DONNY and VLAD: Post Mortems of Helsinki

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Content advisory 18+ The off-the-charts hullabaloo after Helsinki (Donny and Vlad) has gotten so ridiculous that I once more feel compelled to seize my figurative pen and get to work. The problem is that the folks who most need to read what I have to say here simply won’t — because the kind of American trolls who soil cyberspace with their dim-witted posts don’t know how to absorb much beyond messages scrawled on the walls of public toilets. The people who peruse MEDIUM don’t, as a rule, need any tutoring, so maybe this is a waste of breath and space.

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But here goes.
Americans and Russians. The sad fact is that neither, taken as a whole, really know much about the other. This in spite of all the technology. In America, white people and black people STILL haven’t really figured each other out, so how in the hell can anyone expect the average American to grasp much about the real Russia? Instead they rely on such all-knowing authorities as John McCain. Or they watch movies which ALWAYS depict Russians as frozen-eyed, malevolent spies walking around with poison-tipped umbrellas. A load of bollocks, in other words.

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During the Soviet period, Russians were not allowed to travel freely and couldn’t have afforded to anyway. Even now, the vast majority of Russians never leave Russia, and if they do, they go to cheap nearby places like Egypt. And just get drunk. (The more affluent sojourn everywhere, but sometimes getting a visa is a problem; hence the popularity of Thailand, and even distant ports of call such as Cuba and the Dominican Republic. And since the Western-imposed sanctions have fucked everything up economically, many settle for Sochi and the Crimea.) Think of it like this: Russia has 11 time zones. That’s right: e-l-e-v-e-n. It’s one helluva train ride across the country (six days, 9288 km) and a flight is about eight and a half hours from Moscow to Vladivostok. There are a lot of poor people along the way. To express it succinctly, they do NOT possess a cosmopolitan view of the world. They get most of their news from the State-controlled “First Channel.” Say no more — if you have ever seen the news as presented on First Channel. (You haven’t but I have.) Or just keep repeating the word “censorship” under your breath.

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The Americans? Well. For a start, never before has there been, in its general mentality, so provincial an empire as the United States. Trying to rule the world by proxy, the Americans nonetheless rarely learn a foreign language, can’t find half of the rest of the planet on a map, and think of Europe as a cute, quaint playground where people play a funny kind of un-American football and have a lot of pretty churches. OK OK OK, I am making gross generalizations and mostly playing it for laughs, but it is truer than you think.

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One massive difference that comes to mind is infrastructure. In the USA (as well as Canada and most of Western Europe), you do not fall off the edge of the world as soon as you leave the Big City. If you hang your hat in Sheboygan or Piscataway or Moscow, Idaho or Rome, Georgia, you can still see the Big Match on cable TV and your car will have asphalt under its wheels all the way home. If you or your dog get sick, a doctor can be found. A real doctor, that is. There is no guarantee of this in many parts of Russia, what is commonly just referred to as “the regions.” Nor is there any question that the alcoholic despair which haunts so much of Russia comes from the hopelessness of living in one-factory towns where the one factory closed years ago. A sad affair which even the trailer-park bleakness and stench of certain pockets of America can not hold a candle to.

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As a teenager I was condemned to live in Florida (a sentence of many years, as it turned out). Coming from the hills of West Virginia where a lot of folks were just learning that you should wipe your ass after going to the toilet, I thought that Florida was the Promised Land. I understood that the South of that era (The 1960s) was a hotbed of vicious racism, but somehow I thought that Florida would be exempt from all that, a kind of oasis in the desert. Boy, was I wrong.

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On the surface all that has changed. We dare not utter the ’N-word’ (what a puerile expression — ‘N-word’, like something a naughty child might get his mouth washed out with soap for saying), but essentially the provincial, small-town mentality still prevails beneath a superficial, often ‘corporate’ pose, an ersatz sophistication. Likewise (and here Russia is really no different in the xenophobic Putin era), Americans — knowing that God is on their side — always feel the need to identify some external Evil to be feared, hated…and conquered. All in the name of The Lord and Democracy. For a long time now, Russia has fulfilled this comic book-level role and fed this M & Ms and Kellogg’s Sugar Smacks American appetite for indulging itself amid the guffaws and giggles of the Saturday morning cartoons.

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The truth is, surprise, surprise, that Americans and Russians ARE different in many respects. Culture will do that to you. In the most essential ways, however, they are virtually identical. If you sit in a bar watching American football, most of the guys sitting around you are GOOD GUYS. If you sit in a bar in Russia watching Spartak vs CSK, most of the guys sitting around you are GOOD GUYS. Russian women seek (fruitlessly it sometimes appears) decent men who can hold a job, be a good father, not drink too much, and be an adequate lover. Most American women who have any interest at all in building a family want the same thing.

