Corn Madness Revisited

Submitted by Dmitry Orlov  –  The ClubOrlov Blog

Five years ago I received an unusual email from an unusual character: Yevgeny. I translated and published his letter under the title Corn Madness, and it got some 17,000 reads—a big number for me at the time—and plenty of comments. Yevgeny wrote of his experience with living in the US, and his impressions of it.

Subsequently, we met, and I got to know him. He is educated as a philosopher, a non-drinker, non-smoker, athletic, a self-taught polyglot, an accomplished musician and sound technician, but he was also, by virtue of his economic situation, working as a day-laborer at the time.

Since that time, Yevgeny has returned to Russia. I recently wrote to him and asked him to write an update, which he was kind enough to provide. Below is the original article, followed by his update.

Dear Dmitry,

I hope you don’t mind that this is in Russian. I think that this way I can be more completely honest. I am a relatively recent graduate of one of the many faceless post-Soviet institutions of higher learning, with a degree in philosophy. Last year I moved to the USA and married an American woman.

The question of when the modern capitalist system is going to collapse has interested me since my student years, and I have approached it from various directions: from the commonplace conspiracy theories to the serious works of Oswald Spengler and Noam Chomsky. Unfortunately, I still can’t fathom what it is that is keeping this system going.

My wife is a very pleasant woman, but a typical white conservative American. Whenever any political question comes up, she starts ranting about the Constitution and calling herself a libertarian conservative and a constitutionalist. I used to think that she is well-educated and understands what she is talking about. In fact, she is the one who introduced me to the US, and I once believed everything she told me about it. But as I found out later, she understands nothing about politics, and just repeats various bits of populist nonsense spouted by Severin, O’Reilly, Limbaugh and other mass media clowns. Well, I am not going to try to prove to my wife that she is wrong on a subject that I don’t quite understand myself. After all, she is a good wife. And so I try to steer clear of any political questions when I am with the family, although I do not always succeed. Perhaps if I had a copy of your book, it would help me explain myself to her better, but our family was one of the first to be flattened by the real estate market collapse. My wife went bankrupt, lost her bank account, house, job and the rest a while before I came here, and so we can’t buy anything online.

In the talk you gave at the conference in Ireland you mentioned that there are certain regions of the US where the common people only eat garbage food from places like Walmart, which consists of artificial colors and flavors and corn, and that such a diet makes them “a little bit crazy.” To my utter disappointment, I have to entirely agree with you. Various witty Russian commentators love to heap ridicule on the “dumb Americans” and on the USA as a generally stupid country. But if they spent a bit of time living here and paid closer attention, they would realize that it is not the low cultural level that distinguishes Americans from, say, Russians: both are, on average, quite beastly. But even when I’ve visited here before, as a student, my first impression was of a country that is full of madmen, ranging from somewhat mentally competent to total lunatics. And the further south I traveled, the more obvious this became. At first I even marveled at this, thinking, look at how intoxicating the spirit of liberty can be! But now I understand that this is a catastrophe, that American society is brainwashed and alienated in the extreme, and that all that’s left for Americans to do is to play each other for the suckers that they have become.

Unfortunately, I feel the pernicious influence of all this on my own family right here and now. You don’t have to be a brilliant visionary to realize that in the current situation all these endless suburbs, built on the North American model, are slowly but surely turning into mass graves for the millions of former members of the middle class. Those that do not turn into mass graves will become nature preserves – stocked with wild animals that were once human. My family is turning feral under my very eyes. Lack of resources has forced us to live according to the Soviet model – three generations under one roof. There are six of us, of which only one works, who is, consequently, exasperated and embittered. The rest of the household is gradually going insane from idleness and boredom. The television is never turned off. The female side of the family has been sucked into social networks and associated toys. Everyone is cultivating their own special psychosis, and periodically turns vicious. In these suburbs, a person without a car is as if without legs, and joblessness does not allow any of us to earn money for gas, and so the house is almost completely isolated from the outside world. The only information that seeps in comes from the lying mass media. And I understand that millions of families throughout America live this way! This is how people turn into “teabaggers,” while their children join street gangs.

For me, as for you, this is the second collapse. You had left USSR before it happened, while I was there to observe it as a child. I saw what happened when people were finally told that they were being had for seventy-odd years, and were offered a candy bar as consolation. Now, after all this, Russian society is finished. It grieves me to see the faces of Americans, who still believe something and wave their Constitution about, and to know that the same thing is about to happen to them. I think that the model which you have proposed will allow us to confront and to survive this collapse with dignity.

New Hampshire

Time has come to look back. Five years have passed since I wrote this naïve text. The world has changed, and so have I. Where do I start…

Three years ago I got on a plane from New York to Moscow, on a one-way ticket. There were family reasons for my departure, but I never returned to the US, and don’t regret this—at all! I don’t want to live in the US any more. Since then, my quality of life has only improved. Except that I am sick of trying to explain to everyone why I sacrificed my Green Card—which so many people still dream of getting. They don’t understand me.

