Good News: Texas Isn’t Russia, and Never Will Be

by Christina Rees September 4, 2018
Illustration by Ralph Steadman of George Orwell's Animal Farm

Illustration by Ralph Steadman for George Orwell’s Animal Farm

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.

Pussy Riot on trial in Moscow, 2012

Pussy Riot on trial in Moscow, 2012

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. 



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Robert Boyd September 4, 2018 - 11:08

I think when it comes to art, the Soviet Union was not much of an exporter until the late 80s. Suddenly unofficial artists were free to sell their work (and publicize their activities), and many of the best of them got out while the getting was good–Ilya Kabakov, Komar & Malemid, Erik Bulatov, Oskar Rabin, and many others. In other words, Russia exported people more than art. But how did those artists exist before then? They lived double lives as did many Soviet citizens. During the day, they were respectable productive Soviet citizens and at night went home to produce highly individual works of art.

Russia doesn’t have a totalitarian government now, but I am certain that there are many artists who produce interesting works in private now, just as there were during the Cold War. This is not work you would see on a two week vacation.

Celia A Munoz September 4, 2018 - 11:42

Yes! Count our blessings & our grit!
Great article!

Nestor topchy September 4, 2018 - 21:45

Robert Boyd , it’s still totalitarian.

robert arber September 4, 2018 - 12:00

Ah, how about a live cockroach? Andy Warhol and I have/had an affinity to cockroaches. Why are they reviled: Too fast? Too dirty? Too resourceful? Can survive more nuclear radiation than a human?
Warhol’s poster “The Roach Will Endure” is more thought-provoking than a soup can. The roach on my foot is my first and favorite tattoo. I would say Blue Cross is more Russian rattlesnake.

Dan Workman September 4, 2018 - 12:10

Thank you for this, Christina. Your detailed and considered comparison of Russia and US citizens is timely and (gasp) gives me hope for the future. Risk-takers indeed! Agent Orange may well be the exact Agent of Change that we need–an extremely bitter pill. Can’t wait to see what happens next. Good thing there is art, and art writers, to help me make sense of the world.

David Lindsay September 4, 2018 - 12:52

beautiful, thank you

Diane Griffin Gregory September 4, 2018 - 14:39

Christina – thank you for another well-conceived and well-written article. Choosing to be born in Texas wasn’t an option for me, however I am eternally grateful for the family transfer that got me here as quickly as possible. And, that gratitude extends to the numerous relatives who made the trip to the “new world” and fought for the freedoms that we as Texas and Americans experience daily. Travel is “broadening” and enlightening; coming “home” a joy – especially when there is so much to appreciate.

X,Y,Z September 4, 2018 - 17:56

“…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.”

Some of the world’s greatest art–literature, dance, painting, music–has been produced by Russians. A more productive line of inquiry may be: How is great art produced under the brutalizing boot of authoritarian regimes? And, by extension, does the artist express the unexpressed wishes and hopes of a repressed majority? Russians (for lack of a better description) have many ways for acting out creatively, yet cautiously. It is a hidden world if a person knows how and where to look for it.

Colette September 4, 2018 - 20:42

Enjoyed your insights. Some amazing Russian filmmakers come to mind–Sergei Einstein, Dziga Vertov and one of my all time favs–Tarkovsky

Nicosia September 9, 2018 - 09:03

a brilliant read! Thanks

Daniel Brents September 10, 2018 - 00:05

I visited Moscow and St. Petersburg in 2012. In St. Petersburg, in front of the Church of the Blood, a small group of young people were displaying a cross with the words, ” This may be your democracy” (in Russian). Then, a young woman was hoisted by some colleagues and hung by ropes under her arms. Almost immediately, the police came and took her down, arrested all of the young people, and removed the cross. It was a vivid display of Masha Gessen’s portayal of Putin’s Russia, where it’s dangerous to make waves. I have other stories from Russia, mostly disturbing.

Utopia Weiner September 10, 2018 - 16:23

Please don’t send me to the Glasstire Gulag. I disagree.

I think we are about six degrees of separation from the government repression of a Russia, China, or even a Singapore.

Maybe some of us are feisty now. But millions of us are just as inclined to look the other way. The rapturous campaign rallies of Donald Trump, leading to his election, were like an ancient crone Cassandra, heralding, heralding…

Aren’t we humans in the habit of saying,”Never! Never!” Like a bit of democracy can stand against another Dark Age…

The truth is, nothing can protect us. Not great art, literature, oratory, growing your own vegetables- nothing.

Millions of us are walking brain stems with no brain (and voted for Trump). Hundreds of Thousands of us are selfish greedy f**** (and voted for Trump). Millions stayed home because they’re idiots (and don’t vote, never vote).

A goldfish could take away our democracy.
Checks and balances, separation of church and state, the constitution- law can only be upheld if the humans in charge understand it, respect it, and fight to uphold it.

On almost an hourly basis, Trump makes declarations that are clearly against our constitutional laws. 99.5% of elected Republican government officials say nothing. Many elected Democrats say nothing. Millions of Americans cheer him on. Millions of Americans grumble. Some Americans scream. But-

He is Not officially censored by party.
That weakness, greed, cowardness by educated men and women placed in power shows how delicate and fragile our system of government and laws really is.

I’m not saying it will happen immed.
I’m saying it can and probably will happen.
With each strike of the executive pen: clean water, clean air, endangered wildlife, unions/worker’s rights, education (charter schools/for profit schools over public education), social service programs for low income and poor, banking checks and balances…all and more being eroded, discarded while we sleep, while we sleep…


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