I’ve been debating about writing a post about my Russian boyfriend for a few months now. I’ve hesitated, not because I don’t have any ideas for what to write about, but because I want to do him justice. I’m dating my boyfriend because I love him as an individual, NOT because of his Russian-ness. In other words, he is a person, not just a Russian.
That being said though, obviously he and I are from very different places. Most people who don’t know either of us well tend to treat our relationship as a modern Romeo and Juliet. We are apparently star-crossed lovers from antagonistic countries locked in a power struggle, with families who oppose the union, and we must forsake our loyalties to be together. I can tell you that it’s really not that dramatic (I even get along with his mother!), but there are a few different perspectives that he’s exposed this relatively proud American to.
I will preface this by saying that while I’ve never been the most nationalistic citizen ever, I do believe in the good of my country and in our core values (freedom, due process, individualism, and our can-do attitude). Despite my gut reaction to defend America at every chance, I’d like to think that by this point I’ve tempered my will to argue about our values constantly with those from other places, mostly because of my relationship with Ivan. As it turns out, perspective is a valuable thing! So without further ado, here are four things that my Russian boyfriend has taught me:
1. History is written differently in other places
Let’s take a fairly straightfoward example to start with. This is one of the biggest reasons for antagonism between modern Russia and the United States, and its origins spread alllllll the way back to WWII. The disagreement, put simply, is about how Russia (then the Soviet Union) feels that it was basically abandoned by Britain and America during WWII.
Back before America even entered the war, Stalin signed a non-agression pact with Hitler. Hitler, being who he was, eventually ignored it, and invaded Russia in 1941. The Germans were brutal, killing thousands of POWs, besieging multiple cities, and ultimately causing the deaths of millions Russians. Russia was greatly in need of aid, and when America entered the war Stalin requested that the Allies begin sending not only war materiel, but also open a second front in the West in order to divert some of Germany’s resources.
Here’s where the stories diverge.
According to the Russians, the Allies basically abandoned the civilians desperately in need of help and waited until the Germans got bogged down in the Soviet frontier, after thousands of Russians had already died, to invade France. In other words, America waited until Russia seemed like it was winning in order to cut its own losses. Stalin or no Stalin, the Russians were still people, were they not? Americans were hypocrites if they could fight against tyranny without lending aid to others fighting for the same thing. Stalin never forgot this, and neither have the Russian people.
Of course, the American version is different. The Americans, first off, didn’t want to enter an alliance with a man who only a year previously had signed a pact with Hitler. Then there was the problem of war materiel. While Britain was exhausted, America entered the war completely unprepared, and after slowly revving up its hulking industrial power, then had to face the problem of transporting its machines, food, and men to Europe while German U-boats were sinking American ships and supplies faster than they were being produced. To compound this problem, the U.S. also found itself fighting a war in the Pacific nearly entirely on its own for the first year or so. It took until 1944 for the Allies to actually amass enough men and supplies to make a second front in France viable. D-day was the battle that turned the tables. It was the beginning of the end, and the responsibility was shouldered almost entirely by American and English troops.
There are a number of reasons why each of these versions of the same history are valid, and perhaps we should really be more willing to consider both. How many other countries are there with alternate versions of the same histories?
2. America isn’t always the hero.
This really goes along with the last one. 20-26 million Russian people died in WWII. 20-26 million. That’s more than the rest of the losses from the Allies combined. And if you view this as evidence of the abandonment of the Russian people, you too would hardly think of Americans as the heroes who saved Europe from the Nazi menace.
Once you realize this, you begin thinking about all the other places in the world that have alternative histories to ours. Perhaps many Egyptians don’t like us because we’ve propped up military dictators there for decades. Perhaps Iranians don’t like us because we were the ones who staged a coup of a democratically-elected Iranian president, only to have the Shah we put in his place be a total failure, leading to the 1979 revolution. Perhaps many Yemenis don’t like us because, despite the fact that our drones are out to kill terrorists, they also kill civilians. America is hardly the savior in anyone’s view outside the West.
3. People are not necessarily representative of their governments
We all know that America and Russia have, in many ways, been at each others’ throats since the end of Word War II. We’re often told by our news media (and intuition) that Putin is out to expand his power- he’s grabbing up land, stepping up military actions, and supplying men and weapons to rebel armies in Ukraine. None of these are good things from the Western perspective. Putin’s approval ratings are at record highs after all this maneuvering.
By proxy, then, a lot of Russians must agree with Putin, and therefore be as anti-America as he is, right?
Just because the Russian government supports the takeover of Crimea and Ukraine doesn’t mean that every Russian person believes it was a wise idea, even if they generally like Putin. And just because Putin has stepped up his anti-Western rhetoric doesn’t mean that your boyfriend’s mother won’t still like America anyway!
If we believe all citizens follow the beliefs of their government, automatically every American would believe in Obamacare and gun control. We know this is not the case, and it shouldn’t be beyond us to consider that similar situations exist in other countries.
4. Other countries have much more recently traumatic histories than ours.
When I was still living in London I developed a habit of lighting a scented candle in the afternoon when I was just sitting around the flat reading or working. I was always too cheap to actually buy a lighter, so instead I used matches that I got cheaply from Sainsbury’s. I preferred the longer ones, but sometimes I couldn’t find them, so I would buy a multi-pack of the really short ones instead. These were slightly less convenient since I’m a wuss and really would only ever light one candle with one match before the flame got too close to my fingers. I always just figured this was acceptable, or at least safer, until Ivan called me out on it one day.
“What are you doing?”
“Well, I don’t want to get burned, so I just light another one…”
“Why are you wasting matches. In the Soviet Union people didn’t waste matches.”
My original thought was, yeesh! That’s dark! But maybe that’s really the point.
I understand that throughout our history, Americans have sacrificed their lives in order to protect our way of life. We have been attacked horrifically, and we spend an inordinate amount of time policing the world because of it. And yet, if you think about it, we’ve actually been spared from the greatest horrors of warfare as a collective nation. Protected by two vast oceans, our homeland has never been completely destroyed by invading armies. It’s been 70 years since people have experienced widespread shortages of basic supplies (like food). What shortages there were are really only in the members of the oldest generation of our society who lived through the Depression. We have been fortunate.
The Russians have been far less so. Not only were food shortages rampant in the decades after the second world war, but many POWs and civilians who had not evacuated their homes during the Nazi occupation of Western Russia were immediately thrown into the gulags on their return to the motherland. You and your family could be imprisoned for small infractions against the state. This was truly the Red Terror. And to put that in perspective, rhe Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, only 23 years ago by comparison. The communists were still ruling in my lifetime. These memories are still fresh- a far cry away from the separation my generation feels from the Depression.
It is not as though there are not hardships in this country, but (white) America has gotten off relatively easy compared to what Russians have dealt with in the past century.