Monday, February 16, 2009

Why I Am Not Going to Russia

[the Hermitage, Saint Petersburg]

I am planning a trip to my father's home town in Lativa, formerly Mitau, now Jelgava, and to my grandfather's hometown in Lithuania, formerly Zheimely, now Sonauli.  

I don't expect to see much.  Since they lived there, the First World War, Russian Civil War, and Second World War have all been fought there.  These were the most destructive events in human history.   Both Latvia and Lithuania were under Nazi occupation from 1941 to 1944 so it is unlikely that any relative survived.   

Last year when I planned this trip, I planned on spending  two weeks in Saint Petersburg seeing the Hermitage, a justly famous museum from what I have heard.  In the straitened circumstances of 2009, I wondered if I could still afford the Russian portion of the trip.  I still have the air tickets from last year so the additional cost is the ground portion.  

Poking at possibilities, I checked visa requirements.  Latvia, no visa required.  Lithuania, no visa required.  Estonia, no visa required.  Russia however requires, an application, photographs, evidence of paid hotel reservations in Russia, and definite entry and exit dates which limit the validity of the visa.  And a $131 fee.   All in advance.  No visas at the border.  Nor by mail.  To get a visa one appear in person at the Russian embassy in Washington or at designated agencies in a few cities.

Checking whether this was a scam by some visa-selling no-goodniks, I checked the website of the Embassy of the Russian Federation.  I learned that all this rigmarole is part of a tit-for-tat set of restrictions on Russian tourists to the USA, what the embassy website calls "maintaining reciprocity".

Which means Russia and the United States are still peeing in each other's soup twenty years after the Cold War ended.   Which is very interesting.

We were told in great detail and with great emphasis that the quarrel between the United States and the Soviet Union was a conflict between two visions of society, capitalism and communism.  While that was and is a choice between distinctly unappetizing alternatives, it was easy to see why people devoted to one or the other would be inclined to fight about them.

That is no longer the issue, yet the friction goes on.  It doesn't take much critical thinking to recognize that the issue is great power rivalry, a struggle for power and influence.  One thinks back to the rivalry between the British and Russian Empires in the 19th Century.  While the British may have trotted out a reference to Czarist despotism now and again, no one was under any illusion that the issues were anything other than British imperial interests versus Russian imperial interests.

The conflict with Russia before the Revolution was great power rivalry and the issue now that the Revolution is no more, is great power rivalry.  How hard is it to conclude that some large part of the Cold War was also great power rivalry?

Which means that all the debate, contumely, and struggle between communists and their apologists on the one hand, and anti-communists on the other, was a delusion.  Which is not to say that the ruling classes in each country did not believe the ideologies they espoused.  They did.  But underneath their conscious purposes were other reasons, reasons of national and group self-interest and dominance.

Which leads us to two interesting reflections.  One is what that tells us about the still-flourishing-in-academia culture of Marxism.  Once it could be seen as one pole in a bipolar world.  Now it can only be understood as anti-national.  Patriotism is the love of country.   Marxism without prospect of revolution, regardless of its intellectual pretensions, is no more than disdain of country.

Similarly, today's struggle with Iran is not just, or even primarily, about Islam.  It is also about power in the Middle East and in the world generally.  Islam, like communism and anti-communism before it, is a pretext for national interest and a struggle for power and influence.

For once, we are fortunate in our choice of adversaries.   The struggle with Russia and communism made us focus on capitalism and business, the least loveable features of our society.  The struggle with Iran and Islam focuses us on our open-mindedness, tolerance, democracy, and freedom, the best things about us.


  1. Shame on you Jack for your association and generalisation of Islam as closed-minded, intolerent and extremism. The disgusting Iranian regime does not give you the right to equate the great Persian culture and rich Islamac cultures with such negativity. Shame on you, you narrow-minded bigot. On a separate not, shame on the U.S. government for their treatment of Binyam Mohamed. Indeed, I think this case challenges democratic ideals and its failures in the Western world just as much as Iran challenges democratic ideals.

  2. I am abashed to be so wrong as to associate Iran with Iran. How could I have been such a "narrow-minded bigot"?

    The measure of a tree is its fruit. Iran has produced Ahmadinejad and ayatollah theocracy. The United States has produced free elections and Barak Obama. Our tree is better.

    Muslims describe Jews as descended from pigs and apes, and Christians as those who anger Allah. Are we really to listen to them complain of our disrespect for Islam? Have they not fully earned our disrespect?

    The measure of Islam is its fruits. They seem to be mainly fanaticism, violence, ignorance, backwardness, xenophobia, corrupt authoritarian regimes, and endless self-righteousness.

    Which is not the least surprising, given the Koran which is itself full of anger, bigotry, self-righteousness, indignation, and xenophobia.

  3. Anonymous12:52 AM

    "...and endless self-righteousness."

    That reminds me of someone...

  4. Anonymous12:53 AM

    "Which is not the least surprising, given the Koran which is itself full of anger, bigotry, self-righteousness, indignation, and xenophobia."

    Knew you were a bigot. Ah well. I'm sure the Old Testament is full of lovely stories of prophets forgiving their enemies.

  5. The bible has dozens of books by dozens of authors and was written over a period of roughly 1400 years. It contains the expression of societies from Iran to Italy. From pre-tribal societies to times of late imperial decay. The speakers range from kings and prophets to carpenters and fishermen.

    On the other hand, every word of the Koran was written by one angry primitive megalomaniac. Absent polite politically correct lying, they are not even remotely comparable.

  6. Anonymous12:33 AM

    Good lord. Religious hatred does assume many forms, the greatest being self denial. The Old Testament is filled with horrific passages of hatred, rape and violence, yet this OK because its written by several authors over a large period of time. The Koran contains horrific passages written by one insane man, but this isn't OK because...

    I may hate both religions equally, but at least I'm consistent. You, on the other hand, are a hypocryte.

  7. Not only that but I can spell words like hypocrite.

    Actually you don't, Anonymous. Your endorsement of any murderous attack whatever against Israel as "understandable", while being outraged by Israeli reprisals shows what you think of Jews.

    And there is a considerable difference between horrific passages in the Judaeo-Christian bible which no one has acted on in 2,500 years, and the Koran which inspires murderous rage and bigotry in hundreds of millions today.

    Unlike the bible which conveys hundreds of mixed messages, the Koran conveys one consistent message of anger and intolerance.

    And the megalomaniac bastard even included rules of interpretation which forbid understanding it other than literally. So Muslims couldn't turn off their primitiveness and insanity even if they became disposed to.

  8. Anonymous12:55 PM

    Some people aren't talking too. Home you enjoy your lonely pathetic life as a religious bigot, wasting away with the knowledge that 'you are right'. Hope thats some comfert to a dead soul.

  9. Notice too that you are so much in the wrong that you have no answer but abuse.

  10. Only seen this here now, and my oh my, what a racist you are Jack. I previously took your statements with a pinch of salt, I assumed you could only misguidedly support Israeli aggression and war crimes because your religion predetermines you to feel an attachment to Israel in the absence of independent though, but I was wrong, you really are just a racist white collared American.