Mother of Exiles – Anastasia Edel | The Open Mind

Mother of Exiles – Anastasia Edel | The Open Mind


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner,
your host on The Open Mind. Russian-American writer
Anastasia Edel joins me today. She is author of the
powerful New York Times Op-Ed The Tired and Poor
Who Make America Great, which contends that as
long as the statue of Liberty stands, it renders
Donald Trump an impostor; as well as author of
Lightning Guides edition “Russia: Putin’s
playground: Empire, Revolution, and the new
Tsar.” “Like many things in Russian history,
privatization was started with good intentions. It ended in rig
bids, bribes, violence, and dubious
interpretations of the law.”
Edel writes. “The dizzying rate at
which Russian oligarchs have been amassing wealth
is a double edge sword, fearing that their riches
might vanish just as swiftly as they appeared. Many have turned
to politics.” She has concerned herself
most recently with the Trump administration’s betrayal
of a compassionate American
immigration policy. She writes that we should be
watchful of what comes next. “Any society that
starts down the path of marginalizing certain
groups will eventually need new
targets.” Welcome, a pleasure to have
you here Anastasia. EDEL: Great honor.
Thank you. HEFFNER: What I just
said in the intro, isn’t that born out
exactly in Vladimir Putin? Why is he
still at the helm? Because he’s afraid
of what he might lose, which was a country really
devoted to his and his wellbeing and his
wealth and his power, but are Russians beginning
to recognize that the power of that
representation is largely felt with Putin and not the
Russian people at large? EDEL: Well, there were,
were recently protests in Moscow where people
took it to the streets and demanded a very
simple thing, hat their candidates
should be put on the ballot to the election
of the Moscow State Duma. That was not a
violent protest. Nobody was doing anything
remotely similar to what you’re witnessing
perhaps in Hong Kong, but those protests were
pretty violently crushed. And the thing about
authoritarian systems is that they get really upset about
any show of people’s will. And this is what dictators
and authoritarians fear. So no matter how little
the discontent or the expression of
that will might be, it will be subverted
pretty ruthlessly if you’re in a country
like Putin’s Russia. And this is what we have
witnessed in Moscow but as far as you know, is there
an equivalence between Putin’s Kremlin and
Vladimir Putin and the Russian people? I
don’t think so. Just as there is no
equivalence between President Trump and
the American people. You know, Russia
is a huge country, but of course what we see
is what comes out of the Kremlin and of their, out
of their official sources. And the reality is more
nuanced and different. And it’s interesting
that with Russia, is that just when you
least expect it you know, nobody expected this
election to the local Moscow state parliament
to bring any surprises. But it did. But why? Because opposition
candidates were denied, not the victory. They were just denied the right
to run and people were upset. HEFFNER: Is that
marginalization something that you recognize as
having a derivation in Russia at all, or do
you think that what’s developing in the United
States is just this kind of global resurgence of
populism and xenophobia? EDEL: I think it has both. But if you look at
dictatorships way back going back in history, you
will see that the tactic of polarization of society is
creating internal enemies. And this is
where it starts. And, you know,
coming from USSR, I’ve seen it done on a
grand scale when there were, and then you know,
the marginalization was simple, there is us
and there is them. And if you’re not with
us, you’re against us. And so this was a pretty
binary situation now in Russia, Vladimir Putin
it was very strange to witness the return of
something from USSR, which I thought as a
child of perestroika, we have buried for good. Russia in 2000
was not USSR. It was an heir
to an empire, but it was a country which
was sort of taken steps towards a democracy. And it was a
democratic experiment. But what happened
with Vladimir Putin, you probably remember
that the very early in his presidency, in fact before
his presidency there was this series of apartment
bombings in Moscow that were immediately attributed to
the Chechen terrorists. And that has
not been proven. In fact, other things have
come out about who was involved in this. But the fear among the
people is a very powerful motivator to evaluate
different courses that is open that are
being offered to them. And the course that
Vladimir Putin wanted for Russia was lifting
Russia off its knees. Right? So, which means that
somebody has put Russia on the knee, on
its knees, right, and it’s, it
wasn’t the you know, the oligarchs, it
was, although that came, that went to that
really quickly. We’ve seen it with the
Khodorkovsky situation, but so the Chechens
were singled out, as potential
terrorists that you know, would subject
Russia to violence. And then over the years of
Putin’s interminable stay in power,
multiple communities, multiple groups, rather, was
singled out and ostracized. And, you know, we’ve
seen it where the LGBT community will and
now it’s generally the liberals, the liberals are
