Speaking of which ...
You might have noticed that ever since Donald Trump took office, things in America have gotten kind of weird. I'm not going to say I saw all of this coming, but I'm less surprised than most of you. That's because I spent the last 13 years abroad, and roughly 12 of those in Vladimir Putin's Russia, and lots of this looks very familiar to me. That's right; just like House Of Cards, this TV drama you're watching is just an American knockoff of a foreign show.
In both the U.S. and Russia ...
When you're a fringe movement with no political power, conspiracy theories are your proverbial bucket of ice cream to tearfully binge on. "We'd totally win, were it not for the massively powerful forces arrayed against us!"
But suppose one day such a movement becomes mainstream enough to actually win political power, even the highest position in the country. And suppose the man who won that position did so by making all kinds of Santa-Claus-esque promises that he can't keep because they are either outside his power as president or he's too bogged down in a legal investigation that keeps dogging all his political associates.
That's where you get new, dumber conspiracy theories about the "deep state," like the insanely idiotic "QAnon." See? Your hero would totally build that wall and make Mexico pay for it, were he not engaged in a secret running battle with rogue intelligence agents and Satanic child traffickers. But guess what? Russia did all of this first.
Oh, they may not have anything quite as surreal as QAnon, but some enterprising individuals have come up with some pretty huge theroies explain why, despite massive resource wealth, Russia still has staggering inequality and an economy that ranks behind Italy. One says that after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia was secretly "occupied" by the United States.
This might come as a shock to many people, especially U.S. military personnel who never knew they could be deployed to occupation duty in Russia, but it is the pet theory of a Russian State Duma deputy named Evgeny Fedorov. He claims that the American occupation of Russia is something more subtle. For example, one insidious thing those evil Yanks got the Russians to do was amend their constitution to ban censorship (because the Kremlin observes the shit out of that rule!) and any state-mandated ideology.
But according to Fedorov, the tide is turning, because in 2014, Vladimir Putin heroically rose up against the invisible American occupiers. Fedorov is doing everything he can to help by founding what he calls the "National Liberation Movement." It mostly consists of people getting paid to wave flags at rallies and rail about "fifth columnist" traitors.
Speaking of which ...
You may have already spotted the irony of Russians fearing secret American influence around every corner. After all, if you search Twitter for the words "Russian bots," you'll see that this has become a meme. When some right-wing hashtag is trending, the assumption is that it all originates with Russian trolls and swarms of dummy accounts. Don't get me wrong, there is good reason to be concerned about Russian interference in American politics. The disinformation machine is real. But ultimately, the fundamental mistrust of any information we disagree with may be more damaging in the long term. It becomes one more way in which the well gets poisoned.
In Russia, said poison comes directly from the top. In 2014, Putin, having just annexed the Crimean peninsula, gave a speech about that "fifth column" of national traitors threatening Russia at the behest of Western politicians. These labels are applied to those who protest his war in Ukraine or other issues (like, say, his unusually long reign).
Russia's state media readily obliges, producing such gems as a "bombshell" about Alexey Navalny, an anti-corruption activist often seen as the most prominent face of the country's non-systemic opposition, who they say is, you guessed it, a spy for foreign powers.
The "investigation" features recordings of a man who sounds nothing like Navalny, as well as documents in poorly translated English. Even the FSB (one of the successors of the KGB), which is usually more than willing to arrest people on the stupidest grounds, doesn't find the evidence convincing.
The phrase "rule of law" in America is a lot like "freedom," "democracy," or "all you can eat" -- you're constantly told that it's good, but rarely does anyone understand its boundaries. The idea is that nobody is above the law, no matter who they are. Lately, however, our 45th president has voiced his disagreement.
Usually presidents drop a ton of pardons on their way out of the White House, but Trump has been infamously pardoning a number of people who happen to align with him politically. There's former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, convicted felon Dinesh D'Souza, and even two guys who were convicted of arson in an attempt to commit fraud. And once again, Russia was way ahead of the trend.
