping and joined the crowd), Japanese, Chinese, and Germans, etc., have built their countries and their economies because they are ORGANIZED.
Just say NO. To drugs. To bullies. To authorities who want to keep you sick, uneducated, and obedient. Well, that’s the advice from an old ex-pat.
===Eric Richard Leroy===