the foes of Great Russia. And the guilt for Russia’s dire
economic situation of the 90s. I was there, you
know, I remember it, how bad things were
when the country was transitioning from a socialist
economy to the free market. The blame is now assigned
to liberals and to democracy in general. They have brought
chaos to Russia, not the privatization
that you mentioned in the beginning of, in
the introduction. And not you know, this
huge inequality that what was created
virtually overnight, but some groups of people
that should be blamed. And so once you start
down that road anybody can become a potential target. HEFFNER: I think what you
said about how our people are not synonymous with
our political leaders is so salient and especially
true with the American and Russian examples today. EDEL: What I see with
America is that we are trending towards
authoritarianism. There is obviously a big –
democracy is no longer – what used to be an
American identity for post world democracy is
no longer a criteria. We, you know, I hear about
some studies that are done that we don’t have to
live in a democracy. Autocracy is fine, but
it’s not fine for many reasons which we
can talk so about. But so I see that there
is a trend from and in a country where everybody is
equal and where decisions are made democratically,
trending towards authoritarian power. And that is very
alarming because yes, what comes with it can be crony
capitalism and whatnot. But I think my hope is
that America is much, is not as far on that road
as Russia has come in 20 years, even more if you
count the beginning of privatization and creating
those real – the first wave of oligarchs in
the early nineties. I don’t think we are there
and my hope certainly is that this
would not happen. But the problem
with trending towards authoritarian is that what comes
with it is also nepotism. If the, if this is, I’m
America stops being a meritocracy, like
it has always been, at least that’s how we
perceived it out there in the old country, then the
danger is that eventually you’re going to
slip into what Lenin, you know, called the
government of cooks. HEFFNER: Andrew Jackson called
that the spoil system. But I think there’s
something more pernicious going on,
dismantling of compassion. EDEL: And you’re
absolutely right. There is definitely an
attack of – an attack on what we all cherish, all
of us who came here at some point,
newcomers like me fairly, you know, I’ve been here
20 years or generations ago. There are certain things
that we held sacred. And even I who
grew up beyond, behind the Iron Curtain,
in USSR knew about the Statue of liberty and the poem
“Hammered to its pedestal” and the light that shown
and arrive in boats. And so there was always
this dream when you leave in a state of
injustice, which USSR was, there is a place where you can
make it and pursue happiness. You, as long as you
play nicely to others, work hard, you will be
treated equally with everyone else and you will
get the right to pursue it. And you would know. It doesn’t matter whether
you are rich or poor or healthy or not, so
I knew about that. And so to me it’s
emblazed in my head, you know, and no matter
what other people say, this is what I
believe my America is. So when I read
Cuccinelli’s remarks, you know, I wasn’t planning to
write that open at all. In fact, I was in the
middle of finishing a big writing project that
Monday and when I do that, I don’t read the news
because I want to be sane. But then my
mother called me, my mother-in -law called
me and they said have you on the monstrous
green card rules. And I’m like, okay, no I
haven’t. So let me go check. As I started reading and
I read the Russian news, the European news
and the American news, ’cause I always do that
to get sort of a less partisan picture. And you know what his
remarks that we should probably think of this
poem in a different way. People should be able to
stand on their own two feet, which is
oxymoronic right, if you’re tired and poor,
it’s not a determinant. But so that we should
augment it that way. What has struck me; it’s
really an extension on their attack, on truth and
fact that seems to be the only consistent policy that’s
coming out of this
administration. It’s now extended to
America’s most enduring symbol, but it
is there – we, we can see it with our own
eyes and it proclaims that America will
treat you equally. It actually wants the
tired and the poor to come and give them shelter. And so we are a
nation of immigrants. That’s another nickname. That’s a nickname that
America has around the world, a nation
of immigrants. But now what we’re witnessing,
other than a historic — HEFFNER: Revisionist
history. EDEL: Historical revision
of a grand proportion, which I normally associate
with a country like Russia that can not stop
rewriting its own past, is this strange
dynamic when a country of immigrants is at
war with immigrants, which if you
extend logically, it’s a country at
war with itself. And that is, you know it
still blows my mind that we’re talking about America
and not some other place. But it is what it is. HEFFNER: Is it possible
we are getting more xenophobic and the Russian
people are actually
democratizing? EDEL: Think
about it this way. I mean, here in
the United States, you can still go on the
street and protest and do whatever you want.
