Главная страница «Первого сентября»Главная страница журнала «Английский язык»Содержание №8/2006


The Alchemy of the Russian Soul in the Canadian Welfare State

From an international perspective one reads or hears so little of life in Canada, that most foreigners have only a vague default image of some “Sweden of North America”, or hybrid welfare state model, that they commonly project their own expectations into. To be fair there is a powerful seductive allure about Canada when seen from afar, especially among those who think they can emigrate here, outsmart the system and plug themselves into its cozy welfare state prerogatives. More often than not these people end up being boxed in and manipulated to a degree they could hardly have imagined; they underestimate the pervasive system of entrapment that is intrinsic to a social welfare state like Canada.

While different ethnic-cultural groups fare differently with their own stories, I would like to focus on the fate of recent Russians and Eastern Slavs coming to Canada: a tragic-comic tale of brave souls with unreal, cocksure expectations who get swallowed up by a process they barely understand. Even though Russians are a physically hardy and tough-minded people, they seem to have little native resistance to this matrix of psychological forces – it is like a psychic acid bath that dissolves their best qualities. Typically while they are involved in the survival/money making game, the other side of their nature is being unconsciously worked on and molded. This is not a pretty picture; I do not like seeing my own kinsmen turned into zombie-cattle. Does anyone warn or prepare Russians for life in Canada?

First some background: Canada is arguably the New World’s exemplar social welfare state; it is, if you will, a large scale materialization of those of the 18th century European philosophers’ revolutionary ideas – Universalism, Rationalism, liberal social engineering writ large, and expressing itself for us to see now. The end game of Liberalism!

At first it is somewhat disarming to arrive in a typical, large Canadian city. On the surface everything appears as it should be: the built environment is clean, with all the modern amenities; there are well-maintained cafes, restaurants, malls, theatres, parks, office buildings, high rises, athletic facilities and so on. The people are usually beguilingly polite, and compared with the USA, with its menacing and ever present law enforcement apparatus, one sees here a notable absence of police. Ghettos and slums don’t exist. Everything seems to run with the healthy hustle and bustle of urban life.

Now at this point it is best to pause. This is the layer of images that fills the consciousness of most visitors, and indeed the Canadian government, corporate media and travel industry try diligently to maintain that image. That is what you will see in the glossy brochures, travel books, official and unofficial websites – the perfunctory smiling skiers on snowy mountain tops, those vistas of sparkling commercial high rises and well dressed urbanites at some outdoor cafй. And this is not a bad picture! Was not this the goal of so many past reformers? Perhaps I could even stop here, and write for some budget travel guide about the most affordable hotels in some remote part of the country, or how to squeeze the most out of your dollar while busing from one end of the country to another. But all this would only be elaborating on a boring mirage. A much more interesting and sinister drama can be found in the day-to-day culture patterns.

For example, language and etiquette. As I alluded to above, Canadians do have a reputation for excessive politeness. At first this can have an enjoyable, narcotic effect; but soon this becomes tiring and one wants to dig for more complex and real emotions. This is a major impasse for Russians conditioned to believe that civility is merely a veneer or social lubricant whereas in Canada it is extended far beyond what most other cultures would consider appropriate. Unlike western continental Europe or Russia, one rarely sees those overt displays of “negative” emotions, like expressive anger, mockery or most any grand gesture; it is as if a placid psychologically machined grid has been overlaid on the human drama. One wonders where the line is between robotic communication and the deeply authentic? Or is it even a relevant issue here? Quite incredibly, no! At least not for English Canadians. This is such a non-issue that you will rarely if ever hear it brought up in the popular media or cultural forums. This blind spot is all the more incredible, as the overarching principle complaint I have heard from Russians is the incongruity between the spoken word and feelings/actions – a kind of linguistic schizophrenia. It is as if Canadian English has become a kind of bureaucratese. Perhaps the closest analogy would be Japan or Finland (without the drunkenness).

If all this hyper-politeness is not enough, we have a layer of “political correctness” which has become so internalized that overt censorship is hardly necessary; talk, enlightened or otherwise, on race, ethnic issues, deep power structures, banking, most historical or political reasoning, that may veer off into the deeper or darker depths is generally proscribed. One can try to “push the envelope” and get “personal”, but more often than not this will only threaten Canadians and they will recoil. Oftentimes you may not even realize that you committed some faux-pas save for some subtle increase in politeness. And then you wonder if it is only a question of time before you understand the social signals and can thereafter plumb the cultural and emotional depths. So you wait and indulge people with the social niceties, but soon this becomes debilitating: who wants to live with that constrained look, shallow breathing and tightness in the chest? And this is where so many Russians half-consciously reach a tipping point, take stock of themselves and ask: what is there of intrinsic cultural value that would make social engagement worthwhile?

One group will see sport spectacles (hockey), phony politeness, manic consumption, idiosyncratic talk of work or government entitlements, and not much else, and they form their own little bubble communities of other Russian йmigrйs that they never really break out of. This of course is not integration, and as the reader will have guessed, these are mostly middle-aged and older Russians, and not worth writing about as they have self-insulated themselves from the society at large (except for government benefits!).

