Efforts by the U.S. government to unfairly punish and demonize Russia cannot but affect how some Americans treat Russians.
Apropos of the newly-minted decision by the U.S. Congress to impose new sanctions on Russia, and of the recent removal of a Russian man from a Delta Airlines domestic flight (because his fellow passenger allegedly did not want to sit beside a Russian)—Soon Russians in the U.S. will have to sit at the back of the bus--if they are allowed on the bus at all. Soon Russians in the U.S. will have to wear an "R" (for "Russian") on their clothing when they appear in public--as my mother had to wear an "OST" badge (for “Ostarbeiter”--Eastern worker, but in reality Slavic prisoner-of-war) in Germany during World War II. But my mother resisted: she avoided wearing the "OST" as much as she could. . . .
Russians are not a protected class in the U.S., and thus hate speech against them is tolerated and perhaps even encouraged. It remains to be seen whether fair-minded Americans will identify a viable outlet for protecting the human rights of Russians within the U.S.’s borders. The intense efforts by the U.S. government to unfairly punish and demonize Russia cannot but affect how some Americans treat Russians.
In considering the new round of sanctions described in the bill H.R. 3364 (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act), which targets not only Russia, but also Iran, North Korea, the EU’s energy security, and even U.S. environmental well-being, one can frame this action within the context of the U.S.’s efforts to isolate and even destroy any countries it considers hostile to U.S. interests. And destruction of a country can be achieved by various means, including attacks on its history and religion. The West’s attempts to rehistoricize the Red Army’s heroism in World War II have been prominently publicized, but not as well-known are the U.S.’s attempts to demean Russian Orthodoxy.
The U.S. has been trying to alter Russia through its historic faith tradition Russian Orthodoxy starting from the late nineteenth century. Particularly during the early period of the Protestant church’s YMCA-centered initiatives in imperial Russia, the rhetoric aimed at the Russian Orthodox clergy and Church in general is shocking in its condescension and ignorance about Orthodoxy as a two-thousand-year-old spiritual tradition. An example is Franklin Gaylord’s comment, “Orthodox Russian Christianity is a low grade of Christianity and to find men of real spiritual development is next to impossible.”i Clearly Gaylord had never heard of the spiritual flowering of the Optina Elders or St. Seraphim of Sarov, just to mention some riches of Russian monastic wisdom.
But Russian Orthodoxy, with its elevation of the values of asceticism, spiritualized beauty, humility, and a discerning obedience, could not measure up to the YMCA’s “muscular Christianity,” with its grafting onto American Protestantism of the features of the successful capitalist businessman: self-confidence, physical fitness, assertiveness, practicality, good work ethic, and perception of the Bible in ahistorical terms. While the American Protestant experiment in Russia produced some positive collaborative results in Paris in the 1930s and 1940s, the motives for the missionary work of an upstart, two-hundred-year-old culture in a country that at that time possessed a nine-hundred-year tradition of the ancient Christianity are symptomatic of prejudice and lack of appreciation towards another country’s cultural practices.
Russia’s sin is its refusal to abandon its own past and accept Western Protestant capitalist ways. Despite the regular offers of the Russian government under both Presidents Putin and Medvedev to collaborate with the U.S. in confronting issues of mutual concern, the U.S. has rejected those overtures of cooperation. A root cause of the U.S.’s rejection is Russia’s audacious insistence on being treated as an equal with its own values and culture, and not as a subordinate of America. As a consequence of Russia’s insistence on being itself, the U.S. has found more subtle ways to punish the larger insubordinate country: it has embarked on a large-scale plan to ruin by other means those countries with which Russia is allied or that share Russia’s religious tradition. One need only name Bulgaria, Serbia, and Georgia as traditionally Orthodox countries, and Libya, Syria, and Iran as countries with historical ties to Russia.
Ukraine presents a special case in its being culturally the “cradle” of Russian civilization. Russia can thus in principle be weakened or destroyed by picking off its allies one by one. The U.S.’s plan to weaken Russia emerged as multi-pronged: prevent Russia from thriving in the world economic market, threaten its way of life and culture, and interfere with good relations between Europe and Russia (despite the fact that Russian civilization at its core is European). This plan underlies the Congressional bill to impose new sanctions on Russia.
