May 3rd 2022

Tough Times Ahead for Russian Studies

 

Russian studies are at a crossroads. Putin Russia’s genocidal war against Ukraine has raised difficult questions that Russia specialists will have to confront and answer, if they want to retain their integrity as scholars and, ultimately, as human beings. 

They’ll have to start with the most fundamental of questions: How should Putin’s Russia be categorized—as fascist, genocidal, and imperial or as something else? Words obviously matter. If Putin’s Russia is fascist, genocidal, and imperial, then it merits comparison with Hitler’s Germany and deserves the opprobrium of good people everywhere. If, instead, Putin’s regime is merely authoritarian, cruel, and overbearing, then some form of modus vivendi can presumably be found.

Since the 1960s, Russianists have generally given the USSR and its successor, the Russian Federation, a pass on these terminological issues. Back in the 1940s and 1950s, the Soviet Union was considered to be “totalitarian”—and thus similar to Nazi Germany in its violence, use of terror, single-party rule, control of public space, and secret-police dominance. The nomenclature changed in the 1960s, after Nikita Khrushchev abandoned Stalinism’s worst features and the Soviet Union looked like it was morphing into a modernizing autocracy like many other states in the third world. 

Since then, Russianists have preferred to abjure controversial terms such as fascism, genocide, and empire in discussing the USSR and Russia. Putin’s regime has often been described as “Putinist,” a less than helpful term that smacked of tautology. The mass destruction of regime opponents was never genocidal. And regime violence against non-Russian peoples was merely a function of Russia’s need for geopolitical security. 

All these happy assumptions must now be reconsidered. The Putinist regime has all the hallmarks of Mussolini’s and Hitler’s. Fascism looks like an accurate way of defining all three. The deliberate destruction of Ukrainians—in Mariupol, Kharkiv, Bucha, and scores of settlements—the kidnapping of thousands of children, and the destruction of Ukrainian culture all smack of genocide. And Russia’s expansion into Transnistria, Georgia, and Ukraine, its bellicose threats to Kazakhstan and the Baltic states, and its near-absorption of Belarus all look like empire building.

The next question that Russia specialists must then confront is this: How could Russian political culture have made Putin, his regime, and its war and genocide against Ukrainians possible? The conventional wisdom among students of the Russian arts and sciences is that Russian culture is “great.” The problem is that, while there are surely great individuals within Russian culture, the culture as a whole cannot avoid responsibility for Putin and his regime’s crimes.

After all, Putin is not quite an anomaly. Imperial Russian and Soviet history is full of bloodthirsty tyrants who committed what we would today call genocide. Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin were mass murderers. Nikita Khrushchev was implicated in the 1930s’ Great Terror and the Ukrainian genocide-famine, the Holodomor. Leonid Brezhnev was a tyrant. All these leaders enjoyed popular adulation. As does Putin. Indeed, over 80 percent of Russians support the war. No less telling is the latest Russian fashion craze—tee shirts stating the “I am not ashamed.” (Really? One is tempted to ask. Aren’t you a mite troubled by mass killings?)

Something is decidedly wrong with a culture that is proud of genocide. Russianists will not be able to avoid examining themselves and their Russian cultural icons for harbingers of the present catastrophe. What does it mean that Fyodor Dostoevsky was a Russian chauvinist? That Nikolai Gogol and Anton Chekhov were Ukrainian? That Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was an unvarnished imperialist? That Aleksandr Pushkin was a troubadour of Russian imperial greatness? May these writers still be read without one eye on the ongoing atrocities in Ukraine?

Finally, Russianists will have to answer why Putin and so many Russians have such an animus against Ukrainians. For starters, Russianists will have to realize that Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union were empires that oppressed the non-Russian nations. Violence, aggression, and war were the lifeblood of these states, as they are of Putin’s realm. Peter I and Catherine II weren’t just building states and streamlining bureaucracies. They were actively killing hundreds of thousands of people in their rush to greatness. 

And Poles and Ukrainians had a special place in the mad schemes of Russian czars and Soviet leaders. The Poles were Muscovy’s main rivals for several centuries, and it was Russia that then took part in three partitions of Poland in the 18th century and a fourth in 1939. Ukrainians, meanwhile, challenged the historical myths invented by the czars in the 18th and 19thcenturies. Russians claimed lineage with the ancient Kyivan Rus state, despite the fact that Moscow wasn’t more than a speck on the map when Kyivan culture flourished over a millennium ago. The Ukrainian claim to that lineage—which resembles Italy’s claim of continuity with Roman Italy—explodes the Russian myths, destroys Russia’s claim to greatness, and therefore serves as an existential threat to Russian identity.

