Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Russia, Book 2

Russia, Book 2

Lost and Found in Russia: Lives in a Post-Soviet Landscape

Those who know me well know that I am completely incoherent in the morning without my coffee. Subsequently, it will come as no surprise that I was a bit disengaged from my surroundings early that Saturday morning, as I traveled on the U-Bahn on the way to one of my favorite cafes on the other side of Berlin. However, even despite my incoherence, I could tell that something was afoot. There were simply just too many people and too much makeup and too many colors in that little train car. 

At the end of the line, I found myself completely overcome by the sight. The street was flooded with decorated buses, floats, confetti, and balloons – all brightly rainbow-colored. The street was packed with men dressed in either S&M or as women. Lady Gaga music was blaring. In the midst of this mental overload (and without my coffee, mind you), I noticed that all around me were young people dressed exactly as I (plain white t-shirt and white shorts). They started to congregate and ascend unto a large float. I squinted to make out the wordage on the side: DILDOKING.DE. I met the eyes of a few of the parade participants and it was clear that they thought I was one of them. In my morning exhaustion, I did not have the mental energy to do anything but run right back into the metro for refuge. 

Ironically, a mere few hours later, I was given an additional opportunity at my own “Ferris Bueller” moment. While with a friend of mine (a PhD student in math at MIT) and his friend (a Korean girl and Harvard-educated engineer), somehow I found myself in the midst of the Christopher Street Day Parade (Berlin’s largest gay pride parade) once again. Walking along, an over-exuberant gentleman surrounded by fellow dancers on a float pointed at me and indicated that he wanted me to join them. Sensing my hesitation, he shouted to me that my friends were likewise invited. Just as I was about to scream out an enthusiastic “JA!,” I looked down at the Korean girl and saw the primal fear in her eyes. She did not speak very much German, but could tell that something ghastly was about to sweep her up. Politely, I signaled my decline and found myself walking along the street with my two comrades, intellectually discussing the homosexual culture in Berlin, as well as the Railroad Museum we had attended just moments before. 

It was at this parade that I first encountered the Russian anti-gay laws. In fact, there was an entire float of protest against Russia: filled with men wearing Putin masks and little else. One man stood at the corner of the slow-moving float. I approached him and asked him what all of this was about: In a mix of broken German and English, he began to share with me about Putin’s Anti-Gay Bill. I could see his distress – even in the midst of the parade festivities, it was clear that his mind was preoccupied with the prospect of returning home to Moscow. 

Recently, Russia has come to receive a lot of international attention. Its recent annexation of the Crimea region of Ukraine has even been compared by some to the 1938 Anschluss, in which Hitler annexed Austria (where the majority was willing) due to a shared language and culture. When thinking about this blog post about my second book on Russia, I knew that I wanted to present the modern situation. It was with this in mind that I read GQ’s “Inside the Iron Closet: What It's Like to Be Gay in Putin's Russia.” In particular, I was drawn to this one statement near the beginning: 

One of the first men I met was Alex, a gay police officer who'd recently quit his job rather than enforce Russia's new anti-gay law. He wasn't always so principled: One of Alex's early assignments on the force was snooping through a fellow officer's computer for evidence of homosexuality. "I was just lucky it wasn't my computer," Alex said one night at a café on Arbat Street, Moscow's main thoroughfare of consumer hipsterism.

His boyfriend wasn't as glib: "It's Germany in the '30s," he declared. "Hush, hush," Alex said. "Not so loud." It's not Germany in the '30s, he said; it's Russia now. And that's a subtler problem. 

I found this quote interesting, as it appealed to some simple arguments that have been used in the Russian-US relationship throughout history: good vs. bad; enlightenment vs. ignorance; freedom vs. authoritarianism. As I thought back to “Lost and Found in Russia: Lives in a Post-Soviet Landscape” by Susan Richards, I remembered why I originally bought it: I did not want my knowledge of the modern history of Russia to be domineered by my knowledge of the former Soviet Union or of Putin. I wanted to understand the intricacies of it and gain an understanding of a country that could within 20 years change so drastically. How many changes the Russian people have encountered: from a loss of an empire to the rise of the Orthodox Church; from being one of the so-called rising BRIC countries in 2001 to being led by an authoritarian figure. 

