Mother of Exiles
Air Date: November 11, 2019
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HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. Russian-American writer Anastasia Edel joins me today. She is author of the powerful New York Times Op-Ed The Tired and Poor Who Make America Great, which contends that as long as the Statue of Liberty stands, it renders Donald Trump an impostor; as well as author of Lightning Guides edition “Russia: Putin’s playground: Empire, Revolution, and the new Tsar.” “Like many things in Russian history, privatization was started with good intentions. It ended in rig bids, bribes, violence, and dubious interpretations of the law.” Edel writes. “The dizzying rate at which Russian oligarchs have been amassing wealth is a double edge sword, fearing that their riches might vanish just as swiftly as they appeared. Many have turned to politics.” She has concerned herself most recently with the Trump administration’s betrayal of a compassionate American immigration policy. She writes that we should be watchful of what comes next, “Any society that starts down the path of marginalizing certain groups will eventually need new targets.” Welcome, a pleasure to have you here Anastasia.
EDEL: Great honor. Thank you.
HEFFNER: What I just said in the intro, isn’t that born out exactly in Vladimir Putin? Why is he still at the helm? Because he’s afraid of what he might lose, which was a country really devoted to the his and his wellbeing and his wealth and his power, but are Russians beginning to recognize that the power of that representation is largely felt with Putin and not the Russian people at large?
EDEL: Well, there were, were recently protests in Moscow where people took it to the streets and demanded a very simple thing, hat their candidates should be put on the ballot to the election of the Moscow State Duma. That was not a violent protest. Nobody was doing anything remotely similar to what you’re witnessing perhaps in Hong Kong, but those protests were pretty violently crushed. And the thing about authoritarian systems is that they get really upset about any show of people’s will. And this is what dictators and authoritarians fear. So no matter how little the discontent or the expression of that will might be, it will be subverted pretty ruthlessly if you’re in a country like Putin’s Russia. And this is what we have witnessed in Moscow but as far as you know, is there an equivalence between Putin’s Kremlin and Vladimir Putin and the Russian people? I don’t think so. Just as there is no equivalence between President Trump and the American people.
You know, Russia is a huge country, but of course what we see is what comes out of the Kremlin and of their, out of their official sources. And the reality is more nuanced and different. And it’s interesting that with Russia, is that just when you least expect it you know, nobody expected this election to the local Moscow state parliament to bring any surprises. But it did. But why? Because opposition candidates were denied, not the victory. They were just denied the right to run and people were upset.
HEFFNER: Is that marginalization something that you recognize as having a derivation in Russia at all, or do you think that what’s developing in the United States is just this kind of global resurgence of populism and xenophobia?
EDEL: I think it has both. But if you look at dictatorships way back going back in history, you will see that the tactic of polarization of society is creating internal enemies. And this is where it starts. And, you know, coming from USSR, I’ve seen it done on a grand scale when there were, and then you know, the marginalization was simple, there is us and there is them. And if you’re not with us, you’re against us. And so this was a pretty binary situation now in Russia, Vladimir Putin it was very strange to witness the return of something from USSR, which I thought as a child of perestroika, we have buried for good. Russia in 2000 was not USSR. It was an heir to an empire, but it was a country which was sort of taken steps towards a democracy. And it was a democratic experiment. But what happened with Vladimir Putin, you probably remember that the very early in his presidency, in fact before his presidency there was this series of apartment bombings in Moscow that were immediately attributed to the Chechen terrorists.
And that has not been proven. In fact, other things have come out about who was involved in this. But the fear among the people is a very powerful motivator to evaluate different courses that is open that are being offered to them. And the course that Vladimir Putin wanted for Russia was lifting Russia off its knees. Right? So, which means that somebody has put Russia on the knee, on its knees, right, and it’s, it wasn’t the you know, the oligarchs, it was, although that came, that went to that really quickly. We’ve seen it with the Khodorkovsky situation, but so the Chechens were singled out, as potential terrorists that you know, would subject Russia to violence. And then over the years of Putin’s interminable stay in power, multiple communities, multiple groups, rather, was singled out and ostracized.
