Russia’s political, economic, and social development since the collapse of the Soviet Union presents a series of events whose logic is difficult to decipher. At first, the collective sense of relief that the Cold War was finally over became a rush to see and experience that previously forbidden objet of desire. With comparatively little effort westerners gained access to forbidden parts of the old Soviet society, and this occurred so quickly that it seems that the assumptions behind this new engagement with Russia were strangely unexamined. It was effortless to compose improvised sound bites about the single world economy, and the need to normalize Russia’s place in that structure; the words democracy, reform, and market that our policy makers and their advisers used in reference to their former opponent formed a new discourse of hope, perfectly suited to the expectations that we were indeed living in a new era. One could almost hear the cautious retooling of our instincts as we read reports from Moscow about the latest details of Yeltsin’s democratic reform.

    But today, after the parliamentary elections, the Russian initiative in Bosnia, and the Duma’s amnesty of both the coup plotters and the lawmakers who opposed the closing of the Supreme Soviet in October 1993, it suddenly seems clear to both policy and media makers that the trends in the evolution of Russian society might not be what we hoped they were. Several of our own law-makers, whose names had disappeared from reporting about Russia, are now brought back to peer into the mists of the future for some sign of a new global threat, and to assert the need to stand up to Moscow. We are soberly warned that it is quite possible that not so much has changed after all, that the Cold War may be over, but that Russia—now signifying an immense and threatening nation-state, with an ideology of only itself—still exists.

    This “corrected” view is by no means only expressed by Americans. A recent New York Times op-ed article by a well-respected Russian academic, a veteran of the heady days of perestroika politics, asserts that Russia us experiencing yet another turn of the same vicious circle which has been its lot since at least the early nineteenth century. But far from clarifying the situation on the ground, helping us to make our way through the maze of discourses that compromise Russian politics, the article unintentionally highlights the heart of the matter: that the tropes and figures with which authorized speakers –like professors of history—describe reality, have the power to turn into reality itself. The article’s recycled despair at the viciously circular nature of Russia’s history, as the complex, layered, and interwoven threads by which that history is told, that confronts us when we turn to the pressing task of making sense of life in Moscow or Murmansk. Here is a case where the authoritative voice of the native feeds directly into our own vicious circle; where the naming of one circle assists the steady spin of another.

    On the one hand, the consensus here that an era in Russian history did in fact end in August of 1991 gave new force to the discourse of self-reliance—based on a common sense approach to reality and a pragmatic attitude towards civic life—that has always been close to America’s sense of itself. This sense of self-reliance affected not only the transformation of the frontier and the growth of an industrial economy in the nineteenth century, but it was also a part of the formation of the evangelical faiths, in which the decision to accept God’s control of one’s life could only come from a personal commitment to take charge of your own salvation. The effort to plant the discourse of fundamentalist Christianity in Russia is one of the more visible vectors for the movement of this discourse of the self. And it might plausibly be argued that even if the main consequence of the evangelical spectacles that are taking place in Moscow—from three day visits by famous figures in Christian media, to sidewalk megaphone preaching by young missionaries—is not a flock of converts, its American organizers are satisfied with displaying what a self-reliant self might look like. This sense of the plasticity of the self has always been the key assumption for America’s imperial mission.

    The perception of this vacuum of the self was an inextricable part of the end of the Cold War. For most Americans who accepted uncritically the ways that Soviet society was represented, the end of communist ideology must mean that most Russians are confronting the frightening void of an essential lack, a hollow in the necessary fullness of the personality. And while religion may ultimately be a matter of personal preference, most Americans know that the real crucible of self-reliance is not the ministry but the market. How else are we to interpret the at times missionary zeal of those completely formed personalities who, like Cyril and Methodius, bearers of writing to the Slav tribes in the 9th century, came to bring the magic of the market to Russia? From the semiotics of omnipotence that surrounds the western firms and figures that were hired to transform the economic landscape of the ex-Soviet Union, to the styles of micro profit-making and taking that the small capitalist is resurrecting among a certain part of the Russian population, the whole point seems to be a massive didactic exercise to finally make the Russians “like us”. It seems a short step from recognizing this to hypothesizing that the huge scale of optimism about turning Russia into “people with whom you can do business” might be less a product of our own anxiety at who “we” really are in an age of multi-culturalism, global media monopolies, and massive global and local inequalities.

