It has been quite some time since my last blog. In the realm of politics Presidents Trump and Putin met in Helsinki. On a personal level our family made our first trip back to the United States since we moved to Russia over two years ago. Now I have taken time for reflections of both a political and personal nature.
The Political. I was a bit excited when I first heard about the summit with Putin and Trump. I realize some don’t care about political events or reflections. I, on the other hand, admit to being slightly on the “political junkie” side of things. More than that, however, decisions between the leaders of these two countries can impact families like us directly—travel plans, financial transactions, etc. So it really isn’t responsible for me to adopt the “I just don’t get into politics” perspective. If you’re an American living in Russia, politics matters.
I actually had prepared a blog before the summit, but I was waiting until after the leaders met before I completed it. Just before the summit I watched how the news outlets in America were preparing the nation. On June 29 I watched an interview with Sebastian Gorka and Daniel Hoffman on FoxNews on how they thought Trump should handle the meeting. It went worse than I feared. Hoffman quickly dispensed with any talk of common objectives and said Trump should look for leverage against Putin. Gorka then assumed the mantle of “expert Russian analyst” and used statistics from at least 12-15 years ago to describe Russia, e.g., male life expectancy, birth/death rate comparisons, etc. Then he said Russia is in “a world of hurt” and “a death spiral.” His figures and general description of Russia were terribly outdated as anyone who casually keeps up with Russia knows. He portrayed Russia and Putin as helpless and vulnerable. The point was clear: Trump needs to exploit a very weak Russia.
Gorka’s reputation as a researcher has been criticized severely going back to when he got his Ph.D. from Corvinus University in Budapest. A quick Google search will show that there are a number of analysts who say his dissertation wouldn’t make a good Bachelor’s thesis. Further, Gorka was brought on by the Trump administration as deputy assistant to the president in January of 2017, but was gone by the end of August. He said he decided to leave because he was undermined by people who were not true believers in the “Make America Great Again” campaign. White House sources said he was told to leave, and security was instructed not to allow him to re-enter the White House. You would think a guy like that would buckle down on his research, but apparently shoddy research does not prevent one from being treated as an expert on American news shows these days. There is a plethora of evidence on Russia’s growth in economic and military strength, as well as positive news on the vast improvements in the health of Russians, as I documented in a recent blog. The two points I got from this interview were: 1)There is no real reason for working with Russia or Putin on shared or mutually beneficial goals. It is all about leverage and control. 2)Russia remains the way it was in the 90s. That is what many like Gorka and Hoffman want America to believe. It’s a lie, but it must be maintained despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Fortunately, Trump was better prepared for the summit than they were for that interview.
A few days later I got even more upset. We were getting ready for our trip to the States, and I was also working on a new Russian language lesson. I went into the kitchen for something, and on our TV was a report by CNN International. I recognized immediately that the person being interviewed was David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker. Remnick was in the middle of a rant describing how bad it is in Russia. Then he launched a broadside against “dictator” Vladimir Putin. Completing his litany of awful things about Putin he then stated that no one in Russia is allowed to hear bad things like he had just said. Putin controls the media, and Russians can’t hear these truths. Now get the picture: I’m in my den in Russia listening to David Remnick tell the viewers that people in Russia can’t hear the points he is making about Putin. I don’t have a special satellite. I get my i-net and TV from the little place across the courtyard which feeds 90% of the people in this small Russian city. One doesn’t need to be an academic to know Remnick is either lying or is totally uninformed.
I should’ve stayed and watched to find out when this interview was made. How recent was it? It really doesn’t matter because when I came here in 2005 I frequently heard Putin criticized on Russian TV as I do now. Remnick and other Western writers like to portray Putin as an old Communist dictator who will not tolerate public criticism. I have a copy of last month’s issue of Pravda (August, 2018), the official publication of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation. They strongly criticize Putin right there on the front page. The interview with Gorka irritated me simply because I know a lot of people who listen to Fox and trust Gorka. On the other hand, I realize many know of Gorka’s reputation as a sloppy researcher. But David Remnick is a great writer and thinker. I remember reading Lenin’s Tomb (and later Resurrection) which were reflections on his time in the USSR when he was with The Washington Post (late 1980s). He is fluent in Russian and has lived here. His observations from that time were quite impressive, and I loved his humorous anecdotes about daily life that I definitely could relate to. How can a writer that sharp be so out of touch? Are he and Gorka just lying because they know that describing Russia as a really horrible place is what is popular these days? Is it just the old J.R. Ewing approach that “once you lose your integrity the rest is easy”? Or have they just gotten lazy and do not want to engage in the complexity of Russian politics and culture as it is today?
