Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.
--Daniel Patrick Moynihan

January 18, 2013

Russia and the West: The Continuity of Culture

By David K. Shipler

            In 1977, after a deadly fire killed at least twenty and blackened the walls of Moscow’s massive Rossiya Hotel, a West German television crew was stopped by a police lieutenant from filming on the street outside. Why? asked the correspondent, Fritz Pleitgen. The officer explained: “We do not want to let foreigners laugh at our misfortune.”
            It was a quick glimpse into the xenophobia of Soviet times, and into Russians’ agony over the way they pictured themselves being seen by the outside world. Think how much pain and isolation it takes to imagine foreigners eagerly laughing at your tragedy.
            Given recent events, it’s worth asking how much Russia’s complex about the West has changed in 35 years.
I’m hardly a judge of this, not having been there for two decades. But from a distance, Moscow’s ban on Americans adopting Russian children, plus a bevy of legislative proposals in Parliament erecting other barriers, suggest that the depths of insularity and suspicion remain strong enough in Russian culture to survive the revolutionary political upheavals the country has seen.
            In 1518, the monk Maxim the Greek, invited to Moscovy by Grand Prince Basil III to revise liturgical texts, was never allowed to leave, being told, “We are in fear: thou, a man of learning, comest to us and hast seen here of our best and worst, and when thou goest hence thou wilt tell of everything.”
In 1839, the Marquis de Custine wrote of his journey in Russia, “Every traveler is indiscreet, so it is necessary, as politely as possible, to keep track of the always too inquisitive foreigner lest he see things as they are—which would be the greatest of inconveniences.”
In 2013, the legislature is considering banning all foreign adoptions, not just those by Americans. “One group of legislators is working on a bill that would prevent anyone with foreign citizenship, including Russians, from criticizing the government on television,” Ellen Barry writes in The New York Times. “One proposal would ban the use of foreign driver’s licenses, another would require officials to drive Russian-made cars. One deputy has recommended strictly limiting marriages between Russian officials and foreigners, at least those from states that were not formerly Soviet.”
In addition, she reports, officials might lose their posts if their children study abroad or fail to return to Russia immediately after their schooling. One bill would stiffly fine movie theaters that show Russian-made films less than 20 percent of the time. (In Soviet days, a drummer told me that bands had been given quotas as well; no more than half the tunes played during a performance could be foreign.)
Not that today’s Russia is the Soviet Union, of course. Today, outspoken citizens who do not share the ethnocentrism and xenophobia can openly criticize such measures and even demonstrate against them in the streets, as they have done over the adoption ban. Russians travel and study and emigrate abroad as they were never free to do before. Marriages to foreigners were virtually impossible for any citizen, much less for an official, and Soviet authorities did not allow orphans to leave the country, period.
Still, the strains of discomfort over interactions with the outside world, and the impulses to erect barriers, indicate that certain strong currents of culture are more durable than political systems. A continuity has run from the czars through the communists, and now into the semi-free post-Soviet era.
It is important to understand Russia at this level to conduct a sensible foreign policy. There is no profit in badgering or laying siege, no gain from moral arrogance or self-righteous lecturing. It is wise to tune into the old Russian reflexes, which seem to remain intact, because they include an intriguing mixture of inferiority and superiority to the West, and especially to the United States.
Alongside an aversion stands a longing for contact with a prosperous, exciting, permissive world. Russian society has long been cut through with mixed attitudes about democracy and free enterprise, but during Soviet times, artifacts from the West as modest as jeans and  business calendars were always prized as symbols of prestige and as currency in schemes of favoritism and bribery.
            In this vein, I can’t resist telling a story from my book, Russia: Broken Idols, Solemn Dreams:
            [One December in the late 1970s] a carton of Chase Manhattan Bank calendars was delivered to the bank’s offices in the Meteropole Hotel near Red Square, setting off a remarkable chain of events. The bank’s secretary in the outer office buzzed the bank’s representative, David Buckman, on the intercom. She told him the calendars had arrived. Five minutes later she appeared in Buckman’s office to explain, quietly, that the gentleman who listens to the telephones had heard the conversation about the calendars and wondered if he might have a few. “I figured I’d smoke him out,” Buckman told me later. So he had his secretary tell the KGB man that he, Buckman, would present him with some calendars if he came personally to get them. Minutes later the man was there, shaking hands and smiling, receiving his calendars, taking Buckman down the hall to show him his room equipped with telephone paraphernalia and a reel-to-reel tape recorder. Thereafter, when Buckman came to work each morning, the KGB man would lean out of his room and wave greetings.


  1. I just returned from a semester in Russia and saw much evidence of the things you describe here.

  2. I am glad to see a report on your take of this situation. I feel that our relations with Russia are not proportionally represented in mainstream media. Also I was lucky enough to find a copy of your mentioned book this past summer at a local chicken barn. I would say that there is more room for relations with Russia than ever, if we are able to overcome any cultural / political boundaries that so easily stop progression.

  3. I lived in Moscow from 1977 to 1979 - I was in the same class as Jonathan. I remember hating knowing that our apartment was bugged. I recall a trip to Kiev with a bunch of Canadian families - we tried splitting up into different groups to see if enough KGB agents would appear to follow each group - Dad said they did!