And, you know, we’ve seen it where the LGBT community will and now it’s generally the liberals, the liberals are the foes of Great Russia. And the guilt for Russia’s dire economic situation of the 90s. I was there, you know, I remember it, how bad things were when the country was transitioning from a socialist economy to the free market. The blame is now assigned to liberals and to democracy in general. They have brought chaos to Russian, not the privatization that you mentioned in the beginning of, in the introduction. And not you know, this huge inequality that what was created virtually overnight, but some groups of people that should be blamed. And so once you start down that road anybody can become a potential target.
HEFFNER: I think what you said about how our people are not synonymous with our political leaders is so salient and especially true with the American and Russian examples today.
EDEL: What I see with America is that we are trending towards authoritarianism. There is obviously a big – democracy is no longer – what used to be an American identity for post world democracy is no longer a criteria. We, you know, I hear about some studies that are done that we don’t have to live in a democracy. Autocracy is fine, but it’s not fine for many reasons which we can talk so about. But so I see that there is a trend from and in a country where everybody is equal and where decisions are made democratically, trending towards authoritarian power. And that is very alarming because yes, what comes with it can be crony capitalism and whatnot. But I think my hope is that America is much, is not as far on that road as Russia has come in 20 years, even more if you count the beginning of privatization and creating those real – the first wave of oligarchs in the early nineties. I don’t think we are there and my hope certainly is that this would not happen. But the problem with trending towards authoritarian is that what comes with it is also nepotism. If the, if this is, I’m America stops being a meritocracy, like it has always been, at least that’s how we perceived it out there in the old country, then the danger is that eventually you’re going to slip into what Lenin, you know, called the government of cooks.
HEFFNER: Andrew Jackson called that the spoil system. But I think there’s something more pernicious going on, dismantling of compassion.
EDEL: And you’re absolutely right. There is definitely an attack of – an attack on what we all cherish, all of us who came here at some point, newcomers like me fairly, you know, I’ve been here 20 years or generations ago.
There are certain things that we held sacred. And even I who grew up beyond, behind the Iron Curtain, in USSR knew about the Statue of Liberty and the poem “Hammered to its pedestal” and the light that shown and arrive in boats. And so there was always this dream when you leave in a state of injustice, which USSR was, there is a place where you can make it and pursue happiness. You, as long as you play nicely to others, work hard, you will be treated equally with everyone else and you will get the right to pursue it. And you would know. It doesn’t matter whether you are rich or poor or healthy or not, so I knew about that. And so to me it’s emblazed in my head, you know, and no matter what other people say, this is what I believe my America is.
So when I read Cuccinelli’s remarks, you know, I wasn’t planning to write that open at all. In fact, I was in the middle of finishing a big writing project that Monday and when I do that, I don’t read the news because I want to be sane. But then my mother called me, my mother-in -law called me and they said have you on the monstrous green card rules. And I’m like, okay, no I haven’t. So let me go check. As I started reading and I read the Russian news, the European news and the American news, ‘cause I always do that to get sort of a less partisan picture. And you know what his remarks that we should probably think of this poem in a different way. People should be able to stand on their own two feet, which is oxymoronic right, if you’re tired and poor, it’s not a determinant. But so that we should augment it that way. What has struck me; it’s really an extension on their attack, on truth and fact that seems to be the only consistent policy that’s coming out of this administration. It’s now extended to America’s most enduring symbol, but it is there – we, we can see it with our own eyes and it proclaims that America will treat you equally. It actually wants the tired and the poor to come and give them shelter. And so we are a nation of immigrants. That’s another nickname. That’s a nickname that America has around the world, a nation of immigrants. But now what we’re witnessing, other than a historic.
HEFFNER: Revisionist history…
EDEL: Historical revision of a grand proportion, which I normally associate with a country like Russia that can not stop rewriting its own past, is this strange dynamic when a country of immigrants is at war with immigrants, which if you extend logically, it’s a country at war with itself.
And that is, you know it still blows my mind that we’re talking about America and not some other place. But it is what it is.
HEFFNER: Is it possible we are getting more xenophobic and the Russian people are actually democratizing?
EDEL: Think about it this way. I mean, here in the United States, you can still go on the street and protest and do whatever you want. You know, most people just, you know, like on Facebook and do that sort of, it’s still a very early stage, but you know, there was Women March, there were certain street actions that were, would give people the right to vote. In Russia, those people are getting real prison terms. They are all people who were not; they were not even protest leaders. They were opposition candidates who wanted to get on the ballot.
HEFFNER: There is no First Amendment. I mean there’s really no freedom of assembly.
EDEL: I’ve witnessed it every way. You know, I grew up when USSR was still standing and Perestroika happened when I was 15, 16, 17, so it, it kind of formed me, and you witnessed this incredible revival and awakening of a nation’s consciousness. It was truly tremendous. And you realize that, you know, Russians by definitions and by definition are not prone to totalitarianism. They were forced into it. But then all of that fell apart and we emerged as a very different nation. And we took some good; I believe that there were certain good things in the years I saw at least an attempt attempted good things like internationalism for instance. You know, we were you know, in the vein of proletarians of all countries unite we were all supposed to be internationalist and we were given this one identity, the super identity of the Soviet person and were encouraged to give up our ethnic identity though, you know, they never quite got it right because there was a passport entry where you were either Russian or Jewish or Armenian or whatever.
But this sort of ideal of all of us being citizens of a larger, not of a geography, but of an idea was present in USSR and, but what we witnessed with Putin’s arrival was this really, the subversion of this idea. I mean, this whole slogan that he had when he came, lifting Russia off its knees. Russia, it’s Russia right, now it’s Great Russia. And so this is very different. Again, I have never really growing up in USSR, no. Did not really. I mean I knew I was Russian but I didn’t identify myself and you know as a Russian, we were Soviet people. And now of course USSR is gone. But the resurgence of nationalism in Russia under Putin is a very, very clear, and of course it’s you know, the thing about nationalism is it’s something that is easy to give to people.
It doesn’t cost you much. You just start, hey, be proud because you’re Russian. Be proud because you are American.
HEFFNER: It’s not a plausible scenario at this point,
EDEL: About political reform in Russia?
HEFFNER: About whether or not this next generation can trigger reform that would overthrow, if not Putin, a set of repressive qualities that are now the norm there.
EDEL: Repression is never the, the norm. Even people who grew up with just Putin would never be able to accept this reality of a repressive state. And I grew up in USSR what happens to you is that you think it’s endless. Like when USSR collapsed, it was a shock for everyone, including ourselves, because literally five years ago it seemed like that it would never end, but you never get used to it. You never get used to repression, to injustice and it’s so it simmers. So at some point it boils over, but I think in Russia, you know, change always comes from the top. You know, had it not been for Gorbachev who decided to or Khrushchev who decided to liberalize the country just a little bit to make USSR better. Both of them tried then, you know, who knows where it would have gone. But my hope is that those people who are growing up today, they’re very; they’re very cosmopolitan, very western. I mean, they’re not like me. They don’t know what USSR was other than from some propaganda films that they might be shown. But they are, a lot of them are very close to our western viewpoint and, but you know, that of course is the question, what is the western viewpoint?
HEFFNER: Right, exactly.
EDEL: What is it? What is the West? Because that used to be,
HEFFNER: When you say it always comes from the top or from economic circumstance that embroil the top, that means that, you know, as with Trump’s reelection in some people’s observations, it is economic catalysts that are going to trigger reform because it’s not going to come from Putin stepping aside honorably, right?
HEFFNER: And that’s what Amy Knight said on this air, which is what does he have to lose, everything. I mean, if, if a new regime comes to power to expose criminality, malfeasance, crony capitalism, corruption so, you know, in effect there is the endless vision of him as Head of State for life. Of course, Trump would like to actualize that here. And he makes statements that are in effect him fantasizing about having powers that he doesn’t have, because of that sacred Constitution here. How can we try to avert what might be a further exacerbation of that kind of rhetoric?