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There is great truth in the adage that “Wherever you go, you take yourself with you.” So if you are a fuck-up in America, do not come to Russia imagining that this will solve your problem. And vice versa. If you are a good guy or a good gal (I could make this sound more ‘intellectual’ if I wanted to), people will figure it out eventually and they will like you. If you are a freak or a bad apple, they will suss that out too. And they probably won’t like you. If you are a fellow like me who has always had a weakness for women with sexy foreign accents, it can come as a startling epiphany when you suddenly realize that Svetlana is really no different from Megan, that Tatiana is a lot like Jennifer. They just sounded different at first….

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But of course there ARE differences, some of them profound. It might take several blogs to get through all this, and I hope you will bear with me, but here are a few off the top of my head. First, it seems to me that Americans (and Brits) steadfastly believe in the Future. They invest in it. For all their bickering and bitching, Americans are certain that their main institutions are going to last. I mean, how in the hell could The Greatest Nation the World has ever Known remain as such if most of its citizens believed it was all going to come tumbling down around their ears at any moment?? Moreover, because it has been a long, long time (try 1865) since a battle was fought on American soil, the average American might likely define ‘war’ as “a situation where you get to sit in front of a TV screen and eat your triple decker cheeseburger while watching your Air Force drop bombs and blow the hell out of another country.”

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This explains why the Trade Towers catastrophe so traumatized and left such an enduring impression on the American people. It was like a wake-up call: “Hey, can this REALLY be happening to US?” Yep. It sure can. America, therefore, is part Redneck Cowboy culture and part Disney World, all commanded by the Monolithic Corporate Monster in whose hands the real power lies. And, damn right, they believe in the future. And they will tolerate no vision of the bombs falling on THEM.
Russians do not believe in the Future. (Well, I guess that few of the mainstream would have predicted the collapse of the Soviet Union — but not because of its might or presumed durability, rather because in the Soviet Union, Time didn’t really matter to the peasant mentality of the average Russian person stranded somewhere across an inconceivably vast landscape. The future didn’t matter because Time didn’t matter.) Furthermore, if the axiom that “Past is Prologue” is true — and I think it usually is (past behavior is a reliable predictor of future behavior, etc), then the Russian people can hardly be blamed for their skepticism. The past was rarely good to the Russians, despite the Herculean efforts of Mr. Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church to reinvent it.

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In my experience, Russians almost NEVER believe anything they are told, especially if the information comes from higher up. There are more conspiracy theories in Russia than fleas on a homeless Alabama dog in the summer. The reason for this is that they have been lied to by their own government from time immemorial (but haven’t we all?) while feeling (unlike Americans !) powerless to change anything. The most typical answer that a Russian will give to ANY question is either “Maybe” or simply Silence followed by a shrug of the shoulders (translated: “Who knows and who cares?”). In America, if the escalator in the subway breaks down at a big station, it is expected that someone will come and fix it soon, and if they don’t get there in like a nano second and a half, a great, swelling “WTF ????” rises to the rafters. In Russia, it will just stay as it is, unfixed, until the lazy and uncaring authorities finally get round to it. Americans expect and demand all the creature comforts; in Russia the government cares NOTHING about making life convenient for the people.

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The result is that Americans often come across as a bunch of spoiled brats to the rest of the world. Russians have seen their world come crashing down many, many times. Some of them from the days of Hitler’s invasion are still around. They remember. Americans have no concept of the suffering of the Soviet/ Russian people. None whatsoever. And if the American government is well represented by crooks and fools, it is NOTHING compared to the invincible greed, viciousness, dishonesty, corruption, and (at the lower levels) insanely idiotic inefficiency and ineptitude of Russian government. THIS is why the Russians have such a reputation for being a nation of cheats and swindlers. The government has abused its citizens for centuries, and Russian people therefore have had no choice but to learn to lie and cheat in return. For Survival. Imagine that, Americans! Imagine living your life trying to SURVIVE your own government! (Some hysterical fools used to bellow doomsday crap about Obama and many now shriek the same way about Trump — all bullshit. The American system of checks and balances is there to prevent the ascendancy of extremism — and it works.)

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It does not help that Russian people, for all their love of a good drunken punch-up (these people are NOT cowards, do not EVER think that) are basically Passive. Too passive. An American will get pissed off and scream to the high heavens if his coffee isn’t hot enough at the local diner. Russians all have memories of family members who simply disappeared. Vanished from the streets. Gulags. KGB. That kind of stuff. To the average Russian person, Americans seem like children.
The American beats his chest and jumps up and down and wants his coffee REALLY hot and his Pepsi REALLY cold. The Russian simply shakes his head and smiles, saying under his breath: “Дурак”, and walks away to solve his own problems because NO ONE is going to solve them for him.

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In my ten years in Russia, I met the best of people. A few bad ones to be sure. But I was happy there. Evil Empire? Puleeezzzz. Give me a break.

===Eric Richard Leroy===

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