01/25/2012 11:56 am ET Updated Mar 26, 2012

Moscow or Beijing?

When I walked into an airport bookstore earlier this week, en route to Seattle to give a talk about the famous "Tank Man" photograph that has come to symbolize the Chinese events of 1989, one magazine cover immediately caught my attention, that of the most recent issue of the Economist. I am sure that many people found this cover, made up of a striking image of V.I. Lenin smoking a cigar with a band around it emblazoned with the symbol for the dollar, eye-catching. For me, though, it had a distinctive meaning at that particular moment, for I had Lenin on my mind for two inter-related reasons:

First, while I was still mulling how exactly to structure my Seattle talk, I had decided that it would have one section that explored themes associated with Lenin. More specifically, I would mention that an influential book published in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall spoke of a late-20th century "Leninist extinction," and then try to explain why, in spite of this, we find ourselves more than a decade into the 21st century with China still governed by a tightly disciplined Communist Party of the sort associated with Lenin.

The second reason seeing an image of Lenin made me do a double take was because of something I planned to do while in the airport waiting for my flight. This was go online to see if a piece I had written, which refers extensively to David Remnick (an author I always associate with Lenin, since he first came to my attention when I read his excellent 1993 book Lenin's Tomb), had been posted yet on the website of the newly launched Los Angeles Review of Books. The main point of that piece, which is called "Reading about Moscow (with Beijing on My Mind)" and went up on the site not long after I boarded the plane to fly north, is quite simple. When reading a recent "Letter from Moscow" by Remnick in the New Yorker, I was surprised by how many times I came across statements that, with just a tiny bit of tweaking, could have been lifted from one of the posts that Evan Osnos has done for that same publication's "Letter from China" blog.

Not surprisingly, I quickly picked up the display copy of the Economist to determine one thing: DId the lead article linked to the cover sporting Lenin refer to both China and Russia? It did. Both countries, it said, are now examples of "state capitalism," a system that the cover image showing a Lenin with businessman-like characteristics was meant to represent. I was glad to see the pairing, as even though I hadn't used the term "state capitalism" in my LARB piece, I had emphasized in it the need to keep in mind the similarities as well as differences between the post-Communist land run by Putin and the still-Communist land run by Hu Jintao et. al.

Here is how the LARB piece begins, with a link at the end that will take the interested reader to the full post on that new publication's blog:


Once upon a time, specialists in Chinese studies, like me, felt we had a lot in common with scholars who focused on Russia. We each shared an interest in large countries that had command economies and Leninist systems of rule. We each struggled to make sense of comparably opaque and often misleading official pronouncements. And when it came to works of dystopian fiction, we both studied places that were widely considered "Orwellian" in nature. But then came a pair of events whose twentieth anniversaries have just been marked: the collapse of the Soviet Union and the founding of a new Russian Federation. In the wake of these major changes, the comparative landscape began to shift. Soon, the contrasts between China and Russia seemed to far outweigh their similarities. After all, 1992 began with a new government in Moscow striving to leave the Communist era behind, while an old one in Beijing expressed its determination to keep China under Communist Party control and territorially intact.

And yet 2012 begins with the Russian and Chinese constellations once again falling into alignment. China is still sometimes referred to as Orwellian, but neither it nor Russia is now seen as the closest real-life approximation of a "Big Brother State," a title that now belongs to settings such as North Korea where harsher forms of authoritarianism are the rule. Some China specialists, myself included, have recently argued that consumerism, materialism and a culture of distraction have come to play such a pivotal role in keeping Hu Jintao and company in power that Aldous Huxley's Brave New World may now supplant the previous fictional template through which we once viewed Chinese authoritarianism: Orwell's 1984. My reading of commentaries and reportage on Putin's Russia suggests that the same shift from Orwell to Huxley makes sense when we look toward this fledgling, and questionable, democracy.

The realignment of the trajectories of the two countries creates an eerie effect for me when I happen to read something on Russia with the goal of forgetting, for a brief moment, about China -- the country I teach and write about for a living. My effort to escape is undermined by the feeling I sometimes get when immersed in a newspaper or magazine article about Russia -- the feeling that the words coming off the page could just as well have been written about China.

This happened most recently when I picked up David Remnick's fascinating "Letter from Moscow: The Civil Archipelago," which appeared in The New Yorker's final issue of 2011. Focusing largely on responses to Russia's late 2011 elections, it offers a sweeping look at everything from the complex and challenging activities of human rights groups, to the still-underdeveloped nature of civil society in a post-totalitarian state, to the limits placed on the press in a country whose leaders are determined to contain the flow of information that undermines their authority. The big themes Remnick addresses often brought Chinese examples to my mind, but so, too, did some of its small details. For example, in trying to capture the frustration and outrage that many urban residents feel at the special perks enjoyed by members of the government, their kin and their cronies, Remnick turns to driving habits. Solving traffic congestion in Moscow is a simple matter for "officials and the well-connected," who employ specially issued "flashing blue lights" that, when placed atop their luxury cars, allows them to zoom through traffic-snarled streets as ordinary drivers have to pull aside to let them pass. To be sure, China does not have the same blue light system. Nevertheless, the Chinese Internet is filled with angry posts describing incidents when officials and their family members acted -- and got away with acting -- as though the rules that apply to others simply do not apply to them.

I feel a particularly strong sense of "he could have just come back from China" as Remnick describes a recent spate of urban protests in Russia. For Remnick, this form of resistance demonstrates that the authoritarian country's young professionals are becoming less "bovine," "apathetic" and "anesthetized by stability" than they once were. This exact assessment of Russia's middle class struck me as something I could have read on the "Letter from China" blog by Evan Osnos. (Osnos, incidentally, reports from Beijing for the magazine that Remnick edits.) It is not just that we have been seeing an uptick in middle class activism lately in the PRC as well as in Russia. It is that, as Osnos often points out, the Chinese authorities have been working overtime to convince upwardly mobile young professionals to continue to accept a flawed status quo, as long as it brings them creature comforts: a deal that the government struck with this demographic group in the wake of 1989, and one that is becoming less and less secure as time goes by.

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