When I returned to Russia, I was able to leave behind the feeling of anxiety, which followed me everywhere in the US. There is a good Russian saying: “At home, even the walls help you.” In the US, I was never without the feeling that collapse is imminent—that all of this could come down any moment. At that time (autumn of 2012) people in Russia were, quite to the contrary, in high spirits, because the economy was developing rapidly, and people were prospering.

Over the three years that I was gone, my native Krasnodar turned into an affluent center of consumerism. During the day, it is clogged with traffic jams full of expensive imported cars, and huge shopping malls are filled with people even on workdays. Poor, destitute Russians?—please! They couldn’t care less about some “peak oil” or other. We are Russia, we have all the resources in the world! Americans are paying $100 for a barrel of oil, life is great!

I have had to reevaluate my attitude toward the people in Russia. They are still far less helpless than the average American, but they are beginning to remind me of the latter. There is a real orgy of consumerism going on here. Suburban sprawl has appeared. The most prestigious and popular form of transport is a big white SUV.

Same as in the west, most people’s eyeballs are drawn by their smartphones most of the time, even while driving, while stopped at a red light. The sums the consumers spend on these smartphones are enough to buy a used domestically produced car. Russians like to show off.

Of course, the material level of life of most Russian citizens even now doesn’t compare favorably to those in the countries of the “golden billion,” there is still poverty, especially away from the profit centers. But it’s not the same country that I knew during the hungry 90s.

But money does not bring happiness, and I was able to see this for myself yet again. After living in the US and returning to Russia, I also spent half a year in South America, where I saw a much lower level of life than in Russia. At the same time, the people who live there are far happier than in the US and Russia put together. And this registered with me. Now I seriously think of moving to Argentina.

This nation already survived the horrific default of 2001, military dictatorship, deindustrialization and various other calamities, and came through it all with its dignity intact. They know how to be poor but happy (unlike Russians) and without neuroses (unlike Americans)—I saw this with my own eyes.

Their mentality is at first difficult to fathom, and makes you want to reject it. People stress out over unreliability, flakiness and laziness of the people, over the slow pace of life, but at some point they understand, that they have nowhere to rush to either.

As for myself, after returning from the US, I made a firm decision: henceforth I will only do what I like. Since then, I’ve been making a living as a translator/interpreter and a sound engineer on a freelance basis. I do not seek any permanent, official employment. I’ve also worked on construction sites, and even as a tourist guide in Argentina. The earnings are low, but enough for food and shelter. And that is basically enough for me. I could make a bit more by working as a security guard, are as a cachier in a supermarket, but then I would hate my job. But why would I need more? Here, in the Northern Caucasus, there are amazingly beautiful mountains and sea, a warm climate, fertile soil. I have plenty of friends, and I always have something to do and somewhere to go. At some moments I even felt happy.

As far as the political and economic situation in Russia at the moment, we all know that it’s troubled. Since around the middle of 2014 it has become more difficult for most of us to get by. One often gets a feeling of déjà vu—we’ve seen this all before, haven’t we? The government demonstrates its incompetence: it appears that nobody at the top anywhere in the world knows what to do next. People still love Putin, but this doesn’t get in the way of them hating the rest of the government. That’s part of our mentality: good czar, bad aristocracy. I live not far from the border with the Ukraine, and right next door to Crimea. Since last year we have seen a gigantic influx of refugees. Clearly things are much worse in the Ukraine.

But these changes are visible in the cities; in the country, people live just as they did 30-40 years ago. My kin still works the amazingly fertile soil, rides around on bicycles, lives as if nothing else matters, and—unlike the spoiled city residents—doesn’t complain about life. All the imporant questions in life are still sorted out through acquaintances. Where money is chronically in short supply, it determines very little. I am completely convinced that the more traditional a society, the more collapse-resilient it is. When the zombie-apocalypse comes to the cities, life in the villages will not change much. Here, they’ve seen lots of such cataclysms, and know what to do.

Here is another example of resilience: the Republic of Abkhazia—also just next door from me. It is a favorite destination for many of my friends and acquaintances. Since the collapse of the USSR, it has been languishing in neglect. At the same time, the people who live there are some of the happiest, hospitable and healthiest people on planet Earth. I think that in a hundred years they will still be grazing sheep, growing tangerines and setting new longevity records.

But for the rest of us, I believe that the time of great change is at hand. We had a sort of time-out for five years, so that we could prepare. But now the real global collapse is right on our doorstep. If you didn’t find a place to hide—too bad. I’ve spent this time without achieving much of anything, but at least I had a good time.