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Republican Candidates Evoke Comparisons to Late USSR

Seen by a Russian emigre, it’s perestroika all over again

This post first appeared on Russia Insider

I have to admit that I began to watch the latest Republican debate with both interest and trepidation.

For starters, I’ve never seen that much red since the XXII Communist Party Congress in Moscow, and naturally, I developed a certain allergy to the color. Another cause of trepidation was the fact that I am still in the running myself, so I was a bit nervous about seeing the illustrious competition. Aware as I am that my evaluation is bound to be somewhat prejudiced, I am very glad to report that I did see some light at the end of red.   

One encouraging thing that I discovered is that in terms of general sanity and knowledge of foreign policy I can easily match the best of them, since they are all either insane, or ignorant, or both in that area. Three most reasonable ones are Donald Trump, Jeb Bush, and Rand Paul. The war-mongering and reckless rhetoric of the others put them in the Dr. Strangelove category, and that’s where they should stay. Dr. Carson was already in character, ruminating matter of factly on the advantages of a quick death vs a slow one “from a thousand pricks.” Others worked themselves into a frenzy of aggression over distant lands (the Baltics, Iran, Crimea) about which they know nothing.

Continuing with the Soviet theme, however, I did have a sneaking suspicion that I was being forced to re-watch a film seen long ago, as many political events in my new country have a strange déjà vu feeling, an uncanny reminder of things long past.

In that film, Trump is Boris Yeltsin, a strong, assertive populist, a no-nonsense, politically incorrect person channeling tired old party hacks. Of course, he also has a touch of Zhirinovsky, but so did Yeltsin, both drunk and sober. In fact, any populist candidate these days is bound to have a touch of Zhirinovsky.

As the film unfolds, I see Jeb Bush playing the role of Gorbachev – the keeper of the party’s heritage, the patrician of an order whose time has long been up. Like Gorbachev, Bush can’t really connect with ordinary people, so his usually sane remarks appear hopelessly outdated. And like Gorbachev who was surrounded by party keepers, Bush is pressured by party ideologues like John Kasich.

Trying to shed that image, Kasich added a bit of Zhirinovsky to his act, delivering one of the most embarrassing lines of the debate about the need to “punch Russians in the nose,” evoking Nikita Khruschev’s threat to bury the US.  Well, we know who buried who.…  Kasich’s claim that no Republican had won White House without winning Ohio seals his fate: as heard during my three years of living and teaching in Ohio, Kasich’s trash talk might win him Texas or Ukraine, but not Ohio.

The Russian perestroika brought front and center a lot of young, energetic Komsomol (Young Communist) leaders, who wanted to use their connections and skills to stay on top: people like Khodorkovsky and other oligarchs, many of whom ended up exiled or in jail. I can’t help but think of them when I see the two youthful Republicans, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz jousting with each other.

Neither impressed me with anything substantial. Like Komsomol leaders who never missed an opportunity to identify with Lenin, they claim to represent the “immigrant roots” of the United States. But as an immigrant, I didn’t get the impression they were speaking for me. In fact, I had rather the opposite feeling, that my experience of being a young person in the Soviet Union or an immigrant in United States was being exploited and abused.

The late Soviet political scene had its share of oddballs, former scientists, actors, or journalists, who followed Gorbachev, making speeches to the great amusement of the public.  Dr. Carson reminds me of Andrei Sakharov, Irina Khakamada, Valeria Novodvorskaia and other “engineers of perestroika.”

Other candidates, of course, evoke American folklore rather  than Soviet history. It’s hard to imagine Chris Christie and his attempts to impersonate Tony Soprano, a New Jersey fictional Mafioso, in a late Soviet context. The Russian Communist Party would have still been too proper to tolerate such loud mouthed characters.  (Then again, Chris Christie types totally dominate the post-Soviet political space. for example recent Ukrainian politicians who use “Mafioso” techniques in their everyday political interactions. )

For the life of me, however, I can’t place Carly Fiorina in a Soviet context. Her aggressive, almost rabid pronouncements, remind me of the demented Ukrainian Russophobe, Irina Farion, who also preaches getting tough with Russkies, including nuking them.

I shouldn’t bring Farion into the mix, for Russian and Ukrainian metaphors are mixed enough, but the idea of mixing metaphors reminds me of one of the debate’s best lines: Ted Cruz’s accusation of Marco Rubio as being both a fireman and an arsonist. This line could be applied to the perestroika politicians who burned down the Soviet house while trying to save it, but also to the current crop of American politicians, who don’t know whether they are they in the business of destruction or construction.

Maybe perestroika is indeed in the air, and after much economic hardship (such as the Soviet people had to experience, which one wouldn’t wish on any country), the US will emerge more energetic and united.

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