Greetings from a Regional Power

The Europeans are not only arguing among themselves about just how much damage sanctions have already done to Russia, but they are also attempting to ask visitors from Russia: Have you felt deprived? The chill of impending darkness? Which sanctions ended up being the most painful? Perhaps the restrictions on the oligarchs? Or the isolation? The capital outflow?

Here the respondent finds himself at something of a loss to remember exactly how his country was punished, just what kind of a “price” had to be paid in accordance with Washington’s pricing schedule, and he discovers something sad, though not that about which he is persistently being asked.

Needless to say, strife between brother nations is the United States’ main and only geopolitical payoff. And how much longer there is to wait for the delusion to subside … the statements by Bulgaria, and subsequently Serbia, about suspending the construction of “South Stream” are cause for grief. It’s a pity, but in a way useful too: it helps us not to be tempted yet again by the dead end of pan-Slavism and to confirm the Eurasian option as the only reasonable choice as far as an imperial association.

But here’s what really hurts amid the inarticulate rumors about the pricing schedule according to which Russia will have to pay: President Obama called our country a regional power. It would be a different matter if he had called us the Evil Empire, had advanced the notion that we’re on the wrong side of history, had even called us Mordor under Sauron’s reign. Most Russians would have smiled to themselves and that’s it. But to call us a regional power …

Not that noble anger boiled up like a wave, but I imagine millions of my fellow countrymen saying to themselves, “Now hold on a second …” Unwittingly, the U.S. president has set in motion Toynbee’s classic “challenge-response” scheme, and what is more, within a way of thinking that is appropriate and historically fruitful for Russia. And henceforth, to paraphrase Nietzsche, it’s worth noting: if we respond to the challenge, it means we really exist. Well, and if not, then it’s all over.

Of course, for many countries, Obama’s words would sound like a compliment or else be received with a certain tinge of anxiety. Well now, if the world’s policeman (sorry, law enforcement officer) suspects us of something ambitious, perhaps it wouldn’t hurt to do a “koo” once again (to use the unsurpassed lexicon from the movie “Kin-dza-dza!”).*

China wouldn’t even think of being offended. It has a different mentality. The citizens of China would only nod their heads in agreement: yes-yes, we are just a developing country. That’s exactly how they have persistently defined themselves over the last 20-30 years. They’ve done well, of course. Everyone could learn from such resiliency and from the state’s iron will. But enough about that; in any case, we can’t manage such humility.

Frankly, other than Russia, only one country could be offended by the label “regional power.” That’s America itself. Just recently there was a chance to confirm that that’s the case, when Putin wrote in his article in the New York Times that American pretensions to exceptionalism are unfounded, that all peoples and nations are equal. That is, in essence, the Russian president voiced a commonplace found in all international declarations. The Americans unexpectedly took offense, and Obama hastened to assert American exceptionalism: we are a chosen nation, he says, destined by God to bring to the rest of the world the light of freedom, democracy, and the pricing schedule of proper prices for any kind of violation. And a list of punishments for bad behavior by the unexceptional.

To be sure, in this Russia is similar to America, only without the pricing schedule. And the leader of our country would never begin to assert its exceptionalism, but, of course, he wouldn’t doubt it for a second.

Nevertheless, the words have been said, the verdict rendered: a regional power. Of course, back in Soviet times, the subjects of that fading empire often called themselves “Upper Volta, only with missiles,” but at the same time gladly told jokes about the “Shrinking States of America,” while students at military training camps sang mischievous little songs like:

In New York are tanks, in New York are tanks,

In the murky Hudson drown the Yanks.

In short, an imperial nation’s normal internal pulse and usual state of health is a different story; giving voice to all of this as public policy is quite pointless.

And all of a sudden, the verdict: regional power. To what extent is the verdict fair? Actually, it’s more correct to ask to what extent it’s unfair. Why was this verdict not heard in the reptilian 1990s, when such words could have even been a compliment? But back then, on the contrary, Yeltsin, in the capacity of a trained bear on a chain, was invited to the “Group of 7,” where friend Helmut and friend Bill shook his hand (what a blessing!) while he roared in rhythm. Back then these friends showed tact and courtesy. Now that they’ve decided to be frank, well, all hope is not lost.

But some questions arise: first and foremost, in his next address to the nation, President Putin certainly must concentrate on how things stand regarding the assured destruction of any potential aggressor. We trust, of course, that everything is in order as far as parity, the nuclear shield and the Strategic Missile Troops are concerned. After what Obama said, a few points do need to be made. The appropriate confidence on this point really is vitally important not only for Russia as a whole but for each Russian individually.

The rest is more or less clear without an explanation from the president: the world’s fifth largest economy is nothing to write home about, especially since it continues to be dominated by raw materials. Our cultural influence is very much on the level of a regional power. Science, innovation, demographics — none of it is as yet comparable with America. And it would’ve been possible to just say that there are things to work on.

But the umbrage is quite comparable, in terms of the wounded feelings. In short, the challenge is accepted. And a distinct slogan has even at long last emerged. It is, of course, a bit immature, in the style of a child’s teasing rhyme, in the spirit of Arkady Gaidar’s fairy tale about Malchish-Kibalchish:

The ships are sailing — greetings to Malchish!

The pioneers are passing by — a salute to Malchish!

But effective geopolitical formulas must be sufficiently elementary for everyone but the State Department to know them.

Russia’s dominance in the Arctic is becoming obvious — greetings from a regional power!

Our navy is returning to a full presence in all oceans — a salute from a regional power!

GLONASS ground stations are deployed in the U.S., a group of satellites is finally formed — greetings from a regional power!

The study of the Russian language is mandatory in Syria’s schools — a salute from a regional power!

It would be nice if reasons for greetings and salutes appeared more often, and then the inspiring game, close to the heart of every Russian who understands perfectly well that even Andorra and Liechtenstein have their sources of pride, would provide an increase of the level of spiritual mobilization.

More importantly, this reverse principle of escaping hard feelings and umbrage, as they fade for its establishment, will allow us to formulate the positive content of our mission (of the national imperial idea, if you will), the competitive advantage of which history itself will show.

*Translator’s note: In the 1986 Soviet sci-fi film “Kin-dza-dza!” the main characters find themselves stranded on the planet Plyuk, whose inhabitants are divided into two categories: Chatlanians and Patsaks. On Plyuk, Patsaks are considered socially inferior to Chatlanians and must squat in a particular way in Chatlanians’ presence, a gesture of subservience referred to as “doing a koo.”

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About Jeffrey Fredrich 199 Articles
Jeffrey studied Russian language at Northwestern University and at the Russian State University for the Humanities. He spent one year in Moscow doing independent research as a Fulbright fellow from 2007 to 2008.

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