By Ivan Ninenko
For most of my adult life I have been simultaneously observing Russia from the inside and outside. It all started in my late teen years, when I had the privilege to spend a year in the USA as an exchange student. It continued through my 20’s, when I was an active part of the European green movement, eventually serving on the board of the European Green Party ‘s youth wing. I was a European citizen, but I was also a citizen of Russia, residing in Moscow and traveling around my motherland as much as I did around Europe. By the end of my 20’s I held the position of deputy director in the Russian Chapter of Transparency International and hosted a TV-show on the unique Russian independent television channel, TV Rain. I was definitely an insider. Now, in my early 30s I am starting my second year in the USA as a visiting scholar at the Havighurst Center for Russian and Post-Soviet Studies, at Miami University, Ohio. The last time I was in Russia, Crimea still belonged to Ukraine. So now I am an outsider once again.
During the last year Russia constantly hit the headlines in the US and around the world, and you may imagine how many times I had to explain “what is going on in Russia?” Eventually I came up with a nice metaphor that I want to share here.
Let’s go back in time a bit and imagine the USSR and USA as individuals. And let me tell you their story. They had an amazing engrossing love-hate relationship, which started just after the Second World War. The entire planet was just a playground for those two, as they performed their dance, played little tricks and …, became obsessed with each other. Neither of them, however, would ever admit the love part: as typical teenagers, they would claim that their relationship was only about hate.
It all came to an end in the 1990’s. And that is when the true problems began. The USSR gave up its idealistic dreams, changed its name to Russia and surrendered itself to America’s reasonable and practical arguments, hoping it would be the start of new era in the relationship: the hate is gone – only the love should remain. The change manifested itself in pop culture. Songs such as “American Boy” were hitting the Russian charts and thousands of young Russians were singing “Where are you my foreign prince? I’m waiting for you!”
Unfortunately, the sentiment in the USA was different – the winner had no more interest in its former object of obsession. Since all the mystery and rivalry was gone, Russia was now off the radar for the general public. “She has been conquered, so let’s move on” – so stereotypical, yet so true. The US found other obsessions; Russia was now just an ex. In my high school in New Jersey I had to explain to people why the flag on my backpack had no hammer and sickle and that Russia was no longer a communist country.
So here we have Russia, who is in love and who has a somewhat starry-eyed vision of her husband-to-be. And we have the USA, who has moved on and already checking out some new partners. The new partner should be somebody exotic, somebody Asian or Middle Eastern, somebody who possesses mystery and somebody who must be conquered. Well, you know where this search led America and I don’t need to remind you, that you should be cautious, when you are dealing with those mysteries. But this is a different story– what you may not know is how Russia felt about being jilted.
Have you ever talked with a person who cannot get over a breakup while her* former partner has already moved on? Have you ever tried to explain to that person that the Ex “did not mean it”? And not because the Ex is a good person, but just because he gave no thought to how his former partner would react? Your Ex does not care. Well, many people could never let themselves believe that it is not about them anymore. They prefer to suffer from imagined offenses, which allow them to feel that they are still part of this story, still being courted by their former lover. She knows in her gut that each and every move the USA makes has some special meaning and most of it is to hurt Russia directly or indirectly. Russia, in other words, cannot let go.
Kosovo was a turning point in that relationship. The USA was no longer a Prince Charming. By no means do I want to support the concept of “Humanitarian Bombing.” I strongly believe that hundreds of military and civilian casualties cannot be justified by the idea of enforcing peace. But I also know that this story has quite a different meaning for our main characters.
For the USA the 1999 campaign was “just a bombing”, one among many the USA was involved in around the world. It is hardly remembered now. And among those who give thought to it, some would still claim that it was a right thing to do. Others would argue that this was a clear wag-the-dog operation to switch public attention from the Monica Lewinsky scandal. And then there are always people who believe that you should never support Muslims. But none of them realize that there is a parallel reality where this entire operation is simply perceived as a personal attack on each and every Russian. Most Americans do not know how deep the connection between the Serbs and Russians are. They would be quite surprised to know that in the parallel reality this bombing of Yugoslavia was basically perceived then and now as an attack against Russia herself and has left a deep wound. In Russia the “Humanitarian Bombing” of Yugoslavia is well remembered and referred to whenever the USA is mentioned.
Since then the USA and Russia progressed into two completely different realities, where we may find them today. Neither is really healthy. America definitely has some problems: narcissism and depression are among them. But Russia’s situation is much worse. Without any psychological help, Russia eventually came to inhabit a world where its whole ego is built around resisting and defying America, her former love. This anti-American sentiment has no real substance. Russia’s self-esteem is so low that she pushes for constant attention from others. The reality in which Russia is not a major object of American affection is so scary that it is blocked by a collective consciousness of denial. Thus the latest Maidan in Ukraine triggered full-scale hysteria**. And the worst part —any attention Russia receives just confirms its behavior. Hysterical people are often primarily looking for attention: it does not matter if the attention is positive or negative, love or hate, it is the attention itself that matters. Russia perfectly follows this pattern. One of the reasons Russians are so eager to believe that their country is back to the mighty times of global importance is the number of times Putin has appeared on the front pages of The Economist. It provides an illusion that Russia is once again a major player in the modern world. And Russian propaganda is looking for any mention of the country by American politicians to prove that they do still care about us.
Just read this quote from one of the latest statements by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs: “We are witnessing with dismay and indignation an unrestrained anti-Russian campaign, which is unfolding in the United States. The US national media and leading political research centers splash, as if at a command, russophobic lampoons, diligently portraying Russia as an enemy and instilling hatred towards all things Russian in ordinary people.” I hope it gives you a glimpse of the hysterical perception prevalent in Russia. And this should be taken into consideration by anyone who tries to come up with a strategy to calm Putin down. In such a reality any sanctions are welcomed by the majority of Russians, since they prove that Russia occupies a place in the mind of Americans. Any harsh comment from the White House will just reaffirm attention-seeking behavior and further confirm that America still obsesses over us.
Avoiding and ignoring Russia may seem as a good strategy, but without proper treatment it will eventually trigger a new cry for attention. As her egoistic satisfaction received from the last crisis dissolves, Russia will need a new way to attract the world’s attention. Whatever she chooses will certainly not be in the interest of world peace. It will be in the form of more relationship drama.
* I am using the metaphor of a girlfriend who cannot get over her boyfriend, and I am aware of it being gender biased. I am pretty sure it can happen the other way around. Though the song “American Boy” just does not leave me any choice but to keep those gender stereotypes.
** I am not the only one, who talks about Russian hysteria. A way deeper explanation of this diagnosis was published back in September 2014 by Artemy Magun (European University, Saint-Petersburg) in Russian here http://slon.ru/russia/istericheskiy_makiavellizm_ili_pochemu_deyatelnost_rossii_v_ukraine_sostoit_v_tsinichnom_kopirovanii-1156109.xhtml