The Breakfast Table

Gessen and Quinn-Judge


Getting ready to return to Moscow after a week in the U.S., I feel like I’m about to emerge from a news blackout. Which is odd since I have spent an unhealthy portion of this past week either driving and listening to NPR or watching CNN in my hotel room. And even though the president has not fired the entire cabinet and the economy hasn’t crashed, it hasn’t been that slow a news week. I mean, there was that impeachment vote. But as I examined this I’ve-had-no-news sensation, I realized I just have a terribly difficult time taking this seriously. Now I know what you are thinking: another Russian journalist getting on her high horse about how all the serious things happen only in Russia. Not at all. I am fully aware of the gravity of the events. It’s the coverage that strikes me as coming from a parallel reality. It feels like much of the country is caught up in a byzantine ritual akin to Soviet party meetings at which personal behavior was discussed–people were often censured for having extramarital affairs, for example. So I keep expecting someone to say, “OK, enough of this silliness. Of course, we all know none of us was taking it seriously. Let’s get on with our work and our extramarital affairs–until the next party meeting.”

I think I was expecting something along these lines from Andrew Sullivan’s piece in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine. Inasmuch as he scolded conservative intellectuals for descending into dogmatism, he satisfied this expectation. But something is very wrong, it seems to me, when it takes 5,000 words to make the point that moral judgments on private matters shouldn’t take over political debate. I also have to take issue with his use of the word ‘intelligentsia’ to refer to conservative intellectuals. This Russian word refers to people who, among other things, are burdened with what Isaiah Berlin called ‘the collective sense of guilt,’ a sense of grave personal responsibility for the fate of their country. That doesn’t strike me as the most appropriate description for people like William Kristol.

Incidentally, much of the Russian intelligentsia was characterized by complicated and unorthodox conduct in love relationships. Over time, it became one of the traditional forms of protest against the Russian and Soviet state’s habit of meddling in the private lives of the citizens–and, more to the point in this case, the idea that ‘one who cheats on his wife will cheat on his country’ (izmenish zhene–izmenish strane). Isn’t it remarkable that this concept–that private conduct is a predictor of public conduct–is virtually unchallenged by American politicians but smacks of the worst sort of Soviet propaganda to a Russian?

Now I have almost talked myself into looking forward to returning to the real dismal news world in Moscow. What’s the exchange rate for tomorrow, by the way?