The U.S. Congressional bill also targets Iran, which, as Russian Major General Yu. Ivanov points out, “has managed, under the conditions of unprecedented pressure from the U.S. and other Western countries, to pursue a truly independent domestic and foreign policy, to retain control of its natural resources, and to maintain a viable national economy.”ii The demonization of Iran by the U.S. stems largely because of the former’s independence and desire to remain a sovereign nation, and because of its productive diplomatic ties with Russia.
The particulars of North Korea differ somewhat from those of Russia and Iran outlined above, but nevertheless it was included in the latest U.S. sanctions round-up. Aside from the fact that sanctions are in practice ineffective and harmful mainly to the innocent populations of the sanctioned countries, as a diplomatic tool sanctions breed only hostility and resentment. Why provoke a country that is firing ballistic missiles into the Pacific, and why insult the leader of such a country when the leaders of those countries nearest to North Korea—Russia, China, and South Korea—remain adamant about diplomacy and negotiation, rather than confrontation? The newly-elected president of South Korea, Moon Jae-in, desires to engage in dialogue with his North Korean counterpart—which surely is a positive step towards defusing tensions between the tragically divided regions of Korea. Pres. Moon Jae-in’s progressive outlook is also apparent in his adoption of a South Korean rescue dog—a major symbolic act in a country whose torture and consumption of dogs is well-documented by international animal rights organizations.
Perhaps the biggest and most glaring flaw of the new Congressional bill is its elevation of U.S. economic interests over those of the EU and Russia. Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, made a statement widely reported in the media, to the effect that an “America first” approach cannot mean that Europe should be last.iii It remains to be seen, however, if the EU can support its words with concrete actions that would give the U.S. pause and encourage the American leadership to reconsider the consequences of the unwise bill.
Less reported in the U.S. media is the reality of what increased U.S. production of natural gas would entail for the American environment. The process of fracking, with Hillary Clinton as one of its early enthusiastic advocates (especially in eastern Ukraine), will harm the environment and has already produced earthquakes in, for example, Oklahoma—a state not typically associated with such seismic events. If the U.S. embarks on large-scale production of natural gas in order to replace Russia’s supplying of energy to Europe, this process will entail for the American environment, as a major environmental action group notes, “auctioning off our public lands and offshore waters for drilling and mining.”iv The National Resources Defense Council’s document further casts recent plans by the U.S. government as an “attempt to turn our public estate into an extractor’s paradise.”v This would be the reality behind the U.S.’s supplying of natural gas to Europe. If the American public thinks carefully about not only the political, but environmental implications of this Congressional bill, its members will use all legal avenues to protest its adoption.
The words of Oxford University fellow Godfrey Hodgson come to mind in light of this misguided and self-serving bill:
Democracy cannot mean a world’s political decisions made behind closed doors in Washington. Popular sovereignty, as an ideal for the world, cannot be reduced to the wishes of an electorate in one country, still less to the instincts of an elite “within the Beltway” that [seems] increasingly isolated from the rest of America. Prosperity, for the world, cannot mean the monopoly of the planet’s resources by a few hundred corporations and a handful of financial enterprises.vi
I would add that a genuine democracy will thrive only when ethno-centrism, xenophobia, and exceptionalism cease to be defining motivators of a country’s actions. Russophobia is the new anti-Semitism. Islamophobia, also raging in the West, drives much decisionmaking behind closed doors. Which ethnic group or race will be targeted next? Who will be the next individual not allowed to sit at the front of the bus? This narrow-mindedness must be brought to an end.
Valeria Z. Nollan is professor emerita of Russian studies at Rhodes College. She was born in Hamburg, West Germany; she and her parents were Russian refugees displaced by World War II. Her books and articles on Russian literature, religion, and nationalism have made her an internationally-recognized authority on topics relating to modern Russia. She recently completed a new biography of Sergei Rachmaninoff.
i Matthew Lee Miller, The American YMCA and Russian Culture (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2013), p. 69.
ii Ana K. Niedermeier, ed., Countdown to War in Georgia: Russia’s Foreign Policy and Media Coverage of the Conflict in South Ossetia and Abkhazia (Minneapolis, MN: East View Press, 2008), p. 449.
iv Rhea Suh, National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) membership letter, 2017.
vi Godfrey Hodgson, The Myth of American Exceptionalism (New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 2009), p. 188.
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