More relevant are those reasonably intelligent, proactive and ambitious йmigrйs who try to productively integrate into the society. What is their fate? Consider first of all if you are a Russian with the above qualities then you may be especially vulnerable to the hypnotic power of western industrial consumerism. Here in Canada the corporate capitalist matrix is especially potent, as it has been fine-tuned to be softer, more pervasive and seductive than the US with its extremes, violence and economic hollowing out of industry. And unlike Europe there are no historical or cultural countervailing forces – Canada started its history as a mercantile colonial outpost and easily transitioned into modern consumerism. It is not too much of an exaggeration to say that corporate consumerism is the historical foundation of Canada, and that it has not known much else.

So as far as psychological resistance to this, a native Russian can expect no support from the surrounding culture, and must rely on his own psychic-spiritual resources. Then there are societal expectations: possibly a car, an over-priced apartment, electronic gadgets, high taxes (50% or more). It is not easy to opt out of the above “necessities” as they are also social signifiers, especiallty for professionals. Moreover, wages, taxes and expectations are so calibrated as to keep you busy, robotically busy, to succeed. You would think some grand demonic social engineer thought up this system! After a few years of long work days and busy-ness, that special animating quality in the eyes and facial expression becomes absent. This is a spooky sight for me, as I have lived in Russia and experienced the “Russian Soul”.

As an aside, any Russian professional deliberating about emigrating to Canada will almost certainly be at a disadvantage compared with native-born Canadians, despite the hype from Canadian Immigration. Even if your English is impeccable and you are in the top of your field, you will have to go back to school and get re-credentialized (which usually means going into debt!) and then jump through more hoops that no one bothered to warn you about. It is a cruel racket and I have spoken with many professionals who would not have left Russia had they known the bigger picture.

Another dynamic that Russians have to deal with in Canada is what I call “creaturalness”, i.e. the tendency to see yourself as an organic object or creature. This is much more than just health crazes, rather it is a process whereby your visceral processes become progressively more and more important. The process is insidious in that it comes in under the conscious radar screen. This is ultimately a feature of Canada as a secular humanistic state. There is no transcendent reference, so we are, implicitly, ephemeral carbon-based units and this generates a tremendous amount of fear. Canada is a fear-based nation. Consider: Canadians own more various insurance policies than any other people on earth, and there is an existential attachment to government entitlement systems – pensions, welfare, unemployment insurance, etc. The Patronage State as the guarantor of (visceral) security.

This idea of “creaturalness” protected by a secularized state with the entitlement machinery is so powerful that you cannot understand the Canadian mentality without it; political platforms and most all bureaucracies are predicated on it. Read a Canadian newspaper or magazine and you will see its popular expression. But an advanced Social Welfare State is very unnatural, especially for Eastern Slavs who evolved under very severe environmental and social pressures. It is as if the pressure on a tightly wound spring was slowly released, so in the end, the “energetic” quality of the person would be very different. I believe this partly explains the difference in demeanor of many new world Russians, in so far as there is a loss of the life force or vitality. The very logic of the Liberal Humanistic State undermines its own foundation in the end. It is dysgenic.

Here I would like to mention – briefly – a dimension of Canadian life that is difficult to see when you are immersed in it, and yet glaringly obvious-or hidden in plain sight: Canadian cultural life is primarily a simulacra culture with nested levels of simulation. The popular mass culture is almost entirely imported from the USA, what little grows in Canada is a simulation of the giant American media hologram – or really a simulation of a simulation! The governmental structure is a simulation of both a constitutional monarchy and a parliamentary democracy, and yet is really a cryptocracy run by a handful of families. The economy is a simulation of a protectionist left-centrist social welfare state, yet is almost entirely foreign owned and controlled. Language and mannerisms are progressively emptied of substance, simulating emotions that hardly exist anymore. There are many major newspapers that seem to compete for public attention, and yet are almost entirely owned by one family – a simulation of the market place of ideas. A notoriously provocative Premier in Canada struck a resonant chord when he said “Canada is not a real country”. And today we have the moniker of “Absurdistan”. That is why one hears so little substantive information about this country – in the background is the Nihil!

And lastly, perhaps some Russian reading this may only want to come here, plug himself into this system with its entitlements, live an insular life, and not worry about philosophical issues. Well, that too may be a delusion. I was in St. Petersburg about a year before the collapse of the Soviet Union, and can see many parallels with Canada today: there is a pervasive sense that things will carry on the same into the indefinite future, and yet Canada is mortally dependant on the US economy and military; there is a higher per capita energy consumption than the US; the artificiality and internal contradictions are too great too sustain; it is too geographically large to keep together, especially if the western half is contested by China. I could go on, but only want to convey a caveat: any Russian wanting bourgeois security may be in for a surprise in Canada.

I think Russians coming to Canada can give us some of their best qualities, like strength of character and tough-minded groundedness. This land is going to need these qualities when we get to the other side of the watershed, and this has a greater future than being cattle in some huge Potemkin village.

By M. Kunashko,
Vancouver, Canada