Comment on Keith Gessen’s The Quiet Americans

David Johnson of Johnson’s Russia List asked me to submit a comment on Keith Gessen’s “The Quiet Americans Behind the U.S.-Russia Imbroglio” published in the New York Times Magazine. You can read other comments on Gessen’s article featured in JRL by Stephen Blank, Richard Hofer, James Carden, Nicolai Petrov, Hank Gaffney, William Hill, Jerry Hough, Richard Sakwa, and Mary Dejevsky.

My comment below came out in JRL #89.

I read Keith Gessen’s “The Quiet Americans Behind the U.S.-Russia Imbroglio” with much enthusiasm. Though it is impossible to treat such a large topic in 9000 words, I consider it a first salvo on an issue that deserves much more attention. I’ve felt for a while that the discursive underpinnings of how so-called “Russia Hands” approach Russia requires deconstruction.

It seems to me that the discourse of Russia Hands in Gessen’s article along with expert commentary found in the NYT, Washington Post, Foreign Policy, etc. represents what Thomas Kuhn called a “paradigm” or for Foucault was a “discursive formation.” This is something far different, and perhaps more worrisome than “group think” since many tendencies and positions (many of which Gessen notes) can exist within a single discursive formation without disrupting its overall unity. This gives the appearance of diversity of opinion where there really isn’t. What makes such a discourse so powerful is that it renders not just the concepts but the very language used to describe Russia as natural. It just feels right because, well, it does. More importantly, such discursive formations develop disciplinary mechanisms to maintain discursive power. Hence, you have some of Gessen’s respondents saying they need to speak quietly, or anonymously, out of fear of repercussion in some shape or form. Those that do speak are often pilloried in the press or on social media as Kremlin dupes, agents, or “useful idiots” and discredited for violating the parameters of acceptable speech.

Sure, the situation with Russia isn’t all Americans’ fault. Of course not (the fact that some of the comments in JRL moved so quickly to “whataboutism” because Gessen didn’t tell of the other side was quite amusing). No serious interlocutor would think otherwise. But since we can’t convince Russia to adopt different discourses about America, we should at least deconstruct our own. The idea of the “security dilemma” is not just an issue of arms and troops-it is also one of discourse and rhetoric.

That is to say there is an overarching uniformity of assumptions, language, and concepts in policy approaches to Russia. You get a sense of one aspect of this uniformity in Gessen’s article in the notion of soft and hard “internationalists” or as Michael Kofman put it, “There are the nice missionaries who knock on your door and say, ‘Hey, have you heard the good news about democracy, freedom and liberalism?’ And then there are the crusaders who are trying to claim the heathen Eastern European lands for democracy and freedom. But they’re basically the same person; they’re two sides of the same coin.”

It’s worth pausing on the religious language in Kofman’s comment-missionaries, crusaders, heathen, and the good news-because it’s not simply literary flair. It is important because it points to the fact that American policy toward Russia is based on, in fact determined by, Russia’s willingness to convert to liberal democracy and accept American hegemony. In fact, at times it seems Russia’s very crime is that it has foreign interests that don’t align with the US.

This obsession for the Other to become a reflection of the American self is not just in regard policy toward Russia, of course. American foreign policy in much of the twentieth century has been rooted in a kind of narcissism. Like most objects of narcissism Russia serves as both an object of American desire and a subject of American disgust. Desire in that the United States demands similitude from Russia to reconfirm the universality of American values. At the same time, the United States is repulsed by Russia’s halfhearted pantomimes or its outright rejection of American universalism.

Understanding post-Soviet space by measuring countries’ distance from a unitary History (liberal democracy, capitalism, and especially acceptance of American hegemony) is a dominant mode of analysis and approach. We saw it in the “Transitionology” of the 1990s, and most recently in the explosion of anxieties over illiberal democracies, the threat of populism, the rise of strongmen, and authoritarianism generated by the Trump trauma. The rhetoric of “values,” “bad behavior,” and “bad actor” also speaks to this, but in a more infantilizing mode. All of this comes back to the fact that, as Gessen rightly notes, the aim “to spread American-style democracy as far east as possible into Eurasia, has never been discredited.” This is despite the many fetishisms of American power and the many failures that have resulted from those fetishisms. It’s not all that astonishing, though, when the aim is rooted in faith. The inability to get beyond the crusade to spread democracy speaks to grip the concept has over many Russia Hands, pundits, academics, and policy makers.

More importantly, perhaps, is to recognize that the desire to “save” Russia has a long history. As David Foglesong noted in his excellent The American Mission and the ‘Evil Empire,’ Russia has functioned as a “dark double” for the United States since the late 19th century. Since the 1880s, the desire to save Russia, to make it into a “United States of Russia” captured the imagination of many Russia experts of the period. In the late 19th century, there was even an organization founded in 1891, the Society of Friends of Russian Freedom, which counted among its members George Kennan, perhaps the most important Russia expert of the 19th century, to propagate the Russian revolutionary movement and denounce Russian despotism. It is more than ironic that this organization was founded at the urging of Sergei Stepniak, a Russian terrorist and émigré defender of the People’s Will and organized in 1904-1905, the American tour for Yekaterina Breshko-Breshkovskaya, one the founders of the Socialist Revolutionary Party, whose Combat Organization carried out hundreds of terrorist attacks in Russia from 1905-1911.

This desire to “save” Russia as a way to reconfirm American universalism is not surprising considering the domestic situation in the US at the turn of the century-racist terror in the South and violent labor struggles in the North, all of which put the notion that the US was the land of the free in question. American imperial ambitions in East Asia turned Russia from a partner into a rival. Given this history, it is hardly surprising that Ukraine played a role contra Russia in 2014 and 2015 as a way to reaffirm “European values” after they were shaken with the Greek crisis, racism toward refugees, reborn nationalisms, Brexit and the general rise of the European far-right. In America, the Trump trauma has only intensified these anxieties as a form of psychological displacement that has elevated Russia to this role again, but more as a demonic force than a heathen in need of conversion.

This evangelicalism toward Russia wasn’t always the case. Before the 1880s, American observers were able to see Russia as simultaneously despotic, even barbarous, yet amicable. Sadly, this is a forgotten history judging from most books and university courses on US-Russian relations. Their treatments mostly start in 1917 at the earliest but usually in 1945. Keith Gessen’s article is a good starting point for mapping a new genealogy of present day American discourses of Russia back to the 19th century. Perhaps this older history has something to offer us to break the analytical myopia of the present-day Russia Hand.