Russians and Americans

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By Nathaniel Smith, Columnist, The Times

Governments and their people are not the same thing. That’s what Americans spending time abroad were saying to French friends in the 1960s, when the US was taking the disastrous step of picking up France’s colonial wars in the former Indochina. And it’s still true today. Let’s hope Europeans, including Russians, realize our government does not speak for all of us. And we should do them the favor of realizing the same about their countries.

I have known several Russians who escaped a full century ago, after the 1917 revolution and Bolshevik consolidation of power. Like most immigrants, they looked back fondly on their youth in the country of their birth but they also adapted happily and productively to their new surroundings. If you’d like to read about the tumultuous cultural and political life of that period, see the gripping memoir The House by the Dvina: A Russian Childhood by Eugenia Fraser, half Russian and half Scottish, born in 1905, who grew up in Archangel until she had to emigrate to Scotland during the Revolution. 

For most of the 20th century, American politicians were berating the Russians and their leaders as “Godless communists.” Now, at least that moniker doesn’t stick, because Russian society is as capitalistic as ours, and the Orthodox Church has reaffirmed its centuries-old hegemony there.

I recently visited The Museum of Russian Art in Minneapolis. The weather was pretty Siberian and the museum, as always, had interesting displays. In the museum bookstore I noted a book about the Alaskan-Siberian airlift that carried vital supplies to the USSR in the struggle against then-imperialist Japan and Germany. Who knew?

Russia and the US, close neighbors across the Bering Strait, have long been rivals in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Since far back in the Czarist era, Russia has aspired to control a warm-water port that could be used year-round for Mediterranean and Atlantic access. Keep your eye on Turkey, which has just signed on to buy Russian air defense missiles. And keep your eye on Syria, where the former KGB operative has outmaneuvered the former reality TV show host. And keep your eye on global warming, which before long may accomplish Russian goals via their Baltic ports.

After being allied in World War II, Russia and the US, fortunately, got through 40+ years of Cold War without bombing each other into nuclear annihilation. Leaders often postured but at times of crisis, like the Cuban Missile Crisis, they acted like grownups.

Russians endured terrible hardships during the periods of nationalization and collectivization in the 1920s and 1930s, during Stalin’s oppressive rule, in World War II (including the horrifically destructive battles of Leningrad and Stalingrad), and during its difficult entry into robber baron capitalism in the 1990s, after the fall of the USSR. And through all that period, I learned in Minneapolis, villages have been turning out the famous Russian nested dolls, one nestled inside the other, with a real feeling for artistry, folklore, and sometimes politics. And another exhibit showed that painters in Vladimir, east of Moscow, were somehow able to resist the dictates of Soviet Realism and produce landscapes and portraits that were quite to my taste.

Russia is not currently an economic threat to the US. If economy is power, the US would be misdirected in considering Russia its chief rival. I am concerned that the current (very justified) outrage about Putin’s meddling in our electoral politics and democratic procedures will obscure the real issues: whether the US can compete in a world free market, whether our citizens can recognize policies that truly affect their everyday lives (economy, education, environment, to name the top of my list), and whether we will pay enough attention to carry on the wisdom of our Founders.

Russian people, as far as I can tell, want safety in their homes, prosperity, a stable government, respect from other countries commensurate with their long history on the world stage. If that sounds familiar, it’s because American people and most others in the world want the same. And most inhabitants of the northern latitudes, at this time of year, just want to come home to a warm house, a little vodka, beer or tea, and a good meal.

At this point in history, many Russians are probably reflecting, as many Americans do: governments pass, people remain, and whatever crazy things governments do, the people don’t need to act crazy as well.

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