A very American idiot

In a recent and widely published editorial written in the form of a letter that appeared in Le Monde and later several other publications, the famous and highly praised French-American writer Jonathan Littell, author of the award-winning novel “The Kindly Ones”, invites his “dear Russian friends” to take the matter into their own hands and to overthrow the current President Putin, calling for a Russian Maidan along the lines of the Ukrainian revolution of 2014.

Mr. Littell does not mince words, speaking of Putin and his “regime of fascists and thieves”. It is a letter full of anger that of the French-American writer, in which the author finally seems to have had enough and takes it out on those, including many of his friends, who have not done enough to make Russia a normal country, a country that can belong to the good and respectable family of democracies.

“Could it be, then, that your feelings of shame and guilt are not just abstract? Could they also be due to your own apathy, your long indifference to what was happening around you, and your passive complicity?”, asks Mr. Littell rhetorically in a crescendo of indignation. But everything could have been gone very differently, suggests Mr Littell “It wasn’t always like this. For a while, back in the 90s, you had a measure of freedom and democracy, messy, bloody even, but real”.

Jonathan Littell worked in Chechnya for a non-governmental organization during the second Chechen war which began in 1999. After several terrorist attacks and the invasion of Dagestan by Chechen fighters, Russia was forced to intervene again and the war was, as we know, particularly brutal. After the end of hostilities in 1996, Chechnya had remained in the hands of separatist leaders who had reigned undisturbed for three years. Chechnya enjoyed de facto independence for three years, while remaining formally a republic of the Russian Federation. Then in September 1999, a second Chechen war began.

“Sometimes, I came back to Moscow for a break and I partied with you, my friends. We drank, we danced, and then I would try to tell you about the horrors I was seeing down there, the tortured civilians, the murdered children, the soldiers selling back the bodies of the dead to their families. And you would say to me: ‘Jonathan, we’re fed up with your Chechnya.’ I remember those words so very well. And I would rage at you: ‘Guys, it’s not my Chechnya, it’s your Chechnya. It’s your fucking country, not mine. I’m just a stupid foreigner here. It’s your government bombing one of your cities, killing your fellow citizens’.

It is a fiery tirade and dictated by passion and indignation that of Mr. Littell, but anger, like all other passions, does not help to think. From a figure of international intellectual importance such as this author, one should expect a more complex and less tendentious level of analysis. Mr. Littell sees the children killed in Chechnya, but does not seem to remember the attacks on the Dubrovka theater nor the hostage taking of the Beslan school, where 300 people died, including many children.

The 1990s in Russia, as Mr. Littell should know, are anything but a period of flourishing of freedom and democracy; on the contrary, they were years characterized by mass impoverishment, an exponential increase in crime, where murder was a common and almost legitimate method of business, the stuff to make the Chicago of the twenties pale. In Russia there are very few who do not remember the 90s, synonymous with not only economic but also political and moral degradation, with deep horror. Yet Mr. Littell, “just a stupid fucking foreigner”, seems to be oblivious to all of this.

Far from representing a glimmer of democracy in the turbulent and horrifying Russian history, the 90s saw Russian President Boris Yeltsin, the supposed friend of democracy and of the always good-natured Bill Clinton, cannonade the Russian parliament in October 1993, an accident that will result in the deaths of 147 people. This is more than the deaths in the much glorified Prague spring (seventy two), more than the deaths on Independence Square in Kiev in February 2014 (around one hundred). It is curiously an episode on which the usual chronicles on Russian history regularly served to the public do not indulge on very often. It may be for this reason that Mr. Littell apparently has no idea of it and does not mention it in his praise of  Russian democracy in the 1990s. Like other loyal and uncritical apologists of the transatlantic world order, Mr. Littell displays no qualms in abusing the universal magic words of democracy and freedom: after all, how can one be contrary to the concepts of the universal good represented by democracy and freedom?

The problem lies not so much in democracy and freedom in themselves as in the mesmerizing ease with which these easy slogans are taken up tirelessly. To a bloody democracy, such as the one praised by Mr. Littell, one feels tempted to suggest in a provocative way, is it not perhaps preferable to have a democracy that is perhaps less perfect and less free, but at least capable of guaranteeing a minimum of social order? The Russian democracy of the 90s was so dear to the Americans, to the point that they worked to re-elect President Yeltsin in the 1996 elections. His popularity had collapsed after his first years in power. But what use is a semblance of democracy if on the street people kill each other for a penny, in a kind of primordial state after the collapse of an entire society and the established order of things? What use are all these freedom and transparency rankings when everything can be bought and everyone is for sale? What use is a free market economy when competition, the cardinal principle of capitalism and the morality of the new world of magnificent and progressive destinies led by the West, is transformed into an eternal homo homini lupus?

