Trump and the Death of the American Dream

In a world where the assessments of intelligence agencies are fake and fake news is real, Donald Trump risks dragging America into the trap of gullible cynicism.

In my more solipsistic moments, I almost feel like I brought this all on myself. From the time I first stepped foot onto Kazakh soil in June 2004 until the moment I left Moscow for India in April 2015, my reality, with a few intermissions, was a post-Soviet one. The learning curve was so steep I have trouble remembering former iterations of myself left scattered up and down those those myriad peaks and valleys. I came to Kazakhstan a Peace Corps volunteer with cookie cutter leftist politics, a Christian’s metaphysical armor, American idealism and enough cognitive dissonance to have my brain dancing like a washing machine on its last legs.

Something had to break.

A few years later, Russia obliged.

All the courtyard’s drunks and mutts Humpty-Dumptied me back into something both better and worse.

I was forever given an outsider’s view on my own culture. I was never fully allowed back in. When the time came, I thought I could leave Russia. But follow rivers long enough and you learn that they’re all connected. The slippery waters of White Sea unreality are now lapping on Atlantic shores.

So here’s the thing that everyone who’s ‘seen behind the veil’ already knows: the intersubjective order governing all human interactions is based on myths. Once people stop believing in those myths, the order collapses.

This is no conspiracy, you’re not Tyler Durden and the wool has not been pulled over your eyes sheeple.

Without collective intentionality, money is nothing more than a Rorschach Test on colorful paper; dead Syrian children are decaying organic matter and not war crimes. When teenagers who have never thought about metacognition first stumble upon Sartre and realize that “objective reality” isn’t something that pours unadulterated into their looking glass eyes, a few fits of philosophy often follow. Most search and ultimately find their footing on firm-enough ontological grounds. But when entire societies chase the rabbit down the hole and never find their way back, cynicism triumphs— authoritarian drift begins.

It has always been discomfiting for humans to accept that law, human rights, culture, religion and economies are underpinned by nothing more than shared agreement. It is in our nature to want an arbitrator to stand above the fray and keep the goalposts in place. Thus the original power vertical was born: God, god(s), kings, courts and commoners.

Get past that regressive thinking and you realize we ourselves are endowed with the awesome responsibility to create the architecture of our systems. We fashion the imagined order that shapes the material world.

The Soviet Union, for example, was swept up into a dialectic of Hegelian exuberance with Eschatological Marxism promising heaven on earth for the faithful. Philosophy was elevated to science; the mechanics of history’s movements oiled by pioneering engineers.

And although heaven on earth was not found (in fact, at times it was closer to hell) belief did propel man into space.

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When the cracks began to appear on the canvas of socialist realism, people themselves split. As Peter Pomerantsev has noted, homo sovieticus grew up lying in every public moment, for the cost of truth-telling was the loss of job, liberty (and possibly life.)

As I previously wrote, Russia, unlike the West, first came into contact with critical theory and post modernism not during the halcyon days of social revolution and economic boom, but during a time when everything was falling apart. In the absence of genuine civil society, a robust economy or any form of institutional mooring, rather than sail through the death of a godless god and the birth of another, Russia was left in a two-decade long holding pattern — existential purgatory.

Then, when Russians who came of age before 1991 came to power, “they created a society that was a feast of simulations, with fake elections, a fake free press, a fake free market and fake justice,” as Pomerantsev noted.

Thus was born triumphant cynicism, which can be summarized as a power-obsessed culture’s compromise with abject powerlessness. You can’t do anything, you don’t do anything, but that’s ok, because nothing can be done. At least you are in on the lack of need to do. It’s the idealists working against the grain who have lost their way.

Such cynicism, of course, is useful to those behind the levers of power.

“When people stopped trusting any institutions or having any values, they could easily be spun into a conspiratorial vision of the world,” he wrote. “Thus the paradox: the gullible cynic.”

Americans, at our worst, have long been the opposite of that: gullible optimists. But optimists are creatures of doing. Belief in the efficacy of acting creates action. That action shapes the material world. The idea of money will die with man, but styrofoam created on account of the profit motive will live forever. The belief in human rights created both Amnesty International and an ex-post facto pretext for invading Iraq.

Which is to say, optimism has its downsides.

The true danger of Donald Trump, beyond retrograde environmental, immigration and economic policies is that, as a sufferer of narcissistic personality disorder, he believes in nothing beyond the barriers of his own soma.

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Trump, in so many ways, is a living, breathing manifestation of America’s Jungian shadow; an oversized beast with body dysmorphia unatttuned to ambient noise, smashing countless fragile things underfoot and unawares. He’s an entitled rich kid who envisions himself a self-made man, a gaudy vulgarian interested in gilded, and not ivory towers. He has no time for reading but knows it all; a true exemplar of the Dunning-Kruger effect. Trump is a white man born in a cradle shaped like a tanning bed who doesn’t know if he still exists when people stop looking at him. And in case you hadn’t guessed, he’s got a big dick.

