Have you ever met someone who wasn’t just an interesting person, but was deeply fascinating? That was my experience when I first met Dmitry Mikheyev. It was almost by chance that we met, and about 30 seconds into our conversation, I turned on my phone to record our conversation for a video blog (If you speak Russian, you can watch it here). Although I have only met him once since, I believe he is someone that I can call a friend.
Mr. Mikheyev did mildly scold me, while we were drinking tea in my home, for continuing to speak to him in formal Russian; that is, adding the additional respectful form of his patronymic name, Dmitry Fyodorovich, asking jokingly if it was because of his age. The truth is, although I don’t agree with all of his viewpoints, I have a deep respect for Dmitry Fyodorovich’s personal history and experience, and I recognize he is someone that I can learn from.
In a time where there doesn’t seem to be an end to tension in international relations, I thought it would make sense to move away from the usual lighthearted content of this blog to present a point of view that is perhaps a bit different than what we would normally read or hear in America.
First, a bit about Dmitry Mikheyev: He was born in Siberia before being was accepted as a student at the prestigious Moscow State University, eventually earning his Ph. D. in theoretical physics. At the time, he had some questions about the way that the Soviet Union was run and began running a “discussion club” on these topics. For example, as he explained to my children, “In the Soviet Union, we didn’t have personal property, the government owned everything… including us, and I didn’t like that”.
In 1970, Mr. Mikheyev attempted to escape the Soviet Union to the West, but was caught and sentenced to six years of prison in the notorious Perm-36 prison facility “for betraying the motherland”. In 1980, he found himself living in the United States. I think for most Americans reading this post, this might seem like a typical story that we read about from time to time in the newspapers, and we might already be thinking “this sounds like our kind of guy”. But what happened next is what makes Mr. Mikheyev’s story so fascinating.
Mr. Mikheyev soon found himself at the Hudson Institute, advising top US security officials on Soviet-US relations. It was here that he became disillusioned with America, as he explains it “for Biblical reasons”. “Christian Americans believe in a devil who can never change, correct?” asks Mr. Mikheyev. “Well, do you remember what President Reagan called the Soviet Union? He called it ‘the evil empire’. We were compared to the devil, and what does that mean? It means we can never change.”
Let’s take a few minutes to read one of Mr. Mikheyev’s essays to hear about his experience and point of view in his own words. But before we do, it’s probably worth mentioning that Mr. Mikheyev did not want me to share his thoughts at first. He said “These are religious thoughts, and I know that these issues can be touchy in America.” I was able to convince him that although many will probably disagree, and in fact those of you who know me well will understand that there are points here that I don’t agree with, it might be constructive for his opinion to be heard. So, please read this with the understanding that this is not an opinion that he is trying to push on you.
Why twenty-five years after great ideological victory in the Cold War, Russia is still portrayed as an intrinsically reactionary, imperialist power, a major threat to Western civilization?
Secularists insist that imperialism and undemocratic proclivities of Russians are “in their blood,” i.e. genetically predicated, while religious fundamentalists believe that Russia has been divinely destined to be an “evil empire.”
The decisive moment of my reckoning of the question came on August 22nd of 1991, when the
Soviet “Evil Empire” collapsed. At the time, I was at the Hudson institute, a conservative think tank in Indianapolis. I was ecstatic to see the totalitarian regime taking its last gasp and dying right in front of my eyes. The spectacle of the Evil Empire’s agony didn’t bring much joy to my colleagues though. To my incredulity, they were confused, if not upset. Not only neoconservatives were despondent, liberals seemed downhearted as well.
For me, the Cold War was over. Russia had shed her empire and abandoned her messianic drive to spread Communism all over the globe. She radically changed her socio-economic system and was now striving to ‘integrate into the ‘civilized’ world. Many of us Russian-Americans were elated and eagerly anticipated a new era in Russo-American relations, a partnership of two great nations. We dreamt of these two countries embracing each other and working together toward a more peaceful and prosperous world.
Personally, I dreamt of playing the role of a bridge builder between them. I was dismayed to find out however, that American intellectual and political elites, had a totally different take on the situation. In their eyes, Russia remained essentially the same old Soviet Union if only downsized. As General William Odom (director of the NSA during the President Regan administration) argued, yes, the Evil Empire was experiencing a temporary setback, but one day it would recover and get back to oppressing small freedom-loving neighbors. Soon intellectuals and politicians were scrambling to find signs of Russia’s undemocratic drift and growing “authoritarianism and neo-imperialist ambitions” while Cold War veterans were back in the trenches, arguing that the policy of containing and curtailing Russia should continue. Russia’s resurgent aggression had been allegedly demonstrated in Chechnya, in the “invasions” of Georgia, Ukraine, and Syria… next are the Baltic states. Only NATO could save them from the Evil monster.
So, they kept expanding NATO toward Russian borders. Serbia, Russia’s close ally in Europe, was bombed and dismembered. Separatism and “freedom fighters” of Chechnya and other “oppressed peoples” were covertly supported.