Can Russianists introduce a perestroika of their profession and their assumptions?  Chances are they will resist, if only because Putin enjoys a remarkable degree of support among Slavics professors. Moreover, many Russian studies centers have institutional and financial ties with Russian partners and oligarchs. Finally, Russianists will, like all people, prefer to disregard painful questions that threaten to upend their life’s work.

But change will come nonetheless. The public atmosphere has changed. Much of the world now recognizes Putin as a monster and Russia as a force for evil. Public opinion will be hard to ignore. In particular, students will ask their professors just what they were doing during the Russo-Ukrainian War. Evasion won’t work, and professors will have to fess up to their shameful roles in sustaining Putin’s Russia.

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Jul 17th 2024
EXTRACTS: "Iran unveiled a digital clock counting down the days to the destruction of Israel in 2040. The display, located in Tehran’s Palestine Square, embodies the Islamic Republic’s long-held commitment to annihilating the Jewish state. Some view this promise as a mere rhetorical exercise...." ----- "From Adolf Hitler to Vladimir Putin and even Osama bin Laden, history has taught us to take threats of ideologically inspired attacks at face value. " ---- "Against this backdrop, the key enabler of Iran’s war of attrition is, in fact, Israel’s own government. Netanyahu’s unrealistic goal of achieving 'a complete victory' in Gaza serves Iran’s strategy of miring Israel in an inconclusive conflict while orchestrating a long-term plan to destroy the Jewish state." ----- "It turns out that the only truly irrational, trigger-happy fanatics in this lethal equation are Netanyahu and his theo-fascist allies, who are determined to engage in an apocalyptic war in Gaza and Lebanon." ---- "These messianic hallucinators have a willing collaborator in Netanyahu. Together, they are doing more to annihilate the Jewish national project than Iran could ever hope to achieve on its own."
Jul 16th 2024
EXTRACTS: "In her dissenting opinion in Trump v. United States, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor declared that with the majority’s ruling, 'the President is now a king above the law'. In this, she is wrong: the majority opinion has given the US president far more power than English kings had at the time of the American Revolution." ---- "In June 1686, 11 of the 12 hand-picked justices ruled in favor of the king. Echoing the king’s own solicitor, Sir Thomas Powys, the Lord Chief Justice George Jeffreys contended that if the king did not have leeway above the law, “the preservation of the government” might be in jeopardy." ---- "In 1689, the English people roundly rejected such reasoning and asserted that their kings would thereafter be subject to the law. They set a precedent by removing James II from office. The Supreme Court’s decision goes beyond threatening more than two centuries of American jurisprudence; it overturns four centuries of Anglo-American jurisprudence. The Roberts majority did not give the president the power of an English king; it gave the president power that an English king could only covet."
Jul 4th 2024
EXTRACT: "Most American voters who believe that Trump is the best defender of democracy are not fascists, much less communists. The very thought would horrify them. But they almost surely have a strong opinion on who constitutes the true American people: God-fearing, hard-working, and most probably white. And they worry that these ordinary Americans are being displaced by illegal immigrants, and that their way of life is being threatened by new ideas about gender, race, and sexuality emerging from elite universities. Trump is stoking these fears and exaggerating these threats. His line that the US courts are attacking not only him, but every right-thinking American is horribly effective. Since he is heard as the true voice of the people, he is the purest democrat. As a result, liberal democracy might not withstand another four years of his rule."
Jul 3rd 2024
EXTRACT: "....the debate showed all too clearly that he is suffering cognitive decline and cannot possibly serve as a competent president for another four years. If Biden is true to his word, and stopping Trump from regaining the presidency is his overriding goal, he needs to announce that at the Democratic Convention in August, he will release his delegates from their obligation to vote for him, and instead ask them to vote for the candidate with the best chance of defeating Trump."
Jul 3rd 2024
EXTRACTS: "Both Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Sonia Sotomayor of the United States Supreme Court have just announced grand opinions trying to resolve the fundamental constitutional issues raised by former President Donald Trump’s claim to absolute immunity" ---- "According to Sotomayor, who wrote for the three dissenting justices, Roberts’ sweeping grant of immunity has 'no firm grounding in constitutional text, history, or precedent.' ” ----- "For what it’s worth, I think that Sotomayor is right and Roberts is wrong." ----"But for now, it is much more important to consider the objection raised by Justice Amy Coney Barrett to both Roberts’ constitutional glorification of the presidency and Sotomayor’s devastating critique of Roberts’ majority opinion." ---- "Barrett is right to ask why Roberts and Sotomayor did not join her in adopting the problem-solving approach that they have repeatedly endorsed in many other contexts." ---- "Roberts took the path that not only betrayed Founding principles, as Sotomayor argued, but also betrayed the very principles to which he has dedicated his entire career. "
