Category: The Orient Express

Cultural Relativism: The Case of Pitcairn Island

By Jason Newman

In the middle of the vast emptiness that is the Pacific Ocean, there lies a small group of islands. Known as the Pitcairn Islands, these are the last of Britain’s colonial possessions in the Pacific; the second-largest, the only inhabited one, is called simply Pitcairn Island. This island, which measures just over two miles from East to West, is famous for two things.

Firstly, it served as the final destination for many of the mutineers who so famously wrenched their ship, the HMS Bounty, from the control of the supposedly tyrannical Captain Blythe. After having cast the captain into the Pacific, his right-hand man Fletcher Christian, along with nine crewmen, six Tahitian men, and eleven Tahitian women, set sail and landed at Pitcairn. Eventually violence broke out among the party members, and by the time they next communicated with the outside world only one man was alive. His name was John Adams, and he shared the island with nine remaining women and nineteen children. Much was made of the story, and it was sensationalised in the British press at the time. Even two centuries later, it served as the inspiration for three different films.

The second story that led to the island’s fame is just as salacious as the first. In 2004, six men, nearly one third of the island’s male population, were charged with various counts of sexual assault against girls as young as eight years old. The crimes came to light after an investigation was triggered when a teenage girl alerted a British police officer, who was visiting the island, that she had been raped.

The defence put forward by the men, and indeed many others on the island, was that this was simply part of island culture. When a girl reached the age of eleven or twelve, she was fit for “breaking in”. They argued that it had always been this way, and the practice had been carried out from as far back as the early descendants of the mutineers. These claims were ultimately rejected by the courts and the men were convicted, although they were given laughably lenient sentences.

One of the central questions that arises from the Pitcairn case concerns the legitimacy of pleading cultural relativism as a defence for such actions.

Cultural relativism, the favourite tool of the regressive left, states emphatically that actions can only be judged within the bounds of a particular culture. It is used to justify the wearing of the hijab as an act of liberation, and at its most insidious level it has been used to argue against the prevention of practices such as FGM (female genital mutilation) under the guise that it is a “cultural practice.”

In their quest to denigrate the freedoms achieved by Western society, the post-modernists and the regressive leftists claim that the reason we see such things as “barbaric” or “medieval” is our ethnocentrism. In other cultures these things are perfectly acceptable, and as a result this is enough to justify their legitimacy. To call into question the morality of these practices would be to impose our Western sensibilities upon different cultures, and would be an “act of oppression.”

According to this reasoning, the Westerner who mutilates his daughter is guilty of grievous bodily harm. However, the African or Muslim who does so is merely carrying out a cultural tradition, and thus should not be punished. Similarly, in the Pitcairn case, should a Western man have sex with a twelve-year-old girl he is guilty of rape, but if a native of the island should do so he is merely acting on a social tradition of his society. This system of thought proudly proclaims that there cannot be any objective truth or objective morality.

This system also states that no one culture can be prized above another: the cultures of certain tribes found in New Guinea who practice cannibalism are to be put on equal footing with cultures that prize free speech and individual freedom. Thus, the Western culture that the leftists are so opposed to—for its supposed “oppression”—can through this same thought process be dismissed as merely a cultural peculiarity, no better or worse than the rest.

Acceptance of the practices of different cultures, no matter how unpalatable their beliefs, has clearly become the virtue signal of the day. Should any dissent be expressed, the dissenting party is promptly accused of propagating cultural imperialism. Of course, this is ridiculous: society would become unsustainable should only one group of people be prosecuted for something like FGM, while others be allowed to proceed with the practice simply because they are part of a different cultural group.

The idea of tolerance as a virtue in and of itself, regardless of which policies one is accepting, is rather absurd; it is in fact a logical fallacy. If practices can only be judged within their cultural bounds, who is to say that tolerance is a virtue? It is only our ethnocentric culture that proclaims this, and as a result tolerance can be said to be only as good or as bad as intolerance, should another cultural group practice intolerance.

A society that would practice this insane level of “tolerance” (cultural relativism) would as a result rob itself of the ability to punish those who would harm other members of that society.

How does cultural relativism care for the Pitcairn girl who alerted the authorities? Despite her upbringing in the island’s culture, she still knew that what was happening to her was wrong. Indeed, the other thirty-two women who initially came forward and stated that they had been raped on the island, in cases dating back decades, obviously also knew that what was happening to them was wrong.

