I do not particularly like Vladimir Putin, nor indeed do most of my more educated Russian friends, both here and in Russia. Nor do I especially like Moscow, with its unpleasant mixture of Soviet pomp and post-Soviet shopping malls, which suggest that the only thing Muscovites have learned to do in the last 20 years is to get hold of money (I hesitate to use the word ‘earning’ in every case) and spend it. I have a love-hate relationship with the Russian Orthodox Church, in constant danger of getting caught in a quagmire in which institution takes precedence over spirit. I am sick of the nationalistic propaganda on the Russian subways, the constant reference back to a war which ended nearly 70 years ago, and the cheap anti-gay lobby. And I am mighty glad that, living all my adult life in continental Europe, I have got to age 65, earned a decent amount of money and bought a house without every yet having to pay anyone a bribe.
Yet something instinctively tells me, in the present US-(Europe)-(Ukraine) -Russia stand-off, not to be too harsh on the Russian side. In the battle of cultures (American vs- Russian), which is what Ukraine seems to me about (even if we Europeans are going to end up paying most of the bill), my sympathies are still weighted Russia-wards, even though the Russian-speakers in Donetz and Lugansk are not a very sympathetic group, and Russian mercenaries and ‘volunteered’ regular soldiers are pretty uninviting.
I admit I have not had a good run with the USA. My university years were the days of Vietnam. After this I worked eight years with a US bank in Germany (1974-82), including two spells in the US (1974 and 1976-77) in Chicago. I fear that what I saw in Chicago was not democracy, but power: keeping a wealthy caste in place and making sure that the underclass did not threaten it. And an incredible inability to think in any other mould than the US one, even with the dollar in free fall against the German mark. I also have a pretty wide exposure to American Christianity, which at least in its majority Protestant form, fails to persuade or assuage me. All this – and my Russian girlfriend and now wife – explains why I have been 15 times to Russia and just twice to the USA, the last time over 35 years ago.
But a deeper reason for this relatively pro-Russian stance lies, I think, in what, for lack of a better word, I would call my ‘soul-hunger’ or ‘soul-thirst’. There is something in Russia, at its best, which I sense can meet this hunger better than America, and at least as well as Europe. This is horribly sweeping, I know. It is instinct rather than logic. It is something I felt strongly in Russia last summer, when I finally got away from Moscow and St Petersburg right up north, to the northern edges of the forest belt, 200 km south of Archangelsk. (But not in Russian Orthodoxy in Belgium, which has left me soul-starved.) In Europe I have been fortunate to be able to drink deeply, largely because I know where the better wells are hidden, and been able to change wells when one runs dry.
I think that it is this soul-hunger and sense of ‘soul-depth’ that makes many Russians highly uncomfortable with things American. This discomfort is couched in perhaps awkward terms: the dislike of gay marriages and marches, or the way human and gender rights are pushed. But I suspect it is something deeper: there is a sense of something missing in much of US, and a certain extent European culture, a very primitive sense of depth, not least a sense that societies obey very deep down laws, deeper certainly than popular democracy and gender equality, which you do not tinker with superficially.
But if indeed, as Putin accused it yesterday in a very outspoken speech, the US decided at the end of the Cold War “to reshape the world to suit its own needs and interests”; I hope with him that it does not succeed. This would really be “gaining the world and losing its soul”.