    This process of introducing new selves to Russia via the market, like the movement of another natural force, electricity, cannot exist without resistance, without the opposition inherent in the channel itself. In this case, what is generated is an ever proliferating mass of difference that becomes the chief topic of conversation for anyone who has stayed more than a few hours in Russia. While some difference is required to make the project of transformation meaningful, it is any culture’s ability to multiply difference far beyond the ability of the outsider to understand it, and far beyond their level of patience required to deal with it, that activates the other strategy America has always employed in relation to others: to seal a culture up in the closed processes of its own discourses. This could mean the discourse of an indigenous historiography new psychology, of geography, or simply of a broad and voracious essentialism that constructs exclusive narrative out of incomprehensible totality of any nation, group, or culture. If we listen more carefully then, the transformation of our instincts of distrust toward the former Soviet Union might just be the retooling of our own anxieties in the face of the cultural conduit against the naturalization of America’s world.

    Practically, this means that some kind of break must be made in our own vicious circle in the redundant movement of our own discourses by which “managed global transformations” yields to “irreconcilable differences,” by which “new world orders” give rise to “primordial ethnic hatreds.” All this is merely the slippage from one comfortable pose to another in the crib of geopolitics. What would be breaking out of the vicious circle entail?

    First it would mean allowing that the Russians have much more control over own affairs that both the rhetoric of democracy and market allows them. Russia’s state has never been “weak,” and to expect a quick conversion to the alchemy of the market or to the collective wisdom of the masses, is to ignore the ways that money, goods, opinions, voices, have flowed as dense historical and cultural constructs in Russian culture. In this respect, the industries of expertise, both inside and outside of academia, need to be aware that what they are offering is not a restoration of undistorted human nature, but entire collections of attitudes, inclinations, assumptions, and dispositions, which together represent much more than simply “a way of doing things”. They provide a complex of objects that are always already symbolic and instrumental, densely historical and available for appropriation in radically different contexts for sometimes radically different ends. Once the object of expertise is given over to that other context, whether it be a computer in a school or double entry book-keeping in the finance ministry, the bringers of expertise are in no control of how those objects are valued, read, transformed. Which is exactly as it should be.

    Secondly, it means that our government must see itself as playing more than the role of chief booster for the chambers of commerce and corporate boards who want to see in Russia a land of opportunity. When the issue at stake is our relations with other pieces of the world, the government must see itself as less the instrument of the will of its citizens, and more as an actor in a sphere that no citizens have access to; it is the United States in the form of the seemingly eternal shape of nation-state that possesses responsibility towards the condition of the divided but ultimately singular territory of the globe. This might mean breaking down distinction between understanding the world and acting upon it; to construct an understanding, however transitory, of other cultures is an action of greater consequence than transforming it into facsimiles of our own local lives.

    Thirdly, it means admitting that communism was neither a simple phenomenon, nor that it is ‘dead”. While even a short conversation with a Russian democrat reveals an instant discrepancy between what you both mean by democracy, similarly for hundreds of thousands of Russians and ex-Soviets, who are far from the downtrodden urban underclass represented by western media, communism possesses a depth of association and meaning that our common understandings of “ideology” and “propaganda” don’t begin to touch. Both academics and policy makers need to open the channels of communication not only with the democrats (which often means simply consuming access to media that international media companies already provide), they also need to seek out and engage the discourses of those for whom the idea of “mother Russia” or “communism” generates a number of complex and often contradictory postulates that map their understandings of the world. Most of these people are ready and eager to talk, as long as they sense that the discussion is not about the substitution of western common sense for their own.

    Finally, it suggests that the only way the nation-state relationship between the U.S. and Russia can be managed is by jettisoning the framework of geopolitics that till now has represented itself as the only “realistic” way of conceiving of economic and social processes occurring throughout the globe. The hegemony of this specific language and style of thought is perhaps the most debilitating legacy of the Cold War, as it simultaneously gives new sanction for the hubris embodied in the very concept of “global superpower,” as well as for the illusion that nations, their populations, and their governments are all synonymous.

    I would suggest that the only possible choice is to replace a foreign policy based on the fantasy of geopolitics with one based on the pedestrian and unglamorous practice of ethnography. As the world rushes into ever tighter economic embrace, there is no end of proof that the contact of cultures and languages is anything but the smooth meshing of gears that populisers of global market espouse. As not only the confusing picture in Russia and the Balkans but also nearly every other international crisis testify, many western governments are facing the same dilemma: how to start to understand and manage the volatile sphere of the nation-state in a new, more effective way. Only by seeing the market as a set of symbolic practices that have uncertain and unpredictable effects can we begin to see clearly the meaning of global transformations, and of all the techniques of social science, only ethnography offers the first step: an attempt at understanding others on their own terms, inside the discourses that make up their own realities.