So then what should we say to these women? The relativist position, taken to its logical conclusion, would have us say, “You may not like this, but it is part of your culture. Therefore we are powerless to stop it, since we don’t want to impose our Western ideology on you. Sorry.” Some of the women who ended up protesting the case the loudest, saying the rapes were part of island culture, were the very women who initially were willing to testify against the men. This seems to imply that they had been intimidated by family members or neighbours. Even they originally did not feel the events that happened on the island were normal.

This suggests, much to the displeasure of relativists and racists alike, that humans are fundamentally similar at our basic level – that we all posses a certain universality when it comes to moral issues. If this is true then there are certain moral values that transcend culture, in which case there is indeed an objective standard of morality. If it is untrue then we are all, as members of our own cultural groups, fundamentally different from others who were raised in separate cultural groups. In this case, the danger is that that one cultural group can claim inherent superiority over the others and potentially obscure them.

The trouble lies in discovering which values will hold as an objective moral standard. Reason dictates it should be the system of values which has led to the most peaceable, prosperous and open society in the world. Much to the ire of those on the regressive left, that society is modern Western society.

Our society, at its most basic level, is built on the standard of the individual’s right to be left unmolested by other individuals or groups, and has at its core the conviction that all men are created equal and therefore are all beholden to the same set of laws without consideration for creed, religion or race. It is the same society and culture that would (and did, as they were tried under British law) prosecute the men of Pitcairn for crimes that they themselves surely knew were morally abhorrent.

Cultural relativism sounds wonderful on paper; after all, who wouldn’t want to understand the world from a new perspective? But when tolerance for other cultures descends into tolerating the worst and most barbaric aspects of these cultures, the position quickly becomes untenable.

 

For more from Jason Newman check out his blog or follow him on Twitter @jasonnewman96.

From Turkey to Syria: A Border Crossing From Perception to Reality

By Florcita Swartzman

June of 2011 found my partner and me, two itinerant writers in our mid-twenties, plunging into the harsh waters of Syria’s hellish reality. We went straight into that conflicted, shaky area of the world where our worried families begged us not to go: a portion of soil in which, according to CNN, nothing less than the Apocalypse was about to break loose. It was the prelude to the country’s uprising against the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad, the ophthalmologist who succeeded his father who had been Syria’s ruler for almost 30 years. The spotlight was originally meant for Bassel al-Assad, Bashar’s brother politician who died in a car accident in 1994. His death left Bashar, just out of Medical school, with no other option than to take his place and it turned out he did pretty well at tyrannizing the country for more than 15 years. In 2011 the Syrian people rebelled through demonstrations against the dictatorship, the heavy unemployment situation, the rapidly increasing corruption, and inequality of rights, all of which ended up in the civil war that is still happening as I write these lines.

We talked it through about a million times as we approached closer and closer to the Middle East. We wanted to see it all with our own eyes but we weren’t really sure of what we might encounter there. We were in Moscow at that time and couldn’t delay the planning of the rest of our trip any longer. In the meantime, the Western media was doing a great job at planting fear into our minds. We decided that we would visit Aleppo and Damascus crossing down to Syria from the Turkish-Kurdish border. We also wanted to see Hama and Homs; however, we soon dropped the idea. We knew we had to ignore the tragedies predicted by the mass media, especially as we have never been blind to the fascination it has for demonizing the Middle East and every event happening there. We took a deep breath in the knowledge of what was to come: we were going to do this.

Our last day in Turkey started in Şanliurfa, a tiny, pretty old town with thousands of years of history very close to Gaziantep.It was part of the ancient kingdom of Macedonia before becoming a Roman province, although it had been inhabited long before that. We took a bus to the main otogar of Şanliurfa and from there a dolmuş took us to Akçacale, the last Turkish city before the frontier with Syria. On our way south we saw the mythical Euphrates river and passed by lots of small, dusty, colorful noisy villages. After a couple of hours we were there: at the other side of the border we could see Tel Abyad, Syria. At Akçacale we made our way down from the dolmuş, the rickety mini-vans that work as the main means of transportation around small cities of inner Turkey, and we headed for the border control. The Turkish officer greeted us merrily and was visibly thrilled to see Argentinian passports for what, we think, might have surely been the first time in his life. Of course we didn’t have precise answers for all the questions he asked about Messi and Maradona, but we tried our best as he stamped our departure from the country. Exiting Turkey was a piece of cake, but entering Syria would prove to be not as simple.