This book is a truly fascinating one that threads between travelogue, memoir, and a work of non-fiction. Susan Richards, a westerner fluent in Russian, weaves between her own personal experiences with her friends following the fall of the Soviet Union and larger societal issues – providing a rich and gratifying image of the true challenges of the real Russian people. She describes and tells the stories of her friends, who each, “reacted to the fall of communism by going crazy in their own way. Each faced the task of reinventing themselves, as well as having to survive the suicide buried in their family.” (page 274) She describes her friends’ struggle with selling themselves and their services under a new capitalistic market. She saw them adopt and disregard systems of belief, as they vainly searched for something to fill the void of socialism. She likewise notes that this was not only occurring among her friends, but within the whole Russian society: “For well over a decade the population had been shrinking at the rate of more than six hundred thousand a year, and Russia’s men were the core of the problem. They were dying of alcohol and drugs, committing suicide, crashing their cars, falling victim to the careless violence of a society which put as little value on the individual as ever.” (page 261) 

Indeed, this identity crisis did not only occur on a micro level, from person to person, but was forced to occur among all levels of Russian society. The loss of the Soviet identity was extremely difficult not only for the people, but also for the government. (It is important to note that before the Soviet identity, Russia had an identity based on its empire.) As the author notes, “What does it mean to be Russian?... Ethnicity was not enough, for the Russians were not all Slav. Territory could not be the defining factor either, for this vast land straddling Europe and Asia had no clear borders to the west or south.” (page 91) In the midst of this identity crisis, the newly found Russia faced one hardship after another: 

(1)    From 1992-1993: Serious economic reforms were enacted throughout Russia, in order to rid itself of socialism. One such example was the relaxation of price controls, as many goods and services were forced to be held at a certain price by the government. Likewise, the government started a program of privatization of formerly state-owned businesses. “By mid-1993 over 40 percent of Russians were living in poverty – as opposed to 1.5 percent in the late Soviet period.” (page 1)
(2)    Perhaps these capitalistic reforms would have been better received by the Russian population, if it was not so blatantly clear that they had failed: “By the end of 1994, the mass privatization program was over. But despite this huge shift of ownership, the old Soviet factory managers were still in charge of industry.” (page 83)
(3)    By the time that 1997 came around, an estimated 8 men controlled over 50 percent of the Russian economy. In the meantime, although it was not reaching the lower social strata, western capital was flooding into Moscow. In 1998, the Russian economy experienced a financial crash, which devastated the middle class. “Overall 30 percent of small business folded. Living standard crashed by 40 percent.” (page 135) 

It was in this tumultuous environment that Putin came to power, only one year after the financial crash in 1999. A part of his mantra (and indeed his actions in office supported this – including Russia cutting off oil to the Ukraine in 2006 to express its disagreement to the Orange Revolution and its accession to NATO) was to make Russia once again powerful. In short, the government wanted the unifying identity of the Russian people to be based on Russia’s greatness, as partially described in this interesting article from The Moscow Times I recently found on the internet: 

Energizing the collective psyche probably requires a new vision of Russian greatness or a real sense of enemy. Of course, the two can go very nicely together in a mindset tinged by paranoia. This became abundantly clear on Oct. 20, when Putin officially established the Directorate for Social Projects, whose goal is to strengthen "the spiritual and moral foundations of Russian society" and stimulate "patriotic upbringing." Even the struggle for a new Russian identity has been infiltrated by foreign powers hostile to Russia's renewed greatness using nongovernmental organizations to sap the nation's strength. "Cultural identity and spiritual and moral values are the subject of intense competition, at times even of an open information war and well-orchestrated propaganda attacks," Putin said.  

Please feel free to comment on these topics or note something interesting from the book. I look forward to hearing your opinions! 

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