MOSCOW--Well, at least I didn’t end up with a broken nose or stabbed in the heart. One of the things I have noticed in Russia is that more than a few men have a nose badly bent out of shape, the centerpiece of an aggressively belligerent scowl. And for such guys the de rigueur T-shirt of the current moment features a thuggish looking Vladimir Putin smiling smugly above the slogan “Russians, the Most Polite People.” What is meant by “polite” is that Russia annexed Crimea with a stealth invasion of “little green men” against weak Ukrainian resistance and thus with relatively few casualties. (Perhaps less “polite” has been the civil war in eastern Ukraine largely initiated by the Kremlin with over 5000 deaths so far, including nearly 200 people shot down out of the sky by a Russian ground-to-air missile.)
So as I was walking on my way through central Moscow to go watch Russia’s May 9 Victory Day parade, I was physically assaulted by one of Russia’s so very polite broken nosed young men. Right in the middle of the main tourist thoroughfare in Moscow, just outside the doors of Starbucks, he came up to me violently screaming that he hated Americans. Somehow I had attracted his attention a few days earlier. He punched me in the head, breaking my glasses and knocking me to the ground. As I tried to get up, he punched me again. As he was punching me, not one of several dozen bystanders said a word, either out of passivity or out of silent approval. Unfortunately, I am inclined to believe the latter, as when I asked these same people who witnessed this event for help finding my glasses, nobody stepped forward as I struggled to find them. Not that it did me any good, the frame was broken and the lenses were shattered. I also suffered a badly swollen ear and a sprained ankle. But he didn’t fracture my nose, and as one Russian friend later consoled me, he didn’t stab me to death.
Barely able to see without my glasses, I went limping down the street to seek out the “tourist police” who patrol “historic" Old Arbat, since the guy who assaulted me actually works on this street hawking Red Army souvenirs. Their reaction was a bored shrug and a pointedly unfriendly suggestion that I go back to America. I was not in the least bit surprised, as Russian police are notoriously inefficient at crime solving and distinctly uninterested in any activity that doesn’t involve receiving a bribe. And as state employed and sanctioned thugs, they have their own particular animus towards Americans. It seemed that to them, assaulting an American was not really a crime at all, but rather an admirable act of patriotism.
Nowhere else in the world have I seen such open hostility and rabid anti-Americanism (and I have been to 75 countries around the world, including places like Venezuela and Syria where anti-Americanism is state ideology). But over the years I have spent in Russia I have been personally harassed and threatened on a depressingly regular basis. On the subway last year, I commented to an acquaintance that “Russia children are crazy about Spongebob.” In a heartbeat there was this huge strapping guy furiously shouting in my face in broken English “I spetsnatz (special forces) you say Russians crazy I kill you.” I considered for a nanosecond trying to explain the meaning of “crazy about” and who Spongebob was, and decided the better course of action would be to appear scared to death (not hard, because I was) and as we came to the next station to beat a hasty retreat off the train.
In microcosm, my being beaten up in broad daylight in the center of Moscow is mere reflection of the poisonous brew of nationalism, xenophobia, fear, and hatred that Vladimir Putin and his propaganda apparatus have deliberately striven so hard to stir up. These are all very old elements of traditional Russian culture, consciously borrowed from the traditional ideology of “Autocracy, Orthodoxy, and Nationalism” of Tsarist times. Today the drumbeat of Russian state propaganda has convinced the vast majority of Russians that morally inferior America and “Gayropa” are an existential threat to Russia, the solitary bulwark of cultural decency and the only country willing and able to stand up to American global hegemony. And the explicit message of the tanks and missile launchers snaking through Moscow for the Kremlin’s overtly militaristic parade is to try to demonstrate that Russia is a force to be reckoned with.
Passions have been especially inflamed since last year’s Maidan revolution in Ukraine and Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and the Russian supported civil war in eastern Ukraine. In the utterly false Kremlin narrative, the popular revolution in Ukraine was a fascist coup underwritten by the CIA and executed by Washington’s neo-Nazi puppets on the ground. The seizure of Crimea was justified on the absurd grounds that NATO was planning to grab the peninsula, where Russia has a naval base under a long-term lease with Ukraine, and launch a campaign of terror against Crimea’s ethnic Russian population. Sadly, most people have proven eager to whole heartedly believe such crude lies. And almost all Russians are still euphoric with pride at their “great victory” and desperate to believe that it proves that Russia is again a great super-power.
But beneath this giddy triumphalism is a raging insecurity complex. The loss of Russia’s “near abroad” when the Soviet Union collapsed is still a national humiliation. Russians are also aware that their country shamefully lags far behind the West by almost any measure. They have trouble reconciling their fervent pride in the belief that Russia should stand at the center of world civilization, and frustrated bitterness that the rest of the world fails to take serious Russia’s pretensions to greatness. They mistakenly ascribe to American foreign policy a mirror image of their own external aggressions against their nearest neighbors. And Russia’s “victories” against the vastly weaker post-Soviet states of Georgia and Ukraine has fed the delusion that Russia’s corrupt and incompetent military is truly a match for NATO. As a result, Russia is literally a country spoiling for a fight, especially with America. Today the consequences may be merely the beating of some random American in the middle of central Moscow. But this toxic combination of seething hatred and resentment mixed with false bravado is a a recipe for far more serious dangers for America, our allies in Europe, and for Russia’s most vulnerable neighbors.