We got closer to the Syrian border control and were immediately stopped by two officers who came out of a small booth in a corner. By the look of this border post we were not expecting anyone to speak English, but they did. One of them pointed to our backpacks and instructed us to open them over a table used for baggage inspection. A huge picture of Bashar al-Assad hanged from the ceiling and in that moment I realised it was too late to decide I wasn’t comfortable with the idea of crossing into Syria anymore. But there was nothing I could do about it; I was already there.

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They started looking into our backpacks while they asked a few questions about the reasons for our trip, and we could tell they were looking for some sort of electronic device. Of course they quickly found our laptop. They made us start it up and proceeded to clumsily open random files and programmes obviously lacking any deep understanding of how this machine worked. They took their time on our photos of Paris and Venice, probably more out of curiosity than security. They said we couldn’t enter Syria with the laptop and that they were genuinely sorry, but they just couldn’t: what if we were undercover journalists? What if we were there to stir the social unrest even further, showing people seductive pictures of our joyful life in the West? What if we brought words of freedom to spread around? We didn’t lose our temper, and kindly explained that we would wait all day if necessary for a suitable solution to the situation; we were not going back to Turkey and had all afternoon ahead to talk the problem through. What were we to do if by the evening we had not had a positive answer? This was a scenario we didn’t want to think too much about. We went on to make small talk with the officers, who now looked concerned about us and determined to help (after all, world-famous Muslim hospitality ran through their veins too), especially after Messi and Maradona were named, they love South American football leagues in the Middle East. We also learned that Syrians like to drink yerba mate tea, the national drink of countries such as Argentina, Uruguay and Chile. We were surprised to see them drinking it at the border, and they were even more surprised when we explained to them the correct way to prepare it (they appeared to be drinking a mess of over-heated water and yerba clumsily poured on some small vodka-like glasses, a method mysterious to anyone raised on the traditional culture of mate).

After long hours of officers and unknown authorities coming back and forth from an office upstairs and occasionally looking at us with worried faces, we were told that everything was alright and that we could cross the border with our laptop, but not before we received a big stamp in our passports that clarified the situation in Arabic just in case we were checked by the police during our stay in Damascus. We passed the border control and along the desert-like road, the small town of Tel Abyad looked almost post-nuclear. A ragged, dirty Syrian flag fluttered on the top of an unfinished building. At the faint sound of the adhan call to prayer being sung from a distant minaret, some men here and there placed their mats on the floor to pray towards Mecca while they waited for the bus to the capital. The crying voice of the imam pierced through the dead quiet air of this dusty, deserted town that seemed to never have been inhabited. A shabby minivan bound for another small city between Tel Abyad and Aleppo stopped at the improvised bus terminal to pick a few passengers up and we got on along with some Bedouins and women with their children. We had thought that the trip to Aleppo would be short and straightforward, but we soon learned that once you get to Syria, the best thing you can do is forget about your plans and just go with the flow.

To be continued….

For more content from Florcita check out her portfolio for The Coolidge Review and follow her blog!

Tales of the Balkans: Macedonia and A Fantasy of Cultural Appropriation

By Florcita Swartzman


“So, what do you think about Macedonia?” my host in Skopje asks me. Mitre is a retired man who, as we talk over mint tea by the pool in the back garden, shows me the collection of books he’s written over the years: books about hotel management, based on Western capitalist marketing models. In the time of Tito’s Yugoslavia, writing this type of work was a jailable offense. My answer to his question is naive, as I have not yet been completely confused by the frail -and sometimes contradictory- sense of cultural belonging with which Macedonians seem to struggle so much. I tell him that Macedonia feels like a laid back country where people look like they have no worries, living in this recently independent nation beneath the notice of many other well-established countries. My already fragmented point of view may have been slightly biased by all the parties and open air festivals taking place in Ohrid during the summer I was there; yet, underneath all that colorful excitement, a true and complete existential crisis was shaking the very foundation of Macedonian identity.

