05 February 2011

Arrested Thinking

Not long after the bombing, I received an American email saying:
With the bombing in Moscow I heard it was a Chechen suicide bomber ... Russia is in a precarious position. Under the Soviet Union so much was incorporated into Russia by force. Now many want their "freedom." ... Russia has a lot of problems with the countries that were part if the iron curtain. Russia has a lot of problems with people who did not and do not want to be "russified" due to "russification."
Within 24 hours of getting this email, a Russian stated something along the following lines to me:
Chechens are a special nationality.  They are aggressive by nature and know no other way.  You can easily distinguish them by their hair, skin, and clothing style.  The only way Chechens make money is through kidnapping, murder, and extortion.  Russian troops have fought, are fighting, and will continue to fight with Chechens because this is just who they are.
Both of these statements come from highly-educated, multi-lingual people with degrees from excellent universities.  They both have significant world-travel mileage under their feet.  And they both express simplistic narratives that provide an easy explanation to a difficult situation.  In other words, both are subscribing to stereotypes.  And as stereotypes go, they have a veneer of truth that lends credibility to the mountain of fiction they cover.

I am not an expert in Russian Caucasian affairs and will not attempt to provide any version of truth here, but I want to point out a few things about the American and Russian versions of the stereotype.

An American Perspective:
This Hammer Crushes Souls Behind the Iron Curtain

The American version of the narrative that explains the recent Moscow bombing works with Americans because, for more than a generation, America was locked into an existential conflict with the Soviet Union.  Russia, being the backbone, heart, soul, and brains of USSR, had a special place in the American psyche.  Russia was seen as an aggressive nation that subjugated other countries behind the Iron Curtain and crushed the individual's soul and initiative where it could for the sake of the communist collective.

The current American narrative of Russia's internal conflicts, as reflected in news and opinion pieces from most US news outlets, is an extension of the same narrative that applied to the USSR.  Russians are the same aggressive, oppressive bunch and the recent terrorist acts are "cries for freedom" from a subjugated people somewhere within Russia's borders.  This narrative represents a familiar model that is easy to understand.

While there are multiple problems with this narrative, it will just suffice to point out that Americans view another analogous situation closer to home completely differently.  That analogous situation is Quebec's ambitions for independence from Canada.  Americans view this situation with puzzlement and suspicion, and another example of those troublemaking French francophones.  So much for "cries fo freedom."

A Russian Perspective
All Chechens Are Murderous Kidnapping Thieves Like This Guy

Sadly, the Russian version of the narrative - in this case pointed at Chechens - is far more destructive, partially because it is self-fulfilling.  This narrative serves to somehow dehumanize Chechens and justify the harshest actions against a people because, according to the narrative, there is nothing worth redeeming in a Chechen's soul.  And s long as this narrative and others like it exist, the statement of "Russian troops ... will continue to fight with Chechens" shall remain true.

Pure Fiction
Like Other Russian Stereotypical Images of Chechens

Making a case for enlightened self-interest, and I believe that self-interest being trying to preserve the Russian state and stopping the killings of Russian citizens everywhere (including Moscow and Grozny) at the hands of Chechens or ethnic Russians, it seems like a good idea to get beyond the stereotype and form a deeper understand of peoples inside Russia from all ethnic backgrounds.  While a deeper understanding of other peoples does not guarantee an end to all conflicts, it will go a long way to destroy self-fulfilling caricatures of other people who seem to ask for nothing but war and abuse and only give that in return.

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