Katya Kazbek, writer, translator and editor in chief of arts and culture magazine Supamodu.com. talks to Kosmodromio about the anti-Russian sentiment in USA, the reality of Putin’s era and her first book ‘’Little Foxes took up matches’’.
My first question has to do with the anti-Russian sentiment in USA. Can you talk about the American’s view on Russia and Russians? The prevailing perception is that the US citizens hold a negative view towards Russia because of Vladimir Putin or because of Russian aggression. What’s your opinion?
I think for this matter and for others in general as well we have to pursue America as two different entities. The first one is how the political establishment and all the war hawks and pundits media want to present the American view and how the people view everything. I think that in general talking to people and being there like seven years in a row I have seen people actually taking the care to ask me like what should I think of Russia or ‘’can you tell me more, so that I will be able to shape my perceptions?’’.
However, if you go to the mainstream media, if you go to what the politicians are saying it’s all very hawkish, it’s all very negative, oftentimes it’s going into orientalist tropes, where the Russians are perceived as an brutal, Asiatic horde that’s out for your democracy and Putin’s policies are often conflated with whatever the majority of Russians might think, even though for the majority of Russians Putin is not any kind of savior, just slightly better than what everyone had with Yeltsin. So, of course because this is the prevalent narrative in the mainstream media there is a whole bunch of people who are just following that blindly, but thankfully as long as critical thinking is present people evade those tropes and not giving in to this new Cold War.
This Cold War mindset is pushed mainly –as far as I can understand- by the liberal media. We have very vivid the image of Joe Biden after Geneva meeting with Putin almost attacked by the liberal media establishment, especially CNN, because he was ‘’too soft’’ with Russia. I think that the liberal establishment is far more aggressive than the traditional conservatives on this issue maybe because of the whole narrative of the russian meddling in 2016 US presidential elections. I would like to hear your point of view.
I definitely agree that this warmongering language is more prevalent on the liberal side rather than the conservative side. Sometimes it becomes very weird in how some concervative pundits who are by no means are actual friends of the Russian people they often critiqued as Kremlin-bots. So many lies have been told from the liberal side, so many things have been kind of eluded. Everyone who was trying to push against those narratives has been smeared relentlessly in ways that cost them their carreers or just put the label of Kremlin-bot next to their names.
What bothers me too in this and many other aspects is that nobody cares about Russians or Ukrainians for that matter. I am also part Ukrainian, so this is not a foreign issue for me as well, but it’s the infighting between the establishment in US for which they use everything useful, China or Russia. They talk about democracy and liberty but it’s all so void and vapid, because in essence everyone is only about their power and establishing their power by smearing the rest and creating those myths about hacked elections, which is also very funny cause if you want to present your country as this so shining example of democracy, then perhaps to say that it can be stolen away so brutally by this skimming people is just bizarre and weird and doesn´t make any sense.
Let me come to the Russian side. I hear the perception from friends and analysts that the Russian society is deeply apolitical and that’s the greatest advantage of Vladimir Putin right now. What’s your opinion on this and what’s the current political climate in Russia when it comes to Ukraine or USA?
I think that the Russian people – and this applies a lot to the whole post-Soviet sphere as well- have been so stunned by the events of the past 30 years, especially the Dark Age following the collapse of the Soviet Union, when everything was in such a turmoil and people were suffering so much, when death rates gone through the roof, when there were so many suicides and people were losing their livelihoods that the following 20 years when everything was like stabilizing a beat, this stability it’s been welcomed as at least something as opposed to the absolute horrors that came before. So people are still reluctant to get in political action on larger scale, although I feel this is going to pass quite quickly.
Because there is a new generation…
Yes, of course, but also because there is also a lot of inequality as well. Everything is going to the point that this stability is not enough anymore. Also with the new generation it manifests in different ways. For some in the newer generation there is an increase in life quality, so everyone is trying to get a piece of the pie which they will probably will not or die trying, so at this point a lot of people are going to a different point of view, where they think that a freer market will liberate them. I think the issue here is that there is still a separation between realizing the goods of Soviet era and the fact that it was socialism that build it.