Jul 1st 2024
EXTRACTS: "Netanyahu’s disdainful criticism of Biden. Netanyahu knows how indispensable the US is to Israel, as no country has provided Israel with more financial, military, and political support than the US. And no American president has ever been more supportive and committed to Israel's security than President Biden. But then, leave it to the most loathsome Netanyahu, who dares to criticize the president for suspending the shipment specifically of 2,000-pound bombs to continue with his devastating bombardment of Rafah that could indiscriminately kill thousands of innocent civilians." ---- "All Israelis who care about their country’s future must rise and demand the immediate resignation of this corrupt and brazen creature who inflicted untold damage on the only Jewish state, making it a pariah state."
Jun 12th 2024
EXTRACTS: "One of the more amusing exercises on the economic calendar is the International Monetary Fund’s annual review of the United States. Yet while everyone knows that the US government pays absolutely no heed to what the IMF has to say about its affairs, the Fund’s most recent Article IV review of the US economy is striking for one unexpected finding. Readers will be startled to learn that, in the IMF’s estimation, US government debt is on a sustainable path." ---- "What then could go wrong? Well, US institutions could turn out not to be so strong. Donald Trump has a personal history of defaulting on his debts. As William Silber has observed, Trump in a second presidential term could instruct his Treasury secretary to suspend payments on the debt, and neither Congress nor the courts might be willing to do anything about it. The gambit would be appealing to Trump insofar as a third of US government debt is held by foreigners. The damage to the dollar’s safe-asset status would be severe, even if Congress, the courts, or a subsequent president reversed Trump’s suspension of debt payments. Investors in US Treasuries would demand a hefty risk premium, potentially causing the government’s interest payments to explode."
Jun 9th 2024
EXTRACT: "An all-too-familiar specter is haunting Europe, one that reliably appears every five years. As citizens head to the polls to elect a new European Parliament, observers are once again asking whether far-right anti-European parties will gain ground and unite to destroy the European Union from within. To be sure, skeptics of this doomsday scenario have always argued that the far right will remain divided, because nationalist internationalism is a contradiction in terms. But it is more likely that specific policy disagreements – mainly over the Ukraine war – and drastically diverging political strategies will prevent Europe’s various far-right parties from forming a 'supergroup.' ”
Jun 9th 2024
EXTRACT: "While the dreadful legacy of his Conservative predecessors – the morally vacuous Johnson and the reckless Liz Truss – would make it extremely difficult for Sunak to offer a credible vision of a better future, many of his current problems are self-inflicted. For example, he supported Johnson’s bid for the Conservative leadership, a decision that reflects poorly on his judgment. Sunak has also been a Euroskeptic since he was a schoolboy and was an early supporter of Brexit."
Jun 8th 2024
EXTRACTS: "Why are so many young people attracted to far-right politics? Polls show that 36% of French people aged 18-24 support Marine Le Pen’s National Rally, while roughly 31% in the Netherlands back Geert Wilders’s nationalist, anti-immigration ..... 26% of Americans aged 18-29 prefer former US President Donald Trump over the incumbent Joe Biden." ---- "Center-left parties had become increasingly associated with urban elites who benefited from a globalized economy in which immigrants provided cheap labor and well-educated cosmopolitans could seek financial profit or intellectual stimulation wherever they desired." ---- "Trump does not have to convince many young people to vote for him. If enough of them refuse to vote for Biden, either because he is too old, too conservative, or too pro-Israel, Trump could win November’s presidential election. If elected, he will continue to shatter the norms and wreck the institutions that allow democracy to function."
Apr 13th 2024
EXTRACT: "That said, even if Europe were to improve its deterrence capabilities, it would be unwise to assume that leaders necessarily make rational decisions. In her 1984 book The March of Folly, historian Barbara Tuchman observes that political leaders frequently act against their own interests. America’s disastrous wars in the Middle East, the Soviet Union’s ill-fated campaign in Afghanistan, and the ongoing war of blind hatred between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, with its potential to escalate into a larger regional conflict, are prime examples of such missteps. As Tuchman notes, the march of folly is never-ending. That is precisely why Europe must prepare itself for an era of heightened vigilance."
Apr 13th 2024
