The Olympics are underway in Russia right now. With countless people flocking to the southern city of Sochi, the internet has been transformed into a discussion about the current state of the Russian Federation.
People are buzzing with the talk of Pussy Riot, Mikhail Khordokovsky, LGBTQ issues, terrorism, Russian corruption and despotism, and the relationship between Russia and the West.
Most importantly, however, is the fact that Sochi doesn’t look like what journalists and athletes anticipated.
This is evidenced by the brilliant, five-star reporting done by hard-hitting investigative reporters like those at CNN and the Washington Post.
Lack of hot water and internet? What is this!? Russia is awful!
At first, I too thought it was a little funny. I lived in Russia a few years ago and I’m also guilty of laughing at the seeming irrationality of the place. It’s certainly different than other countries I had seen. And those differences can be a little difficult to get used to.
But after the first 5 or 6 posts laughing at the unpreparedness of Sochi, I noticed something much more sinister about this collective Russia-bashing. It wasn’t situational. This is a very classical general attitude towards Russia – Europe’s stupid, backwards cousin.
The stereotypes of Russians abound, but the stereotypes of Russia are just as malevolent.
The stupid, backwards people can’t escape their stupid, backwards culture. And the worst part is that they don’t see how stupid and backwards they really are!
That’s why we, the Enlightened West, need to show them!
This attitude amounts to nothing less than Orientalism. Russia is a perfect case of Oriental despotism and savagery. Their government doesn’t look like ours, act like ours, or talk like ours. The people may look like us (white people), but they certainly don’t act or talk like us!
Therefore, we carry this disposition towards Russia that paints it as the embarrassing family member.
You know, the one you never want to talk to, but has a lot of money and influence. Your cousin Vladimir, drinking excessively and insisting that homosexuality “just isn’t natural”.
The worst part about Vladimir though? He doesn’t share your sacred values. He doesn’t appear to love democracy in the same way that you do. He doesn’t talk about free speech in the same way that you do.
After all, that’s what the whole Pussy Riot situation was about, right? Freedom of speech!
Despite the fact that Pussy Riot has said explicitly that the point is to actively break the law: “Our performances are always illegal, staged in unpredictable locations not designed for traditional entertainment.”
I’m not defending the Russian law, which I find absurd, but this outcry from the West over Pussy Riot is so overblown when compared with all the people who didn’t break the law and were still convicted of crimes.
It’s also interesting that the West is so quick to jump on the “lack of free speech” in Russia, but so quiet when “free speech” rights are transgressed by the United States. Why does everyone know about Pussy Riot, but no one knows about Tarek Mahenna?
What about LGBTQ rights?
This is one of the gems of the Enlightened West today. Russia is a den of homophobia, whereas Europe and America are shining beacons of equality for queers and transpeople! Of course, we ignore the fact that 8 U.S. states have basically the same anti-LGBTQ laws.
Coincidentally, no one wants to mention that while industrial capitalist Europe was getting over the first World War and fascist movements were growing, the Soviet Union was the first state in the world to decriminalize homosexuality.
God forbid we talk about history. That might require us to think about our stereotypes and how we focus on hot-button issues without talking about larger narratives.
This leads to a more interesting point: our narratives, the stories we tell about ourselves and others, are one-dimensional and ridiculously unhelpful.
Why is that? Why is it that you can probably tell me a bunch of bad things that the Soviet Union did, but not one good thing? Really? 70 years and not one good thing?
But we like to have these hot-button issues. Pussy Riot, Queer/Transphobia, and Mikhail Khordokovsky are wonderfully convenient lightning rods. If you don’t know who Khordokovsky is, then you should probably be warned that he’s characterized as a “pro-democracy business tycoon.”
If you don’t see the silliness of the label “pro-democracy business tycoon”, allow me to explain.
Khodokovsky wants power in Russia and he’s against Putin.
This qualifies as the perfect West’s wet-dream of “democracy in Russia”. The same West who showered praise upon Boris Yeltsin, who was “responsible for the violent deaths of more Russian citizens than any Kremlin leader since Joseph Stalin.”
Khordokovsky is one of the people known in Russia as the Oligarchs. These people received huge amounts of private property after the collapse of the USSR simply by having it given to them by their friends. The Oligarchs have subsequently amassed huge amounts of wealth and basically run things along with the Kremlin.
Meanwhile, the rest of the country is still, 20 years later, languishing in the backlash of the dismantling of the Soviet Union.
Despite all of this talk about human rights and freedom, most Americans actually didn’t want the Olympics in Russia because of “security concerns” (although 4% simply answered “Don’t like Russia”). Sochi isn’t all that far from Chechnya and Dagestan and Americans are worried about separatists performing some spectacular terrorist act.
Before we talk about the prospects of terrorism, we should probably talk about the context.
After Yeltsin dissolved the USSR with two men in a forest (super democratic, by the way), the former Soviet Republics were given independence from Russia (or Russia was given independence from them). Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and the rest of the Stans all became sovereign nation-states.
When this was happening, the people in the Caucasus saw a possibility to achieve victory in their centuries-long struggle for independence from Russia.
Yeltsin’s response was to invade and kill over a hundred thousand people (80% civilians). Putin, not to be outdone, escalated the second Chechen War immediately after being appointed president in 1999, killing 100,000 more people (and yet again about 80% were civilians).
Isn’t it interesting that the liberals who are so concerned with human rights aren’t calling for the independence of Chechnya?
Yet in 2008, when China hosted the Olympics, they were just oh so concerned with the independence of Tibet! Because the Dalai Lama remains the darling of the West. Of course, no one wants to talk about its brutal, theocratic past, because that would require a challenge of a standard narrative that all Tibetans are Buddhists.
Why was no one talking about independence for Xinjiang in 2008? Why was no one talking about Canada’s occupation and repression of American Indians in 2010?
Those don’t fit nicely into our narratives.
So are Americans justified in having security concerns about the Olympics in Sochi? Totally.
I’ve been saying that there should be security concerns since I saw Putin’s stupid speech about how great Sochi is. Terrorism is a real threat to any large event, because that’s how terrorists function. And terrorism does in fact occur in Russia.
But my question is this: where are all these Enlightened liberals calling for an end to the occupation of Chechnya and Dagestan? They seem to care more about Gay Pride Parades than the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent people.
Not that I don’t love a good Gay Pride Parade!
Ultimately, however, I think it’s obvious why American and European liberals aren’t talking about Chechnya. Chechnya happens to be a place more foreign to us than Russia itself.
It’s a case of competing Orientalisms.
Russians are stupid, backwards white people, but Chechens are Muslims.
Vladimir might be our drunk, homophobic cousin, but he’s still our cousin.
So all the liberals can go on watching the games and rooting for their respective national teams. Enjoy the games while the most expensive Olympics ever leads to more money in Putin’s silk pockets. Go ahead and continue to accuse Russia and the Russians of being backwards.
But don’t forget that Europe and the United States are no better.