Michael J. Totten shares a powerful tale about his travels in the Middle East, the Balkans, the Black Sea, and the Caucasus.
Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Michael J. Totten, a contributing editor at World Affairs and City Journal. The Middle East is his regular beat, and his book about Lebanon, The Road to Fatima Gate, won the Washington Institute Silver Book Prize last year. His new book is Where the West Ends: Stories from the Middle East, the Balkans, the Black Sea, and the Caucasus. Most of the book takes place in the post-communist world, along the fringe of Europe and just beyond, where Western civilization begins to merge with Russian and Islamic civilizations.
FP: Michael J. Totten, welcome to Frontpage Interview.
Totten: Thanks, Jamie.
FP: Let us begin with what inspired you to write this book.
Totten: I was in Jerusalem, standing before the concrete separation barrier between Israeli and the West Bank, when it hit me—that wall is a civilizational boundary. The Israeli side is either part of the West or similar to the West; Arab civilization begins on the other. That de-facto border may be the only place in the world where Western civilization suddenly stops and another abruptly begins. Everywhere else, the West falls away in degrees.
Between Turkey and Russia, and between the Balkans and the Caucasus, the West mixes and co-exists with the East and forms something else—not one thing, but different things in different places. It depends on what’s being blended.
When I stood there and looked up at that wall in Jerusalem, it hit me at once, ton of bricks style, that I had an entire book’s worth of material from that civilizationally ambiguous region, from places that are culturally influenced in part by Athens and Rome, but also by Moscow and Mecca. In a flash I knew I’d write and release a book called Where the West Ends.
FP: Where does the West end, exactly?
Totten: Aside from the de-facto border between Israel and the West Bank, and aside from places like the West Coast of the United States facing China and Japan, the West doesn’t abruptly stop anywhere, not even at the Mexican-American border. (Mexico, after all, is a former Spanish colony and is therefore partially Western as well as partially Aztec, Mayan, and so on.)
In the east, the West doesn’t suddenly stop. It merges with Russian and Islamic civilizations. Istanbul, for instance, looks eastern if you’ve just arrived from Europe, but it looks thoroughly Western if you’re coming out of Iraq. Ukraine is more western-oriented than Russia, and more culturally Western than Russia in some ways, but it descends, like Russia, from the Middle Ages kingdom of Kievan Rus. And it looks and feels thoroughly Russian compared with, say, Italy.
This mix-mastered region is fascinating to travel in because it’s familiar and exotic at the same time. I encounter fragments of the world I know, but also pieces that are utterly alien. Istanbul, but instance, is what you’d get if you crashed Rome and Mecca together. Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, is what you get if put Moscow, Istanbul, and Tehran in a blender. (Azerbaijan is Turkic and was part of the Persian Empire before Russia conquered it hundreds of years ago.) The epic historical forces that produced these kinds of places make the mind reel.
FP: Did visiting post-communist countries have any effect on your views about communism?
Totten: Oh, yeah. Nearly all the countries I write about in Where the West Ends are formerly communist. Some ex-communist countries are doing just fine, but parts of others are still in ghastly condition.
I’ve hated communism since I first became aware of it. My parents had me watch the film version of George Orwell’s 1984 when it came out. That sure made an impression. But it was nothing compared to seeing, up close and in person, places that had been destroyed by the Soviet Union and abandoned to time and decay.
Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, is a magnificent city. Really, it is. If you were to fly there and stay there you’d be excused for thinking Ukraine has recovered from communism as much as the Czech Republic has. But I entered Ukraine in a car at a remote border crossing from Poland. It’s the kind of place ministries of tourism wished visitors didn’t see. Even two decades after Moscow’s totalitarian empire burst, that part of Ukraine is still utterly shattered. Driving from the European Union into that ruined disasterscape was like falling off the edge of civilization into a land that was all but destroyed. The ruined industrial shore of the Sea of Azov is in horrible condition, as well, utterly forlorn and wasted. It looks like something out of Life After People.
