Russian to Judgment: The Birth of a Meme

I am worried about Sabrina. She is our teenage daughter’s cat. No, she’s not ill. Quite the opposite. She is full of fizz, never happier than when chasing a ball of yarn about the room, unless it’s when she is lying on someone’s lap, eyes almost closed, purring up a storm. 

I am not, I should explain, a cat person. Indeed, I am quite allergic to our feline friends. Which is why our daughter, who desperately wanted a cat, went into full research mode and discovered a breed that was reputed to be hypoallergenic. The good news is that the breed in question, while not really hypoallergenic, is noticeably less of a problem in that regard than many other breeds. 

The bad news is that the breed is called “Russian Blue.” Given the outcry against all things Russian these days, I worry that the anti-Putin police may suddenly decide to recall all the Russian Blues and return them to sender. 

Does that sound far-fetched? Perhaps it does. But is it more far-fetched than the news, just in, that the International Cat Federation (who knew?) has banned Russian cats from international competitions and even from being registered in its pedigree book? Condemning Putin’s invasion of Ukraine as an “unprecedented act of aggression,” spokesmen for the organization declared on its website that we “cannot just witness these atrocities and do nothing.”

I am happy to condemn Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, too. But I do wish that someone would supply the virtuous folks at the Fédération Internationale Féline with a dictionary and a brief history of the world. It behooves them to learn what the word “unprecedented” means and what a dismal record humanity has had when it comes to treating neighbors with consideration. 

I would also like to supply an affidavit stipulating that Sabrina is utterly innocent of colluding with Vladimir Putin in his military advances against Ukraine. She has never met the Russian dictator and would not, I am confident, like him if she did meet him. She is a most particular cat, especially in her choice of friends. 

The trouble is, Vladimir Putin has just been nominated to be this month’s Emmanuel Goldstein, the character in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four who furnishes the populace with the chief object for their daily “two-minutes-of-hate” ritual. 

Putin himself is not always on hand for the cathartic moments, however, so there are a lot of stand-ins recruited for the exercise. The soprano Anna Netrebko, for example, has performed nearly 200 times at the Metropolitan Opera. But she will not be performing there this year because she has had some nice words for the Russian dictator. Something similar happened to Valery Gergiev. He was supposed to be conducting the Vienna Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall, but his association with Putin put paid to that. 

It’s not just cats and musicians that are feeling the pinch. Even foodstuffs have been enlisted in the anti-Putin brigade. There is a growing demand to boycott Coca-Cola, for example. Why? Because the company refuses to shut down its business in Russia. 

Even things that just sound like the name “Putin” are shoved onto the Index Prohibitorum. This just in from the land of Justin Trudeau: “Quebec diner drops poutine from the menu—the word, not the dish—to denounce Putin.” I’m surprised Trudeau didn’t think of that when he clamped down on the Canadian truckers last month. He froze their bank and social media accounts, confiscated their property, fined, indicted, and jailed the ringleaders, but as far as I know he neglected to outlaw calling “French fries” “freedom fries,” something that anyone who was serious about squashing the Freedom Convoy would have seen to right off the bat. 

Then there is this bulletin: Visa and Mastercard, which account for 74 percent of payment transactions in Russia, have shut down operation in Russia, as has PayPal. I guess all this is forcing the rat into a corner.  What is it that proverbial wisdom tells us about the behavior of cornered rats? And what’s more important, declaring one’s fine feelings or acting in a way that minimizes the chances of catastrophe? 

The point is that among the virtucratic elite, disgust with all things Russian, and a corresponding adulation of all things Ukrainian, have been whipped up to a fever pitch. I live in deep blue Fairfield County, Connecticut, where people still drive around wearing two or three masks on and sport “BLM” bumper stickers to declare their virtue. At a bridge in one town, people regularly congregate to denounce this week’s approved misfit—George W. Bush, Donald Trump, Brett Kavanaugh—or celebrate the hero or the cause du jour: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Roe v. Wade, or, just now, Ukraine. Driving by this morning, I was amused to see the little throng gathering to wave their miniature Ukrainian flags and accost passersby with signs declaring their abomination of war, Russia, Putin, etc. It would have been cute were it not so humorlessly in earnest.

I hope no one will construe what I have said as an endorsement of Vladimir Putin or his invasion of Ukraine. It is neither. Putin is a murderous thug. 

He is also the president of an economically troubled but militarily powerful country. That combination was one reason that Donald Trump was, in my opinion, correct to say that it would be “a good thing, not a bad thing” if the United States got on well with Russia. Some people thought that Trump was capitulating to Putin by acknowledging the fact that both the United States and Russia had legitimate interests and spheres of influence. I believe Trump stood up effectively to Putin in ways that Putin understood. 

One way was by making America energy independent, thus denying Russia some $74 million a day in oil sales to the United States. By shuttering the Keystone Pipeline and pursuing the pied-piper’s dream of “green energy,” Joe Biden pandered to the Left but played right into Putin’s hand and helped to pay for the military action that Biden professes to deplore.  

