The peril of writing about Russia

Murdered in police custody...Something I have always enjoyed about the US is its propensity for intensive navel-gazing. Hell, the mainstream western nations in general are all good at this, but the US has turned it into an art-form.

The agonising over Iraq started long before the US even began the war, and continues till now. There is a voluble and energetic debate as to the best way to deal with the situation. You can call the president a traitor, or even – with a nod to Bugliosi – demand that he be tried for murder.

And this is all deeply pondered, and vitriolically debated.

Unless, of course, one suggests that other nations undergo similar scrutiny. Russia, for instance. Then you get flamed to a sizzle. Writers in Russia are treated even worse. They get killed.

S&R has already featured Anna Politkovskaya, who was murdered for writing about Russia’s brutal behaviour in Chechnya. On Sunday, Russian secret police kidnapped Magomed Yevloyev, the editor and owner of opposition Internet-based news site, from the airport, shot him in the back of the head and dropped him off at the nearest hospital. That’s the English version of the site there, the Russian version is “strangely” defunct.

That bigots and xenophobes of all stripes hold themselves to different standards than the subjects of their opprobrium is beyond debate. But to hold some nations accountable for their actions and not others seems somewhat absurd.

I don’t know whether to consider it a form of the “happy native” theory that holds that the “unsophisticated” nations must not be held to our standards of discourse and are, in any case, happier as they are in their “unimproved” state. Or whether it is the supreme arrogance that considers events – even when the result of the actions of free-willed independent nations – as somehow being contained within the US discourse and being unworthy of debate unless the US is, in some way, responsible.

In any case, Russia has its own violently oppressed region of Muslim separatists. Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan are all seeking independence and all have Russian troops present viciously ensuring compliance. These states are neighbours of both Ossetia and Georgia. The entire region is fraught.

Yet, here is something I consider peculiarly revealing. The US, Europe and Australia have all suffered from threats and violent acts by Al Qaeda. Even France, long critical of the US invasion of Iraq, received threats from Osama bin Laden after passing a law that banned female public servants from wearing a head-scarf as they consider it an obvious religious symbol, banned for all religions. Yet neither Russia nor China – with all their brutal suppression of Muslims – have received any threats.

Any explanations? And, before the flame wars start, what I’m looking for is consistency. By all means, criticise the western powers, but then hold everyone to the same standards. That is real fairness.

10 replies »

  1. Whythawk:

    First off, you’ll get no defense of Russia from me. Historically, this has been an expansionist nation that initiated brutal pogroms and bloody invasions with nary a nod to international standards of decency. To me, the communist period was just a different manifestation of the same Russian tendencies the world has seen for centuries.

    Why do Muslims not threaten Russia and China? Because they have little historic or current coercive presence in the region. When Russia invaded Afghanistan, I seem to recall a fairly strong reaction from Afghans and Arabic volunteers, and they did, indeed, carry guerrilla activities into the Soviet Union to the point where the Soviets threatened Pakistan with direct military action. While a good portion of the Great Game was played out in Islamic lands, it was the Western Powers that occupied and manipulated those lands (for the most part), and it was Western influence that gave rise to the Muslim Brotherhood and all its subsequent radical offshoots.

    In addition, Islam is not one thing. I doubt the Arabic Islamists feel much kinship with the Indonesian or Bosnian ones.

    Is it any wonder that the primary target for radical Islam is still the West?

    The issue with criticism is an intriguing one, but one factor you ignored was the fact that Americans actually have influence on America. I might, through my words and votes, have some small impact on American policy, but nothing I can say is likely to make a bit of difference to Russian policy. Applying different standards? Yes. I suppose I apply different standards because I have different expectations. I have no expectations that the Russians will behave well. When has that been true in modern history? But I expect Americans and America to live up to its ideals, and I’lll speak out about that.

  2. The one who can discern which nations are accountable and which are not then becomes by virtue of that ability a greater entity than either. Only those who can believe themselves to be so grand could do this.

    I suspect that the nature of what we call terrorism has a generally cowardly bent at its base. Why would they attack a country who is already known for “brutal suppression” when the tolerant countries can be had with comparatively little effort?