The part of Georgia between Tbilisi and the border with Azerbaijan is also an abject catastrophe. I passed through in 2008 when Russia was attacking and it was as though the Soviet Union had never gone anywhere. The blight was extraordinary. Every building was dilapidated, every car windshield cracked. A skyline of smokestacks covered everything with a thick film of toxic pollution. It was made all the worse by the fact that Russia—again!—was imposing its will on the country by force. Georgia is culturally European in some ways, but it is physically located in Asia, too far away to be rescued by the European Union and NATO.
Tbilisi, the capital, is a wonderful place, and I’d love to go back. But there are still parts of that country that never recovered from communism, places even most Georgians never see. They’re like living museum pieces that are much more educational than communist museums like House of Terror in Budapest that are there as memorials for the victims. Some people still live in places that were ravaged by Stalin. They aren’t yesterday’s victims. They are today’s.
FP: Tell us a bit about Russia. How is it different from the West? First, what do you like about it? Second, what are some of the things that we would consider backward and that you find difficult when you are there?
Totten: Russia is like Western civilization in an alternate universe.
Hundreds of years ago, Moscow was called the “Third Rome.” The Byzantine Empire—with Constantinople as its capital—was the second. You can still see buildings and monuments in Russia that look Roman. The style is called Neo-Byzantine. You see it in Ukraine and Belarus, too, since both, while independent countries today, are part of Russian civilization.
Russia has its roots in the West. One might argue that it would still be part of the West if it had never been conquered from Asia. The Mongols took it in the 13th century and the place hasn’t been the same since.
It wasn’t Russia per se that was conquered in the 13th century. It was Kievan Rus, the medieval era kingdom that was founded in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, and which included much of today’s Ukraine, Belarus, and the European parts of Russia. That kingdom was smashed and subjugated by the Mongols, and its people were partly “easternized” by that process.
Taking a hard look at Russian civilization is like looking at our own civilization in a funhouse mirror. It’s similar, but it’s warped.
The entire Western world could have turned out like Russia had historical events played out differently. A huge swath of the Western world actually was like Russia quite recently since the Soviet Union conquered half of Europe after World War II.
You asked me what I like about Russia. Well, politically, I don’t like Russia at all since it’s authoritarian and anti-American. Its political system is painfully backward. Vladimir Putin is more like a tsar than an elected head of state in the U.S., Europe, or Canada.
But at the same time Russia is like a wayward brother of ours. It’s certainly more like the West than, say, Iraq or the Congo or Papua New Guinea. So I feel a certain amount of strained kinship with Russians that I don’t feel with everyone in the world.
But I do like and admire some things about it. It has a serious literary canon. Its high culture is no less sophisticated than the high culture of Paris, Vienna, or London. Much of its traditional pre-communist architecture is spectacular. And I respect the toughness of Russians. I’d like to see them softened up a bit, honestly, but I can’t help but respect the fact that they still have a bit of the toughness that so many Westerners have lost. Russia is too tough in some ways, but much of the West is a little too soft. The ideal, I’d say, is somewhere in between.
FP: Tell us about some of the places you have been that you have found utterly alien and describe some of the ingredients that you would call “alien.”
Totten: The most “alien” place I’ve ever been is Iraq. Hardly anything there is familiar. Not even five-star hotels—not that there are many of those—look like five-star hotels in the West. The architecture is different, the food is different, the clothing styles are different, the coffee and tea are different, the stores are different. Everything is different. Everything. It’s not like, say, Istanbul, which looks and feels European on the surface even though it’s Islamic. Showing up in a place like Iraq is extraordinarily stimulating even if it’s also unpleasant. When everything is different, everything is new. It feels a little like being a kid again. It was also humbling and embarrassing at first because I didn’t know how to act or how anything worked.
The strangest thing about Iraq’s otherwise absolute foreign-ness is that the Kurds in the north, the minute they open their mouths, sound like Americans. Talking politics with an Iraqi Kurd is like talking politics with an American from a Red State like Texas. Their culture is completely different from ours, but their politics is a lock. It’s a startling thing to experience even if you go there expecting it.
FP: Expand a bit on why you hate communism.
