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Johnson's Russia List (list two)
23 April 1998
Transcript of interview with Russian author Vassily Aksyonov.
April 8, 1998.
For the "America's Defense Monitor" television series.
Center for Defense Information, Washington DC.
Interviewed by Jennifer Jones for a program produced by David Johnson
on the American impact on Russia.
[This is an edited transcript that has not been reviewed by the
interviewee. Not to be quoted or reproduced.]
Q: In an interview you gave in 1989 for C-SPAN you said that in the Soviet
Union there was “great interest in the United States” and that it was “hard to
say anything critical about the U.S.” Do you still feel this way or do you
think attitudes have changed since then?
V.A.: Attitudes have changed completely now. It’s hard to say something
positive about the United States now in Russia. And it’s strange that most
intellectual circles became critical to the United States these days. At that
time, by the end of the 80's and the beginning of the 90's, the United States
was perceived like a sort of a beacon for their possible liberation process
for the future development-–everybody already understood that the Soviet era is
coming to it’s close so they were looking for a model-–and they couldn’t find
a better model than the United States at that time.
Sometimes when you would say that there are some very grave problems in the
United States in those days -- like for instance criminality or unemployment
or something -- they would say “Come on, they are great, just don’t tell us
about this – this is just part of the Soviet propaganda.” And sometimes they
were really close to the paradox of saying that it would be nice to have the
United States occupy us – to defeat us in the battle and make us part of
itself, you know. That was certainly a reflection of this stereotypical
attitude of the relationship between two superpowers. Either we would defeat
them or vice versa. No one could see this third way of the relationship.
But, anyway, at that time Russia was struggling, was under close
observation--total absence of basic food -- people standing in lines for just
the most basic food like butter or eggs or something. They couldn’t see any
hope or any light at the end of the tunnel and there was the only hope for the
West especially for the United States that they would not give us - they would
finally save us from the disaster - that was what the attitude was based on.
Q: Since then, you say, the attitude has changed. People are critical. You
have observed that it seems to be a condescending attitude -- that it’s almost
a disdain for Americans and the United States. How does that manifest
itself? What are the best examples of that?
V.A. I don’t have an answer why that attitude has been developed, why they are
so condescending toward the U.S.. One answer I have in mind – probably that
was because they had in their heads a certain lionized image of this country.
They had some not realistic vision of the U.S. but certain image based on their
confrontation with the Soviet State which was providing negative, ultra
negative information about the U.S.. And people who were rejecting everything
Soviet at that time, they were thinking otherwise. If they were talking bad
they believe it was alright - everything was alright.
But that was only one answer to that. Another answer is that since the
collapse of the Soviet Union they got an access to the real life abroad. They
started traveling and they saw not the demonic vision, not the lionized vision
of the West and specifically the U.S., but the real life with all it’s real
vicissitudes. All it’s real problems and people like people, people who are
not semi-gods at all. Not angels completely. They were not angels so they
were not this superman at all. Regular people with regular problems.
Sometimes not quite sophisticated and they believed before that Americans are
very much sophisticated people.
So that also there is another answer to that - probably the certain
disappointment contributed to the development of these feelings. Disappointed
because many people had in mind that we would be closest allies with the U.S.,
brothers. They believed that the U.S. with all it’s power, economic and
political psychological power, would enter the post soviet environment and
would completely change the way of life. That we will be just a part of the
What happened in fact was that instead of the iron curtain they had which was
established by their rulers – they could see a certain iron curtain established
by the Western governments because the Western governments were afraid of the
uncontrollable flood of immigration of the refugees which would disturb this
tranquil life of the Western society . So there were lots of visa limitations
and the difficulties crossing the border from the other way. So that was a
certain disappointment certainly, that they didn’t help us enough, they were
outside, they were gloating at us that we have such difficulties.
Another answer, it may be most important, is that horrible Russian parallel
combination of the inferiority and superiority complex. They always feel
somewhat inferior to the Americans. And on the other hand they feel very much
superior to the West and to the U.S. in particular.
Q: You’re almost describing I think what you termed a schizophrenia of the
Russian mind. Could you explain that?
V.A.: That’s why I called my recent publication on the situation in Russia
“Nostalgia or Schizophrenia?” It is a schizophrenic atmosphere. They were
always suppressed by the socialist Soviet propaganda stereotypes that Soviet
man is superior to any others. They rejected the old Soviet stereotypes.
