At a recent workshop at Seattle Preparatory School, high school teachers had a rare opportunity to step back from the fray of headlines about Russia and engage its history, politics and culture with the help of a panel of experts. The workshop, put on by the World Affairs Council’s Global Classroom and sponsored by the Ellison Center and the Center for Global Studies, attracted more than 35 attendees, including 23 teachers and educators.
Post-Soviet political systems and sources of Putin’s popularity
To set the stage, Scott Radnitz, Director of the Ellison Center and Associate Professor at the Jackson School of International Studies at UW, stressed that while Russia isn’t a democracy, that hardly makes it the exception. Fewer than half the countries in the world today have the rare confluence of factors required to make democracy happen, he explained.
[pullquote]Putin’s popularity in Russia is above 90%. It’s what U.S. leaders dream of and Central Asian dictators achieve.[/pullquote]
Radnitz described Russia’s opaque power structure as a pyramid of elites with Putin at the top. The country’s institutions, from the courts and police to education and healthcare, remain corrupt. Society likewise continues to operate informally and often on the basis of corruption, a legacy of the Soviet era when people had to help each other survive. Distrust in strangers remains pervasive in Russia, as does heightened trust in close family networks.
When Russia was emerging from its Soviet past in the 1990s, chaos reigned, Radnitz observed. There was inflation, violence and homelessness, and Putin eventually emerged as a symbol of recovery in the early 2000s. Today Putin continues to act in what he perceives as Russia’s best interest. He wants Russia to be respected on the international stage and so do Russians. Thus, despite sanctions on Russia and even accounting for biases in polling numbers, Putin remains widely popular.
Russia as a threat?
Jacqueline Miller, World Affairs Council’s President and CEO, also invoked Putin’s popularity to explain, in her view, a crucial factor behind Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea. Despite the West’s perception of Russia as a threat, Miller argued that Crimea was not about resisting the United States necessarily, but rather about feeding Putin’s record poll numbers.
“Putin’s popularity in Russia is above 90%. It’s what U.S. leaders dream of and Central Asian dictators achieve,” Miller said. “Even with the discount, it’s still in the 70th-75th percentile.”
While Miller asserted that Putin is not crazy, as some pundits would have you believe, some of Russia’s neighbors – especially the Baltic states – are understandably nervous. And there are more recent signs of changes in Russia’s recent isolation which feed concerns that Russia may again come to feel unconstrained in neighboring countries, Miller noted. The same week as the workshop, the G20 summit was taking place in Turkey and Presidents Obama and Putin met, albeit briefly. In the aftermath of the November 13, 2015 Paris attacks another window of opportunity opened for cooperation between Russia and United States in the face of terrorism.
From Russia’s perspective: The view of the United States
[pullquote]I think it’s worth remembering Putin came from a town almost destroyed by Nazis and he’s decided this would never happen on his watch.[/pullquote]
The third panelist, former CNN Moscow Bureau Chief Jill Dougherty, switched the lens of the conversation. She wanted the teachers at the workshop to try to understand Putin’s perspective. In 1967-70, Dougherty studied in Leningrad State University (now Saint Petersburg State University) in Putin’s home town. The then young Putin, a future KGB agent, was on campus during Dougherty’s studies, but she never met him. What she does recall is that the town Putin grew up in felt in 1969 as though World War II had just ended – it was dark, the food was poor, the buildings were still damaged and everybody had lost someone in the war.
“I think it’s worth remembering Putin came from a town almost destroyed by Nazis and he’s decided this would never happen on his watch,” Dougherty said. He believes Russia is now “surrounded by enemies and I think he believes NATO’s out to get him,” she stated.
In Russian’s experience from the 1990s when the Soviet Union fell apart, democracy meant lost jobs, no more free healthcare, and the end of factory-provided free vacations in Crimea. Another part of this traumatic transition was the reality that many Russians suddenly found themselves living “abroad” in new nation states named for other titular nations, such as Kazakhstan or Estonia. Dougherty said she doesn’t believe that Putin necessarily wants to rebuild the Soviet Union when he talks about the 25 million Russians living beyond the country’s borders today. But his rhetoric does show his thinking about protecting Russian speakers and ethnic Russians in the former Soviet Republics.
Recent research which Dougherty conducted with a think tank collaborator on Estonia’s Russian speakers looked at the likelihood of a Russian invasion of Estonia. Dougherty found that Russian speakers in Estonia align themselves with Russia in emotional, ethnic and cultural ways, but not politically, and thus she agreed with Miller’s assessment that an invasion under Putin is not likely to happen. Both noted, however, that the main deterrent of Russian tanks entering Estonia is the country’s membership in the NATO alliance.
Takeaways for the classroom
The discussion that followed the panelists’ talks deepened teachers’ understanding of U.S.-Russia relations and the puzzles that Russia appears to present. Teachers also took home a resource packet including a lesson plan on Russian Folktales by Global Classroom Director and Glacier Peak High School teacher Ryan Hauck.
Teachers can visit the Ellison Center’s recently revised resources for educators page for materials from this and other workshops. To learn of future opportunities to learn from REECAS experts and earn clock hours, teachers should subscribe to the Ellison Center mailing list and keep an eye on the events calendar.