December 31, 2014

Our First Cold War

Our First Cold War

When the Editors at Russian Life asked me to write about how my friends and I (“the younger generation”) view the current state of Russian-American relations, given the events of 2014, I honestly had to pause and think about it.

First, allow me to introduce myself, to give some context for my views.

I’m 21. I was born and raised in St. Petersburg, Russia’s second-largest city. I’m finishing college, speak two foreign languages passably, travel several times a year, and cannot imagine life without the internet.

My childhood was founded on American cartoons and books. After class, I watch American shows and hang out on Facebook and on Vkontakte. I know all the Disney plotlines by heart. I can summarize the biographies of all the main Marvel superheroes. I can commiserate about how Hey, Arnold! never had a logical conclusion. And if I try hard enough, I might recall the names of the first Power Rangers. Among my friends, quoting Friends or Star Wars is basic good taste.

At the same time, I can explain the “Raskolnikov’s doubles” theory regarding Dostoyevsky, boast that I’ve read Sergei Dovlatov’s complete works, or quote Joseph Brodsky.

But let’s get one thing straight: my friends and I do not constitute all of Russia’s youth. And I doubt we’re even in the majority.

Several years ago, I remember how local radio stations used to get a kick out of listing silly American laws: “In Oklahoma you may be sent to prison for biting off a piece of another person’s hamburger,” or “In Hayden, you can be fined for harassing frogs.” But recently, a different quip has been making the rounds: that we used to laugh at stupid American laws, and now we’re getting a taste of our own medicine.

This whole deal with sanctions and a “new Cold War” is exacerbated by how my peers (and not just them) drown in the flow of information, not always capable of making sense of the news. I specifically asked several people I know to tell me where they get their news. It turned out that more than half get it from their parents; the others get it via social networks. It follows that few rely on facts, given that not everyone gets their information from independent media, or at least from foreign outlets (to get other perspectives on the issue).

The result is that most Russians hate America. Some blame Obama for meddling (then again, not all of my American friends support his policies), some ignorantly believe that the sanctions banning food imports from the US and EU is an American initiative, not a Russian one. There are people who call all opposition movements “American puppets.” So it seems that my generation is not that different from that of my parents. History is cyclical. So the Cold War continues – and most people are fine with that.

And the saddest part is that I see no way to make things better. When Russia announced that it would not longer participate in the Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX) program, it triggered a wave of indignation from the program’s alumni. I heard people say that a “thread” connecting our countries had been broken, cutting off potential communication. But I don’t think this will change much.

In Russia, English, which is still taught in all schools, is spoken by only 5 percent of people. I suspect that among students the number is 15-30 percent. These are statistics from the last census. Thus, only 5 percent can say more than, say, “London is the capital of Great Britain.” The other 95 percent listen only to Russian news, read only Russian newspapers, and believe in “stability,” even as the ruble weakens day after day. I don’t mean to say that if one could access American, British, German, or Finnish media, everything would fundamentally change. Of course not; but every generation appears less and less capable of critical thought.

There’s no single person or country to blame for this. The US also meddled, with the mess in Crimea and the subsequent sanctions. The States should have taken on the role of the “wise and powerful.” They shouldn’t have expected that people would rush to change their government after seeing what the sanctions did. They won’t. My generation, the 20-year-olds who have always manned the barricades, does not know how else it can be. The older generation, which has lived through so many crises and hard times, will just sigh and think about how to live on, how to earn some money and keep their jobs. Undermining the economy of another country, where so many people live (and not all of them well), is far from the right path, especially coming from a nation always proud of itself for defending the interests of others.

Russia, too, should have first thought of the consequences and worked through all the alternatives, which no one did. It was more fun to coast on Putin’s ratings, borne upwards by the rising tide of patriotism. It would have been a good idea to take care of the economy, develop sectors other than oil and gas, and to not create conditions that left foreign companies, startups, and small businesses two possibilities to consider: bare-bones survival in Russia or an immediate escape plan. The rock band Lumen sings, “I love my country, but I hate the state.” It looks like they did a good job reflecting the general view.

The events of 2014 have not changed my view of America: I really want to go there. This evening I’ll be chatting with my American friends. I will be happy for them, because someone is going to Las Vegas next month, someone else started a business, and another person won their college Quidditch match. I don’t care that the TV shows I watch still feature “Russian mobsters” as villains. After all, one of Russia’s most popular shows right now is about a mobster from the 90s trying to figure out how to live in the modern world.

I really want to believe in an “11th hour Samaritan” – that someone will come who can find the perfect solution. In the end, it’s the people who matter: only they can change everything.

Translation by Eugenia Sokolskaya

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