ПРОТИВОПОЛОЖНОСТИ THE OPPOSITES
United States of America & Russian Federation - 2015-2017
SINCE THE COLLAPSE OF THE SOVIET UNION, the last time the United States of America and the Russian Federation found themselves at rapprochement’s doorstep, was with the short-lived Putin-Bush Anti-Terrorism Coalition. This was way back in 2001—before Iraq and Georgia, Ukraine and Syria.
Both have since projected one another as the opposite images of what they themselves represent as a nation.
Enter President Donald J. Trump. Add dubious financial and business connections to Russia, as well as American U-turns on social, economic, environmental and geopolitical policy, and both countries suddenly seem to be warming up to each other after all… So how opposite are these opposites?
Russian troops marching towards Red Square in Moscow.
American troops marching towards Times Square in New York City.
THE MASSIVE crowds that gather on America’s Parade in New York City and the Victory Day Parade in Moscow don’t appear to be that different, in the sense that they both cheer and celebrate the armed forces for their safeguarding of the homeland. In America, people celebrate the troops for their sacrifices in the preservation of the American way of life; in Russia people celebrate the armed forces as a representation of the might and splendor of the Russian state.
Americans thanking the troops and veterans in New York City.
Russians cheering as the armed forces pass by in their tanks and fly over in their jets.
Highly decorated Vietnam Veteran, Corporal Kenneth Smith, talking to spectators. «I used to be disgraced and estranged from my own generation. Now that has turned around. Today, if young men volunteer for the army, people seem to appreciate it more.»
Aleksander, a veteran of the VDV—Russian Airborne Division—in Moscow, on VDV Day; The day celebrating the conception of the Airborne Division. «President Putin has restored the prestige of our armed forces to its former glory.»
IN AMERICA as well as in Russia, the armed forces have a longstanding history of providing a last resort to those who have become socially marginalized, offering citizens in need the securities, opportunities and benefits that the government might not; healthcare, education, career and income.
Young members of the JROTC—Junior Reserve Officer Training Corp. This is a U.S. Military-supported program in High School that prepares young students who want to join the college-based officers training program for commissioned officers of the United States Armed Forces. It was founded in 1916 as a gateway for young people into life-long military careers.
Young members of the PFO Cadet Corps. The Russian Cadet Corps is a military cadet school that prepares boys and girls to become commissioned officers in the Russian Armed Forces, as well as for ministerial and diplomatic positions. It was founded in 1731. Under President Putin many new youth organizations came into being—such as ‘Walking Together’ and ‘Nashi’—some with a militaristic undertone.
DESPITE ITS symbolic and social standing, the permanent presence of the military in society has shifted the perception of authority, which now no longer stands merely on morality, but on the potential violence that enforces it.
Brendan & Joe, Park Enforcement Officers. «People in America now perceive authority differently. It should be about respect, but it comes down to the fact that because we don’t carry any weapons, for some people we therefore also don’t carry any authority.»
OMON—Special Purpose Mobility Unit—stands on guard on Red Square. These troops are specially trained for hand-to-hand combat and are frequently deployed to disband protests and opposition marches. «We don’t need weapons. When people see us, they understand they need to stay quiet.»
THE VALUES—liberalism, multiculturalism, and egalitarianism—which America and the West has often criticized Russia of lacking, and which Russia has in return branded as morally corrupting, now seem to succumb to a degeneration of political and social norms in America as well.
2.CULTURAL POLITICS & POLITICAL CULTURE
AMERICAN ARTS and popular culture have a long-standing tradition of holding politics accountable—John Lennon being the archetypal activist-artist, a popular proponent of the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements.
In New York City, almost three decades after his death, John Lennon is still considered the ultimate poster-boy for the city in which he spend the last years of his life, and were he wrote his most famous songs.
APART FROM underground artistic movements exemplified by groups such as Pussy Riot, contemporary Russian popular culture is predominantly—in line with Soviet tradition—state-sponsored, and thus serves as a means to further disseminate political ideology.