    @JS O: Your comment about Islam not being one thing = something my brother also said to me. He’s lived in Jakarta these past 23 years and converted to Islam years ago. He compared it to the many denominations included within the Christian faith. There was an “Aha!” moment when he drew that comparison, and I suddenly could understand the ‘sectarian’ divisions.

  3. Jon:

    It’s common to call terrorists “cowards,” but I truly don’t understand why. Because they sometimes suicide bomb? So did kamikazes, but I don’t think they were cowards. I doubt I’d have the courage to do what they did. I hate the Taliban with a passion, but they take casualties in large numbers taking enormous risks against an enemy with vastly superior firepower. I don’t see that behavior as cowardly. As for attacks on Russia, I believe I pointed out above that there were guerrilla operations (indistinguishable, in most cases, from “terrorist” operations) in the Soviet Union during the Afghan/Soviet War, and I believe the Chechnians have perpetrated terrorist acts against the Russians.

    The most probable explanation, to me, is that the reason the terrorists tend to focus on the West is because of continued Western presence, influence, pressure, economic interests, etc. in lands where Islamic terrorists tend to thrive the most. Russia and China simply don’t seem like such bad enemies to them.

  4. Another theory – we’re so bogged down in Muslim lands right now that I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Russia and China were supporting al-Qaeda materially in some way, shape, or form. It’s similar to a proxy war, only in this case it’s proxy terrorism. If I were a leader of either of those countries and I saw a third party being belligerent who I could use and claim plausible deniability, I’d be hard pressed not to.

  5. Brian:

    I don’t think they can do that without detection. Funds and material support are probably getting to Al Qaeda through the Taliban, and the Taliban are getting it from Pakistan, probably funded by private (and maybe public) interests in Saudi Arabia. It’s not all that easy to secretly aid a terrorist organization that is so geographically limited. Having said that, CIA relations with Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI, are far weaker than they once were, so the CIA may not have all the information it should have. But hiding Russian and/or Chinese aid would still be quite difficult, and maybe impossible.

  6. Not at all, because of suicide bombing. Their attacks seem cowardly to me because of the number carried out against civilian, which is to say, unarmed and generally defenseless, populations. Attacking an ‘enemy’ who can’t possibly defend itself just seems a bit cowardly to me.

    Then again, I can see a different point of view where these very civilians are considered the root of the enemy and would need attacking. Or another point of view where hopelessness reigns and attacking for the sake of attacking seems the virtuous way to proceed.

    In the end, I agree with your assessment. The West is already playing this game with them, so they are just playing the game with us. I wonder, along with millions, if we weren’t trying to ‘export democracy’, would we still be ‘importing terrorism’?

  7. No, sir, you are free to criticize Russia to your heart’s content, and there is much to criticize. However, there is a tendency in the American press to expect that the Russian people should “know better” somehow. The question is, “how?” These are a people who’ve never experienced what we would call freedom. The closest that has ever been were the years between, say, 1991 and 1999. But most of those years were spent by the majority of Russians just trying not to starve.

    Historically, this has been an expansionist nation that initiated brutal pogroms and bloody invasions with nary a nod to international standards of decency. Very true.

    I knew a babushka who told me that the differences between America and Russia were only in the political leadership. She pointed out how very much alike the people and the national history of the two nations are. After thinking about it a long while, i found that i couldn’t really refute the argument. And could not J.S.’s statement about Russia be said in the same words about the United States. Ok, maybe not if you don’t count all of the Western half of the country and all the Indians who lived there; or if you prefer not to recognize that the first act of the new country after the ratification of the Constitution was to invade the Barbary Coast.

    Again, (at least from where i sit) you are free to criticize Russia. But such criticism should at least include relevant history. To wit, the Russian people have never had the opportunity to decide much of anything about the direction of their nation, whereas Americans have had that right for 250 years. Yet we are still an expansionist nation with a string of bloody invasions as long as our years (pogroms too if you happened to be Japanese, black, or Native American). Which would suggest that the majority of the US population wants to be bloody expansionists.

    My point being that before we start telling the world how it should be, perhaps we might start by showing the world how it could be.

