A Short, Unfinished Note on Russia and Misunderstanding.


In a recent Moscow Times article the theatre critic and translator John Freedman mused on a declaration by US senator John McCain on the Russia that is and the Russia that we wish for. Instead of this being a reaction to a hollow expression, Freedman turned it into a reflection on both the past and the possible territory into which Russia is moving. For a newspaper article it is an unusually dialogic text. The circumstances of traveling back to the US from Russia and discovering a host of old newspapers from a period when western perceptions of Russia were almost diametrically opposite to those existing today make it so. For me the subjects broached in the article are, in a way, too excessive for words. Or rather that the words are so difficult to find. How to describe Russia, how to compare Russia, how to read Russia. This is the conundrum for me. In many ways this minimalist journey through citations is not a bad one.

Unfortunately there are certain quotes that are so omnipresent that they make you want to reach for the proverbial gun after hearing them yet again. There is the Churchillian quote that anglo-saxon’s like to use about Russian being the “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma” , and the Tiutchev quote that Russians quote with regularity when they know they are dealing with a foreigner with little experience of Russia:

Умом Россию не понять, /Аршином общим не измерить. У ней особенная стать, В Россию можно только верить!

You will not grasp her with your mind, Or cover with a common label, For Russia is one of a kind —
Believe in her, if you are able…

The Moscow Times have provided another list of quotes of varying inanity or apparent profundity here

But the quote that I’d choose to try and get someone’s head around Russia is the least pithy one but the one that needs to be reflected upon. It was the John Bowlt one that John Freedman quoted in the article. But not just the quote (“Russians are just as civilized as everyone else”) but what Freedman calls the wryness and the forcefulness of the statement need to be replicated too.

Russia seems, as John Freedman says, to be moving into a particularly unpredictable territory. The problem is that the signs are dire but the descriptions of these signs or the lack of imagination people have when discussing Russian are just as dire. Take, for example, the recent splat or, as the competent Russia-hand Julia Ioffe put it, the “mansplaining and O’Reillying” of her by television presenter Lawrence O’Donnell

This is, in many ways, indicative of a certain way of how journalists are expected to discuss Russia. It seems to be a rare journalist (and Julia Ioffe seems to be one of them) who tries to resist the common sense so nauseatingly totalising in the western media. It may be quite understandable why. Russia has, it seems, entered into a qualitatively different period of repression since the Pussy Riot trial. Its government has enacted some pretty weird and disconcerting homophobic legislation along with a number of other sinister steps. Some of the more scandalous moves of the Russian authorities are actually under-reported. The anti-gay law so far has been rather patchily applied whereas the moves of the police authorities against migrants have been massive. According to Human Rights Watch the figures of detentions has reached 4,000 Moreover, this ‘hidden news’ doesn’t seem to be irking anyone too much. Those linked with the Russian opposition haven’t been furiously pounding their twitter accounts or their Facebook pages with protests because, well, this would an uncomfortable issue for the Navalny camp. When one documentary film director put a picture of the camp up of a child in a migrants camp with the title ‘Ordinary Fascism’ he received little understanding and much criticism from his, most probably, oppositional-minded followers. One of the only figures to write an angry, radical post about this subject was the queer activist and libertarian, Seroe-Fioletovoe. Denouncing everyone as a Nazi (from Moscow liberals, leftists, anti-fascists to gay activists and himself included) it was one of those pieces of writing that most probably wouldn’t appear in any mainstream publication outside Russia (it appeared on the blog of the Gazprom-owned by opposition minded radio station Echo Moskvy. Just as a Pussy Riot group never appeared in the Vatican in spite of the churches absolutely horrendous history of covering up pedophile priests for decades. This, for me, indicates one of those reasons that John Bowlt’s quote has something to say for it. The radical backlash stil llooks more possible in Russia. At present, it seems that black humour is the mainstream refuge from the grotesque new morality legislation that has been brought into play. A little like in Brezhnev’s Soviet Union (but yes this is an overused trope too) there is a certain kind of joyful ‘desperate complicity’ (and resistance at the same time) in revealing the worst aspects of the present moment- showing that you are surviving and naming the worst, the darkest, the most absurd moments of the present. Perhaps if Joyce had been Russian he may have written that the present (rather than history) was a nightmare from which he was trying to escape.

Coming up with ways of comparing Russia and ‘the west’ is a frustrating business. They all, sooner or later, end up in the vortex of the well-worn trope that disguises much more than it reveals. Better to re-read Boris Groys’s essay on ‘Russia as the Subconscious of the West’ before I add to the predictable tropes and dig myself into any more holes for not having said quite what I meant to say.

About afoniya

I am a translator, language teacher, independent film scholar who is interested in many aspects of culture. I have my own blog on Russian and Soviet cinema at http://giuvivrussianfilm.blogspot.com and I have also written for journals such as Film Philosophy and Bright Lights as well as Ribbed magazine. Outside of film my interest runs to language, politics, literature and my world is centred around the Meditteranean, Russia, Southern Ukraine as well as the UK.

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  1. Pingback: A Short, Unfinished Note on Russia and Misunderstanding. | Research Material

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