Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

08 February 2014

A Chasm of Misunderstanding: Thoughts on Opening Day at Sochi


      “The host [of peasant-soldiers] rose up, uncountable, the strength in it said to be unconquerable . . .” Nikolai Alekseevich Nekrasov, “Little Mother Russia”
During my Fulbright Fellowship in Moscow, a Russian colleague took me to the monastery at Sergiev Posad, Saint Sergius’ Settlement outside Moscow. For Russians, it’s an historical icon. It’s like a combination of Monticello, Independence Hall, and the Alamo for us Yanks.

But Sergiev Posad has three things our Yankee icons lack. First, it’s a venerable religious institution, built by Monks and defended by them for centuries. Unlike the Alamo, it’s only partly a museum; it’s still in religious use today. Second, because its origins go back well over half a millennium, its aura today is semi-mythical. Third, its walls are over a meter thick.

My colleague took me there for a reason. Nothing that I saw in Russia so brilliantly encapsulated the essential character of historical Russia: isolation, invasion, suffering, resistance, and occasional Pyrrhic conquest.

No other modern nation has been invaded like Russia. In the last two centuries alone, it has suffered six invasions, twice each by Napoleonic France, Japan and Germany. In a single city—once Leningrad and now again St. Petersburg—more people died in the Siege than in all our Yankee battles in the Second World War, on both the Western and Eastern fronts. In fact, more people died in the Siege of that single city than in all of our Civil War, the bloodiest single conflict in our own Yankee history.

So as the Great War and the Cold War fade into distant memories, we Yanks and the Russians just can’t understand each other. History’s most fortunate people look blankly, with incomprehension, across the chasm of history at its most unfortunate victims.

The grand opening pageant at the Sochi Winter Olympics didn’t help much. On display were the exquisite ballet of a nation of masters, Tchaikovsky’s gorgeous music, brilliant audiovisual technology, and an impressive feat of historical amnesia.

Of course Putin and the Russians wanted to put their best foot forward. Of course they didn’t want to wallow in the suffering of their “Great Patriotic War” or Stalin’s Terror. Of course they wanted to focus on the slave-like forced industrialization that met the challenge of Nazi aggression just in time.

But edgier art might have given the rest of the world a tiny emotional glimpse into the vast historical suffering that made Russia and Putin what they are today. It might have thrown a tiny bridge over that great chasm of misunderstanding that now prolongs a spent and utterly pointless Cold War, and that still threatens to bring a deadly anachronism—the imperial age—back into our hopeful twenty-first century.

NBC’s guest commentator David Remnick (on loan from The New Yorker) tried to help. He reminded us briefly of the suffering in Leningrad, but without using the word “Siege.” He told us about Russians’ vast suffering in their Great Patriotic War against the Nazis, in which one out of seven Russians died. That’s the equivalent of 44 million of us Yanks today, more than everyone in California, or nearly as many as now live in New York state and Texas combined.

But Remnick also fed the flames of post-Cold-War rivalry. He painted Putin as a power-hungry autocrat with his glance fixed backward on Metternich.

I lost count of the times Remnick used the word “power” in referring to Putin or modern Russia. You could almost imagine the czarist double-eagle crest rising over the stadium as he spoke.

If Remnick and the rest of us Yanks need to understand anything about Russia, it is this. Putin is a “strongman” (silovik) because he is a Russian. He leads the most unfortunate developed nation on Earth. His people live in the middle of a vast Eurasian continent, with few natural barriers, across which hostile armies have been marching since long before the Mongol hordes. Islamic people in the south are still on the march today.

Even the weather is hostile to Russians. The southern city of Sochi—the erstwhile Black Sea beach resort of Soviet Commissars—is, after all, the site of the Winter Olympics. Imagine holding a winter Olympics in San Diego, Houston, or Miami.

Russia’s nuclear arsenal will never be used in anger. Like the meter-thick walls of Sergiev Posad, it is there for defense. As their incomparably bloody and tragic history reveals, there is no people on this Earth more in need of defending than Russians.

So let us keep our rivalry on the field of sport. Let both Yanks and Russians strain to understand each other. Let it dawn on both nations that cooperation, not anachronistic imperial rivalry, is the future of our species, whether in fighting terrorism or building a more prosperous Eurasia.

Ukraine is Mother Russia’s mother. Putin has taken a monumental step forward in trying to buy her, rather than crush her as Stalin did.

Maybe soon he will take then next step and foster her independent living. Maybe he will understand that Ukraine’s future is not with Russia or the EU, but with both. Maybe the man who once spoke before the German Bundestag (in fluent German!) about a peaceful free-trade zone from the Atlantic to the Urals will recapture the idealism of his first days as leader.

Ukraine was once the crossroads market of Eurasia. Some day it may be so again.

If we Yanks have any dreams for the Sochi Olympics, they should be these. Let Russia complete the process of becoming a normal country, no longer punch drunk with defending itself, and contribute to the progress and advancement of our species. The opening ceremonies’ high ballet and brilliant software, not to mention the huge “Google maps” on the stadium floor, showed just how much Russia has to contribute.

And for God’s sake, Remnick, strike the word “power” from your vocabulary, except when referring to feats on the field of sport! Use more appropriate terms, like “grandeur,” “high technology,” “beauty” and “pageantry.” The word “power” only scares us Yanks and brings out the silovikis’ worst instincts.

If the Olympics can’t inspire us humans to be all that we can be, what can? Let the games begin!



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