    And while i realize that it is easier to find enemies and criticize others, that doesn’t make it right. Moreover, for all the tyrants and dictators that we’ve supported over the years (and still do), the argument that we should oppose one dictator doesn’t hold much water.

    “Terrorists” (er, freedom fighters if they employ terror towards our goals) are not cowards. It’s called asymmetrical warfare. When a nation with superior firepower invades your land (militarily, economically, or politically), you fight back in any way that you can. The British could/would have called the Continental Army terrorists by the same definition that we use today. All that the Americans wanted was to be left alone and determine their own future. Someone please explain how those Americans were right and Iraqis, Afghans, etc are wrong…

  8. Lex:

    Agreed on terrorists (partly). I don’t agree about the Continental Army. The CA were regulars, fighting in the European style, and were near matches for the Brits by the end of the war. Somehow, Americans got it through their heads in elementary school that, just because the returning Brits from Concord and Lexington were fired at from behind trees by the odd man or two with a musket or rifle, this is how the whole war was fought. It most certainly wasn’t. Washington adopted a Fabian strategy, and there were partisans in parts of the fledgling nation, but there were also many set-piece battles. I further withhold total agreement with what you say because I don’t recall anyone in the colonies taking a British passenger ship and killing the Jews on board.

    To the degree that we, in the US, tend to define “terrorism” as asymmetrical warfare that is against us and not for us, we agree.

    As for parallel history between Russia and the US, you will not get my agreement except in a very narrow sense. I will stipulate to the fact that Russia’s eastward expansion to the Pacific, and our westward expansion to the same ocean, have similarities. Both employed brutally sweeping aside technologically inferior, indigenous peoples. I will not agree, however, on motive. Russia’s expansion was state-sanctioned in almost every case that I know of. The US’s expansion was sometimes sanctioned by the state, but most often was the result of localized conflict between settlers of European descent and the local peoples. In many cases, the US government tried mightily to avoid conflict and failed to do so. I haven’t run across many Russian instances of trying to avoid conflict in its eastward expansion. In addition, US expansion was fueled, in part, by depopulation of indigenous tribes upon exposure to European diseases like smallpox. This was not planned by the European settlers, despite wild claims of contaminated blankets and the like. I find no parallel in Russian history, though I freely admit I may have missed something.

    The Japanese were interred during WWII, over 3,000 blacks were lynched in the South following the Civil War, and Amerinds were sometimes slaughtered for no reason (and at other times, slaughtered because, as John Keegan says, they were among the most brutal and warlike primitive tribes ever encountered, and they iniitated the conflict). All of these things are shameful, but they do not add up to state-sanctioned pogroms to rape and kill Jews in large numbers. Sorry. I’m not a moral relativist about these things.

    As for the rest, the US has been an expansionist country, but never on the scale of Russian expansionism. Russia has rattled its sabre for many centuries and annexed lands around them in its constant drive for a warm-water port and paranoid obsession with attack from the West. One can argue that the US, in the same geopolitical circumstances, would have done the same thing, but that is speculation, only.

    Certain nations have always been dangerous to their neighbors. Germany, for instance, has been dangerous since the Roman Empire. Chna has often been dangerous, but not always. The Russians have been dangerous since the modern age, at the very least.

  9. I am making a call for consistency, not necessarily agreement. If we hold different parties to a conflict / dispute to different standards then we have a built-in contradiction. And with that, no matter how much you may get short-term compromise, you are always going to get long-term disagreement.

    Stating that Russia has a history of internal conflict and limited appreciation of democracy, plus that they feel threatened when their ex-client states start doing business with others is … an excuse to allow them to keep doing what they always do?

    So, Europe, with a history of internal conflict and perpetual internecine warfare should continue with it? Instead we have the EU.

    We demand peace between Israelis and Palestinians; that they go past their history of tit-for-tat violence.

    The whole point is to demand consistent standards of behaviour, not only so we have some idea of what each party is agreeing to, but also so that we can break historic patterns of behaviour.

    Mahatma Gandhi said it best, “Become the change you seek.”

    You can’t expect a peace treaty with Russia to hold if we allow each party different definitions of “peace”.