Johnson’s Russia List, #7010, 9 January 2003
One of the most significant events of the year 2002 was the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to the former US President Jimmy Carter. I think this award has profound implications both for the American and for the Russian history. What exactly did Carter get his Prize for? Could it be that Carter wanted to build an America of Kurt Vonnegut, but was defeated by Reagan so that now we have the America of Tom Clancy? Was a drunken Yeltsin a better man than a sober Putin? In both Russia and America, there has been a complete cultural change from the 70ies to the 90ies; have we lost something valuable along with a culture that now seems a distant memory?
I was born in 1958 and spent the first 21 years of my life in Moscow, USSR. In all these years, I recall just one episode when I felt a profound, jaw-dropping astonishment, and that was when one of my father’s friends (born in 1932, I believe, he was) stated his belief that Lenin genuinely meant to improve the lives of the people. Having heard that, I giggled expecting this to be a joke, but then looked at him and discovered that he was sincere. When my eyeballs got back into their orbits, we found ourselves unable to resume the conversation. Not that it was easy to startle me: I had met a person who had killed at least ten people with an axe, I had been friendly with someone who once had to eat human flesh to survive - I had been around, but prior to that moment I had not seen a sincere communist, ever.
At the time, my hatred for the Soviet regime bordered on insanity, and all I wanted was to get out. I could not stand the constant lies, I feared the Gulag, and I felt helpless to change the regime that was hell-bent on aggression and destruction. I thought that my life would be wasted if I stayed. Fortunately, I was Jewish, and President Carter’s human rights campaign saved my life. I immigrated on October 19, 1979, and I still celebrate that day as my second birthday.
What I did not realize then was that my life in Moscow actually had very valuable aspects to it. I had great friends, and all of us read wonderful books, saw excellent movies, and regularly went to hear magnificent classical music. We read Bulgakov, Platonov, Solzhenitsin, Shalamov, Pasternak, Brodsky, Akhmatova - there are no better writers, anywhere, in any historical period, in any language. When Dmitry Shostakovich did not occupy his customary chair at the Moscow Conservatory’s Great Hall, I sat on that chair myself! (I since had to wash my behind, but I did it with regret). We knew right from wrong, and the Communists were like cockroaches, ever-present, indestructible, numerous, disgusting, but cockroaches nonetheless. Never talked to one prior to the moment I have just described.
So, in the fall of 1979, I left it all behind, flew to Vienna and from there took a train to Rome. I was not prepared for what I saw there: Italy was awash in red flags. The Communist Party star with the PCI lettering in the center was painted everywhere, including the walls of the Coliseum. An Italian girl named Eliza took such an instant liking of me, that it would have come to sex (without communication, since I don’t speak Italian), had I not discovered just in time, that what attracted her to me was that I was a “sovietico”. Since I was both an anti-sovietico and an idiot, Eliza did not get lucky, which I still regret.
Then I flew to New York, and soon enrolled in Columbia University. There, my fellow students could not believe I left the Socialism behind, and blamed me for having betrayed the Brightest Hope of Humanity. In Russia, I had never fought, but in Columbia I struck a student for screaming “Viva Castro!” into my ear.
September 1980 was a scary time. American hostages had been held in Iran for more than a year, the rescue mission had failed, the inflation was raging, and President Carter had fear in his eyes. Just like my fellow native-born American students were telling me, Socialism looked like the future of the world and the capitalist system appeared to have rotted to the core; that pleased them, but it did not please me.
Yet, at the very last moment, America was to be saved. There appeared the magnificent smile, the melodious tough talk and the unshakable faith of Ronald Reagan - and the recent Russian emigres, myself included, were fanatical in their support of him. We instantly forgot that it was Carter that had gotten us out of Russia. With Reagan’s victory, Iran ceased to be a news item, American Army recovered its composure and then its strength, and the economy boomed. I still think Reagan was a great President. Moreover, my first reaction would be to say that Reagan deserves the Nobel Peace Prize much more than Carter does. Indeed, being a great President and only then allowing oneself to succumb to a debilitating disease is way better than to be a bad President and then to become a charity carpenter and an idealistic spokesman.
Until recently, I was very clear on where I stood on the Carter vs. Reagan issue. But, as often happens, I was made wiser by having suffered a personal tragedy. In July 1999, I wrote a confidential letter of concern to the Department of State about American marauders who mismanaged millions of dollars of US aid to Russia. The money was supposed to be used for conversion of the Russian weapons of mass destruction but instead ended up funding a palatial private apartment and paying the fees of the Moscow Country Club. The blatant cover up of my allegations conducted by the Departments of State and Defense had a profound effect on me. Blacklisted and penniless, I had two years to rethink my life. And then it dawned on me that President Carter’s famous “malaise” speech had much more to it than I first realized. Indeed, America was being switched on me right at the moment of my arrival!
Where was I immigrating to in October of 1979? To America of Kurt Vonnegut and Simon & Garfunkel. It was America of Hemingway, America that John Lennon chose as his new home. It was America that tried to be better, America that was not afraid of self-doubt, America that was searching for the truth. But with Reagan, America found The Truth: the blue jeans were out and the military fatigues were in. As the country grew more prosperous, the ultimate travesty of designer jeans, costing 70 dollars and more, appeared. My jeans had colorful patches made by my mom, and they were well-worn Levi’s, brother.
Granted, Reagan was saving the country, but he was doing it by drastically changing it, by putting an end to the great journey that America was about. America has arrived: it was an unabashed market economy united to fight Communism. I came to America because Martin Luther King had had a dream of equal opportunity, and I arrived just in time to watch the televised discussion of the length of Clarence Thomas’s penis. It went downhill from there: since Reagan we have had a CIA President, a Liar President, and now here comes the Department of Homeland Security. If you are really so concerned about weapons of mass destruction, why don’t you investigate my allegations; but no, they won’t; instead, they now want me to file forms detailing my travel.