EXTRACTS: " Nathan Cofnas is a research fellow in the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge. His research is supported by a grant from the Leverhulme Trust. He is also a college research associate at Emmanuel College. Working at the intersection of science and philosophy, he has published several papers in leading peer-reviewed journals. He also writes popular articles and posts on Substack. In January, Cofnas published a post called “Why We Need to Talk about the Right’s Stupidity Problem.” No one at Cambridge seems to have been bothered by his argument that people on the political right have, on average, lower intelligence than those on the left." ---- "The academic world will be watching what happens. Were the University of Cambridge to dismiss Cofnas, it would sound a warning to students and academics everywhere: when it comes to controversial topics, even the world’s most renowned universities can no longer be relied upon to stand by their commitment to defend freedom of thought and discussion."
Apr 13th 2024
EXTRACTS: "Word has been sent down from on high that there is room for only “good stories of China.” Anyone who raises questions about problems, or even challenges, faces exclusion from the public sessions. That was certainly true for me." ----- " But my admiration for the Chinese people and the extraordinary transformation of China’s economy over the past 45 years persists. I still disagree with the consensus view in the West that the Chinese miracle was always doomed to fail. Moreover, I remain highly critical of America’s virulent Sinophobia, while maintaining the view that China faces serious structural growth challenges. And I continue to believe that US-China codependency offers a recipe for mutually beneficial conflict resolution. My agenda remains analytically driven, not politically motivated."
Apr 11th 2024
EXTRACTS: "The insurrection began just after 8 p.m. on November 8, 1923, when Hitler and his followers burst into a political rally and held the crowd hostage. ---- The Nazi attempt to seize power ended the following morning, ---- After two and a half days in hiding, Germany’s most wanted man was discovered ----- Hitler was charged with treason, and his trial began on February 26, 1924. ---- .....the judge, having found Hitler guilty, imposed the minimum sentence....That miscarriage of justice was facilitated by the trial’s location in the anti-democratic south, and by the role of the presiding judge, Georg Neithardt, a conservative who was happy to allow Hitler to use his court as a platform to attack the Republic. ----- Like Hitler in 1924, Trump is using the courtroom as a stage on which to present himself as the victim, arguing that a crooked 'deep state' is out to get him."
Apr 9th 2024
EXTRACTS: "If Kennedy’s emphasis on healing suggests someone who has been through “recovery,” that is because he has. Following the trauma of losing both his father and his uncle to assassins’ bullets, Kennedy battled, and ultimately overcame, an addiction to heroin. Like Kennedy, Shanahan also appears to be channeling personal affliction. She describes grappling with infertility, as well as the difficulties associated with raising her five-year-old daughter, Echo, who suffers from autism," ----- "Armed with paranoid conspiracy theories about America’s descent into chronic sickness, loneliness, and depression, Kennedy has heedlessly spread lies about the putative dangers of life-saving vaccines while mouthing platitudes about resilience and healing. To all appearances, he remains caught in a twisted fantasy that he just might be the one who will realize his father’s idealistic dreams of a better America."
Mar 18th 2024
EXTRACT: "....the UK’s current economic woes – falling exports, slowing growth, low productivity, high taxes, and strained public finances – underscore the urgency of confronting Brexit’s catastrophic consequences."
Mar 18th 2024
EXTRACTS: Most significant of all, Russia’s Black Sea fleet has suffered significant losses over the past two years. As a result of these Ukrainian successes, the Kremlin decided to relocate the Black Sea fleet from Sevastopol to Novorossiysk on the Russian mainland. Compare that with the situation prior to the annexation of Crimea in 2014 when Russia had a secure lease on the naval base of Sevastopol until 2042." --- "Ukrainian efforts have clearly demonstrated, however, that the Kremlin’s, and Putin’s personal, commitment may not be enough to secure Russia’s hold forever. Kyiv’s western partners would do well to remember that among the spreading gloom over the trajectory of the war."
Mar 8th 2024
EXTRACT: "As the saying goes, 'It’s the economy, stupid.' Trump’s proposed economic-policy agenda is now the greatest threat to economies and markets around the world."
Mar 8th 2024
EXTRACT: "Russia, of course, brought all these problems on itself. It most certainly is not winning the war, either militarily or on the economic front. Ukraine is recovering from the initial shock, and if robust foreign assistance continues, it will have an upper hand in the war of attrition."
Mar 8th 2024
EXTRACT: "...... with good timing and good luck, enabled Trump to defeat [in 2016] political icon Hillary Clinton in a race that appeared tailor-made for her. But contrary to what Trump might claim, his victory was extremely narrow. In fact, he lost the popular vote by 2.8 million votes – a larger margin than any other US president in history. Since then, Trump has proved toxic at the ballot box. " -----"The old wisdom that 'demographics is destiny' – coined by the French philosopher Auguste Comte – may well be more relevant to the outcome than it has been to any previous presidential election. "----- "Between the 2016 and 2024 elections, some 20 million older voters will have died, and about 32 million younger Americans will have reached voting age. Many young voters disdain both parties, and Republicans are actively recruiting (mostly white men) on college campuses. But the issues that are dearest to Gen Z’s heart – such as reproductive rights, democracy, and the environment – will keep most of them voting Democratic."