Here is a cognitive dissonance. Why would a victory over your mortal enemy be so disappointing or even distressing? Think of it. You fought a long and exhaustive war and finally defeated the enemy. Russians surrendered en masse to the ideology of liberal, democratic capitalism. Why would you sit down and grieve and then resume fighting? It took me a long time and considerable effort to solve this cognitive puzzle. Now I seem to understand the mindset of these warriors. My life-long interest in the worldview and mentality of Bolshevism shed light on the fundamentalist mindset. It is this mindset, I believe, that underlines Russophobia and hostile policies toward the New Russia. The roots of the American fear of Russia are much deeper and more generic than Communist ideology or “Russia’s innate imperialist ambitions.” They have religious and existential overtones, and I am afraid they are likely to endure for a long time.
In my view, ultimately, three tenets underline the fundamentalist mindset: 1. the good-vs- evil dualism, 2. the doctrine of predestination and 3. apocalypticism (belief in the pending end of the world). Taken together, they explain fundamentalists’ existential hatred, fear, and hostility toward Russia and, I dare say, other Christians as well.
The polarization of everything appears an obvious and universal rule of the world: plus and minus, pull and push, light and darkness, male and female, left and right. It is tempting to apply this dichotomized approach to living things, particularly humans: material and spiritual, life and death, right and wrong, moral and immoral, beautiful and ugly, happiness and suffering, liberal and conservative, saved or not saved. Scientifically speaking, such reductionism has nothing to do with the real world. That’s why fundamentalist are so hostile toward science.
Dichotomization permeates the political philosophy of fundamentalist politicians. Neoconservative ideologue Robert Kagan has admitted, “Americans generally see the world divided between good and evil, between friends and enemies.” President George W. Bush Jr. himself articulated this Manichean worldview in the wake of 9/11 when he proclaimed, “Either you’re for us or against us,” and so did most Republicans.
For fundamentalists, every political issue– indeed, every disputed aspect of national and international life– is a struggle between good and evil, God and the Devil, Hell and Paradise.
There cannot be a middle ground, a partial solution. Either you are in heaven or in hell. There can be no such a thing as “between,” at least until the final judgment. They see every individual as an agent of either good or evil forces. That is to say that the evil individual is incapable of good feelings and actions (love, compassion, sacrifice). For them, the gray, middle ground is a wicked sophistry, an intentional mudding of waters. This is one reason why they dislike intellectuals. The latter, they think, tend to confuse the ‘gut feeling,’ the infamous common sense. They are “commonsensical” and, in fact, they are afraid of drowning in innuendos, different views and theories. Uncertainties, fuzziness and vagueness are all the Devil’s way of trapping simple folks’ minds in doubts and vacillations. Good and evil don’t mix, or, more precisely, if they mesh, evil prevails. Hence, solutions, they suggest, are binary – more government or less government, more regulation or less regulation, raising taxes or lowering taxes, fighting or flying. Striving for compromises and balanced decisions are seen as wishy-washy muddling through, a sure recipe for defeat and failure. Leadership is associated with resoluteness and decisiveness, not with thoughtfulness. A quick result is valued over an optimal solution; toughness over patience; action over dithering. Once the enemy has been identified, he has to be crushed with overwhelming force. Negotiations with “the evil guys” can only corrupt the pristine souls of the good guys. Fear that the bad guy can outsmart the good guy leads to reliance on brute force, hence, tendency to “shoot first, ask later.”
They reason that Evil cannot be reformed, only destroyed. Because Russia was not occupied as were Germany and Japan in 1945, only crippled, its evil nature was not eradicated. Hence, Russia will recover and try to reassert her power over former client states. “Forget the Islamic threat, says Robert Kagan, the coming battle will be between autocratic nations like Russia and China and the rest.”
Why, on earth, Russia and China? After all, China is the world’s chief manufacturer of consumer goods and a major sponsor of American prosperity. Russia is a European Christian nation and the world’s biggest producer of energy, as well as a leading producer of grain and raw materials. The customary theory of economic rivalry, market and resources driven imperialism, is too shallow and materialistic for those who think in cosmic terms. In the “epic, decisive great battle” with the Devil, only these two powers can field armies mighty enough to confront the forces of Jesus. And Russia, not China, will lead the way.
Why? Because fundamentalists are intrinsic racists. They read the Old Testament as justifying the inequality of races. They think that God created different races and people for a purpose, with different roles in the world. The whites are destined to rule, blacks – to be slaves and servants, others — to be laborers. They dismiss Chinese as an “inferior race” lacking the capacity for original thinking, creativity and the leadership potential of a white northern race. These obedient laborers are not strong and creative enough to stand to the superior race of Anglo-Saxons.
Russians, on the other hand, are white, hardy; they have proven themselves capable of crushing several of the most powerful military forces of time. They are smart and creative, which fundamentalists associate with a stamp of the Devil, and they possess a massive nuclear power. Therefore, only Russia can fulfill the Prophecy — rally, equip, and lead the hordes of God’s enemies. Remember what the former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney stated: Russia is “without question, our number one geopolitical foe.”