Instead they spontaneously worked out somehow their own stereotype based on a
certain somewhat fantastic notion of spiritual superiority.
When I’m talking to my readers in the former Soviet Union, telling them that
the only way to survive for Russia is to be a part of the West, I quite
frequently hear from the audience “How can you say so? We’re incompatible.”
“Why you are incompatible?,” I ask. They say, “We are spiritually so much
higher than the West. They are pragmatic and we are spiritual. We are much
higher spiritually.” And then I argue that it’s a little bit too premature to
talk about a high spiritual life after the 70 years of repression, mass
killings, the total lie, destruction of the church, destruction of the public
conscience -- it’s too early to talk about superiority of the spirits. The
only superiority of spirits we have is when we buy Vodka.
Q:This is similar to the nostalgia you speak about in your article.
V.A.: Yes, strange phenomenon this nostalgia.. I witness that more and more
every time I’m over there. It takes such strange, twisted forms. Any nation
has a nostalgia for some, say, pop culture -- for the old songs, for the old
faces of actors etc... but for the formerly Soviet people, for today’s Russia
-- this nostalgia turns into the nostalgia for the Soviet power. Because all
these pop songs had something to do with Communist propaganda. All those films
which were telling some sentimental overly sugary stories etc... still had a
great deal of the Communist propaganda in them. So while consuming all this
nostalgic stuff without a critical approach at all, they are finding
themselves again under a very strong pressure from the dead ideology. It’s a
very interesting phenomena.
Q: Do you think that without critical analysis this could turn it’s head
and we could see a revisionist history coming from this?
V.A.: I wouldn’t say that it would be total revisionism, but still the past
which is, well, I can not find words better than despicable for this past, it
was despicable, but under this influx of this new nostalgia it gets more and
more legitimacy. Saying that I was not that bad, you were young at that time
guys and your fathers were young people. Your grandfathers were young and they
loved each other. They were traveling to the far east to Siberia meeting each
other with the sentimental situation, they were very good workers, there was a
sense of pride for their powerful society, for the state of the Soviet Union
etc.. etc.. They were flying to outer space, they were ahead of the U.S. at
that time the first man to orbit was Soviet etc... etc...
On television one of the most highly rated programs is called “Old songs
about most important.” What is most important? They didn’t answer what is most
important.. Most important that’s our sense of pride for our past. They don’t
like now to talk about the atrocities they have committed. They don’t like to
talk about the great terror, purges, mass killings committed by the KGB. No,
that was exaggeration, of course. Any state has some apparatus of, well,
working for law enforcement. The horrible power of KGB which could not be even
compared to anything in the human history is viewed now as a certain legitimate
law enforcement institute. Things like this.
And that certainly makes a soil fertile for the possible future attempts
not talking about the communists necessarily. Certainly there are communist
forces still rather strong enough to make an attempt of revenge, but even
without Communist ideas Russia could turn into a very unpleasant society in
the future with fundamentalist thinking, with xenophobia, with anti-western
attitudes, with jingoism, and chauvinism, and an attempt to reach a superior
level over other nations. That’s what I’m afraid of really.
Q: Can you see that America has had or currently has a positive impact or
influence on post-Soviet Union Russia?
V.A.: Objectively, yes, of course, certainly. America has a great
some area of economics or some development of the modern technology -
information technology. For example, philanthropy. There is one of the most
outstanding philanthropists of today, George Soros is creating this network of
his very useful institutions in Russia. They are creating the Internet over
there in Russia, providing access to the world information system for millions
of Russians. That’s just a few. Well, lots of very positive things were
coming from the United States.
But, Russians are taking it as if it was for granted. They don’t have really a
certain sense of gratitude toward those who are helping. I noticed that long
ago, as I was a child during WWII when the American aid was coming to Soviet
Union over the high seas infested with mines, a huge amount of food. Without
this food we wouldn’t survive. Probably I wouldn’t be alive hadn’t I had some
additional ration of Spam or, eggs or something like that from the U.S. and
millions and millions of Russians had it. Not to mention the trucks and cars
and aircraft and ammunition, whatever, you know that. So that was the really
great assistance but they were not very much grateful. They was a sarcastic
You know that Russians, it’s very strange, but Russians are a rather cynical
people. I’m cynical myself, you know. Probably because I’m Russian or
got something from my new homeland. Anyway, they’re saying “well, the
Americans again are offering us...” – At that time they were talking about
meat, meat stew, “they are offering us their stew and we are losing our people
in the battles against Germany” And nowadays, after ‘91 - ‘92 and there was
this situation when the food supply was really critical and they started to
chicken from the United States. They called it “George Bush’s legs” and they
were talking cynically about “George Bush’s legs” again. So they’re not quite
thankful to the United States.
