The Slash of Civilizations

Note: This post is adapted from a previously published essay, “Caught in a Bad Romance: What America Means to Russia

Europe and America are, of course, obvious choices for Russia’s enemies: the continued existence of NATO, not to mention its expansion to Russia’s borders, has prolonged the binary oppositions of the Cold War. But it would be a mistake to see America’s and Europe’s role in Russian conspiratorial and extremist thought simply in terms of ordinary international politics.  There is far too much emotional (indeed, libidinal) investment in these particular enemies to be merely a matter of current events.    

Pundits in the West anxiously wring their hands over the rise of Russian “anti-Americanism,” a notoriously vague term whose main effect is to make Americans feel besieged.  Russia has become the latest focus for the naive question we never get tired of asking:  “Why do they hate us so much?”  There are so many problems with this question, of course, but the one I’m concerned with is its blindness to the fact that hate has taken the place that had long been occupied by love.  While American Cold Warriors were playing Star Wars in their fight against the “evil empire,” Russians (joined by the occasional American) were quietly “shipping” their enemy in virtual slash fiction. [1]

Remember when america and russia merged to create one country? No? [1]

Remember when america and russia merged to create one country? No? [1]

Russia’s love of America is an old story, one that is worth recalling precisely when relations have gone so sour. Like Humbert’s Lolita, America had a precursor (she did, indeed she did): an older, and still simmering, affair with Western Europe in general and France in particular (more on this later in the chapter). But in the twentieth century, Russia was preoccupied with modernity and with the future. An infatuation with America was inevitable.

To those who lived through World War II, America was the Lend-Lease program.  To the generation who came of age in the 1960s, America was the enchanted kingdom that gave birth to Jazz (broadcast on Voice of America for years), Ernest Hemingway, Kurt Vonnegut, and bluejeans.  For most people, this love was political only to the extent that turning one’s attention to the “enemy” was a politicized gesture.  The appeal was not the United States’ economic system or democratic institutions; U.S. boosterism to the contrary, Russians were not seeking “freedom” or the “American Dream.”  They were simply charmed. 

Nonetheless there was a gap in their knowledge about America that would prove disastrous: the Soviets did not know that their love for America was unrequited.  And, really, how could they?  The conflict between the two superpowers defined the entire era, and the limited contacts between them nearly always involved Americans who were emotionally or intellectually invested in Russia (otherwise, they wouldn’t bother).  This is not to say that Russia and the Soviet Union played no role in the American psyche: the Soviets made great movie villains.  The ideological divide allowed for a reductive, functionalist approach to Russia and its culture, turning the Soviet Union into something of a totalitarian Disneyland for the American media/entertainment complex.  What else could Russia have to offer?

Russia has a long history of preoccupation with its image on the world stage.  America, on the other hand, is notoriously self-absorbed, indeed, self-satisfied, with little interest in other countries.  We do, of course, get involved in foreign wars on a regular basis, but, really, our relationship with the rest of the world is one of benign neglect punctuated by the occasional recollections that other countries do exist; then, like a guilty, but dutiful child picking up a Hallmark card on Mother’s Day, we remember to drop a bomb or send a drone to show that we care. 

America was briefly infatuated with Russia and the Soviet Union during Gorbachev’s perestroika, a period that proved as anomalous for the U.S. as it did for its home country.  The damage, however, was done:  for at least five years (late perestroika through 1993), citizens of the (former) Soviet Union could justifiably convince themselves that we actually cared.  We sent them McDonalds and Pizza Hut, and eventually humanitarian aid in the form of chicken (“Bush legs,” as Russians called them) and leftover Desert Storm MREs.  More ominously, we sent our “experts” to reform/ruin the national economy, and acted as indefatigable cheerleaders for the country’s new democratic institutions (even when Russia’s president disbanded and then shelled the country’s parliament in 1993).  


Love Will Tear Us Apart

In retrospect, the turn against America should have been predictable.  When we put our stamp of approval on a neoliberal, “democratic” regime that saw incomes plummet and crime run rampant, we became complicit in its failures.  Even this could have been remedied, but we added insult to injury through neglect and lack of respect.  Rather than seeing Russia as a partner (or even an antagonist—at least enemies get attention), we moved in the international arena as if Russia didn’t matter at all.  

The 1999 NATO bombing of Yugoslavia was a well-known turning point for Russia, when the media and popular opinion portrayed the Serbian people as victims of an overreaching predator.  Russia’s then Prime Minister, Yevgeny Primakov was flying over the Atlantic on an official visit to the USA when he heard that NATO had commenced its bombing; Primakov briefly achieved cult hero status by ordering the plane to turn around immediately.  This move was quickly dubbed “Primakov's Loop,” an ironically appropriate term for a decision made because of the information loop from which Primakov had been excluded. 

Russia’s anger over the bombings was cast, both internally and for export, in terms of the longstanding brotherly ties between two Orthodox Slavic nations.  But these ties were only (re)discovered in the 1990s; in other words, the Russian media and political elites emotionally reinvested in Serbia precisely when Yugoslavia was collapsing.  The implicit homology between Serbia and Yugoslavia on one side and Russia and the Soviet Union on the other meant that Serbia’s struggles were seen as a proxy for Russia’s.  What the American media cast as a human rights and European security problem was, in Russia, presented as a test case for America’s plans for Russia itself. 

If America is the enemy (indeed, if America is hell-bent on wiping Russia from the map), its aggressive role in the plots against Russia must have a reason.  Even a desire for world-domination only goes so far, while the resource-based arguments made in the Houston Plan are ultimately too pragmatic to be compelling on their own.

As the current American election campaign so sadly demonstrates, Russia and America are trapped in a game of discursive doubling.  For years, the Russian media have been driving home the message that America is the cause of nearly all its problems (funding the opposition, masterminding Maidan, ruining Russian higher education through a nefarious system of grants), and now the American media are having a field day, blaming Vladimir Putin for Donald Trump (a xenophobic disaster that has more than earned the “Made in America” label). So, too, do Russian explanations for Western Russophobia echo the most banal American explanation for hostility to the U.S. around the globe: “They hate us for our freedoms.”  In the case of Russophobia, the answer is “They hate us for our spiritual values.”  

The Russian chattering classes can’t get enough of Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations,” a notion that, whatever merits Huntington’s book might have, easily lends itself to facile essentialism.  The adoption of “traditional values” as fundamental to Russian ideology in Putin’s third term is the culmination of years of resentment and skepticism towards “European” or “Western” values.  By no means do I endorse the “clash of civilizations” model, which I find in practice to be little more than an ideological prop; instead, I am arguing that this model has obtained such widespread currency in contemporary Russian discourse as to be all but taken for granted. 

If,  in the clash of civilizations à la Russe, Russia’ represents “conservative”, “traditional,” or “spiritual” values, what does America represent? The antithesis of these values, framed as fundamentally anti-Russian:  liberalism. 

Next: Либерализм и борьба с ним (Liberalism and the Fight against It)


[1] Former Oberlin College President Robert W. Fuller made the cover of Whole Earth Review in Winter 1986 with a proposal for the merger of the United States and Soviet Union into “Amerruss.”  The response was, of course, underwhelming, although Power of Prophecies Ministries President Texe Marrs did cite Fuller’s article as evidence of an Illuminati plot.