If you're one of Putin's friends, you can pretty much get away with robbing the state of millions of dollars, and if you're not, well, you could find yourself getting arrested just for ... investigating people who are robbing the state for millions of dollars. All it takes is being selective about who gets punished -- and just as importantly, who doesn't.
If you're an open opposition supporter, you're basically fair game if anyone wants to attack you, even in public. Remember Alexey Navalny? He's been assaulted on the street too many times to count. On several occasions, attackers splashed him with a green antiseptic dye (and on other occasions, notably less antiseptic feces). The assailants are typically never arrested, and on the rare occasions when they have been, they are released without charges.
One such group that is notorious for such attacks is known as SERB, or the Southeast Radical Block. Despite numerous public attacks on the opposition, it has received almost no police response. Thus far, there hasn't been concrete evidence that the group is directly financed by the Kremlin, but that's almost beside the point. There's plenty of evidence that the authorities are well aware of the group's actions and yet give them a free pass. In the end, that's all it takes.
Look closely at a Trump rally, and you'll note how many of his followers seem to have adopted his style -- if not the white polo shirt and khakis, then the ubiquitous MAGA old man hat. Then there are pro-Trump political cartoonists whose portrayals of the man seriously make you question whether they've ever seen a real photo of him. Trump has swollen pecs and biceps, right?
In Russia, Putin's cult of personality puts Trump's to shame. In 2014, Deputy Chief of Staff Vyacheslav Volodin famously said, "there is no Russia if there is no Putin." Meanwhile, in Moscow, one finds all kinds of souvenirs with Putin's likeness, usually looking cool in sunglasses or wearing uniforms for military branches he never served in.
But he was still a KGB badass, right? Probably some kind of assassin? Well yeah, about that. When he worked in the KGB, Putin was stationed in ... let's see here ... the quiet streets of Dresden, well behind the Iron Curtain, where he basically sat behind a desk and collected info on foreign visitors. Just for comparison, during the years Putin was posted in Dresden, there were KGB agents in Afghanistan running covert operations across the border in Pakistan. To my knowledge, none of them ever got their mug on a T-shirt.
There are even songs dedicated to Putin. One has a woman wishing for a man who is "like Putin." It is not clear if the woman wants this hypothetical man to share other qualities of the Russian president when it comes to women, such as treating his wife like a state secret and then divorcing her after years of estrangement and persistent rumors about an affair with a former Olympic gymnast.
In a more recent song, young children from a military academy say that they are ready to die for "Uncle Vova," referring to Putin. Might want to dial it back a bit, kids!
Considering that you hear his name about once every four seconds in America, it's easy to assume that all of the bullshit starts and ends with Trump. Flip a few states in the Electoral College, and we'd be living in an alternate, normal America. People get so occupied with what happened after the 2016 election that they forget what Trump was saying just before he won it: Namely, that if he lost, it would mean the election was rigged. Does anyone seriously think his supporters would have taken that lying down? Do you think they'll throw their hands up and admit defeat if he loses in 2020?
We can't forget that Trump isn't the source of all of these tensions; he's the result.
Putin, as you may have noticed, doesn't seem to worry too much about elections (in fact, he doesn't even debate opponents). But what he and everyone else in Russia are very concerned about is what comes after him. That's because he, like Trump, is the product of massive cultural, economic, and political changes that go back decades. In the USA we talk about globalization and the financial collapse of 2008. In Russia, the shifts were both more abrupt and dramatic -- the fucking flag changed, after all. Putin managed to capitalize on people's demands for stability after years of economic collapse, war, and rampant organized crime, to name a few of the problems plaguing the former Soviet Union at the time.
In reality, Putin never got rid of these things; he just changed the nature of the game in ways that made it less noticeable or more predictable for a lot of people. Still, Putin's media machine constantly reminds citizens that if he ever falls, the country will return to that '90s-era post-Soviet lawlessness. When the man goes away, that anxiety will remain. Likewise, if Trump loses in 2020 or 2024, the headlines might become slightly less stupid, but the wounds in the culture that got us here will continue to fester. If you want to change the direction of the country, getting past Trump is just the beginning.
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