Russia’s Cargo Cults

rich_russians1227.jpgYulia Latynina has a brilliantly sarcastic column in the Moscow Times today, which highlights the incongruity of Russia’s fervent anti-Westernism combined with deep appreciation for its material goods, services, banks, and institutions. I guess if North Korea were manufacturing ridiculously expensive luxury watches or Venezuela pumping out gold-plated cell phones, the politics of consumerism might be a little less complicated for the Kremlin-aires.

Anthropologists have written a great deal about the 20th-century “cargo cults” that arose in Melanesia. Adherents of those primitive faiths believed that all the amazing Western goods (or cargo) such as automobiles, guns and clothing were originally created by spiritual means by their ancestors. These modern goods had been intended for the Melanesian people, but the cursed white people stole everything before the goods could be delivered to the Melanesians. After seeing real airplanes for the first time, the Melanesians built one from sand, thinking it would fly. The Kremlin has taken a page from cargo cults. It is trying to build democracy, a market economy, and it is attempting to enforce peace. But the only problem is that all of these institutions are also made of sand. Like the Melanesian airplane, none of them can fly very well.

The Melanesian people were certain that those infernal white people didn’t like them, and they had two ironclad arguments to prove it. First, the whites had seized all of the wonderful goods that the Melanesians’ ancestors had intended for them. Second, their airplane of sand couldn’t get off the ground — probably because the white people had cast a spell on it.There are two basic ways to approach life. In one, you build a real airplane and fly it. In the other, you build an airplane of sand and then blame the evil West and its insidious plots and machinations for the fact that it won’t fly.