Two weeks ago I interviewed Alexander Karamenko (also known as, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the UK Russian Embassy) during his visit to the prestigious Cambridge Union. I was given just ten minutes with the Counsellor – not nearly enough time for the breadth of topics I had wanted to quiz him on. The interview itself can be found here.
Most of the students I talked to came away from his talk feeling frustrated with his tendency to avoid questions and his blatantly anti-Western stance. I asked Vica Germanova, a Russian-born English student at Cambridge University, about her thoughts on the Ambassador’s talk.
Sometimes, just sometimes, the Russian government makes it really quite hard for me to be an ardent patriot.
Alexander Karamenko’s recent visit to the Cambridge Union to discuss the situation in Ukraine was one of those times. As one could expect from a diplomat, he was dull, dispirited and evasive; every question asked somehow wound up becoming the stimulus for a 10 minute history lesson delivered in a monotonous sermon-like form. You know, the kind that made ‘church on a Sunday’ turn into ‘guilty-nap-in-the-pews on a Sunday’. He made an admirable effort to stand apart from some of Russia’s more hardline policies, claiming that he himself was not opposed to homosexuality on the grounds of sex being ‘a private thing’. However, at times he truly did seem to encapsulate the stereotypical Russian villain, using the same reasoning to justify why homosexual ‘propaganda’ has been banned in Russia and frankly admitting that Russia ‘will run out of patience’ if the West continues to back Ukraine’s attack on the rebels in the east.
It’s a funny word, ‘rebels’. It’s defined as those who ‘resist an established governmental order’, thus used by the Western media to describe the Russian nationalists fighting to keep eastern regions of Ukraine autonomous from the newly-installed Kyiv government. It’s almost as if the West has forgotten that this government came about as a coup d’état of the internationally recognised Yanukovich government of yesteryear. The cossacks in the east are fighting to protect Donetsk and Luhansk precisely because they refuse to recognise the new order which seized power by armed conflict, one which lasted 90 days and claimed 110 lives. Doesn’t that make the newcomers the rebels?
It’s all a matter of perspective. Karamarenko certainly angered several members of the audience with his illiberality; however, I — a Russian-born student studying English at Cambridge — having been brought up in both countries, can promise you that it all boils down to perspective. In Western society, it is unthinkable that anyone could ever, say, perceive Gay Pride events in the streets as illegal ‘propaganda’ aiming to convert ‘minors’. But Kramarenko raises a valid point — Russia is actually quite a conservative, orthodox place, despite what Hollywood (and pornography) may have you believe. There isn’t this culture of hyper-sexuality and fetishisation, there is still a strong Christian spirit and your sexual orientation is not something you wear on your sleeve.
Yes, the laws put in place are badly worded and have stirred up a lot of homophobic sentiment; yes, Russia’s seizure of Crimea was, perhaps, a bit heavy-handed. I never said Russia was perfect; in fact, I fully believe Putin’s a psychopath. But the problem with the West, and particularly the USA, is its close-mindedness. For all their inclusivity and equality and ‘free-rights-for-all’ mentality, they completely fail to comprehend how anyone could have an ideology that is outside of their own. Why? Because they are so goddamn convinced that theirs is the only right one, and any government which doesn’t subscribe to Western beliefs is automatically in opposition to them.
Russia never wanted this conflict. Russia never initiated it. Likewise, the homophobic problem in Russia has been escalated in recent years purely because sexuality has become politicised — again, a thoroughly Western notion.
There are no good guys here; I’m not denying that my country has seen and done some pretty appalling things. A plea to all Westerns reading this: please remember that your way is not the only ‘right’ way, and those who don’t see the world as you do are not necessarily your enemies.