I grew up during the Cold War. When I joined the Marine Corps, the enemy we disparaged as we ran PT (physical training) in the morning was not yet Achmed or Haji, but Ivan (for some of the older Marines it was still Charlie). We were in a nuclear arms race with Russia, and they were our greatest perceived threat.
Mine was a fundamentalist Christian home, where godless communists were behind the liberal agenda. And you did not have to go too far under the surface to discover Soviet Russia itself was the headquarters of this satanic movement; it was, as Ronald Reagan was quick to remind us, the “evil empire.” We were the good guys, and Russians were the villains — or so I thought.
Then I briefly dated a girl who had chosen Russian as her major in college. I was an English major, but I had never before been the least bit curious about Russian literature or culture. Out of sheer curiosity about her love for all things Russian, I grabbed a copy of the first Russian book I came across. It was “Crime and Punishment,” and with it, Dostoevsky got his hooks in me. I read everything I could get by him and about him.
Dostoevsky’s epic battle between faith and unbelief had a profound influence on my thinking as a young man finding my way out of fundamentalism. (I am aware of his antisemitism and slavophilia.) From Dostoevsky I moved on to Tolstoy, who set me on a path out of the tribal libertarianism of my youth. (I did read Ayn Rand, but eventually dismissed her, as all thinking adults should.) I read Chekhov and Nabokov, Solzhenitsyn, Berdyaev, Babel, and Pasternak. I moved on to musicians and discovered Rimsky-Korsakov, Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky, and Sergei Rachmaninoff, whose Piano Concerto No. 2 still has the power to raise goosebumps on my arms.
I bristle as most news media today use the term “Russia” when referring to Vladimir Putin, his mobster associates and their murderous thugs.
I remember Sting’s song “Russians,” calling for human understanding instead of fear between peoples.
“We share the same biology, regardless of ideology. Believe me when I say to you, I hope the Russians love their children too.”
In the past few years, conservative Americans have shifted almost wholesale from Russophobia to Russophilia. Right wing Christians in particular are falling in love with “Russia” and Vladimir Putin. They do not care that Mr. Putin assassinates dissidents. They do not care that Mr. Putin is, as the Washington Post’s Christian Caryl writes, “contemptuous of freedom, and he sneers at the idea of representative democracy. He believes in corruption, lying and poison as tools of statecraft.”
They do not care that he attacked our elections; they do not care that he is likely to do it again.
This is perfectly understandable when you admit that what appeals to them in Mr. Putin is the very thing they love about Donald Trump. They are against secularism, liberalism and Islam. They are homophobic and misogynistic. They have authoritarian mindsets. What might be the most important characteristic is their white nationalism. As Conservative Christian G. Kline Preston IV said, “We’re very similar people. In fact, you could take many Russians, you could put them in a room with people that are from Nashville, Tenn., and everybody would kinda look the same.” Mr. Preston’s Nashville office is a shrine to Russia, full of Russian-made tchotchkes, nesting dolls and the like. No surprise there, as “kitsch is the aesthetic ideal of all politician” (Milan Kundera, “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”).
It is sometimes hard to differentiate between those who create beauty and connection in the world with those who destroy beauty and cut off connections. I cannot ignore the troubling aspects of Dostoevsky’s legacy; but his fiction bores to the center of my deepest existential problems, so I cannot simply dismiss him entirely, as I can those racist dimwits: Ted Nugent and Kid Rock, musicians bereft of a single decent song between them.
It is not as difficult to differentiate between the people of Russia and Mr. Putin, who, as Masha Gessen wrote in the New York Review of books, lives with Mr. Trump in “a world run by a fellowship of rich powerful men bound by no principles, beliefs, or understanding of history.” Men like this profit from war; they control us by demonizing “them.”
To call that murderous dictator “Russia” is no more legitimate than referring the cruel and capricious gangster in the White House as “America.”
Vic Sizemore teaches at Central Virginia Community College; his email is firstname.lastname@example.org.