You can not even imagine how many people have been affiliated with all this
propaganda and the secret police institutions in Soviet Union. We couldn’t
believe it ourselves when we realized that our talks, just the private talks,
that every fifth citizen was a secret informer. We’re very close to the
reality. And now the Communist faction in the country’s parliament have
stable electorate which stands for one fifth of the population.
Q: So really, it’s a strange combination of national history and nostalgia.
V.A.: Exactly. You know that I understand many of them. When you are aging
and all of a sudden all your past is crossed out. It just doesn’t deserve to
be mentioned because it was despicable, nasty, this awfully shameful
on the part of the human race. It really is rather painful and people would
like to reject it but they don’t have a serious talk about this. They cannot
tell one from another. We can’t say that we are part of the West, of the
Western Christian culture. Russia could not exist without being a part of the
Christian culture. They don’t believe it because of the 75 years of the
atheist propaganda, anti-Western propaganda and anti-so called bourgeois
Q: Do you think this is going to pose a serious threat to democratic
development in Russia?
V.A.: Very much so. I already said that I cannot envision exactly the
repetition of Communist power of the Soviet Union but some really disgusting
society can come out of this development. The cynicism is already in the
public life and politics. Exceeding all our expectations. It really
stinks at all levels of government and parliament structures. They are in
a mess now.
It seems to me that the latest development when Yeltsin all of a sudden
discharged the entire government means that there is some meaningless
development that has taken place in Russia based on some blind power struggle
just for grabbing the power. Grabbing higher profits from privatization
So it could be finally coming to a certain new type of stagnation, and as a
result of this stagnation the new Russia -- very much fundamentalist,
conservative, close to the fascist society, can appear and that will certainly
be a threat to the democratic achievements and a threat for the rest of the
world and for those people, for those nations who just got their
It could be aggressive, really aggressive looking for allies with the most
disgusting regimes in the world like Saddam or Khadafi or Castro, Vietnam
or China etc... So it’s a really serious problem.
Q: What happened to change Russian attitudes towards the United States?
V.A.: So, what actually happened there since the early 90's – in ‘91 we had
an unbelievable, unprecedented experience of the spiritual revolution.
Those 3 nights in August of ‘91 was probably the most glorious nights in the
history of Russian civilization. That was the great inspiration. And, the
sense of unity with the world, the sense of communion with the world gave us
the realization that we are not alone. We realized that we are together with
the highly developed nations, the West and the U.S. They were situated so close
to the American Embassy compound. At the barricades they had things like hot
pizza from the American Embassy cafeteria. So they certainly had affinity with
the Americans. They realized they were not alone and they would get support in
the case of a horrible development.
Since then many things have changed and there is a nationalistic development
in the minds of many intellectuals who changed their position toward the West as
such. Claiming the higher superiority of the Russian side.
As far as the average people are concerned, they all of a sudden realized
they overcame these major obstacles. As far as the grass root development of
these capitalist enterprises, they’re doing better, by the way, they’re doing
really better. You can see that. I see that any time I am there. I can
realize that they are getting better as a people, as average citizens, as
families they are getting better. You wouldn’t find any sort of the famine or
disaster on the territory of the Russian Federation at all. And so when they
are already out of the hot water they don’t think so much about this. They
don’t need help anymore so they are more indifferent toward other nations.
There is no hostility I believe among the average citizens you know
United States. I wouldn’t say that during the most horrible days of the Cold
War the average citizen had real animosity towards the United States. Not at
all. Despite this massive propaganda the average guy still believed that
Americans are like us. They like dreams. They like cars. They like women.
Whatever. Things like this. We have a big country, they have a big country.
“I met an American once in Germany. We drank together” and this kind of
But, we cannot underestimate the venom of this ultra-nationalism,
ultra-nationalism which is growing over there. Still it’s not very
omnipotent, but very much growing, very much growing. And to them anybody
foreign, especially Westerns, especially American, especially Jewish, you
know, they are dangerous, they are unacceptable. That’s why they’re
rejecting everything non-Russian.
