The poison of nationalism
Colin Thubron might be our best living travel writer. (If he isn’t, please tell me who is better.) I recently finished a book he wrote on travels in Mongolia, Eastern Russia and Manchuria (mostly following the course of the Amur River.) I was struck by the highly negative attitude of many people toward foreigners, and the positive feelings toward some of the worst people in all of human history—including Genghis Khan (in Mongolia), Stalin (in Russia), and Mao (in China.) The Russians that Thubron met disliked the Chinese, and vice versa.
One thing I noticed is that this hatred is being exacerbated by nationalistic propaganda that demonizes foreigners. At one point Thubron interviewed a Russian who worked in the oilfields of eastern Siberia:
“Half the time you don’t notice, and the propaganda seeps into you. When I was working for the Canadians in Chukotka, I realized that I was starting to resent them and getting angry, and I wondered why. I never watch our television — it’s too boring — but up in Chukotka there was nothing else to do, and I realized that I was being brainwashed by watching, and starting to dislike Westerners.” He grins at me, as if I wasn’t one. “So I checked myself and went back to normal.”
I have a pretty low opinion of authoritarian nationalists such as Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. But after reading some of the interviews in Thubron’s book, I’m almost tempted to say how lucky we are that Russia and China are led by such enlightened cosmopolitan globalists, rather than the “man on the street” in these two giant countries. Some of the views expressed were pretty appalling.
Authoritarian nationalists often try to rewrite history in order to justify their hold on power, or to justify the invasion of a neighboring country. The newest issue of The Economist has one such example:
Russian history rich in shameful dates, many of them marking show trials and mass executions—or liquidations, as they were then called. December 28th, 2021, should be added to the calendar. On that day Russia’s supreme court “liquidated” Memorial, the country’s most vital post-Soviet civic institution, dedicated to the memory of Stalinist repression and the defence of human rights.
The same is occurring in China. Just ten years ago, a Chinese citizen could criticize the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). Now that subject is taboo in China.
With the dramatic rise in nationalism during the 21st century, we can expect to see an increase in xenophobia, especially among residents of the great powers. This dehumanization of foreigners makes war more likely.
PS. I was interested in the fact that Thubron described northern Manchuria as being much more prosperous than southern Siberia, right across the border. Of course that’s a subjective evaluation that may reflect dynamism (i.e. growth rates) more than levels of GDP/person. In addition, eastern Russia is relatively depressed, but then so is Manchuria. In any case, most estimates show Russia’s GDP/person to be much higher than China’s in PPP terms (and about the same in dollar terms.)