In which I become reflective, philosophical and even a little preachy. So if you don’t mind that, continue. Seasoned Russia watchers reading this blog will likely already be familiar with the points made in this post, but if you’d like to hear the thoughts of someone still finding her way in Russian studies, read on.
I was inspired to write this post by a discussion I had with a fellow student yesterday. It was the kind of discussion every college student – nay, every centrist Russia-watcher – dreams of having. It was the kind of discussion universities promise you’ll have in their promotional flyers for prospective students! Due to the intensely polarizing nature of the subject (post-Maidan developments in Ukraine; European-Russian relations), our conversation could’ve easily turned into a heated debate. However, our exchange was pleasant and respectful, and afterwards, both she and I felt we’d become more informed about the Ukraine crisis. That mutual feeling is rare, at least in my experience.
After it was all over, I got to thinking. What made this particular conversation distinct from the many other Russian affairs discussions I’d had with others before? Why didn’t it devolve into an argument? Why had I not been relegated to the role of Putinversteher (a role in which I’m often put in [no pun intended] despite having neutral feelings about him)? I realized that both the fellow student and I possessed certain qualities and used certain tactics that enabled a real exchange to take place. Qualities which, if kept, will likely help me to become a more well-rounded Russia-watcher in the future. Here is what I’ve learned.
You simply don’t know as much as you think you know, and sometimes it’s best to admit your own understanding is limited. I’m not advocating that one completely downplay their own knowledge and take every word another person says/writes as the truth – that’s actually a recipe for disaster. But in the same breath I’ll say that a meaningful, constructive dialogue is not a matter of showing off one’s knowledge or talking longer or louder than one’s counterpart. Prior to my discussion with the fellow student, I let her know that while I knew quite a bit about Russia, my knowledge of Ukrainian affairs was rather limited. Likewise, she said she was more well-versed in the Eastern European opinion than the Russian one. And though we were approaching the same issue from two different angles, we were both respectful, we both made valid points, and we both came away having learned something new.
We have the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of our existing beliefs or theories, while closing our eyes and ears to anything that contradicts them. Some semblance of an open mind about events as they unfold is needed. For example, we must be able to accept that Russian perceptions of what has happened in Ukraine have some quality of legitimacy. I realize that for some people anything of the sort makes you pro-Russian, a Putin apologist, a “useful idiot”. Likewise, pointing out that not everything the West says about Putinism’s problems is aimed at smearing Russia draws the ire of the other side. I’ve long since stopped trying to interpret everything through the Putin prism. There are many more forces affecting Russia’s posture than the personality of Putin, and we should be open to learning about them. Demonizing Putin – or worshiping him, for that matter – is not helpful to accurate perception and understanding. This is not a matter of choosing sides, but of choosing not to take a side, at least on occasion.
Recognition of complexity.
I know it is much easier and more convenient to view the world in black and white, good guys and bad guys terms. But we cannot afford to do this, simply because there’s very little in the world that exists as such. Take for example Russian perceptions of what happened on the Maidan, and the consequences of those events. We need to be willing to accept that there is complexity and uncertainty and some fuzziness about the facts. I foresee this being difficult for those with a romantic view of the Maidan or again those who believe Russia can do no good/harm. The key is to try to understand events and unload that partisan burden. Of course, a lot of people WANT to be partisan – that’s their current role and compulsion. But there are still people who want to try to understand, as my discussion with my fellow student showed me. Personally, I have little interest in discussing politics with partisans. They need no discussions and want no discussions.
A great way to embrace the complexity of the West-Russia conflict is to diversify one’s sources of information. Read Alexander Motyl and Julia Ioffe – but also Richard Sakwa and Andrei Tsygankov. Listen to RFE/RL, watch RT…and don’t forget the works of the more moderate thinkers in-between: Gordon Hahn, Dmitri Trenin, and many others. Yes, it can be tedious. And going in this direction does not necessarily mean everything becomes clear and understandable. Probably quite the contrary. But at the least your exposure to all sides of the debate might, over time, provide you with the thesis and antithesis needed to make an informed synthesis.
You and I might have to abandon some of our comfortable stereotypes and grapple with a more complex and contradictory notion of Russia. Growing up is always tough, though.
After reading all of the ideas above, you may be thinking, “Wow! Is J.T. naive or what?”
Well, not quite.
I understand that a lot of this depends on the situation – compared to the outside world, a university is a little bubble of exchange, intrinsic learning, academic-mindedness, etc. My experience may have just been an isolated instance. I also acknowledge that most people aren’t going to be as respectful as that college student, especially if they feel strongly about Western-Russian relations. I have no reason to believe that when I eventually do take up a research or analyst position that people will take my work seriously or consider my points or offer constructive criticism if they do not agree. But even given that these two predictions are true, I’m going to continue approaching Russian affairs with humility, and open mind, and a recognition of complexity – in the hopes that by bringing this attitude to the discussion, I might teach my peers a thing or two, learn from them and encourage them to adopt a similar approach. So in that sense, perhaps I am a little naive. But I’m not too worried about that at this point; there’s much more time – and room – to grow.