He is the cacophonous swell of disintegrating Union when the better angels of our nature have been bludgeoned to death by tone-deaf demons singing the National Anthem as a form of onanism. But it was America that ultimately begot Trump, secreting him from its oversized bile duct onto the polity. And now it shall be Trump that fashions America in his own image.

Like most narcissists, Trump displaces any sense of shame through projection. There is no institution that he would not set on fire for the sake of his own ego. Today it’s the CIA, tomorrow it’s an independent judiciary.

Trump’s rage against Saturday Night Live’s portrayal of him is reminiscent of Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose notoriously thin skin is routinely ironed out with botox.

When a popular satirical program called Kukly (often translated as ‘Dolls’, perhaps better translated as ‘Puppets’), routinely depicted Putin as an impotent groom or a big baby, the Kremlin asked NTV, which broadcast the show, to stop portraying the not-yet omnipotent president.

The channel responded by showing Putin as biblical theophany the very next episode (ironic, as near deification would be his future failsafe against televised satire).

That, coupled with their critical coverage of the Second Chechen War, sealed the channel’s fate.

NTV’s owner was ultimately jailed, his media holdings were brought under state control and Kukly was taken off the air.

Be careful Alec Baldwin.

Trump is the kind of man who would build an arc out of an orphanage rather than drown for the sake of saving children. Just don’t remind him of it, or he might try and drown you too. And don’t use hyperbole to prove a point, for he just might beef up those liable laws and sue you. This is the first time I’ve ever second-guessed myself when writing about an American politician. That’s how this all starts…

A narcissist views self-worth as an all or nothing, zero-sum proposition. The national interest will be subsumed to the magical thinking needed to keep the myth alive.

As a result, Trump would rather undermine the “rigged election system” than lose an election. Even when he won the electoral vote tally, he couldn’t countenance having lost the popular vote. Instead, he claimed he had also won the popular vote, if one were to deduct the millions of people who “voted illegally”.

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When the Central Intelligence Agency concluded that the Russian government had sought to secure a Trump victory, he retorted that their claim was “ridiculous”, adding that “these are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.”

Alex Jones, the Infowars founder who believes Obama turns frogs gay with chemicals and views Sandy Hook as a false flag, backed Trump in denying Russian involvement.

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Calling Obama’s citizenship into question, declaring 9/11 an inside job and accusing FEMA of setting up concentration camps is one thing. Accusing a hostile foreign power of attempting to influence your election through hacking? Beyond the pale.

Trump also doesn’t receive daily intelligence briefings from “those people” because he views himself as a “smart person.”

By contrast, when Trump falsely accused a man who attempted to rush the stage during one of his campaign rallies in March of having ties to ISIS, he later said: “What do I know about it? All I know is what’s on the Internet.”

Smart.

As for Putin, there’s a reason Trump saves his invective for his own intelligence community intended to safeguard his nation and not a hostile foreign leader who has been working tirelessly to send the City on a Hill into a ditch.

“If he says great things about me, I’m going to say great things about him.”

Very smart.

But the problem is not just Trump’s narcissism, opaque business practices, or questionable connections. It is the decay of American institutions that ultimately helped propel him to the White House in the first place — the same institutions that are the only thing standing between American democracy and Trump’s most despotic tendencies.

When Trump tweets of fake elections, his supporters salivate at the sound of the dog whistle. False stories about dead souls and illegal immigrants voting have long been meant to disenfranchise minorities. They’ve also undermined faith in the electoral process.

When he speaks of the lying mainstream media, his supporters are already primed for the message. For decades, it has long reverberated in the echo chamber that fake news is news one disagrees with while real news is actually fake news that reinforces one’s preexisting beliefs about the world. Hence Balkan-generated clickbait is fact and meticulously fact-checked exposes in Newsweek are “fiction”.

But it’s not all a ruse.

When he talks about the fake free market, he isn’t entirely off the mark. Throughout the rustbelt, the bailout of Wall Street and the sell out of Main Street is dolefully discussed under decaying monoliths to days of manufacture gone by.

Maybe they could never stay in a globalized world. But they had to be replaced with something.

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The King and Queen of the party of labor did rack up $153 million in speaking fees from the captains of finance; neither Trump nor Macedonian teenagers made that up.

You don’t have to be a Trump supporter to know that no one from HSBC went to prison for helping Mexican drug cartels launder money, but Patricia Spottedcrow did get 12 years for selling $31 worth of weed.

You thought that only the sons of Russian politicians, Southeast Asian aristocrats and Indian actors were allowed to run people over with near impunity. Then affluenza spread stateside like SARS, Ethan Couch was deemed too rich to be a vehicular homicider, and banana trees began sprouting in Burleson, Texas.

Trump also wouldn’t be wrong to excoriate fake justice, although somehow, in some bizarre inversion of logic, those who long found themselves on top of America’s psychologically suppressed racial hierarchy realized that privilege had diminishing returns as the wealth gap widened under their own party’s policies. But rather than confront their own intersubjective myth — the self-made man unencumbered by social debt —they turned their ire on those who had long suffered from the sort of injustice they are just beginning to glimpse.

And now, self-made men are calling for protectionism. They want the free market to bring down the price of drugs that are more costly than anywhere else in the free world because of…the free market. The cognitive dissonance has turned large swaths of the republic into a pressure cooker. And then the other is hated beyond rhyme or reason.

America is already so, so close to the edge.

Another attack on the scale of 9/11 would do much to stoke Trump’s authoritarian tendencies. America’s institutions, while more robust than those of other states where authoritarian leaders have used crisis to consolidate power (Russia, Turkey, Weimar Germany), are diminished. The party of Reagan seems unwilling to take on Trump so long as they can gut the EPA, further wealth polarization for the sake of their own failed myth and bring a woman’s reproductive health more firmly under the state’s control.

They were never democrats to begin with. Voter suppression is part of the party platform.

But even their base is becoming disenfranchised. And what do you do when the party of bloodletting wins again while the party of penicillin has been accused of corrupting souls with their witches’ brew? You know who gets the blame when somebody dies.

So as reason continues to falter, as the Commander in Chief leads the charge against reality, conspiracy will take hold of the increasingly dispossessed.

Live with fear long enough and reality starts to become slippery. It’s hard to stay balanced when you stop believing in the certainty of tomorrow (or the certitude of yesterday).

And if all of that time in Russia taught me anything, it’s this: all is lost when the little man stops believing. It’s one thing when the president is a crook, quite another when it’s cops, tax agents and postal workers. The fish may rot from the head, but a building never collapsed due to a twisted spire.

The elite have had, since time immemorial, the luxury of disbelief. After all, it’s an entirely different matter to play a rigged game when the game is rigged for you.

Americans have long believed the game was relatively fair. The Union is imperfect, but we were always moving towards our greater ideals.

“The arc of history is long but it bends towards justice.” Or so we believe(d).

Russians, have, for most of their history, seen the arc of history bend towards iniquity. Then a wind of change seemingly came a quarter century back. It turned out to be a storm.

American idealists and vultures got behind that slipstream and set sail to former Soviet states for myriad reasons all born of the same mind.

They always thought we were naive; we thought they were pessimists. Who knew we were both making it all up as we went along?

Ultimately, the Harvard crooks, Christ-complexed, volunteers, civil servants and bored backpackers were all caught up in the same strange missionary effort to make them more like us.

Who would have imagined, 25 years later, that it was us who just might end up like them?

Putin’s Ukraine Admission and a Culture of Lies

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William Echols

After persistent denials, Russian President Vladimir Putin seemingly admitted to a Russian military presence in Eastern Ukraine (before he didn’t). In any “normal country”, coming clean about a clandestine military operation on live television would have huge political implications. But in Russia, it didn’t even make the evening news.

It all started on December 17 during Putin’s annual marathon Q&A session, a PR exercise in which he vacillates between his roles as global statesman and provincial Santa Claus.

Putin faced many queries, some serious, some prosaic. Due to Russia’s economic woes, his usual air of confidence was punctuated by more bluster than usual. This was especially true when questioned over recent corruption allegations leveled at the family of Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika.

But from Chaika’s alleged mob ties to a quasi-admission that Katerina Tikhonova was in fact his daughter (because only in Russia is the identity of one’s children a matter of state security), it was his answer to a question about Yevgeny Yerofeyev and Alexander Alexandrov, two alleged officers of the Russian military’s Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) captured during fighting in East Ukraine, that gave pause to many watching the proceedings.

“We never said there were not people [in Eastern Ukraine] who performed certain tasks, including in the military sphere,” he said. “But that does not mean there are Russian (regular) troops there, feel the difference.”

Putin, of course, has vehemently denied that very thing before…

Read the entire article at Russia! Magazine

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Russia’s Prisoner Dilemma

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William Echols

Much has been said of the “legal nihilism” which consumes Russian society. Few, however, have realized that rather than some esoteric expression of the Russian soul, the orgy of corruption in the Third Rome is a logical reaction to the world its citizens have been forced to navigate.

In 2008, Russian presidential place holder Dmitry Medvedev argued that “if we want to become a civilized state, first of all we need to become a lawful one.”

Nearly eight years later, Prosecutor-General Yury Chaika believes the battle against corruption, following a rocky road and more recent economic dips, is going swimmingly well.

“Over the past two years, the Prosecutor-General’s Office has been keeping impartial crime statistics on whose basis I can confidently say that the fight against corruption in the country has been intensified substantially recently,” Russian News Agency TASS cites Chaika as saying.

Over the past nine months, officials had been implicated in corruption cases amounting to 30 billion rubles ($423 million). One-fifth of that sum has been reimbursed. While Chaika himself admits those figures could be higher, he also believes they should “command respect.”

In a country where corruption accounts for anywhere between 25 and 48 percent of an ever-contracting GDP, how much respect the authorities deserve on that account is debatable. But then, how does one stamp out corruption in a nation where graft is not a byproduct of the system, but rather the raison d’etre?