In Moscow, Russians that travel to their nation’s capital can find these types of memorabilia; t-shirts, mugs, matryoshka dolls, a.o. that have taken over the defiant rhetoric of the Kremlin. These t-shirts feature a James Bond-like Putin with the words, ‘The Krim is ours’ and the Russian bear trumping the American flag, saying ‘Goodbye America.’ One can learn an awful lot about the social climate by examining what people consider to be quant gifts—the same can be said about “Trump That Bitch” anti-Hillary Clinton t-shirts sold at Trump campaign rallies.
Strawberry Fields, the part of New York’s Central Park opposite the location John Lennon lived and was murdered, is an official recognition of the cultural as well as political importance Lennon had. Despite Lennon’s defiant stance against the Nixon administration, his legacy is still kept in honor.
The Tsoi Wall in Moscow is a fan-made memorial to one of the Soviet Union’s rock legends. Viktor Tsoi and his band Kino are widely regarded as tremendously influential. Their song ‘Peremen!’—‘We Want Change!’—gave voice to an ever-critical generation of Soviets, who demanded exactly this from their new leader, Mikhail Gorbachev. Tsoi—who died in a car accident in 1990—remains an immensely popular cult figure. In recent years, however, Kremlin officials have denounced him as a CIA agent. Claiming that the lyrics he sang were written by the Americans as part of their plan to destabilize the Soviet Union.
THESE DAYS, on both sides of the Pacific, a government is now in place under which artists’ criticism comes at a price. Ranging from derogatory and condemning tweets for actors like Meryl Street and Alec Baldwin, all the way to prison sentences for Pussy Riot members Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina.
Latino immigrants dress up as pop-culture figures. The fact that these fictional cartoon and comic book-movie characters are their safest bet at having tourists pay them to pose for a photograph is telling. People in New York City want to get as close to the American cultural experience as possible—American Soft Power at work; the attraction of its entertainment culture.
Travel around Moscow and you’ll run into several impersonators—like Mikhail and Sergei as Lenin and Stalin— making a living by posing with excited tourists and locals alike. It says lot about Russian society, when blood-smeared historical figures like Stalin have once again reached a level of pop-cultural popularity. In order to re-align its current course with Stalin’s Soviet vision, the Kremlin is actively sweeping the approximately twenty million Soviet deaths, for which Stalin is deemed responsible, under the rug. Could you imagine Hitler impersonators in Berlin, or Leopold II impersonators in the streets of Brussels?
3. RACE & SOCIAL ETHICS
WITH TRUMP, a simmering racism appears to be re-surfacing. In Russia it has been commonplace to witness open racism and discrimination against minorities, such as Chechens, blacks and gays for quite some time—I’ve personally seen bananas being thrown at a black man in front of the Kremlin.
«I’m an independent black musician. I don’t think I’d be very independent if I were to play in public in Russia.» Dusty Rhodes, performing on one of his regular spots on Wall Street.
Kevin, a Nigerian living in Moscow, works in a souvenir shop on the Arbat. «I’ve been in Moscow for five years now. I don’t like it here. It’s hard for a black man in Russia. Sometimes passersby call me ‘black monkey’, or they want to punch me. Though I wouldn’t want to be in America either. There it is equally hard for a black man.
BY UNLEASHING sentiments of ethnic and religious supremacy, and by giving socially marginalized and disaffected people free range in expressing their anger and frustration against those whom the regime presents as being responsible for their social position, both Putin and Trump have opened Pandora’s Box—rising hate crimes, and in Russia even the murder of dissidents.
African American youth in a New York alley. The problem of racial segregation in the United States has become more and more evident. African American communities, for example, are often still being marginalized and discriminated against. The Black Lives Matter movement was born out of anger for the sequential killings of (unarmed) black men by white police officers. However, it was predominantly the white men of America that felt marginalized and victimized enough to elect to power an openly racist and misogynistic President.
Vadim, a Russian youth who recently became homeless, alongside long-time heroine addicts. The Russian Federation has an ongoing drug addiction and alcohol problem. In fact, the Russian government is known to have lowered the price of vodka in times of political unrest—leading to rampant alcoholism and drug abuse, which has caused a decrease in societal family morals, the lowering of the average Russian life expectancy, and an increase in orphaned children.
