Walking into Nicolai Petro’s lecture, “Are We Reading Russia Correctly?” on Thursday, Feb. 16, many students expected to leave with a better understanding of Russia’s role in the United States’ 2016 presidential election and the resulting state of U.S.-Russia relations. Shiv Ruparell ’19 commented, “I think that especially with everything going on in the election, [knowledge of] Russian geopolitics is increasingly important for American security.”
However, Petro, who stated that he didn’t want to get into the usual discourse on Russia, avoided mention of the election almost entirely. Instead, the University of Rhode Island Political Science professor and former U.S. State Department special assistant for policy under President George H.W. Bush, chose to discuss Russia’s credentials as a democracy. He particularly focused on the part Russian president Vladimir Putin has played in what Petro argued has been a “democratization” of the post-Cold War superpower. This was also the subject of Petro’s book, “The Rebirth of Russian Democracy: An Interpretation of Political Culture” (Harvard University Press, 1995).
The lecture, which was sponsored by Vassar’s Russian Studies Department, took place in Rockefeller Hall and was attended by several dozen people, a large portion of whom were professors.
Petro began his lecture by pointing out that though many in the U.S. believe Russia does not understand the West, it is in fact we who misunderstand Russia. “The West’s longstanding hostility toward Russia has established it quite firmly in the public mind as a nation incapable of democracy,” he said.
The more time that has passed since the Cold War, Petro continued, the more its revival seems imminent, despite his belief that Russians and Americans share many of the same political, economic and social values. He attributed this to what he said is the American news media’s obsession with portraying Putin in a negative light. “It is impossible to see Russia clearly when it is presented to us in fragments. These fragments represent only a small part of the Russian reality, just as they would of America if the story of America were only soaring murder rates, a collapsing middle class, race hatred and, of course, Donald Trump. These are all part of America, but the full picture is more complicated,” Petro argued.
Putin’s detractors, of course, have noted that this method of countering criticism of Russia by pointing out flaws in the U.S. is a tactic Putin himself often utilizes in interviews and is something President Trump has started doing, as well.
Petro condemned President Obama’s lack of praise for Russia during his tenure and defended Trump’s controversial statements calling for improved relations with Russia, saying, “We can only imagine how different it might have been if President Obama had said a few kind words about Russia’s progress.” He went on to detail Russia’s democratic successes that he believed the Bush and Obama administrations had overlooked: The large number of political parties competing in Russian elections, the increase in the number of non-governmental agencies under Putin, that 99.7 percent of Russian internet users are active in social networks and that 95 percent of Russian media companies are privately owned.
Petro went into further detail about his disagreement with the commonly held belief that Russians only have access to state-controlled news, pointing out that a mere two percent of Russians get their news from only one source. The most common news source in Russia is now the Internet, he said, which is more popular than television for those under the age of 34.
However, during the question-and-answer session that followed Petro’s lecture, one student pointed out that this statistic was itself misleading, as state-owned outlets like Russia Today and Sputnik publish news stories on the Internet, as well as on television or radio, so getting one’s news online does not mean that it isn’t state-controlled. In fact, Reporters Without Borders, a nonprofit that monitors freedom of the press, ranked Russia 148 out of 180 countries in its 2016 World Free Press Index (Reporters Without Borders, “2016 World Free Press Index” 1.2016).
Petro explained that he believes Americans—and in particular American journalists—often suffer from “paradigm blindness” with regard to Russia. Paradigm blindness, a social psychology term, refers to an instance in which an observer cannot comprehend a certain event because they have no context for it.
He painted a picture of journalists unable to grasp the idea of Russia as a democracy, saying, “A journalist’s desire to report accurately gives them no special preparation for the uncomfortable task of constructing an entirely new intellectual framework. As a result, most simply fall back into old stereotypes.”
Petro concluded his lecture by commenting that it would be unwise for the U.S. to maintain Cold War-era attitudes about Russia, whose global power and influence, he predicts, will increase over the next decade. He maintained, “Our failure to come up with an alternative to [the policy of] containment more than a quarter century after the collapse of the Soviet Union is rooted in a perception of Russians as beasts. Little will change until we confront our historical Russophobia and talk candidly about how it impacts U.S. foreign policy.”
In the discussion following the lecture, many audience members brought up some of the more prevalent questions about Russia that Petro had not addressed at length in his talk.
One attendee asked, “There have been a lot of high-profile murders [of journalists, politicians, activists and lawyers critical of Putin]. It would be difficult to prove without a doubt that Putin was behind it, but at the very least, it points to a dangerous atmosphere where political opponents are killed. What does that say about the political situation [in Russia]?” In response, Petro brushed off the inquiry, saying that he found the idea of Putin murdering his critics far-fetched.
A student in attendance remarked, “I think you glossed over some very real reasons to distrust Putin—the main one being gross human rights abuses in the Second Chechen War.” During that conflict, Russian troops bombed, murdered and raped civilians, a violation of the Geneva Convention. They also prevented Chechen refugees from fleeing the country and barred humanitarian organizations from entering the area to aid refugees (Human Rights Watch, “War Crimes in Chechnya and the Response of the West,” 2.29.2000).
Surprisingly, Petro replied that it was his intention to gloss over “unpleasant aspects” of Russia in order to provide a different perspective. When the questioning student answered that many of these war crimes are not common knowledge and that it seemed dishonest not to discuss such things, Petro disagreed before moving on.
Another attendee asked why politicians on opposite sides of the aisle, including Elizabeth Warren, Hillary Clinton, John McCain and Marco Rubio all agree that Russia poses a threat to the U.S., particularly in light of U.S. intelligence agencies’ conclusion that Russia attempted to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.
Petro again refused to give those concerns credence, alleging that most politicians know very little about Russia. He continued, “[Within the intelligence community], the decision about what to reveal, how to reveal it and how to make [information] public is always a political decision.”
The talk had gone on for an hour longer than intended at that point and much of the audience had left, so the question-and-answer was cut off as Petro invited the remaining crowd to a reception the next day at which he would discuss the Ukraine, promising to answer any remaining questions there.