Read the entire article at Russia! Magazine 

“L ‘enfer, c’est les autres” 

William Echols

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Blood was still wet on the theatre floor; guns trained on other human beings and extinguishing life after life with clinical efficiency. Rock and roll joie de vivre ripped apart by heavy metal; lives ravaged by hate.

Four had already died in twin suicide bombings at the Stade de France. One hundred shell casings steaming on the pavements at Le Carillon and Le Petit Cambodge.

Death showers at the corner of Rue Fontaine au Roi and Rue Faubourg du Temple; at Rue de Charonne; at Comptoir Voltaire.  Is this not the heart of terror; to instill fear in millions with the deaths of dozens?  But before the dust had settled, before the last drop of blood was to be spilt — the last spark of life to be extinguished through the last rites of the death cult — social media was ablaze with a sanctimonious fire that was all about the self but unburdened by righteousness.

It was not difficult to imagine, reading such torturous words, the wild eyes reflected in the halcyon glow of monitors around the world; appropriating the ongoing tragedy to their pet causes, petty resentments and private well springs of hate.  Autacoidal anger paints irises black; drips down their tongues, their fingers; keyboards turned the color of ink ponds at midnight — transparent optical fibers glowing red with rage.

When just over three dozen deaths had been confirmed, Julian Assange tweeted to some imagined enemy in his fevered mind that it’s “not so funny now, is it”, as if anyone had ever been laughing.

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Across the Atlantic and political spectrum, a motley crew of US conservatives were emitting the collective hate of America the resentful; a miasma of guns, muslims, migrants, trigger words and other assorted grievances of the perpetually aggrieved

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And some in Russia, whose national psyche has been transmogrified by the distilled venom of angry white insecure Christian rage and fallen-great power resentment; where empathy escaped finding its way into the cultural fabric, channeled the rhetorical wretch of Fox News through its own cyrillic script.

France, through its orgy of tolerance, its position as the epicenter of Gayropa, its failed foreign policy in Syria, had brought this on itself. It’s never too early to say I told you so, even if people are still choking on their own blood. “That’s what you get for thinking you’re better than other people”, they argue from a place of unattenuated moral, cultural, intellectual and/or spiritual superiority.  Yes, that is what you get.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian activists were attempting to appropriate dead Parisian bodies for their own “battle against terrorism.”  Some said what is happening in Paris right now (as in RIGHT NOW) happens in Eastern Ukraine everyday.  No, no it doesn’t.

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And then the half-cocked actuaries of human life; the whataboutists peddling their fallacies of relative privation, the bean counters of Eros and Thanatos.  Dyed-in-the-wool individualists using leftist reductionism to advocate some sliding scale of collective punishment for that vast abstraction of life that, unlike them, is formless.  The “this isn’t about religion” religious monsters viewing ISIS and French society as coequal.

No end of the ideological spectrum, it seems, offered shelter from the madness.  No permutation of political thought was not a prism through which to penn political poison; no strand pulled from the binding force of “religio” free from getting caught up in the noose.

For behind religion and politics, there is nothing more than people.  And for many,  no matter what flag they flag, be it black or white, nothing trumps the need for narcissistic self-satisfaction.  For solipsists in a social media age, death through political or religious violence is little more than a sacrifice on the alter of failed ideals.  If only they had listened to you…TO YOU!

During the 1960s, the phrase “the personal is political” became a second-wave feminist rallying cry of awareness, a rhetorical means of connecting the dots between personal experience and the structures, political and otherwise, in which we live and interact.

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But one could also flip the subject and predicate: “The political is personal.” Politics is so often a proxy for some other deep-seated trauma.  World events and the lives and deaths of other people become nothing more than the ammunition for sublimated rage and humiliation; political ideologies another way of asserting dominance for those who have refractorily wrestled with their sense of subjugation.

For many, the orgy of murder in Paris was reconceptualized as another hammer to strike out at the world with, a world which had fallen short of their own normative values of justice.  Beyond politics, beyond nationalities, beyond religion, to see a person’s neurosis is to understand why, time and time again, many were unable to connect with those who were actually dying in that moment.

From node after node of self-contained bubbles battling along the front lines of intersection, there is no room for quiet moments of reflection on lives that were very much like yours.  A warrior for humanity couldn’t find a split second to not keep score.  A cross carrier was more focused on taking oblique shots at everyone and everything he hates.  A secularist dipping his quill into a dead man’s guts to scriven 140 characters in crimson on the inappropriateness of  requesting prayer in an avowedly secular society.

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Yes, after Friday night, the words of Sartre rang more truly than ever: “Hell is other people.”

Pray for Paris? Pray for us all.

