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Russian Facts Behaving Badly

(To read other “Facts Behaving Badly”, please click here.)

We grew up in a decade when foreign policy didn’t matter...at least it didn’t based on news coverage. The Berlin Wall fell--and the Cold War symbolically ended--when we were six; the twin towers fell twelve years later--kicking starting the “war on terror”--the year we graduated we high school. In between, America didn’t really have an enemy to face other than a running back who murdered his wife and white, Christian, anti-government terrorism.

Yes, our generation’s existential crisis was terrorism, perpetrated by non-state actors hiding in caves and deserts. We never got to square off against thousands of armed nuclear war heads. That’s a real enemy.

But good news: The Cold War is back! Russia invaded the Ukraine!

(Unless, once again, their economy finishes them off first.)

And since Russia is back in the news, we thought we’d debunk some of the myths we’ve heard about our former enemy and current rival (going back decades).

Before we start, let’s clarify something: we’re not pro-Russia, pro-communist, or, more accurately, pro-dictatorship. Obviously, Stalin’s Russia was a terrible place, perhaps the most evil country in the history of the Earth. (Yes, our World War II ally was probably “eviler” than Hitler. Nuance!) But lies or myths about that country don’t help the debate.

Endless Clapping

This first anecdote, endlessly repeated, is like the Ur-myth of dictatorship. In short, at the end of a local district conference, there’s a tribute to Stalin and everyone begins applauding for their leader. They keep clapping. And clapping. Eventually, after clapping for much, much too long, one man finally sits down. The next day, the man disappears, presumably sent to the gulag for disobedience or showing initiative.

We first heard this tale in high school in AP European History. It’s origin is pretty clear. It comes from Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago Volume 1: An Experiment in Literary Investigation.

On an emotional, communism-is-the-end-of-the-free-world level, this story works perfectly. It’s the ultimate example of bureaucracy and the end of free will. It begs the question: who would want to live in a dictatorship like this?

Except, on a logical level, it doesn’t make much sense. It would seem that every time a rally or conference was held in Stalin’s Russia, someone else would head to the gulag. Eventually there would be no one left in the state who wasn’t in the gulag. Or meetings would consist of hours or days of clapping until people fell over from exhaustion.

Of course life couldn’t go on like this. The Russian state would have had to develop a solution to this problem.

Turns out, they did: a bell. When it rang, you could sit down. So yes, this story is based on the idea that Russians clapped for long periods of time in honor of Stalin. And people feared being the first to stop clapping. But it’s also not as fatalistic or absurd as the anecdote. More to the point, why didn’t Solzhenitsyn mention the bell? Because it would that have made the anecdote less effective.

Standing in Line for No Reason…

A long time ago, I heard an urban myth that Russia had so many lines that if Russians saw a line form, they would just start standing in it. This interview summarizes it pretty succinctly, “A long line quickly forms, before anyone knows what's for sale. That's what often happened, Grushin said. ‘People would just stand in line hoping for something.’”

Again, logically, this anecdote doesn’t make any sense. If you probe slightly, you realize, no one has ever done this. How long would you wait in a line like this? Ten minutes? An hour? Ten hours? What if the line wasn’t moving? More importantly, why wouldn’t you just ask what the line was for?

Like the first myth, there’s probably a basis in reality for this. Lines would probably form quickly when a new product went on sale; shortages were a problem in Russia. And I’m sure some people hopped in line without knowing what was for sale. (But I’m sure they asked what was for sale very quickly.) The exaggeration comes from people just staying in line, waiting, without knowing. That makes no sense.

Strong Leaders

In America’s over-reaction to Putin--the On V position is that invading neighboring countries is one of the largest threats to international order, so America and Europe rightfully imposed sanctions on Russia. But taking control of Crimea is a far cry from Putin planning to invade all of Europe--he was often praised for his strength/dictatorial cunning.

This brought up an old explanation of Putin/Russia: since the time of the Tsars, Russians have simply preferred “strong leaders”. This Slate article from 2006 sums it up nicely:

“Whether it's single-handedly rerouting massive oil pipelines or reorganizing the federal bureaucracy, Putin has not so much resurrected a dead superstate as responded to Russians' long-festering desire for a "strong hand."

Interestingly, “strong leaders” can be code for dictators, tsars or just a really authoritarian president. In any meaning, it makes no sense at all. How can an entire culture simply prefer dictators to democracy? And could you make the same argument for America? Since the Civil War, virtually every president has expanded the power of the executive branch. And for a long time, you could have made the case that Britain and France and Germany and Japan and America needed/wanted/loved strong leaders. Even now you could make the case that certain politicians and people prefer a dictator to messy democracy, and those are developed countries.

five comments

According to a quick Google search, the only people called “barbaric” after the Oklahoma city bombing were…Americans, for executing him, by people in other countries.

Waiting lines were common in the Eastern bloc during the planning economy. It was probably an unofficial rationing technique, but more likely (=more often) it was simply the result of poor supply organisation.
Baked bread was a notorious example; the salespersons were apparently busy only for two or three hours per day, having no bread the rest of the time.
It’s reasonable to assume that a person would join such a line; the shops were specialised, after all. You saw a line in a clothes shop – you joined, hoping for some good new clothes.
The lines would dissolve one the products were sold out, of course. Nobody could possibly wait 10 hours: Products were sold out much quicker, and shops had afaik only one shift (8 hrs?), so they would have closed after much less than ten hours anyway.

In Hedrick Smith’s book The Russians, he devotes an entire chapter to standing in line in the Soviet Union. There was a lot to it and it was like a continual purgatory for the people. One example he cited was why people got into and stayed in lines to buy things they didn’t want, their neighbors might want it and would return the favor in the future.

Really the only pertinent fact we should remember about the Soviet Union is that millions and millions and millions of innocent people were murdered by by that entity.

Perhaps this is a dumb question, or just one based on limited understanding of Eastern European/North West Asian affairs, but why is the Cold War back on because Russia invaded Ukraine, but wasn’t back on when Russia invaded Georgia, or for any of its conflicts in the North Caucasus – all of which are almost on the doorstep of a NATO member? Is it because we don’t care about anything Russia does that’s not explicitly European? Do we just not care about Turkey? Is Ukraine just one salami slice too many?

And on a lighter note, ref that poll you link to about whether or not Obama or Putin was the stronger leader, are you sure the respondents weren’t taking that literally? I think Putin could totally beat Obama in an arm wrestling competition. Heck, he can probably bench more than any other G8 leader, assuming that they’d lift his suspension long enough for the contest.