January 28, 2003
Neuroses Old and New
By Alexei Pankin
Boris Nemtsov made the case for a Russia-Belarus union last week on "Glavnaya Tema," or "The Main Issue," a show on Channel 3. The Union of Right Forces leader argued that the union was necessary to guarantee the safety of Russian gas shipments to Europe, to protect Russian economic interests, and because the Russian and Belarussian peoples are linked by a historical bond. Nemtsov's position boiled down to pure colonialism -- like ravishing a girl who is willing to give herself to you out of love.
The Russian intellectual and political elite has always had a rather singular relationship with the world around it. If you're not convinced, take a look at the web site www.kreml.org, an analytical forum created by Kremlin-connected spin doctor Gleb Pavlovsky that has been online since October 2002. The site brings together political players and news and opinion makers from Moscow and the regions. An essay is published on a given topic to serve as a catalyst for discussion, and experts are invited to weigh in with their thoughts. The number of respondents is tallied on the site's home page.
The first thing that struck me was that foreign policy and international affairs issues generate much more interest than domestic politics. As of the end of last week, the site listed the following results: "2002 economic wrap-up" -- 10 responses; "Russia and international public opinion" -- 13 responses; "Russia in the world: Intellectuals' contribution to Russia's international competitiveness" -- 24 responses; "Relations between Russia's intellectual community and the authorities" -- 5; "Does the right-wing voter need a new right-wing party?" -- 3 responses.
Analysts on the site devote most of their attention to the West. The topic "Possible changes in Lithuanian foreign and domestic policy following the presidential elections" garnered 11 responses. "Russian interests in Kazakhstan: Tasks for the year ahead" generated only eight.
Within the context of this strong pro-Western "geographical" orientation, however, even the most liberal commentators reveal a persistent anti-Western inferiority complex. One well-known and influential participant voiced the following, typical opinion: "We will never be accepted in their world, recognized as equal partners in their innumerable communities. Russia may have many allies in the West but from our Western partners' standpoint, we will always be viewed as different, strange, somehow improper and eternally guilty of something."
Say what you like, but all this reminds me of what the dissident Alexander Zinovyev wrote back in the early 1970s in his book "Ziyayushchiye Vysoty," or "Yawning Heights." Zinovyev wrote (here I condense the original) that the citizens of Ibansk [i.e., Soviet citizens, specifically the intelligentsia] adore foreigners [read: Westerners] and call them bastards. The Ibantsy [the people of Ibansk] are prepared to give foreigners the shirt off their backs. If the foreigner should refuse the shirt, they will say: "What a bastard!" If the foreigner accepts the shirt, but then speaks badly of the Ibantsy, they will say: "What an ungrateful bastard." Should the foreigner accept the shirt, and speak well of the Ibantsy, they will say: "He's one of us, the bastard!" The ultimate dream of every Ibanets is to get his hands on some imported clothes, parade through the streets of his home town and listen to the passers-by say: "There goes a foreigner, the bastard!"
But the world doesn't stand still. In recent years our intelligentsia has added a new form of paranoia to its collection: a preoccupation with what is going on in the mass media. The site tallied a record 48 responses to the earth-shattering news of a management shake-up at the weekly newspaper Konservator. Add this to the saturation coverage of recent personnel changes at NTV, and I think you'll agree with my diagnosis.
Here's a topic that awaits its Zinovyev: "The Russian intellectual and the Russian press."
Alexei Pankin is the editor of Sreda, a magazine for media professionals