Doomsday and urban decay: In Russia, the end of the world is now 

William Echols

Norilsk: National Geographic

Norilsk: National Geographic

Sometimes it all comes into focus. Beneath the unending static of distraction, the esoteric musings, the multifarious political analysts attempting to dissect motivations, worldview and strategies, a far more simple image takes form upon standing back from the fray. Some are very rich, some are very poor, some want things to stay that way, and thus seemingly indefatigable human ingenuity and creativity is put towards creating multilayered worlds of symbolic meaning to obfuscate far more bare bones truths.

In excavating the strange world of Russian politics and every manifestation of social trauma, in digging through the origami propaganda messages where mouths seemingly crease into smirks and sneers at the same time — double-exposures in prime time — a very simple narrative can take hold.

For Putin to live like this:

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People in Syktyvkar have to live like this:

And then, with or without irony, officials build a monument to the Ruble in the heart of the city; a neo-byzantine stele to their own profligacy.

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But it doesn’t stop there. In order for Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu to allegedly live like this:

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People in Kazan live like this:

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For Putin’s press secretary to spend 350,000-euro per week on a yacht like this:

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Your grandmother might have to live like this:

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And for officials to spend $200 million per kilometer on a road in Sochi that ends up looking like this:

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The road between Russia and Belarus will produce a contrast like this:

In writing Russia’s Strange Prophets of Doom, the at times oppressive realities of urban decay were informative both personally and anecdotally. The unrelenting blight and pollution, the seemingly endless stretches of steppe dotted with human settlements replete with post-soviet ruin porn, these are the realities that drive even nominal patriots to dreams of Mediterranean shores.

It is easy to see that the end of the world isn’t a fantasy, it’s right outside your front door. There is also a quiet desperation which bubbles beneath the stoicism; your mental armor to block out the filth, the bleakness, the desperation. People wrap themselves in blankets of distraction, navigating every iteration of eyesore with eyes locked on feet, pushing past sooty-snow and filth to find warmth and cleanliness locked away in the rows up rows of glowing tower block lights. Then there is the crime, at times bordering on anarchy, the instability from the lack of rule of law; the television glow singing yet another hymn from the church of murder.

No, fifth columnists, Atlanticists, and every variation of conspiratorial cabal fighting to keep Russia on its knees can only provide so much subterfuge. Americans didn’t steal the money for your roads, your schools, your nursing homes. Brussels isn’t the reason crowdfunding campaigns are needed to buy grandmothers firewood in the most resource rich nation on earth.

Obama isn’t the reason why some have a license to kill, to steal, to do everything that ill-gotten wealth can buy. It was you Russia, it was always you.

And until you can learn to heal yourself, to face your challenges head on, beyond the self-satisfying fake empire and false pride, beyond the resentment, beyond the need to be right, beyond the need to wonder if “in other places it was more terrible”, beyond the infinite feedback loop of the “whataboutist” question-word clause, there will be forces who would rather burn it all than somehow, someway get on with life. And, in turn, there will be lives in which it truly seems better to just burn it all.

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My Russian trauma trilogy and a thought experiment with Putin’s United Nations speech

William Echols

My latest article for The Intersection Project, The psychology behind Russia’s propaganda onslaught, was published soon after Putin spoke before the United Nation General  Assembly.

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It is part of a loose-knit series, all of which are essentially variations on one central theme: many Russians are suffering from undiagnosed post traumatic stress disorder; Russian state media has essentially weaponized that trauma as a means of maintaining social control and executing otherwise unpopular foreign policy decisions.

I have also covered the nature of Russian humiliation and power obsession as they are manifested through the concept of ‘Ressentiment’. Ressentiment, as previously stated, can be understood as a transference of ones pain, humiliation, inferiority and failure onto a scapegoat. The ego, rather than internalize the implications of weakness, failure, and the emasculating lack of power, creates an enemy, an external evil which can be “blamed” for one’s woes.

As a result, Russians are particularly at a loss to both face the dark chapters in their past, the driving idea behind “‘In other countries, it was more terrible:’ Why Russia won’t heal itself”. Nor can they psychologically assimilate the horrors being committed in modern times, an idea explored here: ‘One Year On: Can Russians ever accept Moscow helped shoot down MH-17.

Russians have, by and large, already managed to turn their government’s decision to veto a United Nations resolution, which would have created an international tribunal to prosecute those who shot down the Malaysian airliner MH17 over eastern Ukraine last year, into a defensive measure. At this point it is easier to imagine the entire world is conspiring to bring Russia to its knees rather than accept that rebel fighters (or even Russian soldiers) could possibly have shot down a civilian airliner. That, despite the fact that Kremlin-friendly media reported that Russian proxies had shot down an AN-26 [military transport plane] in the area immediately after MH17 was downed.

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The “flywheel” for Ukraine’s manufactured civil war, Igor Girkin, admitted as much on the same day.

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Bearing all of that in mind, I’ve purposed something of a thought experiment. Keeping in mind the two primary sources of Russian trauma being manipulated by state media (the Second World War and the collapse of the Soviet Union), Russia’s inability to accept responsibly for wrongs past or present (and more specifically, how that has manifested itself in Moscow’s decision to veto the establishment of an MH17 tribunal), and Russia’s overall obsession with power and national humiliation, read Putin’s speech and take note of just how many of these concepts were made manifest in the Russian president’s words. For, as much as the Russian elite might manipulate the masses, they are suffering from the same trauma. I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again: The lunatics have taken over the asylum.

