For most of the 20th century, the United States and the Soviet Union served as Yin and Yang, each nation opposing its righteousness to the other’s evil.
Even today, with the collapse of the Soviet Union almost twenty years behind us, multifarious hacks in the Anglo-American media remain wedded to a vision of America and her sinister doppelganger. They pine for a New Cold War.
This Russian-American “doubling” runs deeper than politics. Culturally too, Russia is frequently viewed as reflecting American forms in a shadowy, distorted way: Tarkovsky’s Solaris is the Russian answer to Kubrick’s 2001, and Boris Grebenschikov is Russia’s Bob Dylan. Perhaps this is just a crude marketing tool, but the ease with which it is done suggests something more substantial lurking beneath the surface. Would anybody care about the Belgian Bob Dylan? Nope.
How deep are the roots of this doppelganger effect? Both nations expanded at roughly the same time, gobbling up the territories of indigenous peoples as they did so. Both nations were also riddled with non-conformist sects. But for me, the most interesting parallels are the rival beliefs, widely held throughout history, that America and Russia each has a God-given destiny to save the world.
Most people are familiar with America’s apocalyptic roots: the country was founded by Puritans who believed that they were creating a new, holy society and anticipated the Messiah’s imminent return. Many of those first colonists believed that they were God’s chosen people. Millions today believe in “American Exceptionalism,” a secularized version of this idea.
Russia’s messianic-apocalyptic ideas were most famously articulated by a monk named Filofei, who in 1510 wrote a letter to the tsar explaining that Moscow was the “Third Rome” destined to save the world. His confirmation of this was that Byzantium (the second Rome) had fallen to the Turks in 1453 while Rome itself was a hotbed of papal heresy. Nobody else was left to do God’s work. Russia’s divine destiny also inspired extreme sects, such as the self-castrating Skoptsy, who believed that if they could create 144,000 eunuchs, God would establish a new world without sin. In 1804, Alexei Elyansky, the tsar’s chamberlain, proposed to Alexander I that he should convert the entire country to the divine cause of apocalyptic castration.
When it comes to messianic mania however, the Skoptsy pale into insignificance beside the Bolsheviks, who subscribed to the no less fantastical creed of Marx - wipe out the satanic bourgeoisie in a revolution and paradise will inevitably unfold on Earth! The Third International replaced the Third Rome as Russia’s messianic impulses were channeled into the cause of World Communism, which was going to bring about peace and justice forever.
American messianic belief has never mutated into anything as violent as Bolshevism. In the United States apocalyptic ideas are still largely expressed through traditional religion, which the Constitution mandates must be separated from affairs of state. For the most part, Americans are content to seek the Messiah in ancient prophecies; or at least they were until the 2008 elections.
At the time I was reading a lot about historical apocalyptic movements and it was fascinating to watch as all around me millions of well-educated people succumbed to the vague, messianic nostrums of a certain presidential candidate. People were fainting at mass rallies and swooning at pseudo-religious rhetoric about healing the world and lowering ocean levels. “Liberals,” who tend to look down their noses at the traditionally religious, proved most willing of all to suspend their skeptical faculties for the sake of believing in the miraculous healing powers of a lawyer from Chicago. Evan Thomas, an editor at Newsweek even compared Obama to a “sort of God” as he was “… standing above the country, above the world” (embarrassed by his outburst, Thomas later explained he wasn’t being literal). America hadn’t seen anything like it since 1844, when a Baptist preacher named William Miller had persuaded hundreds of thousands of believers to stand atop hills and wait for the return of Jesus.
The striking thing about this most recent explosion of messianic hope is its tiny lifespan (about a year). Obama’s Nobel Prize for wishful thinking was a sign of its imminent demise. By contrast it took decades for the Bolsheviks to transform themselves into political zombies. The Republican victories on Tuesday (and the loss of Obama’s Senate seat to a Republican) mark the last tolling of the bell: the Savior is not coming. The inevitable disappointment is going to be a serious psychological problem for believers: just take a look at any of the hysterical op-eds in the New York Times over the last few weeks. But however bad Americans may feel, they can always cast a glance at their messianic twin across the oceans, and take solace that for them no Gulags were involved - this time at least.
First published 5/11/2010