Transcript: Konstantin Kisin
My conversation with the UK comic, podcast host and author
The fall is here, and the Lean Out podcast is back — renewed, refreshed, and ready to dive in on the debates of the day.
There’s no better way to kick off the season than with our brilliant guest today, who’s been ringing the alarm on pessimism about the West. He grew up in the Soviet Union under communism, and moved to the UK in his youth, forging successful careers as a translator, a comedian, a political commentator, and most recently, a podcaster.
Konstantin Kisin is co-host of the Triggernometry podcast. His new book is An Immigrant’s Love Letter to the West.
This edited transcript is for paid subscribers. You can listen to the full interview for free here.
TH: Konstantin, welcome to Lean Out.
KK: Thanks for having me.
TH: It’s wonderful to have you on. As you know, I’m a big fan of Triggernometry. I’m excited to speak with you about your book, which I loved — and which I learned a lot from. Let’s start here: You’re from the Soviet Union, your early years growing up were under communism. As you point out in the book, your homeland achieved many of the goals of the contemporary left. Set this up for us. What was that utopia like? And how did that experience influence how you now view this “woke” left?
KK: Well, the Soviet Union was brilliant at creating free healthcare, free education. In fact, as I talk about in the book, you were paid to study at university in the Soviet Union and given all sorts of opportunities. Inequality of wealth and also of income was very, very low compared to capitalist countries like the ones that we live in. So in many ways it was this brilliant, beautiful utopia that we’re all striving for today. Even something like women’s equality, for example, was extraordinarily advanced, particularly in the early Soviet Union, in terms of legalizing abortion. The goal was supposed to be — I think the quote was “freeing women from the bondage of family and children,” or something like that. So they were making quite a lot of progress towards that initially. At least until they realized you kind of need people to have children, to have a population.
Wealth and income inequality was very low, but the way it was achieved is by making everybody poor. The system was extraordinarily inefficient. Healthcare, yes everybody had access to it theoretically, but if you wanted to actually be treated by somebody who knew what they were doing, you needed to have some sort of bribe or connection or family link. That tended to be how it worked.
Education was similar. You had to know people to get into the right universities. And by the way, education in the Soviet Union was genuinely very, very good — a lot better than in Russia today. A lot better than in many Western countries today, I would argue, certainly in terms of the academic side of things. But the price for that was you didn’t really have much choice about your career. You were told where you would go, and you had to follow that profession. So, it was a very restrictive system. People who wanted to have a creative job, like being a writer, or an author, or a musician, or a comedian, God forbid — you were not really free to pursue that on your own skills and talent and merits. You had to be appointed author, or appointed a musician. You had to go through the official system. So it was a society that was extraordinarily restrictive, in order to enable this beautiful utopia that we all strive for today.
TH: You share a story in the book about your grandfather, a physicist. Tell our listeners what happened to him.
KK: In the late Soviet Union — when I was already alive, in the early 80s — my grandfather stepped on a landmine, as many people do nowadays. He said that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 was wrong. He didn’t actually say it in public. He didn’t tweet about it, or anything like that. He said it in a private conversation and one of his supposed friends reported him to the authorities. The KGB searched his house. He was fired from his job. His wife was fired from her job. Both his children, including my father, were kicked out of university. So my father’s education was essentially ruined because his father had said the wrong thing in the wrong place. He was essentially forced out of the Soviet Union and ended up coming to the UK. Eventually, when my parents had some money and they wanted to send me to study abroad, they were like, “Okay, your grandfather is in the UK, we will send you there.” So that’s how I ended up being in the West, and being in the UK. Because my grandfather was essentially exiled from the Soviet Union for saying the wrong thing.
TH: You say, at one point in the book, that you were warned as a child to not speak about the things you heard inside the house. And that your parents were not being paranoid; they were just being prudent. When you think about that kind of stifling atmosphere, and then you compare that to the atmosphere that we are in right now in the West, what parallels do you see?
KK: It’s why I wrote the book. I think we’re heading in that direction. Now obviously people start freaking out and go, “Are you saying we’ve got gulags now?” No. I’m not saying we’ve got gulags now. What I’m saying is we are heading in a direction in which we are increasingly censoring ourselves, first and foremost.
I come from a comedy background. People say, “Where are all these comedians getting censored?” Well, first of all, they are. They’re getting canceled all the time. We’ve got a story right as we’re recording this, in the UK, with a comedian whose show has been cancelled. But much more importantly — and this is a point that Lionel Shriver, the brilliant author, made when she was on Triggernometry. She said, “We don’t even know which books aren’t being written.”
In the wake of the awful attempt to murder Salman Rushdie, this is kind of the point that I think she was making. Which is: Nothing like The Satanic Verses would be written today, let alone published. And that’s because we’ve accepted this idea that people should be restricted in what they say, and what they think, and what they express in public, for the benefit of whatever the goal is — whether that’s protecting people from hurt feelings, or blasphemy, or whatever other restrictions we’ve agreed to implement on ourselves.
We now live in the society in which, increasingly, people are worried about saying what they think. And the stats bear this out. In the preface to An Immigrant’s Love Letter to the West, I give the statistics. I think it’s like 77 percent of Republicans, nearly 60 percent of independents, and over half of moderates in the United States are fearful of expressing their political opinions outside of their home. In the UK, the situation is similar. The trend is very dangerous, in that more and more people feel more and more restricted, and fewer and fewer people feel that they can speak their mind. So we absolutely are moving in a direction where we are censoring each other and ourselves. That worries me a lot.
TH: Yeah. That’s certainly something I experienced a lot in the newsroom. It is a very worrying trend.
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