Do you get Putin (and Russia)?


I’m licking my chops at the chance to make some commentary about Russia, given that there are rifts rife between the US and Russia these days.  Andrew Weiss at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace recently stated that Russia has been exceptionally good lately at surprising the international community, and pulling everyone’s attention into its’ orbit.  Amid all this attention there is a sense, even in President Obama, that Russia doesn’t deserve all the press coverage and intrigue, given that it’s a relatively weak and inconsequential country trying hard to strengthen its’ position on the world stage.  

But as a friend said once:  don’t underestimate the Russians.  Russia is now in the headlines, and it’s not only because they are trying hard to get attention, but because they are doing things around the world that bear significant consequences on all of us.

As a person who has delved into Russian studies and spent a year in that country (2010) on a Fulbright grant, there are some insights I’d like to share for those looking to understand what’s going on with Russia.  Here is a general outline of some good points to remember as you’re absorbing all the news about Russia these days.

Put Russia into historical context.  It’s been a world player representing its’ own civilizational sphere of significance for centuries now, and whatever the banner, Soviet communism or Orthodox Christianity, Russia has viewed itself, and has been, a civilizational force to be reckoned with, producing several noteworthy contributions to, among other things, classics of world literature and music (think Dostoevsky and Tchaikovsky)

If you’re an ardent fan of Western democracy (as am I), appreciate how some of your biases towards non-democratic governance may not get at the full picture of what actual benefits there are in systems you don’t intuitively favor by disposition.  Monarchy, for example, has been the longest reigning form of governance throughout history, and to simply dismiss it as backward or a historical relic of the past doesn’t do justice to what it actually offers.  Speaking on behalf of monarchy’s historical and broad hold on humanity, the historian SW Spellman says that the “imposition of rule by one speaks to a deep human need, a desire for permanence and meaning in a world of unpredictability and danger”.  

I have to check my own biases when I automatically criticize some of the actions of leaders like Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey and Vladimir Putin in Russia.  Turkey and Russia broadly represent historical civilizations (Muslim and Orthodox Christian) that have been quite distinct and at times at odds with other civilizations, notably the West.  Within their histories they have had leaders who explored and embraced some kind of Westernization (think Ataturk and Peter the Great), and have had great tussles back and forth about adopting foreign ways at the expense of preserving their own heritages (think the Slavophile vs. West debates in 19th century Russia).  

Broadly speaking, although Turkey since 1924 has been politically more democratic than Russia perhaps at any time, Russians (especially in cities) have a much more sophisticated understanding of the West than Turks, and incorporate more Western influences into their lives.  My former students in Ekaterinburg (politics majors) all had excellent proficiency in English, and were also fairly strong in another language, either Eastern or Western, like Arabic and French.  Many young Russians in the city were either fans or creators of arts cultures both high and low brow.  And Russians are some of the most well educated people I’ve met anywhere in the world.  

Sometimes when we focus on the political side regarding the lack of democratic norms (like free and fair elections) in places like Russia, we lose sight with how much the leaders of these countries are well acquainted with the fact that the West has been flourishing for so long because of its’ own distinct set of civilizational features.  A leader like Vladimir Putin knows this, and knows that many of his well educated and cosmopolitan citizens (like my former students) enjoy the fact that the West and Russia have shared so much throughout the centuries.  He knows that part of his legitimacy rests on ensuring that he doesn’t alienate too many Russians (even though plenty have been alienated).  If he wants to project and establish Russian civilization as a viable and superior model than that of the West, he knows he’s got to keep many historical Western influences intact.  Perhaps because he hasn’t been doing well on this front, he is giving so much support to the more authoritarian forces now sweeping the hearts and minds of Europeans once again.  It further legitimates the idea that Russia is on to something after all with its’ more conservative and nationalistic spirit.


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