Does the elementary understanding of the fact that democracy and freedom alone cannot be considered absolute goods, if “democracy” and “freedom”, out of control, become incompatible with mere survival, without which there can be no dignified life, in a state of chaos and anarchy where to talk about participation in political life becomes ridiculous? Maybe yes, in the 1990s the media in Russia was less controlled and enjoyed more freedom, but no one guaranteed that in the numerous wars between different oligarchic factions, the new rich who controlled everything in the new and burgeoning democracy praised by Mr. Littell, a journalist would not end up killed in cold blood for a wrong word of criticism at the wrong moment of the wrong person. It is certainly a surprise for all those who only know the name of Anna Politkovskaya, the journalist from Novaya Gazeta killed in 2006, but unfortunately the killing of journalists is a phenomenon born in the 90s and that is the 1990s acquired mass character.

Mr. Littell could not fail to dwell also on the 5-day war in Georgia in August 2008 and on the “Russian invasion”, obviously deplorable and obviously to be condemned. It is not clear whether this happens out of ignorance, on the part of such an  important author inexcusable in every sort of way, or out of stupidity or bad faith, even less excusable on the part of a very famous intellectual, but in his brief reference to the conflict around South Ossetia Mr. Littell avoids mentioning any kind of context in which the conflict took place. Not a reference to the fact that, in all the years of independence, from 1991 to the present, there has not been a single day when Georgia controlled South Ossetia or Abkhazia, another separatist region that was the scene of fierce fighting between the Georgian central government and the regional forces. Not a single reference to the fact that Russian invasion of 2008 was provoked by the attempt of the then Georgian president, the very pro-American Mikhail Saakashvili, to take back control of South Ossetia by force.

Mr. Littell, who has some experience of working in the Caucasus, could have understood that politics in the indomitable lands of the Caucasus is more complicated than the simple interpretative schemes to which the Western observer, who grew up amid the reassuring concepts of friends of democracy and freedom and hardened enemies of democracy and freedom, is accustomed to. The question always remains open: is it intentionally that Mr. Littell renounces any type, even if only in a cursory, of in-depth explanations, or is he simply intellectually unable to see beyond the explanations “for dummies”, the more popular the more superficial they are, and popular exactly because they are superficial, banal and appeasing?

“Look at the Ukrainians”, Littell appeals to his Russian friends, “look at what they did […] Once they occupied Maidan, in their rage at a pro-Russian president who had betrayed his promise of more Europe, they never left it. They formed a tent city, entirely self-organized, and willing to defend itself. When the police came to try and break it up, they fought back, with sticks and iron bars and molotov cocktails. At the end, the police opened fire. But instead of running, the guys on Maidan charged. Many of them died, but they won. It was Yanukovich who ran, and Ukrainians got their democracy back, their right to choose their leaders and throw them out when they don’t do the job.”

There is truly something uniquely French-American about the award-winning writer’s romantic enthusiasm for the Revolution. Both today’s France and the United States are children of a revolution, and the two revolutions are both glorified in national historiography. Like any form of romanticism, however, this fabula leaves out all those less pleasant details that badly fit the narrative of a very pure and invincible revolution. When he says that the Ukrainians have regained democracy after 2014, Mr. Littell, once more it is not clear whether knowingly and out of trivial foolishness, fails to say that the new flourishing Ukrainian democracy that emerged so forcefully after the dignity revolution is a “democracy” in which a large part of the population, what we can define pro-Russian, was demonized and dehumanized by the revolutionary government, a government which took a decisive course of derussification, of extirpation of the Russian element in Ukraine. Mr. Littell does not seem to be aware either of the Odessa massacre of May 2, 2014, or of the fact that the war in Donbass, a direct consequence of the not entirely usual change of government following the ousting of Yanukovych, and of the radicalization of politics that followed, had led to 14 thousand deaths, of which 5 thousand among the civilian population in the separatist territories. Evidently, to put it in the way of a recently passed away icon of American diplomacy, these deaths were a price worth paying.

Born in America and then raised and educated between France and America, Mr. Littell certainly proves to be more American than French in his beatification of the revolution. Of course, France celebrate the 14th of July to this day, but those who really lived through the revolution, after years of wars, riots, terror and summary executions, at one point seemed to wake up from revolutionary excesses and preferred the glory of a Napoleon to the fanaticism of “democracy” and equality. Revolutions are certainly one of those moments of acceleration in history where passions count more than reflections and calculations. But in Mr. Littell’s hope for a new Russian revolution and in the naive hope that this magically can bring justice, democracy, order, prosperity and freedom, the question that arises spontaneously is: where should the line be drawn between the naive and utopian yearning for progress and the social improvement and the idiotic fixation devoid of any sense of realism and pragmatism that so seems to characterize the ideological politics of the world led by Washington in recent years? When should it be conceded that the forgivable naivety of an ardent revolutionary who is ready to put his life (and that of many others) at risk for the most noble and most abstract ideals can easily turn into unforgivable imbecility?

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