You know, most people just, you know, like on Facebook
and do that sort of, it’s still a
very early stage, but you know,
there was Women March, there were certain
street actions that were, would give people
the right to vote. In Russia, those people are
getting real prison terms. They are all
people who were not; they were not even
protest leaders. They were opposition
candidates who wanted to get on the ballot. HEFFNER: There is
no First Amendment. I mean there’s really
no freedom of assembly. EDEL: I’ve
witnessed it every way. You know, I grew up when
USSR was still standing and Perestroika
happened when I was 15, 16, 17, so it, it
kind of formed me, and you witnessed this
incredible revival and awakening of a
nation’s consciousness. It was truly tremendous. And you realize
that, you know, Russians by definitions
and by definition are not prone to totalitarianism.
They were forced into it. But then all of that fell
apart and we emerged as a very different nation. And we took some good; I
believe that there were certain good things in the
years I saw at least an attempt at
good things like internationalism
for instance. You know, we
were you know, in the vein of
proletarians of all countries unite we
were all supposed to be internationalist and
we were given this one identity, the super
identity of the Soviet person and were encouraged
to give up our ethnic identity though, you know,
they never quite got it right because there was a
passport entry where you were either Russian or Jewish
or Armenian or whatever. But this sort of ideal of
all of us being citizens of a larger, not
of a geography, but of an idea was
present in USSR and, but what we witnessed with
Putin’s arrival was this really, the
subversion of this idea. I mean, this whole slogan
that he had when he came, lifting Russia off its knees. Russia, it’s Russia right,
now it’s Great Russia. And so this is very different. Again, I have never really
growing up in USSR, no, did not really — I mean I knew I was
Russian but I didn’t identify myself and
you know as a Russian, we were Soviet people. And now of
course USSR is gone. But the resurgence of
nationalism in Russia under Putin is a
very, very clear, and of course
it’s you know, the thing about
nationalism is it’s something that is
easy to give to people. It doesn’t cost you much. You just start, hey, be proud
because you’re Russian. Be proud because
you are American. HEFFNER: It’s not a plausible
scenario at this point, EDEL: About political
reform in Russia? HEFFNER: About whether or
not this next generation can trigger reform
that would overthrow, if not Putin, a set of
repressive qualities that are now the norm there. EDEL: Repression is
never the, the norm. Even people who grew up
with just Putin would never be able to accept this
reality of a repressive state. And I grew up in USSR what
happens to you is that you think it’s endless. Like when USSR collapsed,
it was a shock for everyone,
including ourselves, because literally five
years ago it seemed like that it would never end, but you
never get used to it. You never get
used to repression, to injustice and
it’s so it simmers. So at some point
it boils over, but I think in
Russia, you know, change always
comes from the top. You know, had it not been
for Gorbachev who decided to or Khrushchev who
decided to liberalize the country just a little
bit to make USSR better. Both of them
tried then, you know, who knows where it
would have gone. But my hope is that those
people who are growing up today, they’re very;
they’re very cosmopolitan, very western. I
mean, they’re not like me. They don’t know what USSR
was other than from some propaganda films that
they might be shown. But they are, a lot of
them are very close to our western viewpoint
and, but you know, that of course
is the question, what is the
western viewpoint? HEFFNER: Right, exactly. EDEL: What is the West
because that used to be — HEFFNER: When you say it
always comes from the top or from economic
circumstance that embroil
the top, that means that, you know,
as with Trump’s reelection in some
people’s observations, it is economic catalysts
that are going to trigger reform because it’s not
going to come from Putin stepping aside
honorably, right? EDEL: No. HEFFNER: And that’s what
Amy Knight said on this air, which is what does he
have to lose, everything. I mean, if, if a new
regime comes to power to expose
criminality, malfeasance, crony capitalism,
corruption so, you know, in effect there
is the endless vision of him as Head of
State for life. Of course, Trump would like
to actualize that here. And he makes statements
that are in effect him fantasizing about having
powers that he doesn’t have because of that
sacred Constitution here. How can we try to avert
what might be a further exacerbation of
that kind of rhetoric? EDEL: I think we just have
to call it out and stand up to it because this
rhetoric doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. You know there is a tactic of
rising up the society’s temperature, that’s how, it’s a
translation from Russian. But you throw out these
extraordinary statements and people get all worked
up and it doesn’t matter, you know, it could be
purchase of Denmark, I’m sorry, of Greenland
or it could be anything. And this drives us to
