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Salvo 09.22.2022 10 minutes

Russia’s Western Face

Statue of Liberty inside of Russian nesting doll

Gorbachev inherited an empire that was ready to dissolve.

Obituaries of the recently deceased last Soviet head of state Mikhail Gorbachev can be separated into two piles. Pile one: Gorbachev was a hero who opened Russia to the West, liberalized its economy, and permitted the free exchange of ideas. Pile two: Gorbachev gave away the hard-won empire and annihilated the economy and social order. From both perspectives, the Communist leader is seen as a vigorous actor shaping history. But what if he was less of that and more of a man of his time who followed the lead of his own people?

Unlike Peter the Great, the late seventeenth-century tzar who westernized Russia’s medieval elites by force, Gorbachev ruled a population that, to a very large extent, was already enamored with the West. And while Soviet propaganda attempted to foster hatred of the way of life of the Atlantic strongholds of capitalism, it did so from a point of view that was itself grounded in European thought, namely Marxism, and was beholden to the Hegelian logic of progress.

The Soviet regime promised freedom and democracy, but it was painfully obvious that it delivered neither. Over the course of the Cold War, the West emerged as free, prosperous, and dynamic. Not surprisingly, by the mid-eighties, the younger generations of the Soviet people wanted democratic change and a friendly relationship with the West.

In the more conservative forties and fifties, popular sentiment about the Cold War enemy was often very positive. My father’s earliest memories of growing up in the Soviet Union during that period were of the Ivory soap and canned beef from American rations in World War Two. He and his peers grew up with trophy American films captured in Germany. Later came the bone music, or smuggled jazz and rock-n-roll bootlegs pressed on x-ray film stolen from hospital garbage bins.

Vasily Aksenov, one of the most distinct literary voices to come of age in the post-war USSR, examines the pro-American sentiment within the Russian-speaking world in his autobiography Searching for Baby Blue. Aksenov noted that hipster culture flourished in large cities, notably among the children of the nomenklatura who had direct access to Western cultural artifacts. At the same time, the Soviet masses associated the U.S. with abundance and generosity, and thought that Americans were similar to themselves, “simple people who like to drink.”  

Aksenov described how in 1969, at the high of Sino-Soviet tensions, he met a young Soviet officer in a restaurant in Kazakhstan. The officer was drunk and got tearful talking about the coming war. He was worried that the Chinese will come and take the new motorcycle. When Aksenov asked him if he is afraid of the Yanks, the man responded, “No, they respect private property.” Although communism was a Soviet export, the writer concluded, Russian speakers thought it was an ideology better suited for China. Russia, they thought, would do better with free enterprise.

In the decades immediately following World War II, the author explains, youth experienced the “bloody” and “dreary” everyday reality of Stalinism and yearned for something different. That’s when

“America came out of the fog as a new alternative to the ancient and nauseating creed of the social revolution, or rebellion of serfs against the lords.”

In the coming decades, the pro-Western mood among the young only got more entrenched. As anthropologist Alexey Yurchak explains in Everything Was Forever until It Was No More, in the Brezhnev era even the provincial youth Communist leaders wore blue jeans, listened to rock-n-roll, and regarded the assemblies they were charged with leading as empty formalities.

Even though the USSR fought a deadly war against Hitler’s Germany within living memory, the West was not considered a threat. Gorbachev himself survived the Nazi occupation of his village in southern Russia and his Communist father was a war veteran. But he understood that, for the younger generations, Germany was not swastikas and mass executions but Burda Moden and Scorpions, the seminal heavy metal band.

And even heavy-handed Soviet propaganda differentiated between Nazis and Germans. Kids knew that 22 million Soviets perished in World War Two, and that their memory was sacred. But the East Germans, they were informed, are our comrades, part of the Warsaw Pact, and the West German working class was expected to triumph over their capitalist overlords.

So, no, Gorbachev wasn’t dragging a kicking and screaming USSR into Atlanticist modernity. He responded to pressure from below. He himself admitted as much in an interview for the release of his 2012 autobiography Alone with Myself. Gorbachev recalled that in 1985, as his predecessor Chernenko lay dying, he spoke to the Politburo about “the need to start doing things differently.” He explained that “the people are unambiguous about it: ‘Tsoi sings at his concerts, “Demand Changes!” That, “Demand Changes!” People are saying loud and clear.’”

That incident never happened, or at least not the way Gorbachev described it. Victor Tsoi of the post-Punk band Kino wrote his hit “Waiting for Changes” in 1986. The chorus “Changes, our hearts demand/Changes, our eyes demand/in our laughter and in our tears/and in the throbbing of our veins/Changes! We are waiting for changes” made it into the instant anthem of perestroika. It doesn’t matter that he couldn’t recall when the song was written — the incoming General Secretary was very much in tune with the sentiment of the youth and set off a chain reaction leading to the fall of the Soviet regime.

Gorbachev’s reforms should not be taken for granted. Another leader might have continued the path of repression. Then again, maybe a more capable man would have arrived with a better plan or managed to contain the popular moods. Gorbachev didn’t have a better plan, and most of the constituent nations of the USSR quickly fell to criminality, corruption, and moral decay.

Like Gorbachev, Vladimir Putin is not running against the tide of history. Now that the pendulum of history has swung the other way, he is doing what many Russians want him to do: restore order and return imperial greatness. Putin rolled back political liberties but enabled tentative material well-being through the sale of his country’s abundant natural resources. With NATO allies challenging centuries-old Russian control of strategically vital Crimea and the stalwart Donbas, Americans are now viewed as an enemy.

It turned out that, from behind the Iron Curtain, the Soviet people developed an idealized view of the U.S. and Europe. Up close, the societies of prosperous liberal democracies don’t look as attractive as Hollywood films. No one knew, for instance, that obesity—the disease of the affluent society—is so common here.

Since the breakup of the USSR, Russia developed a glitzy entertainment industry. At the same time, American pop culture has sagged under the weight of neo-Stalinist woke restrictions and the inability to master a Stalinist rigor. The self-confident, dynamic artistic tradition that won over the world is no more.

That said, Russia’s current Eurasianist moment is frequently overstated. Nationalist philosopher Alexander Dugin is a minor influence in the Kremlin while Putin himself hails from St. Petersburg, the nation’s most westernized city. Russians are very much concerned about the difficulties they now face obtaining European visas.

With the war in Ukraine in full swing, Russians are defining themselves against Ukrainians who toppled monuments to Pushkin and excluded War and Peace from school programs. The Ukrainian people are told that polyglot humanist author Leo Tolstoy spoke favorably of the Russian army (of the Napoleonic Wars era), so he deserves to be banned. The Russian Federation is fashioning itself as a guardian of high culture, and its high culture is largely Western.

We can argue about what it means for Putin’s Russia and where it falls short, but what we should really do is take it as a challenge. After all, we have been consciously dismantling our own cultural heritage in the name of multiculturalism and wokeness. Instead of reproaching Russia for not being like us, it will serve the United States well to rediscover and to cherish the centuries of our own American tradition.

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