Another way that Trump stood up to Putin was through his effective demonstration of resolve in Syria in 2018 when U.S. forces destroyed an armored column of Russian mercenaries. I am told that was the largest loss of Russian mercenaries at the hands of U.S. forces since the 1919 invasion of Siberia to help the White Russians. Putin absorbed the lesson and backed off. He invaded no other country while Trump was president. With the ascension of Joe Biden and his green energy agenda, a new day had dawned for Putin. Just as he had gobbled up Crimea when Obama was president, so now he felt emboldened to attack and peel off more of Ukraine. 

Of course, it is not easy to say exactly what is happening on the ground. At the moment, the public square is flooded with misinformation from three main sources: the Russian media, the American media, and the Ukrainian media. In a typically insightful column, the commentator Josh Hammer details the plethora of Russian disinformation and propaganda oozing out from the media’s pores. He also outlines the Ukrainian version of the same. “Amidst Putin’s reckless revanchism,” he writes, 

Ukraine’s defiant president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, has seized the opportunity to play a naturally sympathetic Western audience like a fiddle. How else to characterize the Ukrainian government’s opportunistic analogizing of Russia’s damaging of the Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial with the actual World War II–era genocide committed at Babi Yar—a genocide committed by German Nazis, that is, with no shortage of complicity from all-too-eager local Ukrainians? How else to describe the mysterious blue-checked Twitter account “@Ukraine,” which blasts out mawkish videos highlighting the ubiquity of Western support for the besieged country? Indeed, the Ukrainian cause replaced John Lennon’s “Imagine” as the apotheosis of liberal internationalist fantasizing.

The situation, Hammer notes, “is more complicated, and more nuanced, than the specious ‘retrograde Russian imperialism versus enlightened Western liberal democracy’ dichotomy falsely proffered by a gullible Western press.” 

For one thing, corrupt and authoritarian though Russia is, Ukraine is hardly a paragon of virtue or democracy. Indeed, “the nation ranked as one of the absolute most corrupt nations in the world.” 

There are neo-Nazi paramilitary units, such as the Azov Battalion, active in Ukraine. Ukraine, lest amnesic Westerners forget, is also the country of Hunter Biden and Burisma. Ukrainian oligarch Victor Pinchuk was, for years, a massive donor to the Clinton Foundation. And Zelenskyy himself, of course, was at the center of President Donald Trump’s first (entirely bogus!) impeachment. It seems there is something fundamentally rotten about modern Ukraine that no enterprising investigative journalist has yet uncovered.

And no enterprising investigative journalist is likely to uncover that story, or have it published should by some miracle he did uncover it, until today’s politically correct meme—Zelenskyy/Ukraine Good, Putin/Russia Bad—dissipates.

All our efforts now, I believe, should be directed towards de-escalation. Russia, though weaker than Putin pretends, controls nearly 6,000 nuclear weapons, more than any other country in the world. 

The United States, as even so avid an enthusiast of “sustainable energy” as Elon Musk recognizes, needs “to increase oil & gas output immediately.” There is no indication that anyone in the Biden Administration is about to heed that advice. On the contrary, all the important people there are refusing to increase U.S. output of fossil fuels even as they are quietly acquiescing to Russian demands regarding Iran’s nuclear ambitions

It’s an extraordinary moment. But just as it’s an ill wind that blows no one good, so there may be some silver linings in this stormy Russian-Ukrainian drama. For one thing, it seems to have shaken much of Europe, Germany in particular, out of its cozy state of coma-like dependency under America’s large but increasingly frayed security umbrella. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz recently announced new military support for Ukraine as well as his determination to increase Germany’s contribution to NATO from 1.4 percent of GDP to the long-mandated but long-ignored two percent.

I call it a silver lining, but who knows? All-in-all, it is about time that Europe stepped up to the plate and began paying for its own defense. It’s what Trump demanded but was denied. Maybe now it will happen, or maybe NATO will be cashiered and Europe will look after itself under the dispensation of some other arrangement. After all, NATO was formed some 70 years ago, in the aftermath of  World War II, to provide a counterweight to the Soviet Union.  The Soviet Union dissolved in 1991.  What, apart from bureaucratic inertia, accounts for the persistence of NATO?

The larger point is this: The machinations of history, declared obsolete by some, have a way of surprising us. The surprises, alas, are not always pleasant. This was intimated by one observer in a tweet. “As a German,” he writes, “I just wanna get some things straight.”

The entire western world wants us to

— Build up a huge army

— March through Poland

— Fight the Russians if needed

Just writing it down, so there is no misunderstanding in the future. 

Francis Fukuyama, call your office.

About Roger Kimball

Roger Kimball is editor and publisher of The New Criterion and the president and publisher of Encounter Books. He is the author and editor of many books, including The Fortunes of Permanence: Culture and Anarchy in an Age of Amnesia (St. Augustine's Press), The Rape of the Masters (Encounter), Lives of the Mind: The Use and Abuse of Intelligence from Hegel to Wodehouse (Ivan R. Dee), and Art's Prospect: The Challenge of Tradition in an Age of Celebrity (Ivan R. Dee).

Photo: Probal Rashid/LightRocket via Getty Images

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