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Friday, November 03, 2006

What's the matter with Shadrinsk?

I'm still reading David Satter's Age of Delirium: The Decline and Fall of the Soviet Union. Starting on page 310, Satter describes a train trip he took from Moscow to Shadrinsk, a town near the geographical center of the Soviet Union, in June 1980. The key topics of interest at the time, to Satter anyway, were the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and Jimmy Carter's resultant boycott of the Moscow Olympics. I found both the attitudes of the Russians with whom Satter talked and Satter himself to be fascinating, and quite reminiscent of Thomas Frank's book about the geographical center of the American Union, What's the Matter with Kansas?

Here are a few selections from Satter's account of his trip:
"We just gave Afghanistan help," [a schoolteacher] said, apparently perplexed by the whole controversy, "just as the Americans gave us help during the Second World War."

"So you don't see the war in Afghanistan as an invasion?"

"Not at all, this is Soviet help. It's all official, the appeal for help was printed in our newspapers."
* * * * *
No one doubted--or appeared to doubt--that the Soviet invasion was "fraternal aid" offered in response to the Karmal government's "call for help," although the Karmal government did not exist at the time the aid was requested, a fact that should have been obvious to everyone.
* * * * *
On the afternoon of the second day of our journey, I was standing in the corridor with a young, uniformed soldier who, like me, was looking out at the passing countryside. ... I asked how he felt about the war.

"I support the presence of our troops in Afghanistan," he said. "We want to put Afghanistan on the right path with a socialist government and modern industry so it can be independent of its neighbors, like China and Pakistan."
* * * * *
"If I had my last loaf of bread and you needed it," said the first Volodya, "I'd cut it in half. I don't care if you are English, American, Vietnamese, Israeli. I don't care what you are. We're all people. I'm sure that we went into Afghanistan for purely humanitarian reasons, to help others."
* * * * *
The local newspaper ... and the regional newspaper ... dedicated most of their news coverage to the grain harvest or truancy at the factories, and the national newspapers and television depicted the invasion as "fraternal help." The result was that in isolated Shadrinsk, propaganda was reality.
* * * * *
At lunchtime, we were joined at our table in the hotel's restaurant by a muscular, crew-cut construction worker. "You Americans are clever people," he said. "My God, you are clever. You came here to ask about Afghanistan. And in how many countries do you have your forces? How many bases surround the entire Soviet Union? Afghanistan is our southern neighbor. Just remember that. We gave aid to Afghanistan just the way we sent aid to Spain in the Spanish civil war, to keep the war from spreading. In case you're interested, everyone here supports the government."
* * * * *
We both had offers to dance and, afterward, [Newsweek correspondent] Bill asked my [dance] partner, a pretty nineteen-year-old shopgirl, if the fact that she liked Western jeans and music meant she did not like the Soviet Union.

"No," she said, emphatically, "I love the Soviet Union."
I wonder if any reporters have asked Kansans if their propensity for wearing clothes made in China and watching TV's made in Korea means that they don't like America.
* * * * *
The vast Eurasian sky was full of stars and I had the sense that a dieu trompeaux presided over this forgotten town where, in defiance of all rational logic, people were suffused with the sense of participating in the march of historical progress, and gave the impression of silently marching in step.
* * * * *
After toasts to "peace" and "friendship," Oleg became emotional.

"Tell Carter," he said, "that the Russians don't want to fight. Tell him we know how to fight, but we don't want to fight."

He drained a glass of vodka and then recited the poem by Yevtushenko "Do the Russians Want War?" As he came to the end of the poem, Oleg repeated the last lines at the top of his voice: "RUSSIANS DON'T WANT WAR, RUSSIANS DON'T WANT WAR, RUSSIANS DON'T WANT WAR."

Oleg's friend Vitya interrupted the conversation and said that events in Afghanistan were proof that the Soviet Union never abandoned a friend.
I don't have Frank's book at hand, so I can't match these quotes up with some from "What's the Matter with Kansas?" But I can sure imagine some Iranian reporter going into a bar in Topeka or Dodge City and having a few beers with some of the locals when one of them says "You tell ol' Ahmedinajad or whatever his name is that we don't want to have to kick his ass, but we will. You tell him that. 'Cause we're proud to be Americans, 'cuz at least we know we're free--GOD BLESS THE USA!" And the crowd in the bar responds "USA! USA! USA!"

In addition to Satter's amazement at the brainwashing of the Russian citizens, I am struck by how little Satter seems to be aware of his own brainwashing. He presents the Russians' comments about America as so obviously, completely wrong, even though the Carter administration had fueled the instability in Afghanistan by supporting anti-government mujahadeen (what we would call in other cases "insurgents" or "terrorists") for months before the Soviet invasion, and that they were already contemplating support for a certain Iraqi despot named Saddam Hussein in his plans to launch a war against Iran. Satter also doesn't mention the ongoing support for brutal killers in various countries in Central America and elsewhere, at that time. And he certainly doesn't mention that the average American wouldn't have been any more informed about these activities than the average Russian was about Afghanistan (probably less so--the Russians at least seemed to know where it was!).

Then again, I'm sure MY comments here are suffused with biases and misconceptions from all sorts of directions. Propaganda is reality, I'm afraid.

[Update, 10:20 PM] WIIIAI writes, in reference to my imaginary Dodge City bar scene above:
Music hall song from the 1870s, when Britain considered going to war with the Ottoman Empire for, you know, humanitarian reasons:
We don't want to fight
But, by Jingo, if we do,
We've got the ships,
We've got the men,
We've got the money, too.