The Virus in our Heads

Almost daily I watch one or the other transmission of the Russian-speaking channel 1TVRUS, because I want to know about the mood of our largest neighbor. The English-language programs of RT (Russia Today) are less informative in this respect, because they are geared towards Western expectations. “Vremja pokazhet” (Time will tell) is aimed at a Russian audience. It’s a talk show that’s louder and wilder than any other I know. Regularly discussants shout down each other, as if the volume of their voices were decisive for the quality of opinions.

Yesterday, for example, the Corona epidemic came up there too – how could it be otherwise? -, but in a way that surprised me. Obviously, talking about this disease gives smart people the opportunity to feel particularly smart and superior. Some of them wondered whether it wasn’t a sign of collective – especially Western – mental confusion to make so much out of a kind of flu, when other diseases such as tuberculosis claim far higher numbers of victims without anyone being particularly upset about it. Particularly clever discussants insisted that panic was carelessly being bred in the public mind!

No, I would have liked to answer

Much greater danger lies in the know-it-all virus of people who close their eyes to a simple truth. Every country’s health system – especially that of a less prosperous state like Russia – is designed to serve an average number of patients. It has (X times) a hundred beds, if on average (X times) a hundred patients are expected on a monthly basis. Long known diseases such as tuberculosis, diabetes, stroke – but also influenza – are included in such a calculation. If the number of beds were to be increased by even ten percent beyond average demand, this would place an excessive burden on the budget of any state. We all know that modern medical equipment consumes enormous financial resources. For this reason, all states limit the number of beds to the necessary minimum.

Now, the peculiarity of coronavirus or Covid-19 is that its spread – unless the sharpest countermeasures are taken – generates exponentially and within a very short lapse of time so large a number of serious cases especially among elderly people that the number of beds needed (with very expensive intensive care equipment) rises so to speak over night to (X times) two hundred and more. States are confronted with such an emergency only in times of war. Regardless of whether they be governed democratically or by an authoritarian regime, they cannot afford to let terminally ill people die in front of overcrowded hospitals. That is why China has made an admirable effort to create thousands of additional hospital places within a couple of days, and why kindergartens, schools and universities are now being closed all over the world, so that the highly aggressive virus less easily takes hold first among young people (where it causes little harm), but is then transmitted by the latter to the elderly, who are likely to cause the collapse of the entire system.

The know-it-all virus in the heads of those

who see only panic-mongering in such precautionary measures is at least as great a danger as Covid-19 itself. But the virus of deliberate ignorance causes us to worry even more.  The great event of these days, an event that finally steers Russia into the path of an undemocratic, autocratic state, is hardly discussed in the talk show “Vremja pokazhet” – or if it is, it is so under cover of pretended ignorance. How beautiful, we hear, that the country is finally getting a New Con­stitution, which includes social demands usually absent from such documents, namely that all people are entitled to a minimum wage and that the size of pensions should keep pace with yearly inflation. In Russia, there is rapture over what is believed to be a tremendous social progress. Of course, nobody explains how the government is supposed to keep its promises if oil revenues – the main source of Russian social expenditure – were to dry up, which may indeed easily happen in times of depression.

But that is not the point anyway

What is at issue – and everyone knows this, but hardly anybody in Russia dares to say so publicly – is an amendment added at the last moment to the new constitution – added, as it were, in passing during its second reading in the Duma, so that nobody might think that it was its main item and purpose from the very beginning. The new Constitution is intended to give Vladimir Putin the possibility to retain the office of president even beyond 2024, the last year of his presidency according to the old Constitution. For this purpose, the parliament and the Russian people were baited with minimum wages and pension indexation – a Russian operetta or political farce of a very peculiar kind.

President Putin is very popular with a majority in his country

Many Russians even adore him like a reborn tsar. Even abroad he meets with the admiration of those who hope for a strong leader in their country too. Putin’s popularity is based on the fact that he restored to his countrymen much of their lost self-confidence. We all cheered Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev when he liquidated the Soviet Union. At the beginning of the 1990s, a majority of Russians probably sided with this bold reformer, because most of them hoped that the West would reward their willingness to break with the past. But that did not happen. Instead, Russia was humiliated and had to suffer the trauma of economic collapse during the 1990s without the West providing any help to alleviate its misery. On the contrary, the then President Yeltsin was urged to privatize Russian oil wells so that they could be bought up by Western corporations. And additional salt was later rubbed in the Russian wounds. Barack Obama, who at other occasions refrained from hurting the sensibility of other people, frivolously proclaimed that Russia was nothing more than an insignificant “regional power”. With regard to its economic output, this state­ment is certainly true. Russia’s national product is roughly on a par with that of Spain, even though the Russian federation is more than thirty times larger and is home to about three times as many people.