Of course, after the summit I heard the rage and broadsides against Trump over the fact he even met with Putin. He had a few defenders, but they were mostly drowned out. In the reports I heard there was no mention of the fact that Trump was doing what U.S. presidents have done since Eisenhower. He met with the President of the country which is the only other major nuclear power, and they had a civil discussion. If Donald Trump was guilty of “treasonous” or “outrageous” actions in doing that, was John F. Kennedy “treasonous” for meeting with Nikita Khrushchev? JFK certainly came out of that summit looking much worse than Trump did with Putin. I knew beforehand Trump would be criticized for meeting with Putin, but I had no idea the reactions would be so ludicrous. The week before the summit I had listened to how Peter Strzok, who had been put in charge of investigating Trump and Hillary Clinton, described Trump in the most vulgar and prejudicial language possible BEFORE his investigation of the election began. He was the FBI’s man in charge of those investigations. And then Trump was denounced for not defending our “intelligence agencies” in the post-summit news conference.
I retreated. As I said, I think I need to keep up with news and politics, but I had reached the end of my proverbial rope. I shut it off. As I have mentioned before I spent most of my adult life in an academic setting. So I decided to turn off the news with its “pseudo-experts” and read something more responsibly academic. I chose Richard Sakwa’s newest book called Russia Against the Rest. I’ve read Sakwa before, and he carefully cites his sources and is very logical in his observations. I needed that.
I got no further than the opening lines to the first chapter (p.11) when I had one of those “Aha!” moments. Sakwa’s observations on those who analyze Russia struck me.
“Competing Cold War narratives have taken on the character of foundational myths. A political myth is a way of freezing a moment in time and imbuing it with permanent significance. A myth in this context is not a falsehood, but a fiction or constructed narrative that provides a certain interpretation of the evidence.”
This insightful section helped me to see that Gorka, Remnick and the rest of their journalistic kin are not really lying, at least as they understand things. There is no “falsification” going on because they really do see Russia as the same as it was during another era. For Gorka, the statistics from the 90s are frozen. There is no need for new research; for Remnick, Russia is still the USSR of 1988 and Putin is just like all the rest. Authentic research runs the risk of creating cognitive dissonance that could be unmanageable for them. Gorka and Remnick represent two opposite ends of the American political spectrum. Gorka is a conservative who appears on FOX and, despite his past run-ins with the White House, is very supportive of Trump. Remnick, who is a typical CNN liberal, sees a monochrome Trump: he is all bad. What joins them is the shared myth of Russia. And they really do believe the myth.
The Personal. When one actually lives in this country you can’t live by myths of any kind. You live in the world here as it is. The “true expat” has to live with the good and bad. By “true expat” I exclude those few, like a couple of families I encountered in St. Petersburg years ago, who did all they could to live in a “bubble” shielded from everyday Russian life. They had jobs around Russians, but really hung out with other expats, had their kids in English schools, went to church or local pubs with others from outside Russia. By true expats, I’m talking about the majority who are folks like me. (As I said in an earlier blog, I prefer the term “cultural refugee,” but it’s a bit too cumbersome.) We choose to live as others in Russia. Some were sent here by an employer, but we’ve all chosen to be a part of Russian life, not establish a quasi-colony from the homeland. We struggle with learning the language; our kids are around other Russian kids at school or church. We don’t pretend to be Russians, but we do try to immerse ourselves in life here. Many of us are married to a Russian spouse, but we all want to be a part of this culture. We loved our lives in America, but our lives are here now.