Totten: I’m more or less a small-l libertarian, so I hate communism for all the usual reasons, but what gets to me more than anything else is the communist desire to rule people’s minds.
I’ll give you an example. I was taking a drive through Albania with some friends I made over there and they were telling to me how much worse it used to be in Albania than in Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia’s communism was overseen by Tito, who was relatively “moderate” by communist standards, but Albania was ruled by Enver Hoxha, one of the most thoroughly oppressive tyrants in the history of the human race.
One of my traveling companions told me about an elderly friend of hers from Tirana, Albania’s capital. Many decades ago, when communism was still new to Albania and the regime was demolishing or closing churches and mosques, this now-elderly woman was afraid to even look at a church or a mosque if it hadn’t been bulldozed yet. She was afraid to even think about a church or a mosque because she thought Enver Hoxha would find out and kill her.
That a government was able to instill that much paranoid terror in people—as if Hoxha himself was an omnipotent God—is just extraordinary. I can’t think of much nice to say about Vladimir Putin, but at least he doesn’t claim sovereignty over anyone’s mind. Only people suffering schizophrenic delusions could think Vladimir Putin can read their minds. Yet at least some communist governments managed to convince otherwise sane people that they could actually be punished for thought crime. I can hardly even imagine the amount of repression that’s necessary to acquire for that kind of power.
FP: What are some of your experiences in and observations of Islamic societies and cultures?
Totten: I’ve had a huge range of experiences. The kindest people I’ve ever met in the world are in Muslim countries, but so are the most vicious people I’ve ever met. I’ve gotten death threats from terrorists, and I’ve had people over there place themselves in danger to protect me solely because I was a guest in their country. I’ve had complete strangers go insanely far out of their way to help me when they didn’t have to, and I’ve also been threatened and bullied and could have been killed a number of times.
Islamists can be pleasant and helpful in one-on-one situations, too, believe it or not. It’s when they join terrorist organizations or when they reach a critical mass—like they have in Egypt and South Lebanon—that you really have to watch out. But one-on-one they can be fine, at least most of the time. It’s an interesting and educational thing to experience, but I have to be careful not to be lulled into a false sense of security. If I meet an Islamist, I won’t trust him as much as I’ll trust someone I know to be liberal or secular. I wouldn’t get in a car with a bunch of Egyptian Salafists, that’s for sure. I won’t go near anyone who’s waving their black flag around.
One of the things that makes Iraq so unnerving is that, outside the Kurdistan region, you never really know who you’re dealing with. Everyone in Baghdad wears a mask. Everyone. You can’t trust anyone. They don’t trust anyone either. And they’re right not to.
FP: What do you love about the West? What makes these realities possible?
Totten: The West is the way it is for a host of reasons. We’ve taken Greek and Roman philosophy and politics and improved and refined them over the centuries. The three biggest leaps forward that come to mind are the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the American Revolution.
I love the usual things about the West—our freedom and prosperity—but I have a much deeper appreciation for both now that I’ve spent a significant amount of time in places that are poor, oppressive, or both. That should come across in all my books. It’s so easy to take things for granted if you’ve never known anything else. Who appreciate oxygen, for instance? Only people with asthma or a someone who just narrowly escaped drowning. The rest of us don’t even notice it.
I grew up in Oregon. It’s one of the most pleasant and civilized places in the world. We don’t have serious poverty anywhere. We certainly don’t have oppression or armed struggle. People who spend their whole lives here have nothing to compare home to. They have no idea how good they have it. That describes most of my neighbors, but I don’t mean to give them a hard time about it. I slip back into complacency myself when I stay home for too long. I have to leave after a while because the feeling of appreciation wears off, but all three of my books are reminders.
FP: If some conclusions are possible, what are they?
Totten: We could lose what we have. I’m optimistic. I don’t think we will. At least not anytime soon. But it’s possible. We’re fortunate. I don’t want to say we’re lucky. The United States didn’t get this way by winning the lottery. But Russia—or Kievan Rus, anyway—used to be part of the West. And it’s not anymore.
FP: Michael J. Totten, thank you for joining Frontpage Interview.
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