react in a certain way. People are jittery. And I think that’s what
this administration is really good at — is
raising our collective fever and we should remember
that this is a tactic, right? And not, and try in
as much as possible, not participate in that. But also I think it is
important to understand what you just said, that
the majority doesn’t think this way, but it’s
never the majority. I mean look at radicals
that seized power in Russia in 1917 was
Lenin the majority? Well, the
Bolsheviks never heard — nobody heard of
them, you know, months before
the revolution. And they, they hijacked
the entire country and held it hostage
for over 70 years. So it’s, but it is
important to have this discourse in, as a
civilized discourse. And one of the
things I’ve done before, I, you know,
wrote my Op-Ed, I was reading the news at
the time and I always go and I read the
comments, you know, and that particular news
article about the new rules, do you know like two and
a five –like 2,500 comments. So I was clicking through
them and seeing what are the arguments for and
against and very clearly you see that the
majority, and you know, maybe Times
readership is biased, but the majority of the
people were appalled. And there were
certain arguments against, you know, certain
arguments like, oh, well we should take
care of our own people first and then kind
of extend the welcome. HEFFNER: We are
all one people. EDEL: We are
all one people. These illegal
immigrants, you know, I’ve seen them coming to
this country and every now and at times and are
needing public assistance, but that’s not because
they freeloaders or you don’t want to get
public assistance. HEFFNER: Also, the problem
is that that is the majority viewpoint and
it’s not embodied in the political identity that
is going to elevate it. And that’s going to kind
of re-imagine America for today with that discourse. I mean, poets don’t have
the same cache that they once did, but
you, we need, we need poetry in
our politics again, I mean, not a
Twitter dumpster fire. EDEL: I agree. HEFFNER: And, and
part of that poetry is acknowledging that when we
take in the dispossessed, have a fair expectation
that they are going to reciprocally honor the
dignity of our country, our history, our language.
And I know that that is what, I think that’s what needs
to be articulated is that we honor the dignity
of every immigrant, of every color, of
every income bracket, of every language,
and that they in turn acknowledge our dignity
and want to advance our dignity as a country. And no one is giving
voice to that right now. EDEL: Well — HEFFNER: It is, it is to the extent that nationalism
is demonized, it isn’t. It is a way of framing
pride and patriotism that is generous to We the
People of immigrants and We the People of all
these generations. EDEL: Yes. And you know, in fact
one of the things about America that struck you as
a struck me as a newcomer is and I came 20 years
ago and by and large it continued, was
actually the absence of nationalism, of
forced nationalism. But what you saw were
the American flags just hanging above peak
people’s porches or portraits of the
president’s cut out of the magazine and taped
in school classrooms, not handed out
like portraits of, you know
Brezhnev or Gorbachev. So this was, there was
this organic feeling of people loving
their land and this, what is coming out of this
administration under the guise of patriotism
is not patriotism. It is something
that is forced, and this rhetoric of being
un-American now it is used to single out people whose
point of view you don’t like and you
just throw a label. So that’s un-American
to say that I have never heard the word un-American
until recently. What does that even mean? And so I think Americans,
one of the things that I don’t want to see
happening in this country is the hijacking
of who can be, who is patriotic
and who is not, who loves the
country and who does. We all love this country. And if we don’t wrap
ourselves in an American flag, that doesn’t
mean we don’t love it, but it’s just
that, you know, my grandfather taught me
when I was very little, that love is
shown when you act, it’s not that you come and
hug your mother and say, ooh, I love you.
It’s more like your actions. And has this
administration really shown any much love? I mean, have they made us
safer through control of guns or have they
welcomed immigrants? So, but it’s, there is an
attempt to hijack we love our country and these people
don’t, and it is not true. I think we’re all patriots. We’re all; America has
always been an idea, right? It’s not a place. It’s an idea that
everybody who comes here can pursue happiness, be
treated fairly and play nicely and contribute to our
shining city on the hill. HEFFNER: On that
note, Anastasia, thank you for
being here today. EDEL: Okay, thank you.
It’s a pleasure. HEFFNER: And thanks to
you in the audience. I hope you join us again
next time for a thoughtful excursion into
the world of ideas. Until then,
keep an open mind. Please visit The
Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/OpenMind to
view this program online or to access other
interviews and do check us out on Twitter and
[email protected] for updates on
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