So now I go to the question which I posed in the title to this blog entry: Does being an expat make one an expert? The short answer is, “No, but…” Obviously I must explain. Simply living here does not make you an expert on Russia in the full sense of that description. You may not be perfectly fluent in Russian or be able to name all the members of the Romanov dynasty. In fact, you may not know the GDP, present military involvements, or inflation rate. Nevertheless, if one is an expat in the sense I have described, you keep up with the news in general, what is available at the store, and how the prices on products vary from week to week. You have a general idea to what degree Vladimir Putin or the Russian government is or is not involved in your life. Thus, you are able to sense the fallacies of the descriptions of Russia by those who are regarded as experts in the West. You don’t need to know the specific statistics to know that Gorka’s description is absurd. I’ve been coming to Russia since 2002 and have lived here for over five of those years. I don’t need to do research to know this country is not in a “world of hurt” or a “death spiral.” Of course, there are problems and poverty, but there are too many new stores and homes being built to call it a death spiral. Living in a small town I can see improvements being made in this city almost every month. Conversations with locals have a far more positive “tone” than before. I know David Remnick is wrong because I have watched a number of programs where those who want to criticize Putin are given plenty of opportunities. Remnick is describing something he wants or needs to be true. Nevertheless, given the fact that so many have so much invested in his analysis being correct, he gets to be the expert.
People like me and my friends do not have a message most of the political and media wags of the larger Western world want to hear. Nevertheless, I still think it is important to do what we can to let people know what it really is like here. I had no idea when I started this blog it would go the way it did. I thought I’d describe personal events and struggles. I intended to talk about politics some, but I figured Russia would fade from the American political scene. I had no idea Russia would remain a featured segment of American political life. So I don’t claim to be an expert, but I know who the experts are. I’ll keep reading Sakwa, Cohen, Doctorow and others whose descriptions and interpretations of Russia are consistent with the experiences of those of us who live here and are helpful to us better understanding what is going. I keep up in general with the Russian stock market, the GDP, export/import figures and the like. I’ll plod along learning the language as best I can. And I listen intently to the “common folk” here. How are their spirits? What do they say about their lives here? Doesn’t make me an expert, but I do believe with work I, and many others like me, can be honest and informed observers and participants in life in Russia who pass on how things really are.
I fully realize that the audience I will reach is not just smaller than those of Gorka and Remnick; my audience is minuscule compared to theirs. So what does someone like me really accomplish? Why bother? After I finished Sakwa’s book I was able to get The Power of Impossible Ideas, by Sharon Tennison (2012). Sharon had contacted me by e-mail several weeks ago. She commended me on my blog and encouraged me to keep it up. I did not know who she was at the time, but we have since corresponded on several occasions, and I have become much more familiar with her work. I hope to meet with her personally next week in St. Petersburg. Back in the 80s Sharon became very concerned over the issue of nuclear destruction. Her book documents her efforts and journey to change the relationship between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. She began doing “Bottom Up Diplomacy.” She founded an NGO which is now called “Center for Citizen Initiatives.” Her book does not paint with a broad brush. She gives details of places, times, names, even sometimes what people were wearing! As I read her accounts of how many Americans joined together with Russians and other Soviets to learn about each other and then after the USSR collapsed how those Americans helped the Russians rebuild their lives, I was amazed. The accounts of “coincidences” of her meeting by chance individuals both in Russia and America who became crucial to her efforts boggled my mind. She met so many people, and so many lives—both Russian and American—were changed. Vladimir Putin would include suggestions from her organization in some of his addresses to the nation. I do not have the energy, ingenuity, or certainly the organizational skills to rise to the level of Sharon Tennison. The book was a tremendous encouragement, however, to do what I can. I have mentioned before living here has impacted me even more on how I view war. War happened here. The Nazis came and took over this town. You can see the places, the pictures, and hear the stories of lives that were destroyed. The next war, if there is one, won’t remain here. The weapons are different. It will include American soil.
I want things like trade and student and cultural exchanges between my two worlds to get back to what they could be. I’d like to see the nations join together to fight the real terrorists. But the thought of a war happening between Russia and America because lies are allowed to drown out truth is not acceptable. I am grateful to Sharon Tennison for reminding me that one person’s efforts are important.