The conflict between Greece and the Republic of Macedonia over the latter’s name is one of the oldest cultural disputes in the modern world. However, it is nothing new to the rest of their neighbors in the Balkan Peninsula, who roll their eyes in exasperation every time the argument comes up. Same old song and dance. In fact, Macedonia is only the colloquial and technically incorrect alias by which we refer to the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), the name that the European Community agreed to provisionally adopt in order to pour oil on Greece’s troubled waters. And with the millions of euros that the current Macedonian government has spent over the last few years fabricating an awkward “Greek Muse” costume for Skopje, it is only natural to ask whether the Macedonian people are beginning to buy this fairy tale that is being constructed around their roots.

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The first thing that came to my mind while surveying the center of Skopje was that the architects of this “Extreme Makeover: Cultural Appropriation Edition” went a little overboard with the whole statue theme. There are far too many statues for one city, especially one so small. Every last bit of the town center is garishly decorated in the same manner: in the space of one block, there are three different bridges over the Vardar river. The main bridge, as well as the narrow street that leads to the entrance of the Archeological Museum of Macedonia, has been decorated with the statues of every conceivable artist and saint “born in Macedonia”. Or in what Macedonians think Macedonia is, which is not the same as what Greeks think Macedonia is. But we’ll get to that later. Regarding this shrine of Macedonian personalities, the riverside guides its visitors through the Walk of Heroes that the whole of Skopje’s downtown seems to be, to Macedonia Square. Here, towering majestically over the city, is the colossal statue, the crown of the city, the King of kitsch: the figure of Alexander the Great on his horse Bucephalus upon a 24-metre high pedestal, surrounded by soldiers in a defensive position and by golden lions spitting water, encircled by dancing waters timed with rhythmic lights. There is no room whatsoever for ambiguity here: this is everything Macedonia could hope for in the self-image she wants to convey to the world. But the red, paint-bombed lion testicles and the graffitied walls of the public buildings tell another story: apparently, not everyone in Skopje is thrilled with the city’s new look.

In April of 2016, fed-up Macedonians stood up against the government: the monumental plastic surgery that the capital had undergone in 2014 -consisting of more than 40 monuments, façades and new buildings- had cost the people over €560 million that could have been better spent investing in public services, which are in desperate need of improvement. The uprising, called the Colorful Revolution, left a good portion of Skopje’s fake-old architecture and the Disneyland-like statues brightly paint bombed and vibrant. Among the “Macedonian personalities” all about the city center, new heroes are now immortalized -not in stone, but in plastic and metal- the figures of the Bulgarian saints Kyrill and Methodii, the Tsar Samuil (also Bulgarian), the ethnically Albanian Mother Theresa, the Serbian Tsar Dusan, the Albanian military commander Skanderbeg, and various Bulgarian writers.

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But what about Greece, and why is this called the Macedonian-Greek conflict? The only Macedonia that Greece recognizes as legitimate is the territory comprised by East, Central and West Macedonia, three historical provinces located in the Greek north. Thousands of years before becoming who they are today, the Macedonians comprised one of the many Indo-European tribes that migrated from Asia Minor to the Balkan Peninsula, where they eventually consolidated as an empire. Their origin was not Hellenistic, but they spoke Greek, worshipped Greek gods and acquired the same general culture as the Greeks. Under Philip II, the father of Alexander the Great, they conquered Greece and kept it under Macedonian rule, until the Romans annexed it as a part of their territory by the name of “The Roman Republic of Macedonia.” Between this time and the independence of modern Greece, which occurred less than 200 years ago, various waves of invasions took place: not only from the Turk Ottoman Empire, but also from the medieval Slavic tribes that were seeking to expand their area of influence beyond the Kievan Rus. At this point, Macedonians ceased to be “that historical Greek-related tribe of ancient Mediterranean warriors,” to become a nation assimilated into and culturally absorbed by the Eastern Slavic world. The Slavic ancestry of Macedonia is unmistakable, and today the customs, language and folklore of this country are strongly tied to the Eastern European sphere. This is why the modern Macedonian demand to be recognized as the descendants of the historical Macedonia makes no more sense than modern Uzbeks claiming to be the children of Alexander the Great.

The Republic of Macedonia is a fine parallel to the dos and don’ts of a fancy cocktail party: do not overdo it on makeup. Do not arrive wearing the same clothes as the host through a fear of going unnoticed. Do not embark in a philosophical quarrel with the oldest, wisest person at the party (who could turn out to be the host as well). But most importantly, Do resist the urge to decorate at home with flashy symbols like the Vergina Sun, or the tantalizing name snitched from a warrior on his horse partying on the roof. I repeat: do not attempt to take these items home. Surely there is a good reason why History did not place them there in the first place.