They have an idea that we were once a superpower. Now we’re reduced to our
humiliating situation by the American conspiracy, American Jewish conspiracy
etc... Schlock like this. Regular people are coming to this movement. And
what’s most appalling is that intellectuals and artistic circles now believe
that it’s the high style to show a certain condescendence toward American
society, civilization. “We are better,” they say, “we are more thoughtful, we
are more stylish, we are more sophisticated.”
Q: It sounds very French?
V.A. Very close to that. Very close. (Laughter) But with one difference.
French young people are crazy with the U.S. again. It’s strange. They had
some anti American period of time. Now they are crazy again with all those
cowboy boots and all this stuff.
Probably the new generation of Russians won’t be so critical towards the
societies of overseas powers. Maybe the new generation of Russians, those
who are now still in the kindergarten, they would come of age ideologically
clean. With none of this nostalgia. They would just say “Get out with your
dumb communist nostalgia, I don’t like it. I’m not interested. I’m much
more interested in buying a farm in Missouri” or something. (laughter)
Q: People tend to focus on what Russia can learn from the U.S. but what could
the U.S. learn from Russia?
V.A.; The United States could learn a lot from Russia I would say. First of
all, a negative experience. It’s very important to learn the negative
experience, the experience of all those Russian disasters. Not to repeat. Not
to repeat. Not to allow some power to indoctrinate you on that level, which
would bring the United States to a horrible disaster.
It’s not a safe haven anymore, the United States. It has a lot of
difficulties ahead and I’m afraid for the U.S. really. There is a certain time
bomb inside. I would pray for not having it off. But, still it’s a very
dangerous situation. So that negative experiences are very important.
Besides that, the huge country, great history, great culture indeed really
great culture, great achievements in modern art. So lots of things.
I am teaching at George Mason University and our university is restructuring,
and in the process of restructuring, the university all of a sudden came up
with the idea of cutting out Russian studies. As a justification for that
they say the Soviet Union is no more, we don’t have a threat so why do we need
Russian studies. It’s such a near sighted approach unless we work solely for
CIA and Pentagon. We don’t and I believe we work for education. And this
American young generation really need it (Russian Studies) because we are
getting closer and closer and Russia inevitably will come to the West, will
become a part of the Western civilization. It has no way out of it’s problems
without the west as it’s closest ally and the United States specifically.
We have affinity. We have closeness in the religion fields and in many other
fields. Millions of Russians, maybe the majority of them have an affinity for
the democratic principles of the United States and the West as such. And,
Russia as a great power historically is now entering this twilight zone of
disintegration. It’s already disintegrated. We now have several Russias as a
matter of fact. Ukraine is also Russia. Maybe more ancient Russia than Russia
itself but it is Russia. Belarus is also Russia. The Crimea is another
Russia. Kazakhstan by the way is also a part of Russia etc... So in this
historic period it’s awfully important for the Western powers to be very close
to monitor this precisely with great accuracy everything which is going on
inside this territory, not to mention the nuclear power which still exists,
but also with the historical perspective for the future of the human race.
Q: You have commented in the past on how most Americans have little interest
in things outside of the U.S., so presumably there is little interest here in
what happens in Russia. Is this disturbing to you?
V.A.: It seems to me there is really a very serious breach in the American
mentality, a lack of interest. Russia is still in the focus of attention.
But try to find news about France or Germany. It’s hard to find any news
about Italy or something. But a certain spirit of isolation still exists in
this country. We’re a self entertaining society, I would say. And that
probably creates a certain disappointment on the part of the Russians. So
believe that we (the Russians) are so much interested in them and they (the
Americans) are not interested in us at all. Again, this vicious circle of
superiority/inferiority complexes starts rolling.
But it seems to me that the American isolation is coming to the end. The
world is becoming a global village, no doubt about this. We are coming closer
and closer to each other, to the African nations, to the Asian nations, and we
will be in the world very soon in another tour of confrontation I’m afraid.
Confrontation with Islamic countries probably well be inevitable. So that we
need to be close. We need to tell everybody this: “Don’t think that we are
better, we are superior, we are highbrow and you are low brow” - no way. You
are human beings, we are human beings. We are not much better than you at
all. It is really very important to find the language to overcome the
hurdles, but we here in the U.S. still cannot overcome such a simple hurdle
as the Cyrillic alphabet.