Read Putin’s UN General Assembly Speech. 

‘In other countries, it was more terrible’: Why Russia won’t heal itself

William Echols

“Healing does not mean the damage never existed. It simply means the damage no longer controls our lives.”

Healing, in its multifarious forms, is something which often runs victim to self-help fetishism; an obsession that things can simply be left behind, forgotten, gotten over, relegated to the dustbin of history. But any false sense of closure, which denies the damage ever existed, will set individuals and nations alike down a perilous path.

There is a strong argument that that which we do not assimilate, we sublimate. And that which we sublimate, can be manipulated by those who understand us better, perhaps, than we understand ourselves. It is an idea at the heart of my latest article for Russia! Magazine, ‘Russia Has Weaponized Its National Trauma.’

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In 2007, a provincial history teacher, meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, railed against the notion that Russian history could ever give cause to “self-flagellation.” It was a moment for Putin to step in as a statesman and offer Russia a chance to begin coming to terms with its deeply complicated, at times brutal story as a nation. Putin, it turns out, found a muse for his own resentment, arguing “in other countries, it has been said, it was more terrible.”

“We have not used nuclear weapons against a civilian population,” Putin said. “We have not sprayed thousands of kilometers with chemicals, (or) dropped on a small country seven times more bombs than in all the Great Patriotic (War).”

Regarding the purges of 1937, he added: ”We had no other black pages, such as Nazism, for instance,” he said.

In Oliver Bulloughs historical travelogue ‘Let our Fame Be Great’,  he argues that “Russia’s actions in the Caucasus —independent of the politics or beliefs of its rulers over the centuries —have been destructive, murderous, brutal, and cruel.” The Circassian Genocide in 1864. The deportations of the Chechens, Ingush, Crimean Tatars and mountain Turks during the Second World War. Two brutal wars in Chechnya, which resonate throughout the region to this day.

It wasn’t just the Caucasus. Nineteenth century Siberian regionalists argued that imperial Russia’s actions in the region “had taken on genocidal proportions.”

And yet, one thing set Russia apart from other such European encroachments which left a trail of tears and blood. Nearly 70 years after Yermak kicked off Russia’s Siberian conquest, a legal amendment was introduced in 1649 (and yet another in 1658) which made many Slavic Russians themselves slaves in all but name. In this regard, Russia’s ruling class was perhaps slightly more ecumenical in turning his fellow man into property.

Bulloughs therefore argues that the suffering of Russia’s minorities is not well-known in Russia, “perhaps because Russians themselves have suffered so terribly that they prefer not to remember the horrors they have imposed on others.” 

This conflicted historical position of being both repressor and oppressed can only lead to a certain sense of cultural schizophrenia. The descendants of serfs now wave the Imperial Standard (actually, it’s the Flag of the Russian Empire for “Celebrations” but that’s an entirely different matter); the grandchildren of GULAG survivors herald the glory of a decontextualized Soviet Union that, like Imperial Russia before it, is reduced to nothing more than a symbol of greater Russian chauvinism.

Their greatness is a collective phenomenon that they, nor their ancestors, have necessarily benefited from in any concrete way. The private misery that accompanied it, on the other hand, was all theirs, to be suffered in silence.

And that unresolved suffering, which was never recognized in any substantive way, has now been repressed and channeled in ways that are often self-destructive.

The authorities have long attempted to channel that unassimilated fear, aggression, and shame through a state sanctioned cause. This time around, Ukraine has become the drainage ditch.

But even as nationalist rage allows for temporary displacement, the damage lives on. Generations of people whose neurons were reconfigured through trauma, and, who in turn, passed down that trauma behaviorally (if not epigenetically), have shaped their children in a pain long since divorced from its origins. All along, the government continually triggers that trauma, summoning imaginary wolves to the gates, creating a siege mentality, making sure the damage controls their lives.

It is abuse on a massive scale. It is heartbreaking.

Ultimately, we can forget history, but history does not forget us. To burn up the past is to create the fallow ground through which it will live again. Plant seeds in a cemetery long enough and you’ll get some strange fruit. It’s why Moscow is so terrified of spring.  It’s why Russia may be in for a long winter.

One year on: Can Russians ever accept Moscow helped shoot down MH-17?

William Echols

One year after the downing of Flight MH17 over Eastern Ukraine, all the evidence points towards Russian-backed proxies (if not Russian soldiers) being responsible for the tragedy which left 298 people dead. The question is, even in the presence of a smoking gun, are Russians even capable of admitting that it was Moscow which pulled the trigger?