EDEL: I think we just have to call it out and stand up to it because this rhetoric doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. In other as a tactic of rising up the society’s temperature, that’s how, it’s a translation from Russian. But you throw out these extraordinary statements and people get all worked up and it doesn’t matter, you know, it could be purchase of Denmark, I’m sorry, of Greenland or it could be anything. And this drives us to react in a certain way. People are jittery. And I think that’s what this administration is really good at – is raising our collective fever and we should remember that this is a tactic, right? And not, and try in as much as possible, not participate in that. But also I think it is important to understand what you just said, that the majority doesn’t think this way, but it’s never the majority.
I mean look at radicals that seized power in Russia in 1917 was Lenin the majority? Well, the Bolsheviks never heard. Nobody heard of them, you know, months before the revolution. And they, they hijacked the entire country and held it hostage for over 70 years. So it’s, but it is important to have this discourse in, as a civilized discourse. And one of the things I’ve done before, I, you know, wrote my Op-Ed, I was reading the news at the time and I always go and I read the comments, you know, and that particular news article about the new rules, do you know like two and a five –like 2,500 comments. So I was clicking through them and seeing what are the arguments for and against and very clearly you see that the majority, and you know, maybe Times readership is biased, but the majority of the people were appalled. And there were certain arguments against, you know, certain arguments like, oh, well we should take care of our own people first and then kind of extend the welcome.
HEFFNER: We are all one people.
EDEL: We are all one people. These illegal immigrants, you know, I’ve seen them coming to this country and every now and at times and are needing public assistance, but that’s not because they freeloaders or you don’t want to get public assistance.
HEFFNER: Also, the problem is that that is the majority viewpoint and it’s not embodied in the political identity that is going to elevate it. And that’s going to kind of re-imagine America for today with that discourse. I mean, poets don’t have the same cache that they once did, but you, we need, we need poetry in our politics again, I mean, not a Twitter dumpster fire.
EDEL: We, I agree.
HEFFNER: And, and part of that poetry is acknowledging that when we take in the dispossessed, have a fair expectation that they are going to reciprocally honor the dignity of our country, our history, our language. And I know that that is what, I think that’s what needs to be articulated is that we honor the dignity of every immigrant, of every color, of every income bracket, of every language, and that they in turn acknowledge our dignity and want to advance our dignity as a country. And no one is giving voice to that right now.
HEFFNER: It is, it is to the extent that nationalism is demonized, it isn’t. It is a way of framing pride and patriotism that is generous to We the People of immigrants and We the People of all these generations.
EDEL: Yes. And you know, in fact one of the things about America that struck you as a struck me as a newcomer is and I came 20 years ago and by and large it continued, was actually the absence of nationalism, of forced nationalism. But what you saw were the American flags just hanging above peak people’s porches or portraits of the president’s cut out of the magazine and taped in school classrooms, not handed out like portraits of, you know Brezhnev or Gorbachev. So this was, there was this organic feeling of people loving their land and this, what is coming out of this administration under the guise of patriotism is not patriotism. It is something that is forced, and this rhetoric of being un-American now it is used to single out people whose point of view you don’t like and you just throw a label.
So that’s un-American to say that I have never heard the word un-American until recently. What does that even mean? And so I think Americans, one of the things that I don’t want to see happening in this country is the hijacking of who can be, who is patriotic and who is not, who loves the country and who does. We all love this country. And if we don’t wrap ourselves in an American flag, that doesn’t mean we don’t love it, but it’s just that, you know, my grandfather taught me when I was very little, that love is shown when you act, it’s not that you come and hug your mother and say, ooh, I love you. It’s more like your actions. And has this administration really shown any much love? I mean, have they made us safer through control of guns or have they welcomed immigrants? So, but it’s, there is an attempt to hijack we love our country and these people don’t, and it is not true. I think we’re all patriots. We’re all; America has always been an idea, right? It’s not a place. It’s an idea that everybody who comes here can pursue happiness, be treated fairly and play nicely and contribute to our shining city on the hill.
HEFFNER: On that note, Anastasia, thank you for being here today.
EDEL: Okay, thank you. It’s a pleasure.
HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/OpenMind to view this program online or to access other interviews and do check us out on Twitter and Facebook@OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.