"Russians could not possibly be happy, could they?"

22 februari 2023 | Forum for Democracy Intl

Marie-Thérèse ter Haar is a lecturer, author, Russia expert and the founder of the Russia & Eastern Europe Academy. On Friday 10 February, she gave a lecture at the Renaissance Institute in Amsterdam on the differences and relations between Russia and the West. She was interviewed beforehand.

Why Russia? Where does the interest come from?

At 18, I did not know what I wanted to do after high school. I thought I might study a language or music. Stories about the tsars, sleighs through the snow or the balls at the Hermitage, as described in Russian literature, had always attracted me. Then I suddenly thought, “I want to be able to read those letters by Tolstoy.”  So in my first year of university, I got credits to spend three months in “scary, communist Russia” to learn the language.

I ended up staying for longer, getting to know the people, I fell in love, I visited every corner of the great country with all its nationalities and I enjoyed the warmth and cordiality of the people. It fascinated me even then, that the world in which I found myself was very different from the world I had been led to expect from Dutch books and the Dutch news. That does not mean that I did not see the nasty aspects of communism, but I did notice that I was incredibly biased against the Russian people. In my mind, Russians lived in total unfreedom, behind bars, as it were. They could not possibly be happy, could they? And that is where the scales did fall from my eyes - you can be happy with the theatre, with a Chekhov or a Tchaikovsky. How you can be happy with a Lada or mental wealth! That is where a psychological fascination began, which continues to this day.

I entered Russia totally biased and indoctrinated, and came out, so to speak, with a deep understanding of the other side of the story. And then I see what is happening in our society right now when it comes to Russia. Every day, it fascinates me how the Dutch have become totally indoctrinated about that country, perhaps even more violently now than in the days of the Iron Curtain.


Speaking of indoctrination, what do you think is the biggest misconception that people from the West have about Russia?

I think many Westerners are convinced that people in Russia are oppressed because they are ruled autocratically, that they are terrified of being arrested or that people of the older generation are completely intoxicated by state propaganda. They have always been oppressed, haven't they? They have always suffered and always had a dictatorial regime. Those Russians, they can't be happy, can they?

For a lot of Dutch people, this happens unconsciously, because the propaganda machine has been running like this for 30 years (and even longer). KGB, Pussy Riot, Navalny, pipelines, Russia as an expansionist power, the troll factory, camps in Siberia like under Stalin - a lot of Dutch people are unaware how much that kind of propaganda affects their thinking. So I have a lot of understanding for that ignorance among many compatriots and for the effect which the repetition of fear words, continuously pumped into our Western brains, can have.

But then you have another section of Westerners who are arrogant or convinced that only one system is best: our Western free market and democracy. We have had the opportunity to accompany some of them at the Russia & Eastern Europe Academy. They have an absolute conviction that people can only be happy within our Western system. For them, happiness is non-existent without our 'freedoms', without our relatively recently developed ideas about politics, law and governance. I really cannot get my head around that. I have done education at political parties, from the Green Left to the Christian Democrats. All friendly people, but their blind arrogance towards any other culture spills out. Our interpreter work in business and at universities has also provided examples galore. In general, people are convinced that Russia should follow the West. 

This arrogance is completely misplaced. Russians are a developed people with their own identity. A strong aspect of that identity - which you also recognise in some other Eastern European countries - is, for instance, a high level of culture. Even in Communist times, it was quite common to go to the theatre wearing traditional costume, stylishly and civilised. And that was not once every six months. No, it was part of your upbringing - once a month. That high culture, drama, opera, literature, they know all about that. Here in the West, you have to have a very specific interest; you do not just get it as part of your education. How many Western politicians can quote from Shakespeare? Would the public even understand such a quotation? This is a crucial difference with Russia. When a Russian politician raises a quote from a great writer, the average Russian thinks it normal. Culture is very deeply embedded. 


Why do you think the West understands Russia so poorly?

As a Western woman, I was still allowed to experience the Soviet Union. I saw the system slowly collapse. I lived among ordinary people, heard their side of the story and how they thought about things. But the well-known Russia correspondents, people of my generation like Laura Starink or Hubert Smeets, they mainly travelled up and down from Russia to the Netherlands, mingling in the circles of the opposition, the dissidents. I often said to them, “Go and visit other people, normal people and write about that too.” But no, the only group they were interested in were the dissidents. A very small group of intellectuals, anti-communist and very pro-Europe. The old generation are figures like Sakharov, and now you have people like Navalny. This small group is the only one that one reads about in the Dutch papers. It has been like that for almost 40 years.

Of course I have also been partly involved with this group; you have to know about its existence. And I also learned a lot from the people in the Navalny protest march 10 years ago, because I wanted to know what inspired my friends. I am quite well disposed towards those people, but they are only a small elite , rebellious group. And unfortunately they have no good plan B yet. 

The rest of the country is mostly denigrated in the media as old-fashioned, docile Russian patriots, but that is the 80-90% Russians who currently say, “We support our government.” There are very ordinary, decent people among them. These are not just Putin-lovers or oligarchs: they are directors of big theatres, musicians, businessmen, entrepreneurs, technicians, scientists or workers. And we hear almost nothing about that vast majority in the Netherlands. Why are we not curious about them? Why don't we ask ourselves the big 'why' questions?

It has genuinely amazed me what a shift has taken place. Very normal people who were only pro-Western for the past 30 years have now taken a deeply patriotic stance. They have read up, done their homework, and now really know what they are talking about geopolitically. That was less the case a year ago. Their country is under threat from NATO/America and genuine patriotism has been cultivated. Let us in the West at least delve into the 'why' questions: “Why are so many Russians disappointed in us?” The only way to get past the grim state of this war is to at least understand why Russia acted the way it did. The West also is very hypocritical but the media and politicians will not readily acknowledge that. Still, we must try to engage in dialogue. It is the only way to prevent this drama from escalating further.


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