When it transpired that President Donald Trump was embarrassed about the fact that TASS’s official photographer released photos of his meeting with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and eye-of-the-Russia-scandal Sergei Kislyak, an unnamed White House official told CNN that “the Russians tricked us” and that “they lie.”
No one batted an eyelash about the fact that the White House official said “the Russians” and not, say “the Kremlin,” “Putin’s stooges,” or even, “those Russians.” He said “the Russians,” just as most media outlets, news anchors, and late-night TV hosts say “the Russians”—as though an entire country is in a global conspiracy to destroy the United States, not a handful of hackers hired by a government that nobody trusts.
In this context, it’s not difficult to see why no one batted an eyelash when former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said, “It is in [the Russian people’s] genes to be opposed, diametrically opposed to US and western democracies.”
Imagine if a high-ranking official said something like that about Muslims after a terrorist attack or African Americans after a raid, condemning an entire race because of the actions of a few. There would be Internet uproar, heated Op-eds, a call to end Clapper’s career, a witty social media hashtag with a strong following. But to say that there is something fundamentally wrong with all Russians because of a few state-run hackers doesn’t even warrant a puzzled facial expression, because the ugly truth is that as much as liberals pat themselves on the back for taking a stand against prejudice and stereotypes, Russophobia is completely socially acceptable in this country. The uglier truth is that it’s because liberal Americans consider prejudice to be solely based on skin color—not nationality—which is far from reality.
The same social justice warriors who pride themselves on standing up to racism have no issue mocking or otherwise stereotyping Russians as a whole, largely because they view “the Russians” as an Aryan pure breed race of fair-skinned, blue-eyed beauties who bow down to a dark overlord living in an impenetrable fortress.
I would love to know how they’d feel if they realized that Russia is a vast country comprised of over 185 ethnics groups and that Muslims make up the second-largest religious population. And even though Russians are predominantly Caucasian, that doesn’t mean they aren’t as impoverished and disenfranchised as some of the left’s third-world darlings, 2016 statistics showing that almost 20 million Russians are living below the poverty line, earning less than $139 a month. I would like to know how they would feel when they realize that when they debase those evil, no-good, “Russians,” they are in fact referring largely to people like my extended family: potato farmers in the rural southeast who have no interest in politics and are just struggling to get by—not Bond-like villains cackling in front of a computer monitor at America’s demise.
As a Russian-American who was born in St. Petersburg and emigrated here at the age of five, one of the few upsides of the prospect of a Trump presidency (I voted for Hillary Clinton), was that I thought it would lead to a better relationship with Russia. Clearly recent events have shown the opposite.
I had hoped that people who hated Trump and who had previously assailed me with questions like, “How come more people in Russia don’t protest against Putin? Clearly they LOVE him” (which alone is a stereotype that, if you look at how many young people in particular showed up to the recent anti-corruption rally in Moscow, isn’t even fair), would realize that even if the leader of your country is a “dictator,” that doesn’t mean everyone in the country is a racist, bigoted asshole.
I thought people would stop telling me things like, “Well, Putin is evil, and the Russians chose Putin, therefore Russians are evil,” which is a thing that actual otherwise rational adults have said to me. I thought that some of my most anti-Trump friends, who have railed against the entirety of Russia for years thanks to some of Putin’s dumbest laws might actually sympathize with the people who live there and say, “Damn, now I know how it feels to watch the leader of your country create laws you vehemently disagree with and feel totally powerless.” I thought that, for the first time in ages, I would be able to say, “I love Russia,” without having someone spit back, “Oh, so you like Putin, eh?” because they would realize that a country is more than just its politics, and that you could still love your country even if you hate your president. That, in fact, you could love it and defend it even more because it breaks your heart to see it abused.
But it seems Americans have not made that connection whatsoever, partially thanks to the Russian investigation, but mostly, in my opinion, because Americans are terrified of having anything in common with Russia whatsoever, even though they are actually a lot alike. They’re two superpowers who are stubborn and proud and always bullying everyone else on the playground. For a Russian-American like me, they’re like two divorced parents constantly trying to gain a better sphere of influence with their estranged and confused children.
I’ve grown accustomed to the fact that things always go sideways for me when America’s relationship with Russia takes a particularly bad turn. Around the time that Putin passed those ludicrous “gray propaganda” laws, a gay couple very demonstratively got up and moved away from a table of myself and other Russian-speaking friends, even though the majority of our group were actually gay or at least bisexual. When Russia acquired Crimea in 2014, a friend of mine from college greeted me with a sardonic “Congratulations on Crimea!” even though I neither condoned nor had anything whatsoever to do with the move. I was politely released from my position at a well-known media outlet because, as they themselves confessed, they weren’t comfortable with me writing nuanced, multi-faceted articles on the issue instead of listicles about how stupid and crazy Russians are. I like writing articles about Russians teaching bears how to play the trumpet and not giving a shit about a giant meteor heading right toward them, because I take pride in how resourceful and badass we are, but I also want to write articles about how Russians are people who have feelings and fall in love and fear death just like everyone else, and it’s shocking how many places consider that “controversial.”