A FORCE for conservatism and traditionalism, the church is both a proponent of American Pro-Life and Russian decriminalization of domestic violence.
Roman Catholic clergymen in front of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. «God has blessed these United States of America.»
Russian Orthodox clergyman in front of Moscow International Business Center, ‘Moscow City’. «Our Patriarch Kirill has called Putin’s Presidency a miracle from God.»
On Nevsky Prospect in St. Petersburg, a Russian woman protests the supposed American conspiracy aimed at derailing Russia’s economic strength and geopolitical position. Her sandwich board reads, ‘Our Country – Our Rules,’ with an image of a Russian bear going head to head with an American bald eagle. ‘USA! Hands off Kievan Rus’,’ is printed below the Saint George flag—which was reintroduced in 2005 in response to the Ukrainian Orange Revolution. It is a symbol of Russian nationalism and patriotism, as well as a symbol of Russian separatist feelings in Ukraine and other former(mostly Slavic) Soviet States. Kievan Rus’ was a federation of Slavic tribes that lasted until the 13th Century. By invoking this historic ethno-geographic unity, Putin links Russian Nationalism to Slavic Nationalism—exporting Russian Nationalistic sentiments into Slavic regions outside of Russia. Putin has been quoted as stating that, ‘Russia’s borders do not end anywhere.’—Make Russia great again?
4. MONEY & WORK
MONEY IS power. In consolidating both—the Trump cabinet is the wealthiest in US history, and Putin is rumored to be the richest man alive—societal well-being is at risk of becoming subordinate to economic growth (and kleptocracy).
A New York stockbroker makes his way up the subway steps to Wall Street, where traders are now entering in short-term trades, hoping to make money if companies’ stock prices fall as a result of Trump’s policy or tweets—so-called Trump Slumps.
A Muscovite businessman makes his way up the steps of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. Once demolished by Stalin, it has now been rebuild. In Russia, success in business and the acquisition of wealth are often determined by one’s proximity and subordination to the Kremlin. Khodorkovsky served as a warning; when making money in Russia, it bodes well to leave politics to those who’ve claimed it, and to be prepared for hostile takeover.
Greg, Anthony and Philipe, construction managers in New York City. «We come from all over the States. If there’s any place you need to be if you’re in construction, it’s here, where the money is.»
Construction worker Rostam (sitting) and his colleagues. «I came here to find work. My family is back in Dagastan. It’s hard work, but back home there’s nothing My brother tried his luck in Brussels.»
An American school bus driver. «Here we still have a safe economy. I don’t know if they have unions in Russia, but I’m sure it’s bad over there.»
A Russian school bus driver. «In America I’d probably earn more money and work less hours. But at least I have work. Many colleagues no longer do.»
5.CONCLUSION: ACQUIESCENCE & DEFIANCE
So, how opposite are these opposites really?
Russians living in America take in some sun. «We don’t want to go back to Russia. There is no personal freedom there. People need to stay quiet. I’m happy we are free here, although America is heading in the same direction as Russia now.»
Dee and her son Red, Americans living in Russia. « The biggest difference is that Russians tend to follow their leaders. Americans are much more defiant.» «Mommy, what does defiant mean?» «When I tell you to go to bed, but you don’t. You challenge my authority.»
IN WORKING on this reportage, I’ve stumbled upon indicators pointing towards (or warning for) a potential Russo-American convergence point. One were the notion of the virtuous leadership of society, leading to welfare equality and social egalitarianism, is subordinate to the notion of an oligarchical leadership, whereby society is subservient to the economic and financial gains of those select few that govern through authoritarian populism.
Whereas Russian society appears to be conditioned into an acquiescent slumber in need of a thunderous blow (the likes of which opposition politician Alexei Navalny could deliver), American society walked into the Trump election with its eyes wide open.
The biggest contrast between these opposites, it appears to me, is opposition itself.
Text & Photographs © Sam Asaert 2015-2017