The second key tenet of fundamentalism is apocalypticism i.e. the belief in the end-time destruction of the world. Some 40% of Americans say they believe that events described in the Book of Revelation are going to come true. They think that current skirmishes with Satanic forces must one day culminate in the decisive contest — the Battle of Armageddon in which Russia (and possibly China and Muslims) will constitute the army of the Antichrist.
Logically apocalyptic and good-vs- evil mentality constructs are connected to the same zero-sum logic… the material world (humans included because flesh is material) is so fundamentally flawed (corrupted) that it cannot be improved and must be destroyed.
I dare to theorize that fundamentalists, such as Jerry Falwell, rely mostly on the Old Testament while the progressive evangelicals – on the New Testament. Fundamentalists hate the progressives’ sympathy for many politically liberal positions, their rejection of violence, militarism and injustice, and blasphemous reinterpretation of the Sacred Scripture.
According to the fundamentalist worldview, only totally misguided liberals can advocate universal morality, i.e. morality equally applicable to all people and all cultures.
To them, universal morality is nonsense at best, and a devilish plot at worst.
Indeed, how could freedom and justice be equally applied to good and evil people or nations?
How could the Devil be allowed to exercise freedom to corrupt, convert and enslave good people? Justice toward evil means injustice toward the good, because giving to some means taking from others. Such conception of freedom means liberation of good people and the constraining of bad ones. The good-vs- evil mentality logically and inevitably leads to double standards – for those who are good, and those who are evil. In dealing with evil the ends justify the means. Love, mercy, compassion, proper procedures and rules…such do not apply to the minions of the Devil; anything short of total annihilation therefore should be regarded as a flagrant betrayal of God.
Also fundamentalists criticize other Protestant denominations for compromising with Darwinism. Here I suggest that the doctrine of predestination contradicts evolution toward the better of both individuals and nations. Indeed, if individual’s destiny is preordained before he/she was conceived by God, his/her evolution is impossible. Then, again, I see inconsistency here: does God preordain someone to be a thief or a murderer? Or, perhaps, God constantly changes His mind? In short, the doctrine of predestination seems incompatible with evolution: either you believe in the existence of an immutable God’s plan for the world, or God created the world, set the rules, and then removed Himself from it.
The Cold War standoff had perfectly fit the apocalyptic and good-vs- evil mentality of fundamentalists. There was an implacable “evil other” and the looming nuclear Armageddon.
Clear and simple. Today’s situation is somewhat more complicated. Still, as then, their political belief system rests on phantom primordial fears of global dimensions. In my view, only such paranoia can fully explain why American military expenditures exceed those of the rest of the world.
My discovery of the racist, violent, imperialistic, ignorant, conspiratorial and paranoid America was shocking. It contradicted my entire ‘theory’ of American culture and civilization.
The greatest threat to America isn’t the Taliban, Al Qaeda, ISIS, authoritarian Russia or Communist China. The greatest threat to peace and prosperity of humanity is fundamentalism, especially Muslim and Christian. It is fundamentalists’ irrational fears and hatred, fanaticism and apocalypticism, their global ambitions and zeal, which represent the greatest threat to the world and America itself.
Quoting the neocon guru Robert Kagan, America is a “dangerous nation,” and it will remain so until this powerful minority of the American empire is convinced of its supremacy, exceptionalism, and divine right to rule the world.
Indeed, when a country as powerful as the USA is so scared and angry, humanity is in deep trouble. It has already been dragged into the war of fundamentalists of the three major monotheistic religions (Islam, Judaism and Christianity), each fighting for its own version of the Heavenly Kingdom.
I am imagining that perhaps some of my evangelical Christian friends might read this text and take some offense, or you might want to shout, “That’s not what we meant!” Perhaps you want to quote some Scripture and “help” Dmitry understand. I would understand your indignation. I am an evangelical Christian, and I do believe in good and evil, absolutely- this has created some friendly, yet serious conversation, that I have been privileged to share with Dmitry Fyodorovich.
But none of that is why I have posted this. Instead, let’s consider that if we are accusing others of being evil, we are insinuating that we are good.
As Solzehnitsyn famously wrote, “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
Let’s consider how we have come to a point of believing that we are so exceptional as a nation, a thought system that doesn’t fit well with the basic Christian virtue of humility.
Can Russia change? Of course, it can, and it has. So has America. Regardless of your political leanings, you will probably agree that America’s standards and expectations of its leadership have drastically changed over the last couple of decades. So, yes, we too are changing, but perhaps not for the better.
At the end of the day, regardless of our political or religious leanings, if we don’t believe that our enemy can change, then any pursuit of relationship is a waste of time. So, America, please know that the world is listening to you right now. Are you blaming and fearing “them?” Or will you take a moment to listen, understand, and change?