MOSCOW — In the west, church bells toll, and in Russia they usually sing. Most Orthodox churches have a rack of bells of different sizes, played by ropes tied to their clappers that a ringer manipulates to create long polyrhythmic harmonies that layer sound on top of sound in a way that seems to bend time and space. In all my years in Russia I'd never really thought about them until this past summer on a trip to the White Sea.
We were on the Solovetsky Islands, having arrived after days on a boat over the rivers and lakes of the Russian North, and an overnight bus to one of the ferries over. And there we were near the walls of the monastery, one of the holiest sites in Orthodoxy, hearing those bells in the company of drone-size mosquitos as the midnight sun lit up the mirror sea in a million shades of orange and purple.
For centuries this was a renowned place of pilgrimage, where the faithful would make a "podvig," a difficult spiritual struggle to get closer to the sacred. You feel the momentary harmony of the present and history. This is also where in the 1920s the Bolsheviks lopped off the monastery domes and created the pilot project for the Gulag system of prison labor camps. By a nearby highway is a silent pine forest where thousands of Stalin's victims are buried in shallow, unmarked mass graves.
STOP BAD JOKES
Russia is many things in one place, which is frustrating for a westerner. It is a place of everyday discourtesy and wide-angle corruption and cruelty, a hard, cold, land on top of which lives a culture that will reveal amazing things if you can get on its wavelength. I've spent a lot of time there, with friends and family, and always learn something new.
And the city of Moscow is many things, but it is not a throwaway punchline to score lazy points in an argument. So I'm begging all my well-meaning liberal friends: please knock it off with "Moscow Mitch."
Since I started thinking about this over the summer, we've gone through another three or four "Russiagate" news cycles. For us honest Russophiles, these past few years have been a sigh-inducing stream of nuisances, like seeing memes and magazine covers with a backwards "R" in a constructivist style, or mixing up St. Basil's Cathedral with the Kremlin. It's rude to the perfectly phonetic and efficient Cyrillic alphabet, and to the marvels of architecture that Americans can't bother to get straight. It's cringey but mostly harmless — unlike the homophobic "Trump is Putin's boyfriend" stuff, which can't stop soon enough.
All this is a convenient system of boogeymen and adventure stories left over from the Cold War awkwardly grafted onto the present. And the "Moscow Mitch" idea is where it stops working. In a literal sense, this effort to hashtag-shame Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's eagerness to do what's best for Russia doesn't work because he isn't as thin-skinned as the president. But more so, it's a dumb, imprecise way to avoid a real problem.
There is no "Moscow Mitch" — there's just "100 percent All-American Kentucky Mitch." Don't give Putin and his creeps too much credit for their online vandalism and trolling. It's our blessed American system that coughed up something like Mitch, a plutocrat that welcomes help from anywhere in his lifelong effort to make life better for the extremely wealthy and worse for everyone else. Get mad at that system, and all your uncles and friends from high school who spread aggro garbage on Facebook, and the social media corporations that profits by letting them.
Playing with stereotypes is their playbook, and it's another way not to think about our mangled health care system, failing climate change policy, or hypocritical, un-democratic institutions. Even worse, it enforces the divisions that guarantee we'll never get out of this mess because we can't do it alone.
Back in Moscow over the summer, I saw the protests that exploded every weekend, the first real street protests since 2012. Tens of thousands of people marched to demand fair city council elections and the right to assemble, in the face of an army of riot police trucked in, equipped with Kevlar suits, clubs, and crash helmets. The police arrested and beat people at random, in bursts of shocking state violence that sent people to jail, threatened to take away children and permanently ruin careers, and hinted at even worse mass repressions that lie in wait. Along with events at Hong Kong and back home, it looked to me like another front in the international struggle against far-right authoritarianism.
Over the years Russians I've met have asked me if its true about how alone and embattled Russia is. "Do Americans really hate us?" This year was the first I had to lie, and I hope not to again.
Christopher Marcisz is an occasional Eagle contributor.