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For more content from Florcita check out her portfolio for The Coolidge Review and follow her blog!

Cuentos de los Balcanes: Macedonia y una fantasía de apropiación cultural

Por Florcita Swartzman


“Y entonces, ¿qué piensas acerca de Macedonia?” me pregunta Mitre, mi anfitrión en Skopje; un señor retirado que, mientras charlamos tomando té de menta en la piscina del jardín trasero, me muestra una colección de los libros que escribió sobre hotel management bajo los modelos de márketing occidentales. Si alguien te descubría escribiendo sobre estos temas, podías ir preso durante los tiempos de Tito. Mi respuesta a su pregunta es ingenua porque todavía no me siento completamente confundida por lo frágil y a veces hasta contradictorio de la identidad cultural de los macedonios. Le digo que Macedonia me parece un país tranquilo y donde se ve que la gente no tiene grandes preocupaciones, siendo una nación recientemente independizada cuyo nombre suena a enigma para el resto del mundo fuera de Europa del Este, demasiado remoto como para siquiera molestarse. Puede haber sido que mi punto de vista estuviese levemente influenciado por todos los festivales y fiestas al aire libre que estaban sucediendo durante el verano que pasé en Ohrid y que en la realidad, debajo de toda esa diversión colorida, una verdadera crisis existencial estuviera sacudiendo las bases de la identidad macedonia hasta los huesos.

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El conflicto entre Grecia y la República de Macedonia sobre el nombre de esta última es una de las disputas culturales más antiguas del mundo moderno. En verdad, nada nuevo para el resto de sus vecinos en la Península Balcánica, que revolean los ojos exasperados cada vez que la discusión sale a relucir. Lo mismo de siempre. De hecho, Macedonia es sólo el nombre coloquial e incorrecto bajo el que conocemos a la constitucionalmente llamada Antigua República Yugoslava de Macedonia (ARYM), el nombre que la comunidad europea ha adoptado provisionalmente con el fin de calmar los ánimos inflamados de Grecia. Y con el gobierno habiendo gastado millones de euros en el disfraz de musa griega que Skopje está obligada a usar desde hace algunos años, no sería descabellado preguntarnos si los macedonios no estarán verdaderamente comenzando a creerse el cuento de hadas que se construyó en torno a sus raíces.

Lo primero que me vino a la mente cuando caminé por primera vez por el centro de Skopje fue que los arquitectos de este Extreme Makeover: Especial Apropiación Cultural fueron demasiado lejos con el tema de las estatuas. De verdad: son demasiadas estatuas para una sola ciudad, y para el caso una ciudad muy pequeña. Cada parte del centro es igualmente exagerada. Hay tres puentes distintos para cruzar el río Vardar en el espacio de una cuadra: el principal, junto con el angosto bulevar que lleva a la entrada del Museo Arqueológico de Macedonia, está decorado con las estatuas de todo posible artista y santo “nacido en Macedonia”. O en lo que los macedonios creen que es Macedonia, que no es lo mismo que lo que los griegos creen que es Macedonia. Pero ya vamos a llegar a eso. Volviendo al altar de las personalidades macedonias, y para coronar el Paseo de los Héroes que parece ser el centro de Skopje, la costanera desemboca en la Plaza Macedonia donde la gigantesca estatua se erige majestuosamente sobre la ciudad, la reina de las estatuas, el paroxismo de lo kitsch: la figura de Alejandro Magno montando su caballo sobre un pedestal de 24 metros de altura, rodeado por soldados en posición de defensa y leones dorados que escupen agua, todo cercado por un juego de aguas danzantes moviéndose al son de luces rítmicas en el piso. No queda ningún lugar a dudas: esto es todo lo que Macedonia sueña para su propia autopercepción. Pero los testículos pintados de rojo de los leones y los muros grafiteados de los edificios públicos cuentan otra historia: aparentemente, no todo el mundo en Skopje está conforme con el nuevo look de la ciudad.