President Carter was kind and honest and since he strove to be a better person and a better President, sometimes he was overcome by self-doubt. Reagan was none of the above: he was just busy playing Savior of the Western Civilization. Carter was a human being from America, while Reagan was a celluloid presence from Hollywood. Now, I can see the big difference. If a Nobel Prize were to be given to Reagan, it would be as if it were given to film, but a Carter’s Nobel Prize has the great significance of being a posthumous Prize given to the long-forgotten America that culminated at Woodstock. Vonnegut is still alive, but I doubt that he likes what he sees: the civilization that he was trying to build has evaporated.
And now we come to Yeltsin and Putin. Do you know what happened in Russia in the twentieth century? It was so grandiose, so cosmic, so much grander than any other historical period anywhere that it takes your breath away just to list those momentous events. There was Lenin, whose appearance truly was almost equal to the appearance of Jesus, only with an opposite sign. There was the great bloodbath of the Civil War whose winners had Great Hopes. There was Stalin who cannot be adequately described in words. There was the tragedy of Collectivization. There were millions of new engineers, doctors, scientists, and writers, whose parents had been barefoot and illiterate. There was the Gulag. There was the Great Patriotic War, an event that is greater in scope than history of this planet can bear. There was half the world under a Stalin’s boot. There was a real threat of nuclear annihilation. And then all of it suddenly evaporated, and we had the first President of an independent and democratic Russia.
Who do you want this person to be, how would you want him to behave? Here, one episode stands out as the most memorable. At the withdrawal of the Russian Army from Germany, Yeltsin was so drunk he took the baton and conducted the German military orchestra. For that, I am willing to forgive Yeltsin everything. Indeed, here was Russia that was attacked, that suffered so much in the war, Russia that ended up winning the war, and now Russia was being asked to leave Europe, because it did not belong and because it was impoverished and utterly defeated. A Russian war veteran who took the Reichstag is not welcome there anymore because his monthly pension is less than the cost of a breakfast in a Berlin cafe. Yeltsin felt that he was participating in a final act of the greatest Greek tragedy ever staged, and he did the only fitting thing: got drunk and conducted the orchestra. This is the moment I will be recounting to my children and grandchildren when they ask me what life is about and why did God put us on this Earth. I love Yeltsin.
And now here comes Putin. Putin has different relationship with human emotions. He is calm, collected, sober, and indifferent. He is not about to conduct a German orchestra: he speaks German and prefers to be technical rather than emotional. Putin is a better manager of the country than Yeltsin was, just like Reagan was better than Carter on such important tasks as getting the US Army back into a fighting shape. But Russia also needs an emotional, moral leadership, and that is exactly what Putin is not providing and cannot provide. Russia has the AIDS crisis, the Chechnya crisis, the Oligarchy crisis. Yeltsin would have gotten drunk about it all, thereby alerting the country. Putin is silent about it. Putin’s defining moment came when Larry King asked him what happened to the Kursk submarine. “It sunk”, said Putin with a smile. Now, that looks like an efficient answer, but in fact it is not an answer at all because Russia is dropping out of the ranks of industrialized powers while sitting on a huge arsenal of rusting nuclear weapons. But Putin did not say any of that. In the new Russian reaganesque civilization, they talk in very short sentences.
Gleb Pavlovsky, Russia’s keenest observer, recently noted that the Russian dissident movement, and its party, the Democratic Russia, were dead. Pavlovsky is absolutely right, they are. But the dissident movement was the soul of Russia, the movement that turned some Soviets into human beings, leaving the other Soviets as Sovoks, that is, aggressive and pernicious machine-worshiping and envious robots, that used to be known as squares in America. Dissidents were Russian hippies, Russian poets, Russian Beatles. Now, when they indeed are gone, Russia, too, is ready for its version of the Department of Homeland Security to be the Moral Guide and a Gentle (Ever-Present) Protector. As usual, they are starting by censoring books. They do so because they have the Certainty and the Resolve of Reagan and Putin and none of the Self-Doubt and Emotion of Carter and Yeltsin.
Let’s take the economy. Yeltsin trusted the Americans and, under their tutelage, allowed Chubays to give the Russian people a vicious flying kick in the pants to propel them towards the oligarchic bureaucratic capitalism. Putin is not so emotional: he prefers to slowly pull the people on the rope, blindfolded and gagged. Putin is right: it works much better, but it is not good enough. The key is to involve the Russians into the management of their own country, to turn them into citizens. To do so, one needs to send the Russians an emotional message, to do a Russian version of the “malaise” speech, and Putin is unable to do that.
Another burning Russian question is Chechnya. I do not support Chechen independence, I am convinced that the Chechen leaders indeed are bandits and terrorists. But this is not the issue: the issue is that the Russian army is raping women and that Putin must be taught to talk. We know that Putin, just like Reagan and Bush, can drop daisy-cutters, but there must be a better solution. Here, I would rather have Carter, who was thinking about Vietnam, or Yeltsin, who needed vodka to fight his doubts. I am concerned about the way the Chechnya situation is developing because I support doubt, especially doubt before you kill. Once Putin exterminates the Chechens, the doubt will go out of Russian politics. Once he is victorious, Putin will make a (short) speech telling the Russians how it should be, and so it will be, until it all collapses, leaving one big Department of Homeland Security where Russia once stood. It is then when we will recall the Carter’s Nobel Prize and what it stood for - the great leadership of having the strength to doubt.