Just weeks after tragedy struck over the village of Hrabove on July 17, 2014, a Russian friend of mine — a bright-hearted, always smiling 30-year-old who works at one of the big four accountancy firms and has visited dozens of countries — sincerely asked me if corpses from MH370 had been packed onto MH17 before it was shot down (she never named a culprit.) Coming at a time when 82 percent of Russians squarely blamed Ukrainian forces for downing the plane, after Russia had set its propaganda frequency to full-on psychosis, it shouldn’t have been such a surprise. But it was.

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From my experience, she is one of the most open, non-defensive people I have ever encountered in my life. By and large apolitical, internet savvy, a real seasoned traveler and art trend follower — in short, a real child of the Northern Capital — my friend didn’t strike me as the type of person to be susceptible to such crude conspiracies. But she was, a reality which forced me to revaluate a lot of things about what Russia had become following the annexation of Crimea and secret war in Ukraine. If this madness had seeped into her brain as well, I wondered, what about the choirs of men drinking themselves to death under my balcony on any given summer night, intermittently arguing and singing in the key of a mass seal clubbing? What did they think? That answer of course, was clearly apparent.

One year on, all of the theories both directly or indirectly floated by the Russian government, from the truly insane to the more plausible, have fallen apart under the weight of their own contradictions and falsified evidence.

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Meanwhile, sources close to Dutch accident investigators claim the yet-to-be published report on the incident will conclude that Russian proxies operating in East Ukraine shot down the plane. Other journalists have meticulously reconstructed all the available evidence to come to a similar conclusion. The only serious question remaining is just what role Russian troops played in the incident, and by extension, the level of culpability falling at Moscow’s feet. It is no surprise that Russian President Vladimir Putin has rejected calls for a UN-backed criminal tribunal to get to the bottom of the MH-17 downing, calling the proposal “untimely and counterproductive.” One can only guess in what way such a tribunal would be “counterproductive.” 

The Malaysian Foreign Ministry, by contrast, balked at Putin’s reticence, saying that “all other ad hoc criminal courts and tribunals were established prior to the completion of investigations.” It added that “justice delayed is justice denied.”

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But based on the available evidence, obfuscation, and not justice, is the only thing on Moscow’s mind.

No one expects Moscow to come clean regarding what has become the moral nadir of its brutal, clandestine war in Ukraine’s east. After all, the US government was unwilling to muster the moral fortitude to admit fault after shooting down Iran Air Flight 655, although Washington and Tehran reached a settlement at the  International Court of Justice eight years after the fact, in which the United States “recognized the aerial incident of 3 July 1988 as a terrible human tragedy and expressed deep regret over the loss of lives caused by the incident…” Some compensation was also given to the families, though clearly not enough given the sheer loss of life.

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One key difference is that while the Pentagon did shamefully try to avoid responsibility for the incident, neither Washington nor the US media attempted to rewrite reality as we know it to cover their tracks. It did lie to avoid culpability, especially regarding whether the USS Vincennes was in international or Iranian territorial waters, whether the pilot of flight 655 was ascending or descending and at what speed, whether the plane was flying along the “established route”, and whether the Airbus was “squawking” on a civilian or military channel. The USS Vincennes did, however, issue several warnings, although failure to respond to those warnings, given all of the available evidence, did not justify the crew’s decision to shoot the passenger plane down.

All that being said, at no point did the US military or any state-run media (or private for that matter) flood the airwaves with a series of conspiracy theories. Neither Zionists, the Illuminati nor the Iranians themselves were blamed for downing the plane. A different culprit was not released on a daily basis, nor did the Pentagon itself release doctored photos to further muddy the waters.

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Moscow’s handling of MH-17, by contrast, has been one of the most shameful episodes to befall the Russian populace in these deeply troubling times. Russia’s leadership wasn’t content to to merely rip Ukraine apart to maintain their pretense of regional hegemony. They had to drive an already psychologically traumatized population crazy in the process.

In a previous piece, I wrote about how Russians are particularly susceptible to propaganda due to a series of complex historical circumstances.

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As it stands, Russia is a society of power-obsessed cynics. At first glance one would think that inveterate cynicism and a tendency to be so fawning of power would be mutually exclusive. On closer investigation, these two seemingly opposing forces do seem to gel in the Russian psyche, though with often deleterious effects.

During Soviet times, Russians used to refer to labor camps as the ‘little zones’, and the country as a whole as the ‘big zone.’ That Russians would psychologically equate their society to a prison inevitably has profound psychological implications.

Writing about a PornHub study which revealed the immense popularity of anal sex in Russia, Natalia Antonova notes the work of Pavel Svyatenkov, who argued that male-on-male rape is a tool of humiliation in Gulag culture (or any prison culture really.)

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Antonova goes on to argue that Gulag culture has not been done away with in  Russia; rather it has been sublimated. Projection of power shores up a fundamental fear of violence and domination. There is no civil society in modern-day Russia, no core ideology, no manifest belief in social welfare or a utopian belief in the future. Instead, there is the projection of power, and what that power affords you, namely protection, if not self-actualization.