People keep telling me, “There’s so much interest in Russia right now, it’s a great time to write about it!” I nod my head politely but it really isn’t. My other Russian-American journalist friends, some of whom have been writing for The Atlantic and other prestigious publications since the 1960s and have several books out on Russian-American relations, are beyond frustrated. They either can’t get their articles published anywhere because they’re “too controversial,” or when they do, nobody reads them. That’s because, through all of the fervor, no one actually wants to hear balanced, nuanced arguments about Russia. Major news and media outlets are asking people who don’t speak Russian and have never been to the country to give their opinions on it, which is like asking a goat what to do about the housing market crisis. People only want to hear one thing about Russia: Putin is evil and THE ENTIRE COUNTRY IS TRYING TO DESTROY AMERICAN DEMOCRACY.
It’s clear that this kind of rabid anti-Russian rhetoric puts Trump in a very uncomfortable position, wherein he has to either foster diplomacy with Russia and be made to look like Putin’s sock puppet, or take a hard stance with the government and risk nuclear warfare and the decimation of humanity. I love Stephen Colbert, whose intelligence never fails to astound me, but his obsessive and reductionist approach to Russia has really disappointed me. He recently eviscerated Oliver Stone on his show for being “too cozy” with Putin, aka being polite and open to discussion in order to get good interviews. Even if Putin is “the enemy,” doesn’t that mean we should try even harder to understand his policies and way of thinking, so as to better launch an effective counter-attack (and why does Colbert, who has never met Putin, think he knows him better than a man that spent two years interviewing him?).
I completely agree with a fed-up Stone who, after much studio audience snickering, sputtered, “What is wrong with detente with Russia? Why would you be against it? I don’t understand this mentality.” Neither do I. Shouldn’t we be trying to get along with Russia? Do you want to die? This is no time to break out into a hero complex. One of the things that Putin and Trump have in common is that they’re both desperate to prove how macho they are. I’ve got family on both sides of the Atlantic and I personally do not want to see what happens if we push two nuclear power heads into a boxing ring and watch who comes out alive.
I know it’s really important that we figure out whether or not Trump colluded with Russian hackers/the Kremlin in the election, but the #RussiaGate paranoia is getting hysterical. When Trump chose Christopher Wray as the new FBI director, USA Today proclaimed that he “looks good on paper, but his law firm represents Russian-controlled oil companies.” I’m no economist, but Russia owns two of the world’s largest publicly traded oil company so inevitably there are a lot of businesses that deal with them.
“The Russian govt is part of like, 70 percent of the Russian economy, and that is a conservative estimate,so when you’re dealing with any Russian business, you’re probably also dealing with the Russian government.But does that mean that all of these deals are nefarious/make you a traitor? Of course not,” Natalia Antonova, an actual Russia expert and American journalist who has been writing about the country for years, told me. “I would also point out that we need to look at these deals on an individual basis. Some deals are obviously of more concern than others. We need room for nuance in this discussion, because I feel like the Kremlin is counting on there being no nuance—so that it can blame all investigations on ‘russophobia.’”
I’m not debating that there is some shady shit going on in Moscow/Washington, but at this stage it also seems like so much as sitting next to a Russian at a bus stop counts as “collusion.”
And the thing that people don’t understand is that this paranoia doesn’t just hurt Trump; it actually helps Putin. I’m definitely no Putinist, but I have to admire how slick he’s been about the Russia kerfuffle. He’s at once managed to position himself as a friend to Trump, sticking up for him and saying he was a “very outstanding person, talented, without any doubt” during the presidential race, and at at the same time position himself as the “anti-Trump,” by offering to hand over transcripts from Sergey Lavrov’s meeting with Trump amid reports of Trump leaking classified intelligence in their discussion, as well as offering to grant Comey political asylum in the same way that he did with whistleblower Edward Snowden. He might as well be screaming into a megaphone, “Trump is a nice guy and he’s trying real hard but he’s new to this. Look at me, though! I’m SOOOOO transparent and I clearly respect freedom of speech. I’ve done all of these interviews with Megyn Kelly and Oliver Stone and they still call us liars and thieves! Clearly, we have to band together against a nation hell-bent on hating us no matter what.”
As Anna Lind-Guzik, a Russian-American and co-founder of the Anti-Nihilist Institute, recently wrote, “Vladimir Putin exploits American condescension in order to bolster power at home. Propaganda works best when it contains a kernel of truth.”
As such, launching biased attacks on all Russians, who, by the way, represent the second largest ethnic market in America (after Mexicans), is not only offensive, it’s also playing right into Putin’s hand.
Don’t let him win. We (Russians and Americans) are better than that.