Putin was not able to change this situation,

even though he has now been directing Russia’s destiny for almost twenty years. As before, state revenues are based primarily on the sale of oil and gas – the rest of the economy being still underdeveloped. Nevertheless, the new tsar managed almost effortlessly to win over the Duma, the Russian parliament, for the New Constitution and its primary aim to prolong his presidency until 2036. Even if there is no electoral fraud, the Russian people will most likely vote for its implementation as Putin has achieved something else which contradicts the claim that people are primarily concerned with material prosperity. As I said, he restored self-confidence, namely the feeling that Russia is once again respected abroad as a great power – most recently even equipped with a supersonic missile system against which the existing Western defense is up to now powerless.

The realization that psychological factors

play at least as important a role among states as material ones, is of utmost importance for anyone seriously wanting to uphold international peace. If we refuse to respect others when they need solidarity and compassion (and that was the case of Russia during the 1990s), then respect will be forced on us by means of fear. This is exactly what Putin succeeded in doing. He has once again transformed an army almost disbanded at the time of Gorbatchev and Yeltsin into a powerful instrument ready for war, and he is now breeding a nationalism – even a new Russian chauvinism -, which unmistakably has the purpose of teaching the West to again be afraid of the Russian bear. Thus, he has taken revenge on all those who denigrated Russia as a weak “regional power”.

Putin continues to take revenge

by persistently trying to prove to his own people and to the West as well that the Soviet Union was to thank for the liberation of Europe from the yoke of fascism. Yes, Vladimir Putin is doing everything possible to recall the supposed liberation of Europe in military parades, on national holidays and in his public speeches. Untiringly, he claims that the world is indebted to the Russians for this great historical achievement. But instead of giving Russia the recognition and gratitude it deserves, the West begrudges the Russians this triumph achieved at so immense sacrifices and instead maliciously distorts history. That is the message almost daily spread by Russian media and by Putin himself.

All this constitutes a subtle mixture of truth and lie. Incurring immense sacrifices – much greater than those of the Western powers – the Russians defeated Hitler, who had insidiously invaded their country. In a glorious struggle they saved their country – and that is a reason for every nation to celebrate. But the Russians only liberated themselves and by no means Europe, because its entire eastern part only exchanged Hitler’s regime of terror for the no less bloody terror of Stalin. One dictatorship replaced the other, one unscrupulous tyrant made room for the next, one regime despising freedom merely followed its predecessor. The Russian President blatantly falsifies history when he praises Russia’s actions as a grandiose act of liberation. Can he really be unaware of the fact that the former Eastern bloc countries have a completely different look at the past? Certainly not! The Russian president’s great skill is demonstrated by a tactic that rarely fails to have an effect on the unsuspecting: accuse others of falsifying history when you do it yourself.

Here we are confronted with the most dangerous virus

because it colonizes our heads with particular tenacity. It is the virus of resentment. Russia, our great neighbor, so admirable in many respects, has been wounded in its pride. The nation has been humiliated. I do not say this with the intent of justifying or excusing Russian politics. But I am convinced that Putin’s success is closely linked to the failures of the West. He has turned the real and the felt humiliation of his country into a powerful political drive. What the AfD is striving for in Germany, namely national greatness and power (and the suffocation of all democratic dissent if it stands in the way of this ultimate goal), has become reality in today’s Russia. Ideologically charged slogans like “home­land” and “fatherland”, “glorious army”, “self-sacrifice for the community” – all this is conjured up daily in the Russian media and the president’s speeches. In Europe, we believed that such invocations were once and for all a thing of the past. Nor were we particularly afraid as long as NATO was far superior, at least technically, but now that Russia may boast of a definite ballistic advantage, the world has become a different place – especially for Europeans. The Russian bear is showing its muscles again. Since we refuse to like him, he is intent on teaching us fear.

But in the end it doesn’t matter how we think about Russia

and its president. It is important that we accept both for what they undoubtedly are: pivotal powers that decide on war and peace in our world. A good relationship with Russia is therefore just as essential as a good relationship with the United States. We should do everything possible to dispel Russian resent­ment. However, we will only succeed in doing so if we also take equivalent steps at home. Resentment arises from exclusion, humiliation and contempt. Several million Germans who vote for the AfD feel marginalized, humiliated and disparaged. No matter how politically uneducated and narrow-minded these people may be, if you exclude them, humiliate them and make them contemptible, we transform them into a real danger. The refusal of dialogue is the beginning of the end of democracy.

Instead of wondering

what circumstances generated such narrow-mindedness, i.e. instead of searching for our own failure, we take the so much more comfortable way of demonization and humiliation. This happened with regard to Russia, and this happens again in our own countries. If it is true that since this century at the latest we are all passengers on the same fragile boat, then everything depends on strengthening in all states the awareness that we now share the same destiny being part of the same world community. Certainly, we must insist on telling and being told the truth, but we can no longer afford to resort to exclusion, humiliation and contempt.

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