Rigid hierarchies, in turn, exist through which that power is expressed, always vertically, always top to bottom. Superiority is an expression of power, and it does much to fuel Russia’s militarist, imperialist mindset. Few Russian people actually believe they can be happy in the sense that Danes are happy or Italians are happy. What they can be, however, is powerful — they can be feared. Perhaps never loved, but always respected. Such power projection is a proxy of self-worth. But it is also riddled with contradictions.

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Collectively, Russians, flexing military muscle allows for a vicarious means of empowerment in a society which, by definition, is emasculating. If masculinity has any connection to autonomy and alpha-male domination, a society which believes in no mechanisms for popular expression, but rather a coterie of powerful men who rule absolutely, is a society which infantilizes its citizens. In a remote, abstract way, nuclear warheads, tanks and guns can imbue one with a sense of power.

Actual everyday interactions with real organs of power, however, reinforce a sublimated gulag culture. You are not a citizen, a custodian of your society. You are a kowtowing subject paying rent, stealing what you can from below and kicking up tribute as many rungs on the ladder as your relative position demands.  It is this angry, volatile faultline between a power-obsessed superiority complex and daily emasculation that Russia’s elite deftly exploits, albeit on a razor’s edge.

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All in all, manipulating people in Russia today relies on a two-pronged approach which references both that triumphalist cynicism and the shaky contradictions of power-obsessed prisoners.

First, employ a fantastical conspiracy to displace the fact-based (WESTERN) narrative, and then appeal to Russians’ wounded pride by placing the antagonist in Western dress.

Kierkegaard and Nietzsche wrote about the latter phenomenon as “ressentiment”.

Ressentiment can be understood as a transference of ones pain, humiliation, inferiority and failure onto a scapegoat. The ego, rather than internalize the implications of weakness, failure, and the emasculating lack of power, creates an enemy, an external evil which can be “blamed” for one’s woes.

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Kierkegaard noted that ressentiment can lead to bloody, violent rebellion with the express purpose of leveling all men, and all things. Looking at Russian history, there is no need to belabor this point. Most absolutists forms of government in history inspired rebellion. Other societies, however, moved beyond absolutist forms of government. It just so happens that those are the very societies which Russians are now being taught to view as the enemy of its “traditions.”

For a brief window in the 90s, Russia played with the concept of equals, but only in a superficial and ultimately abstract way. The ensuing chaos which resulted became intimately associated with ‘democracy’. Stability became the new mantra. Power was concentrated to maintain this stability. This stability, however, was largely predicated on external factors like the price of oil and natural gas and the need for other country’s in the ex-Soviet sphere to respect their relationship of inferiority to Moscow. Maintaining this relationship (and high oil prices) is paramount to Russia’s elite.

But with an economic downswing and many on Russia’s periphery clamoring for a right to determine their own affairs, the rotten core of the Russian system of governance was about to be laid bare. To maintain their grip on power, all social ills had to be transferred onto outside forces, ‘fifth columnists’, ‘enemies of the people’ and so on. It’s ironic, seeing that external factors in fact played a large role in the largesse of Putin’s first decade in power.

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As a society, Russians are already enamored with the concept of diffusion of responsibility. Two rules became paramount in Soviet and post-Soviet life: always blame someone else — never take responsibility. Generations of Russian leaders have both created and played on this reality to their own ends. They are also victims of it. The lunatics have taken over the asylum.

Sadly, for a traumatized population, institutionalizing a  distorted frame of reference has left many Russians perilously at odds with any knowable reality. And as living conditions deteriorate, the need to be great via the proxy of fantasy, often militaristic and atavistic fantasy, further takes hold.  If there is one thing Russia’s deeply frayed populace cannot bear at this point of time, it is being on the wrong side of history. The war in Ukraine in general and MH-17 in particular have certainly put them there.

Even if Russians were getting all of the facts about what befell 298 innocent people last July, it wouldn’t be enough to change their minds. The problems isn’t just the toxic blend of both cherry-picked and out-and-out fabricated information being fed to them. The problem is the filter which stands between them and an all too harsh reality that far too few are capable of facing.

Except for the clinically psychotic, even the most militant and ultimately violent defenders of Russian aggression deeply want to be viewed as just. Whatever acts of violence are being committed against government troops in Eastern Ukraine, they are being done to beat back American imperialists, Ukrainian fascists, Zionists, the Illuminati, or all of the above.

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To no longer be a bulwark against American Imperialism, but rather sandbags thrown around the moat of a corrupt mafia manor, to no longer be freedom fighters against the “fascist junta” in Ukraine, but rather the invader of a sovereign nation and the murderer of women and children in the sky, — such a realization in large enough numbers might just see Moscow go up in flames.

For now, people are content to burn up inside. Just how long that controlled blaze will be left to merely consume families rather than the nation itself is anyone’s guess. But until then, no matter what truth the world reveals about MH17, expect a majority of Russians to live not in the world as it is, but in the world as they wish it to be, no matter how dark and strange that place appears to be to those on the outside looking in.