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En abril de 2016, los macedonios se hartaron y se levantaron en contra del gobierno: la monumental cirugía plástica que atravesó Skopje en el año 2014 le costó a la gente más de 560 millones de euros que podrían haber sido mucho mejor empleados en los servicios públicos cuya calidad Macedonia está terriblemente necesitada de mejorar. El levantamiento, llamado la Revolución Colorida, dejó a una gran parte de Skopje pintada de colores brillantes y vibrantes; especialmente a los falsos antiguos edificios y a las estatuas que más parecen estar aptas para decorar un parque de diversiones. Entre las “personalidades macedonias” que se pueden encontrar en toda la ciudad están inmortalizadas -no en piedra, sino más bien en plástico y metal- las figuras de los santos búlgaros Cirilo y Metodio, el Zar Samuil (también búlgaro), la étnicamente albanesa Madre Teresa, el Zar Dusan (serbio), el comandante militar y héroe albanés Skanderbeg y varios escritores búlgaros.

¿Pero qué pasa con Grecia, y por qué lo llamamos el conflicto Greco-macedonio? Bueno, porque la única Macedonia que Grecia reconoce como legítima es la que comprende el territorio de Macedonia Este, Central y Oeste, tres provincias localizadas en el norte griego. Miles de años antes de convertirse en quienes son hoy, los macedonios eran una de las tantas tribus indoeuropeas que bajaron del Asia Menor para establecerse en la zona de los Balcanes, donde consolidaron su imperio. Su origen no era helénico pero hablaban griego, adoraban a los dioses griegos y compartían la misma cultura que los griegos de su tiempo. Su imperio fue tan poderoso que llegaron a conquistar Grecia y mantenerla bajo dominio macedonio hasta que los romanos la anexaron como parte de su territorio bajo el nombre de República Romana de Macedonia. Entre este momento y la independencia moderna de Grecia hace menos de 200 años varias olas de invasiones sucedieron; no solamente por parte de los otomanos sino también de las tribus eslavas que estaban buscando expandir su área de influencia desde el Rus de Kiev. Justo en esta parte de la Historia es cuando los macedonios dejan de ser esa tribu mítica de antiguos guerreros mediterráneos en estrecha relación con el mundo helénico para convertirse en una nación asimilada y culturalmente absorbida por la esfera eslava del este europeo. La herencia eslava de Macedonia hoy es inconfundible y las costumbres, la lengua y el folclore de este país están fuertemente atados a Europa del Este. Es por esto que la demanda de la moderna República de Macedonia de ser reconocida como descendiente de la Macedonia histórica tiene tan poco sentido como un reclamo que surgiera de los uzbekos exigiendo ser considerados como hijos de Alejandro Magno.

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La República de Macedonia es el mejor ejemplo de todo lo que no se debería hacer en una fiesta elegante: no exageres con el maquillaje. No llegues a dicha fiesta usando la misma ropa que el anfitrión solo porque tienes miedo de que de lo contrario nadie te note. No te embarques en una discusión filosófica con la persona más vieja y más sabia de la fiesta (que podría resultar también ser el anfitrión). Y lo más importante de todo; debes resistir el deseo de decorar tu casa con cualquier símbolo brillante como el sol de Vergina o algún nombre llamativo de un guerrero a caballo que puedas encontrar dando vueltas en la fiesta. Repito: no intentes llevarte estos objetos a tu casa. Debe haber una buena razón por la que la Historia no los puso en tus manos en primer lugar.

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Para más información sobre las experiencias de Flor visita su blog, o clickea acá para leer el resto de sus artículos en The Coolidge Review.

Russia Today: A Tale of Nostalgic Confusion

By Florcita Swartzman

Communism in Russia is over. Long forgotten are the figures of Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchov, Gorbachov and Brezhnev. Or so we’d think. But there is something about their past that will not let go of the Russians. The Russians, these fascinating creatures deeply marked by their cold winters and the miscalculations of their previous and present rulers. In the 21st century, a time of raging globalization in which Louis Vuitton tried (and failed) to get a spot next to Lenin in the Krasnaya ploshchad, we would imagine that all the idols of the grandiose Red past would be buried deep in the Russian psyche, never to float back up to the surface again. But as I learned during my month-and-a-half trip from Vladivostok to Saint Petersburg, nothing could be further from the truth.

 

There is a statue of Lenin in almost every Russian city and town, especially in Siberia. There will always be at least one such statue that’ll welcome you first thing when you set foot in any train station you’re arriving at: it’s usually the figure of Lenin with his hand triumphantly lifted up in the air, pointing the way to a glorious socialist future full of wealth that will never come, with that characteristic nostalgic tone that only Soviet realism can pull off. In most Siberian cities, the two main streets are monotonously named after Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin. Other secondary streets might be called Gagarina, Komsomolskaya, Oktyabrskaya, Kommunisticheskaya and other similar, demagogic names.

