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Boot Camp — Or: The Ideology of Russian-Americans

What makes a Russian émigré a staunch supporter of advancing a U.S. empire?

August 7, 2003

What makes a Russian émigré a staunch supporter of advancing a U.S. empire?

Reinventing yourself is what America is all about. Countless newcomers and first-generation immigrants have done so in the New World.

Take Martha Stewart, for example. The deposed queen of homemaking — who seemed for so long to personify old money and Wasp refinement — was actually raised in a broken Polish immigrant home. Such examples are myriad.

It is therefore no surprise to me that someone like Max Boot — former editorial page writer for the Wall Street Journal and currently a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations — should emerge from the Russian émigré community in Los Angeles to become an armchair warrior supreme.

Although I have not been able to ascertain this, even Mr. Boot's name — which sounds like something straight out of the 1950s Marvel Comics — may not be genuine, but a typical "Americanization" of some immigrant tongue-twister.

I actually share a very similar background with Mr. Boot. I was also born in the Soviet Union and came to the United States around the same time, in 1975.

Although at 19 years of age I was older than Mr. Boot, I too benefited from the inclusive, democratic, land-of-opportunity system that exists in the United States. I attended Columbia University and got an M.A. in International Affairs from Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies.

Mr. Boot attended Berkeley and then earned an M.A. in European history at Yale — another prestigious Ivy League university.

Even our graduate institutions were similar. Yale had a strong Realpolitik bent, whereas mine, SAIS — named after Paul H. Nitze — is the last place of employment of Paul Wolfowitz, now Deputy Secretary of Defense and one of the masterminds behind the Bush Administration's neo-conservative foreign policy.

But Mr. Boot and myself seem to have drawn different conclusions from our very similar backgrounds.

Coming from a repressive, bureaucratized Soviet system, what appealed to me — first and foremost —was the openness, inclusiveness and protection for minority rights which the United States stands for.

In sharp contrast, what primarily seems to appeal to Mr. Boot about life in America is the unilateralism, military might and imperial power that Washington has been trying to project since the advent of the Bush Administration.

And Mr. Boot, judging by his books, articles and editorials, desires even more of the same.

In fact, his is a more typical set of beliefs that has traditionally prevailed in the Russian community in the United States.

Back in the 1970s, when mine and Mr. Boot's families came to the United States, many Russian immigrants promptly embraced the extreme fringe of the Republican right.

At the time, they tended to justify their rabid conservatism by their intimate knowledge of the Soviet system — and the threat it posed to the naïve, unsuspecting West.

In this world view, only Ronald Reagan, with his statements about the "Evil Empire", both understood the Kremlin's world domination schemes — and had the courage to stand up to the Communists.

Communism, of course, is long gone. Rather than subjugating the rest of the world, it collapsed under the weight of its own inefficiency, revealing a system that was not economically viable, corrupt to the core — and hated even by its apparent adherents.

Ironically, despite considerable growing pains, a liberal democracy is taking root in Russia. There may still be a lack of transparency in government, heavy-handedness and bureaucratic corruption. But the new generation of Russians certainly hopes to build a liberal democracy in their country.

Meanwhile, the Russian immigrant community in the United States has amazingly clung to its old beliefs. It remains almost uniformly right-wing, despite the fact that the threat of communism is no more.

Why is that? In my view, their conservatism has different roots than the Republican conservatism of the old Rockefeller wing of the GOP — or the newer Reagan wing.

The conservatism of the likes of Mr. Boot seems to be basically the same statist, illiberal, doctrine the older generations in Russia grew up with — Stalinism. Except it is applied to different circumstances.

Max Boot and his ideology routinely horrify many liberal and middle-of-the-road politicians, academics and Internet blog writers. This is probably the reason it so delights the conservatives.

But the conservatives themselves would not have been pleased if they understood that they are merely looking at a weird twist of Stalinism.

Indeed, seen from the Stalinist perspective, Mr. Boot's ideological extremes are all too familiar.

Mr. Boot's piece in the Los Angeles Times, for instance, titled "Protesters with Bloody Hands" (February 20, 2003), seems to have been lifted, title and all, from another 1950s classic — the Soviet Communist Party organ, Pravda.

The piece traces through the ages how antiwar protesters, most recently protesting the war in Iraq, are guilty of causing the deaths of American soldiers — even though they are merely using their constitutional right to openly dissent from government policies.

To equate the good of the government with the good of the nation is an old Stalinist trick — to accuse of treason those who don't want to march in lockstep with the rest of the country.

The only difference is that in the Soviet life of the early 1950s, after such a Pravda editorial, all those hapless Iraq war protesters would have ended up chopping wood in Siberia.

Stalinism is also where Mr. Boot's admiration for blitzkrieg military might — shown in his article in a recent issue of Foreign Affairs — actually comes from. The article has numerous delightful echoes of Stalin's military preparedness obsession.

His advocacy for an unabashed American practice of imperialism is also painfully Stalinist in concept. As is the hypocrisy contained in the following statement: “Given the historical baggage that imperialism carries, there’s no need for the U.S. government to embrace the term. But it should definitely embrace the practice.”

Stalin, it should be noted, was fond of ideological sabotage — identifying and cultivating public opinion leaders in the West who could provide propaganda for his ideology and the Soviet regime. Some did so for money, others served as unwitting tools.

It is amazing that, by a very convoluted and strange route, Stalin's ideology lives on in America's conservative circles. Somewhere in hell, Uncle Joe is no doubt smiling as he reads Max Boot's prolific written output.

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