So, it will take a lot of time and organizing to bridge the gap between these two things and awake entirely the population from this political slumber. It also depends on the fact, as anywhere in the world, especially in the imperial core and the semiperiphery that we have in Russia or Greece, that we have the government throwing bones to the people so they can keep a curtain level of comfortable living.
What view does the majority of Russians tend to have towards US and the West?
I think in general they tend to have very negative views. At least half of the people as far as I know. There are surveys on this issue, but I would not be able to vouch for that since I have not seen them lately and I can’t recall exactly.
Let me come to Belarus. One year ago you wrote an article with Alexey Shakhnin called ‘’Why the Uprising in Belarus Failed’’. I would like to your view on the issue, because in Greece and Europe generally what we hear and read is that Lukashenko’s brutality is the only factor of success.
I actually think that viewing the way the events in Belarus turned out a lot of the western media tend to pathologise what’s happening. In no way am I saying that there were no trespasses from the special forces, he is their president, he gives them orders and they are doing their job. As someone who has been living in the US for so many years lately, I have seen the same brutality exercised by the police upon people who are seen as opposing the regime. For example, during the Black Lives Matter protests or Yellow Jackets in France, I mean just pretty much everywhere.
So, I think it is actually the same issue that comes up whenever the West is becoming concerned with the liberties of people in countries that as so familiar to them. They tend to present that all the violence propelled as if it is something completely out of the ordinary. But at the same time they have the same thing happening at their back yards. I mean they have political prisoners who have been locked up forever, you have them in Greece, we have them in the US, we have Julian Assange, the biggest political prisoner of all, we have Guantanamo which have never ceased to exist despite the promises made. I don’t see any difference, cause whoever is in power is protecting their power and the issue is whether you agree with them or not.
What we see in western media when it comes to Lukhasenko or Putin is the total absence of the social factors in their analysis. There are no social divisions, there is one society, constantly working for democracy against on brutal dictator. Good versus bad, like a Hollywood movie.
Absolutely! Even though that I see some things that are working well in Belarus –and I am not a fan of Lukhasenko at all- they are showing the people who think he is the worst thing in the world. In Russia, Putin’s approval ratings are extremely high, even when the surveys are conducted by the Levada Center, which is an agency deemed as a foreign agent by the Russian government. There is this, and there is also the fact that the majority of those protests we see are always centered to a particular group of people, usually big city dwellers, interested in their own concept of democracy, which is not necessarily one that shared by the majority.
Can you provide us some context about your arts and culture magazine Supamodu.com?
Supamodu is a project that I have been working for the last four years or something. It’s a project that my husband and I have started on our own. We have not spent a dime on it, except tickets to movies or books and it’s something constantly evolving and I hope one day it will have enough content to serve as a short of cyclopedia that might be useful from any kind of country or territory in the world. If someone is interested in something like that, for instance films from Cuba or books from Argentina or Chinese comics. I became obsessed with this idea because I realized that especially in the West –because it’s an english language project- you always hear about films that are vetted by the general media narrative. If you are going to see films from China you are more likely to see films that are critical of the chinese government.
So I wanted to kind of make some kind of a way to access art that exists. Of course even if I find a book that shows any country the way it really is and not from the western perspective I can’t translate it, so it becomes a little funny. But at the same time at least you have the ability το know that there are these books on the subject of like Ethiopia, not some white dude that from New York who went to Ethiopia and wrote about how everyone lives in poverty or how people are not civilized.
What about your book, which it’s called ‘’Little Foxes took up matches’’ and it’s going to be published by Tin House?
As for my book, it’s coming out in April. It’s about a boy growing up in the post-Soviet Russia, who he sees everything collapsed, his family suffers greatly, they lose their jobs in factories, his cousin comes back from the first Chechen war severely damaged because his platoon mates have been murdered and the boy is growing up discovering that maybe he is not a boy, maybe he wants to dress up as a girl once or twice. I hope that this novel will be one of those that tells the people who usually view the post-Soviet Russia as a short of liberation era that it wasn’t all rosy. And I hope that at least I will be able to open up a few perspectives on post-Soviet Russia.