 

So the truth is: no, Russians have not forgotten their glorious military past. To this day some people continue to mourn Stalin’s death, the Moscow National Library is still called, by many, the Biblioteka Lenina (even though the name was changed in 1992), Yekaterinburg is also known as Sverdlovsk, and recently Vladimir Putin has made the Victory Day, the holiday that commemorates the capitulation of Nazi Germany to the USSR in 1945, into his very own ritual and the stage from which he showcases the revival of Russia as a military power to the world. The Victory Day is a very emotionally charged event, and Mr. Putin makes sure he doesn’t miss a chance to present himself as a friend and saviour to his folk. The message he looks to deliver is, in some way, that the spirit of the Red Army still burns in every Russian’s heart, so no economic or geopolitical circumstance should be an obstacle to fight back. To fight who? The power-thirsty enemy this side of the Iron Curtain. The imperialist Western world. The world.

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But there are consequences to not laying an outdated defense mechanism to rest. The Russian people have learned to live with very strong -sometimes barbaric- ideas and concepts about what the army and discipline mean to them. In plain daylight of the 21st century, 18-year-old kids now come out of their mandatory military service terms mindlessly speaking about defending the country at all costs, about “Motherland or death” and about things that are in practice completely alien to them, as if the past were reciting old tales of battle and honor through them. And this inoculated belief system, we’ve seen with the recent Russian annexation of Crimea, is extremely functional to the government’s territorial interests.

 

The Soviet Union did a great job channeling the emotions of the masses so that the Russian people would always be ready to fight the invaders in whichever form they would take. Paradoxically, not even post Soviet-era children were spared this indoctrination. In this way, a sort of a collective psychosis was born in regards to the defense of the Motherland’s borders that continues, even though less visibly, to this day. Putin knows this, of course, and acts upon the nostalgic yearning of his folk for the imperial past. He has mentioned quite a few times that the fall of the USSR was a mistake, and this resonates especially with the older generations of Russians that still see a protective father in the figure of Stalin. Vladimir Putin insisting so strongly on national sovereignty, fraternity and the importance of economic independence from the Western powers also means that one of his political goals is to distract the masses from the raging economic crisis that is keeping millions of Russians under or around the poverty line since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

 

There are also other talents that Mr. President displays in order to get the people to find a paternal friend and a hero in him. The internet has showed him to us in his most audacious, masculine side: riding a horse through the frozen Siberian tundra, skiing, fishing, hunting, fiercely beating a judo medallist in his own field, swimming without dolphins, swimming with dolphins, taming wild tigers, playing ice-hockey and almost any other manly activity we can think of. This strategy works for him, he needs it for his popularity to continue rising. According to the statistics published by the VtsIOM, the Russian Public Opinion Research Center, Vladimir Putin’s overall approval rating was of 86% in 2016. His image appeals to men and women alike because he looks to be regarded as the ideal example of the brave, relentless, incorruptible Russian man. This is what manhood means is the voiceless statement being made through the photos of him bare-chested, wrestling with polar bears.
Will Russia ever be able to free herself from the yoke of personalism, authoritarian regimes and emotional politics? There are no clear social signs that this will be the case in the near future, but there are already little sparks of resistance burning among the younger generations against Putin and the corrupt moves that helped him climb to his current position of almost absolute rule. Russia is tired of corruption, but she turns a blind eye to it for lack of a better, healthier option. She is tired of violence, but keeps on feeding it. The Russians are tired, above all, of bloody dictators, but they keep on placing them on pedestals and investing them with god-like power. Before October 1917, Lenin once said: “if we leave the fight up to the people, we won’t have a revolution in hundreds of years”. The truth is that, in Russia, it is very difficult for the people to be heard in any matter related to politics. The bureaucracy is almighty and insurmountable in a very much Kafkaesque manner. But not all may be lost, though: it is a hard time to be alive in the ex-Soviet capital of the world but today, in this all-connected internet era of ours, those people that Lenin once looked down upon have the ability -for the first time after decades of living in a nightmare- to wake up, organise and revolt. Now it is their turn to stand up and fight back for their own independence.

Russia TCR (3)

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