I just returned from nearly two weeks in Russia: roughly a week in Saint Petersburg, and a week in Moscow. The trip was organized by the tour group Road Scholar, which bills itself as “educational travel for adults.” We were a rag-tag team of East- and West-coast, well-educated retirees (plus me and my mom, from North Texas), guided by two native Russians. We mainly studied the Revolution of 1917, but we managed to work in a fair bit about World War II and Perestroika and Glasnost.
It was incredibly depressing. I’m glad I went. This last April, Russia expelled our diplomats and closed the US Consulate in Saint Petersburg, and things between the US and Russia are getting dicier by the day. And I probably don’t have to tell most people reading this that the long, dark history of Russia and the Soviet Union is a bloody, chaotic mess, and that history is still being made under an ex-KGB thug named Putin. But the complacency and resignation of the Russian people could be felt on every street, even in Russia’s two most cosmopolitan cities.
I am not a cockeyed optimist, particularly since Trump was elected. But I will say this: Texas, and by extension the US, will not descend into the cesspool of homogenous groupthink and doublethink that makes Russia such a user and a taker and a grifter of a country. It’s true that Trump is in the White House, and nothing about the rightward drift of Western civilization feels good right now, but the fundamental conditions that have led to present-day Russia, with a nearly 80% approval rating for Putin, are not happening here.
As always happens when you visit another country, I liked the individual Russians I met very much — from the middle-class couple who hosted us for dinner at their country house outside of Saint Petersburg, to the sweet 20-something bartender who walked me and my mom blocks out of his way to help us find a certain restaurant. That’s the beauty of travel: it gets you in touch with the things we humans on this planet share with one another, and it reminds you that we are all more alike then we are different. But there are differences between countries, and there are things we still take for granted here in the US and Texas: the celebration of innovation, the right to assemble, the power of the individual, the right to challenge authority — and none of these things are part of the fabric of everyday Russian life. None of it is in the DNA of the Russian personality. (And for what it’s worth, the 20-somethings I met over there want to move here.)
A lot of our strengths come from demographics. Aside from the tourists at the big tourist sites, the living, working population I saw in Moscow and Saint Petersburg is alarmingly homogeneous. While I was casting around and trying to figure out how I was going to write this without sounding like some anti-Slavic asshole, an op-ed in the New York Times (innocently, about decision-making) popped up yesterday and gave me this gift:
“About a decade ago, the social psychologist Samuel Sommers conducted a series of mock trials in which a jury debated and evaluated evidence from a sexual assault case. Some of the juries were entirely white, while other juries were more diverse in their racial makeup. By almost every important metric, the racially mixed juries performed better at their task. They considered more potential interpretations of the evidence, remembered information about the case more accurately and engaged in the deliberation process with more rigor and persistence.
“Homogeneous groups — whether they are united by ethnic background, gender or some other commonality like politics — tend to come to decisions too quickly. They settle early on a most-likely scenario and don’t question their assumptions, since everyone at the table seems to agree with the broad outline of the interpretation.
“A 2008 study led by the management professor Katherine Phillips using a similar investigative structure revealed an additional, seemingly counterintuitive finding: While the more diverse groups were better at reaching the truth, they were also far less confident in the decisions they made. They were both more likely to be right and, at the same time, more open to the idea that they might be wrong.”
Even the bad news there (lack of confidence) is incredibly good news. Here in the US, with different voices, we find truths, and openness to the idea that we may be wrong, and we are more likely, as a more diverse population, to (eventually) land on what’s right.
Here’s what’s in Texas’ (and again, by extension, the US’s) DNA: independent thinking, a constitution based on Enlightenment theory and the separation of church and state, a diverse immigrant population (that’s almost all of us) whose parents or ancestors got here, or survived, through extreme hardship — both chosen and forced. You can’t generalize too much about “Americans,” or Texans, but as a rule we are a tough people with a healthy and deep-seated suspicion of authority. The people in my tour group who haven’t spent much time in Texas were quaintly (almost charmingly) naive about the political fights happening on the ground here, and the determination of pockets of this state to upend the GOP’s two decades of unchallenged, extreme-right politicking here. And what this country (and this state) has not done (despite plenty of people’s threat to leave for more liberal pastures) is expel, imprison, murder and suppress nearly all of our great thinkers, innovators, writers, politicians, academics, journalists, and artists, again and again… and again. Russia has. It continues. And it shows. Russia is not exporting much culture, or content. There’s no culture to export. Pussy Riot is so much the exception that it feels like a fever dream, and remember that its members were imprisoned in Russia for two years after a nightmarish kangaroo-court trial. Meanwhile, even under a Putin-loving Trump, the culture and innovation the United States is producing and celebrating is ever-diversifying. Gleefully, arrogantly so. Rightly so.
Frankly, I hate making such generalizations. The gray area is where I’m most comfortable, morally and otherwise. 18th to early 20th-century Russian literature alone is a major achievement of civilization, to say nothing of Kandinsky and Malevich. And I don’t want to take anything away from the Russians who’ve shown a resilience and character on the ground that we in the US haven’t had to muster yet. There is no getting around the legacy of Russia’s miserable experience of World War II and 30 years under Stalin.
But here’s something: a few years before he died, the writer Christopher Hitchens, a Brit who had lived in the US for decades, stated that this country would never adapt universal healthcare because Americans, deep down, think “life should be risky.” That we should take our chances. Given the gutting that the noble-yet-imperfect ACA has taken over the past few years, I’m starting to suspect he may be right after all. My Blue Cross Blue Shield of Texas policy is incredibly expensive, and I’ve realized recently, after a health scare, that it’s also about as valuable as a dead cockroach. But I’d rather grouse about that, publicly, and vote on it, and agitate about it, here, in Texas, than live anywhere near Moscow. If you think it’s a luxury that I can choose democracy as a pretty good sword to die on, I’ll answer you with a “Fuck yes, it is.”
We may have invited plenty of trouble on ourselves for thinking life should be risky, but at least we resist. We kneel, we agitate, we assemble, we expose, and we fight. It’s who we are — it’s in our art, our business practices, our voting rights, and in our guts. We resist. It’s good to be home.