Updated: Aug 6
Putin’s Warmongering Is Not Political or Economical. He’s Mad Because Russia Lost the Culture War.
It’s time someone came out and said it. Everyone raised in the 1980s knows why Putin is waging his war against the Ukraine. Is everyone just too polite to say it? Allow me to elucidate with a query:
Who is your favorite Russian movie star? Wait, don’t answer, because you don’t have one.
Who is your favorite Russian music superstar?
Are you getting the point I am sending to you? Everyone in the world knows who Tom Cruise is. Everyone alive knows who Michael Jackson was.
Putin’s sad war against the West has nothing to do with anything Ukraine did. It has to do with the fact that Ukraine was the latest example of formerly Soviet countries acknowledging that America won the global culture war of propaganda they waged from 1945 to 1992.
And it is not as if Russian people are not artistic. It is that Russia put its cultural horse in the wrong stable. When Russia was a poor(er) nation struggling for Western European acceptance, it always stung that their art could never gain the respect of French or British critics. After the Byzantine Empire fell to Mehmet the Conqueror in 1492, it was Moscow, not some Western nation, that assumed the mantle of the Third Rome, even adopting its royal title (“tsar” means “Caesar”). Russia saw itself as a natural extenuation of Rome, but its remoteness from Paris and London and the presence of the Ural Mountains often had European geographers lump it in with Asia, which at various times in European history had been Otherized and disrespected. But even though Russia fought to be accepted by European critics since the 1500s, they only longed for the respect of critics of classical European culture—ballet, opera, fine art, and the like. What Russia could not have predicted was that by the time it became relevant militarily in 1945, all of its cultural capital had been dumped into European fine art, while European youth had become more intrigued in their cultural melds with African and Amerindian artistic traditions such as drumming, surfing, and tattooing. While the Russians were offering up L’Hermitage and the Bolshoi Ballet and Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky, America was inventing Hollywood, and mass producing jazz and Elvis. Russia could not keep up.
And it’s not as if Russian people didn’t like black people. In fact, after 1931’s Scottsboro Boys case, in which a largely Communist-led defense fund took the case of nine black men unfairly accused of rape, the Russian Communist party fully supported efforts to host trips to Moscow made by black American Communists. As Glenda Gilmore recounts in her book Defying Dixie, the Communist Party even funded the filming of a Russian-made movie that attacked antiblack racism in America and featured a majority African American cast, in Moscow. The Soviets ultimately cancelled the movie in exchange for the U.S. diplomatically recognizing the Soviet Union in 1933.
By the 1950s, Russia and America were trying to convince every country in the world whether to adopt Communism or capitalism—but each economic system came with an idealized lifestyle, and America’s caught most of the world’s eyes. Ever since Mikhail Gorbachev ended the Cold War in 1992 and saved the world, countries have had the opportunity to choose whether to align with NATO or the Warsaw Pact. It has been a slow trickle towards inevitability since then, as the world’s humans are coming to a place of seeing themselves as united beyond national borders in order to face up to challenges like climate change and pandemics.
Putin’s sad last acts are a desperate gasp for a 20th-Century paradigm of relevance. Unfortunately, the Russian people have told themselves the fiction that he is in control of their massive arsenal of power rather than they themselves, collectively. But that will only be the case until they begin to tell a new story.