пятница, 16 августа 2013 г.

Why should I listen to you? (on East and West)

I am a westerner. Most of my childhood was spent in Brussels, at the heart of the European Union - which then comprised only the countries of western Europe, the colourful tapestry of EU nation states on the map becoming an uninviting grey as one crossed east across the iron curtain. The patriotism of our school was that of a family of European nations - multilingual, cosmopolitan, liberal, forward-looking and confident of its 'values'. European Union, Amnesty International, Greenpeace, the Universal Charter of Human Rights - we knew what we stood for.

My first exposure to 'the East' (by which in this case I mean the Soviet bloc) was a very brief visit to Yugoslavia across the border from Italy and a 1987 trip to East Berlin. My interest in Esperanto also yielded a brief correspondence with a Hungarian. When the events of 1989 led to the fall of the Berlin Wall, we rejoiced. I spent my gap-year on a project in East Berlin and began Russian at Cambridge in 1993.

I had known Russia from illustrated travel books and posters - and from news reports. My Russian studies coincided somewhat inauspicously with Yeltsin's confrontation with the Duma which ended in the shelling of the parliament. That summer (1994) I made my first trip to Russia: a month in St Petersburg. We were students not yet 20 years old and everything was new. Russia in the mid-1990s was still very Soviet and a country in the midst of a difficult transition. Many things were run-down and shabby, even in glorious St. Petersburg, but there was also much to admire.

Over the next ten years I travelled to Russia often: another exchange trip, a linguist's year abroad and then several month-long trips before Oxana and I, by now married and with baby Sophia, moved to Novosibirsk in 2004. By this time Russia was no longer post-Soviet, but already the 'resurgent Russia' of BBC news programmes. Vladimir Putin was in power, oil and gas revenues were pouring in, construction work was underway everywhere and the visible fruits of disposable income (from Lexuses to fancy mobile phones) everywhere in evidence. I remember a conversation with a lady in our church in which I suggested that Russia was a country of enormous resources and wealth. At the time she relunctantly agreed. The point now seems obvious beyond doubt.

Having spent most of my life as an ex-patriate, I have tried to follow the maxim, "When in Rome, do as the Romans do." In Brussels the genus of mono-lingual little Englanders was something of a pariah class. Any self-respecting ex-patriate learns the local language, knows and loves the local food, socialises with the local people and shares at least something of the local perspective on life and the world. And when they move to the next foreign assignment, they adapt again.

And so, though a westerner, having travelled to Russia for almost 20 years and lived here permanently for nine, I have become at least a little Russian. The Russians have a verb for this: ab-ROOS-et'.

What does this mean?

1. "The boundaries of my language are the boundaries of my world," wrote Wittgenstein. In learning and using Russian for 20 years I feel I have extended the boundaries of my world. Another language opens up another way of looking at the world. Russian is an Indo-European language, but - unlike German or French - there is remarkably little common vocabulary, so lots of new words. Russian verbs present a particular challenge: aspect (depending on whether an action is ongoing or completed), verbs of motion (whether motion in a single direction or multiple), reflexive verbs and perplexing verb permutations involving prefixes and endings. Russian constructs sentences and formulates thought in different way to other western European language, so one has to re-learn, copying and adapting stereotype expressions.

2. Secondly, I have become much less Euro-centric in my values. I still value my upbringing and education in Brussels, but from a Russian perspective much of what I took for granted seems more ambiguous. The rights of the individual versus the good of society. The merits of progress versus the wisdom of tradition. Freedom as independence versus freedom as self-realisation in the context of obligations. Enlightenment free enquiry versus submission to authority. All these and other polar opposites are not limited to the difference between East and West, but for me they represent western certainties which the east has shaken. I haven't entirely abandoned the shared values of my native culture, but I can see the merits of their opposites.

3. I have become more direct and robust. My native British culture cultivates the understatement, the oblique reference, shies away from confrontation and difference, seeks consensus. Russians are much more confrontational, sometimes excessively so. But there are merits in this approach. People know where they stand. There is often an opportunity to raise and resolve issues, to express grievances and achieve reconciliation which a less direct approach can hinder. To Russians westerners are superficially nice and smiley, but underneath it they are seeking their own interests. Russians state their self-interest and then seek to find a mutually acceptable way forward.

4. I have come to value orthodoxy. I don't mean Eastern Orthodoxy (although I value that too), but rather the approach to life which follows received wisdom, common sense, tradition, custom. It seems to me as if a commonplace in western culture is to debunk received wisdom, to be spontaneous, innovative, going one's own way, doing one's own thing, not to follow the crowd. This approach to life is possibly best embodied in a celebrity such as Steve Jobs of Apple fame. While one cannot be categorical about such things (and Steve Jobs' greatness is beyond doubt), such an approach seems to me to be somewhat tired - an interesting, but short-lived experiment which usually leads one back to the way people always did things.

5. Russia's geographical location is a reminder that the world doesn't end at the Ural mountains. The European integration enterprise embraces a sort of pan-Europeanism, but stops there. It was an eye-opener for me that not the Deutschmark or the pound, but the dollar is the world currency. In Russia your neighbours and partners are not other Europeans, but Turks, Chinese, Japanese, Indians. These and other nations are dynamic and growing and we have much to learn from them (and possibly something to offer). But to do so we need to de-obsess about our western 'values'. Are we really that great? Are we really doing that well that everyone should copy and follow us?  

Russia has a history of being lectured to. President Reagan called the Soviet Union 'the Evil Empire' (I wonder what they thought of that in Nicaragua). On a trip to Estonia President Bush lectured to Russia on the merits of democracy (ethnic Russians in Estonia have found it difficult to obtain citizenship). David Milliband took on Sergey Lavrov on the war in South Ossetia (which was started by Georgia). And now various pressure groups are trying to pressure Russia, threatening the Sochi 2014 games. In 1980 the USA and other nations boycotted the Moscow games due to the invasion of Afghanistan. Should Russia now boycott sports events due to western involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and elsewhere? Why is Russia scolded for granting asylum to Snowden? It's all a bit one-sided, isn't it? In the words of Ross Geller of Friends, "No, this is weird for me."

No one is saying Russia is perfect. Nor that there are no universal values. But if you want to engage in dialogue, do just that. Don't talk down to Russia. International relationships in the modern world can no longer be based on self-appointed global leaders, domineering and talking down to others with the thinly veiled language of 'values' and 'freedom'. Domination, lording it over others, has no place in the 21st century.

Those are some of my thoughts. I wanted to share them. 

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