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Published: Sunday, 6/17/2001

Russia reveals its character in gleeful mocking of U.S.

Russians don't celebrate Father's Day. Men are recognized on Feb. 23, the Red Army Anniversary. Never mind the women in the Russian military.

But Russians are not oblivious to American traditions and, more importantly, keep track of some celebrated American fathers, such as Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

The way Russian pundits and laymen view family turmoil involving the two presidents - the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal and Mr. Bush's daughters' recent trouble with alcohol laws - is truly revealing, however.

At first glance, Russian media reports on U.S. scandals in high places changed quite a bit.

Those reports evolved from self-deprecating acknowledgment of a strong civil society in the United States that can afford such scandals in the Lewinsky case to exaggerated incomprehension in the Bush case.

The much-reported downturn in the U.S.-Russian relationship is, of course, responsible for the change of tune in those reports.

But in essence those reports remain the same. In both cases the Russians talk about the United States, read civil society, as if they were referring to a different planet.

“There's another scandal in America involving a U.S. president's family. While Clinton had to blush on his own behalf, Bush does it for his daughters,” gloats the Izvestia daily - a report titled “Problems with the Face: Bush Daughters Got Busted for Beer and False ID.”

The author proceeds to mock U.S. alcohol regulations, telling the reader that Americans habitually “squeal” to the authorities on each other and that their alcohol regulations are “meticulous bordering on killjoy.” The legal drinking age in Russia is 21, but the law is seldom enforced.

The newspaper's message to the young Russian layman reader is clear: “Hey, you may be struggling to make ends meet, but at least you don't get busted for bending the rules a little.” Rule-bending is a national pastime in Russia, from Joe Blow who steals from the employer and the employer who hides his profits in offshore banks, to the authorities who don't give a fig about human rights.

Russians, however, are blatantly honest about their iniquities, and the media are playing up to them.

Take for example the “quote of the day” by the Izvestia, which attributes it to Oscar Wilde and paraphrases it in Russian: “Work is the last resort for those who aren't capable of anything else.”

Wow! That tells you quite a bit about the elusive Russian national character, doesn't it?

It's the fact that nothing seems to change in this character over time that's most disturbing.

Along with scary statistics on journalists killed or vanished, people spending months in jail without trial, or civilian casualties in Chechnya, this Russian attitude tells me that Russia may remain far divorced from a civil society for quite a bit longer.

After all, it's only been a decade since the downfall of the Soviet Union, which patronized every citizen, diminishing him to an infant whose basic needs were taken care of as long as he obeyed the “Loving Father” such as Czar Ivan the Terrible, Joseph Stalin, or Leonid Brezhnev. Now it's Vladimir Putin.

And that infant mentality may take longer than just a single lifetime to change.

Soviet Communists really can't claim all the “credit” for the warped Russian mind. It took much longer than the 73 years of their rule to do the damage.

Russia had been an autocracy for ages, with czars traditionally perceived as “a kindly father” and their cronies as “thieving fiefs.” Poor, long-suffering, and persevering Russians would periodically rebel against the system, only to fall under yet another tyranny.

It is, therefore, naive of U.S. experts on Russia to expect that the United States can have a positive effect on the situation in Russia.

It simply can't be changed without changing the Russian character.

Moreover, Russia appears to be better off if left alone for a while until it matures from its own infancy, given the way the much-controlled Russian media twist the news from the United States.

It's better to leave it alone as long as the Russians say to their leaders - to use Fyodor Dostoyevsky's quote from The Brothers Karamazov - “Make us your slaves, but feed us.” Or as long as “they will be convinced, too, that they can never be free, for they are weak, vicious, worthless and rebellious.”

Mike Sigov, a Russian-born journalist, is a staff writer for The Blade. Email him at msigov@theblade.com.



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