- By Alexei Bayer
- Mar. 03 2008 00:00
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It was an exhilarating experience for a 19-year-old. None of my friends in Moscow dreamed of earning a living and having a place of their own. But a thought kept bothering me: How could it be, I wondered, that the U.S. government has absolutely no idea where I am living? After all, I was a draft-age former national of the United States' main Cold War foe. God only knew what damage I could cause if left to my own devices.
My concern for the fundamental vulnerability of the U.S. system was shared by all arriving Soviet immigrants. Nearly every one of us was an implacable anti-Communist and harbored ingrained fears about the Kremlin's designs for world domination. Americans, in our view, were far too naive and complacent, and they underestimated the mortal peril their democracy was facing.
In Russia's current mood of Soviet nostalgia, it has become customary to declare that immigrants were not quite representative of the Soviet people. They were Jews and therefore probably had one foot in the United States or Israel all along. But regardless of their ethnic or religious affiliation, all Soviets in the 1970s and 1980s shared those ideas, publicly summarized by Alexander Solzhenitsyn in his notorious 1978 commencement address at Harvard. The Nobel Prize-winning writer admonished the West to shed its crass materialism, but he also called upon the Americans to tighten the screws before it was too late.
Communism is no longer a serious threat to U.S. security. Nor are African-Americans who, as many in the Russian-speaking community feared, were "undermining" the United States from within by demanding equal rights, any longer perceived as a "fifth column." But new enemies have emerged -- namely Muslim terrorists and, paradoxically for first-generation refugees, illegal aliens.
Older Russian-speaking immigrants in the United States remain relentlessly right-wing in the U.S. political context. By some estimates, up to 80 percent voted for George W. Bush in the 2004 presidential election, even though most live in the Democratic strongholds of New York and other big cities. They welcome the Bush administration's security measures, especially domestic surveillance. They want to be spied on, and they want illegal aliens deported.
A rabid Russian who takes his politics seriously and spouts dire warnings to naive Americans has become a cliche. When asked how the strict controls he demands jibe with democracy -- which he presumably sought when he left the Soviet Union -- he is likely to shrug ruefully and declare: "But what's the choice? It is a question of democracy's survival."
These attitudes say much about Russia and about the reasons why the country repeatedly succumbs to authoritarianism. Too many Russians are willing to dismiss parliaments as talking shops that are poorly suited to effective government, especially when security is at stake. Putin has been considered an effective leader because he preferred to rule by decree. Even inflation, many Russians believe, is best defeated by an administrative fiat, not economic measures.
Needless to say, this reasoning is flawed. It is obvious that liberal democracies are the safest places to live on Earth. The argument that they achieved security first and indulged in the luxury of democracy second is wrong. Which repressive, undemocratic regime has ever achieved enough security to start implementing democratic reforms?
For all its naivite and laxity, the United States has one of the most stable political systems on Earth, one which has endured in its current form for more than 230 years. Russia, on the other hand, seems to be changing its political system every couple of years.
Alexei Bayer, a native Muscovite, is a New York-based economist.