Mother of Exiles

Mother of Exiles


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 the 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 Russian, 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 attempted 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 it? 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. In other as 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: We, 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 future programming.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *