Review by John Harrison
Russia’s Americans (2018). By Deena Stryker
The first impression I received when reading this book was one of surprise. Two surprises actually. I am used to reading pieces of literature that are framed within the general, inherited dominant global mindset that Russia is somehow very wrong, in everything. It comes as a bit of a shock to read a book written by an American journalist that advocates that the American position as regards Russia is opportunistic and Atlanticist. The second surprise, given the title of the book, is that it is not really about Americans living in Russia, it is about American foreign policy towards Russia. There are a few Americans in the book who seem to generally support the main pro-Russia stance of the author, but there are not so many Americans (in the book) who do not like Russia apart from those who are used to exemplify bad policies and who are shot down.
What is the main idea of this book? That America suffers from a superiority complex. Deena traces the beginning of present-day American exceptionalism back to the words of Pastor John Winthrop who led the first Pilgrims’ quest for freedom of conscience. She writes that latter day political leaders interpret Winthrop’s words as giving them freedom to act in whatever way they wish because the pilgrims were sort of flag holders of Christianity, on the hill, and their actions would be viewed as being exemplary… Political exceptionalism founded in religion. I wonder what Jesus Christ would make of all of this? Deena leads us into the infamous Wolfowitz Doctrine (1992) which she describes as being the driving force behind current American foreign policy, through acerbic statements by ‘America’s Russia-Hater in Chief’ Zbignieuw Brzezinski and then, fascinatingly, takes us back to the ‘Heartland Theory’ as formulated by the British geographer Sir Halford MacKinder in 1904. This theory, according to Deena, lies behind both President Putin’s Eurasia project and the Wolfowitz doctrine. Mackinder pointed out the pivotal role that the Eurasia landmass plays in the economic and political spheres of the whole planet. He saw that interlinking Europe, Asia and Africa would constitute the most heavily populated and richest of all possible land combinations. Britain, Japan, and even the Americas are called outlying islands. As a Brit witnessing the Brexit disaster, watching as we voluntarily isolate ourselves from Europe, and congratulating ourselves as we become who we are — an island nation, I can only agree. Forgive me, please for such a possibly inept comparison.
I suspect that Deena, who has had a fascinating life, living and working in Poland and Hungary before the fall of the Iron Curtain, and has written a series of interesting books about countries which can be seen to be battlefields between the West and the East whether they are technically ‘at war’ or not, sees the history of the world as being a fight for control of these central territories, and perhaps quite rightly so. The world does indeed seem to be waking up to the fact that the West is only a construct, and a comparatively recent one at that, as so well documented in recent books such as ‘Civilisation’ (2010) by Niall Ferguson, and ‘the Silk Roads’ (2015) by Peter Frankopan. She provides an alternative way of looking at contemporary politics, in particular the battle for control of Ukraine and Eastern Europe in general.
Deena describes the present situation we are in right now as being a new Cold War which started at about the time when Edward Snowden found ‘exile’ in Russia. She also sees the present situation as being an interlude, a time of preparation for a US-Russia war, although how the present US-China trade war fits into this is not clear. In this context she provides a rather depressing description of the US media, with the difference between the ‘so-called progressive media increasingly resembling what used to be the liberal media.’ A lengthy chapter on Ukraine attempts to convince the reader of the hegemonic nature of contemporary US foreign policy however the narrative jumps from one subject to the next without giving enough attention to the other side of the story, which also exists. I felt that this is really a collection of useful journalistic notes reflecting points of view which I personally happen to wholeheartedly agree with, but as far as convincing the wider public, if that is the goal, the work suffers from being too one sided, and in this it is a little like reading Sputnik texts, or viewing RT. Great if you are in the mood.
The foreigner who has lived in Russia for a long time, is a little weary of jumping to conclusions based on text-book theories and on the lives of a few Americans who have already made the long and arduous internal journey to coming to agree with the main tenants of Russian foreign policy, but without looking at the journey. Because coming to terms with the politics of a country means at a minimum feeling the culture and agreeing with basic, very deep principles which are interwoven, with the culture concerned. Apart from the romantic foreigner types who love the whole dacha/looking after the seniors’ scene, there is a wide spectrum of people here who accept some things and do not accept others, this is normal. What is abnormal, and in fact dangerous, is over-simplification, and perhaps this is a quality present in both American and Russian analysis of global politics. One can imagine a new world where the Russian point of view is accepted, indeed it has now become almost trendy to support Russia the underdog, and now is the time to invest in the Russian Far East. But this approach may evoke a larger reaction in the opposite direction. Sorry Levi Strauss, but the world is not binary. It would be nice to see a book actually about Americans living in Russia. About their lives, families, trials and tribulations, about the spaces between the self-confident opposites, something real.
The book ends with the line: ‘…In any case, thousands of Americans have voted in this sense by moving to Russia.’ In fact, there are quite a lot of Americans in Russia now. Most of them are teachers, and I admire them. Mercifully, Deena did not use the word ‘expats’ when she talked about Americans. We are down to a skeleton crew of American diplomats, a few business people plus the teachers. Put all of these Americans together and we come to only a small fraction of the numbers that we saw in the gung-ho 1990s when to be an American in Moscow was to be divine. Freed from the restraints of western morality they were able to achieve what they perceived to be wonders in a short time. Many Russians remember them with mostly horror.
The last graphic in the book is a screen shot taken from what is left of the ‘Moscow Expat Life’ magazine’s website. The magazine, which I edited, closed years ago, and the website is kept going by its owner, in the hope that the ‘good times’ will return, and he will too, from Thailand.