Amy Martin: From the mid-’90s to the 2000s, when President Bush famously looked into Putin’s eyes and got “a sense of his soul,” there was a considerable thaw in diplomatic relations between Moscow and the U.S. For a while, Americans seemed to lose interest in Russia as an adversarial, geopolitical actor.
Andrea Lanoux: Russia is only big in U.S. news when something it’s doing is relevant to us, or when something is happening that reflects our stereotypes of Russia. At the end of 2011 and into 2012, we saw tens of thousands of people taking to the streets to protest falsified elections in Russia. This is when Americans take notice—“People are rising up against their authoritarian government.” We want to read about that. We want to read about Pussy Riot rising up against the repressive government, because that reflects a notion of Russia that we cling to, even though the reality is that Pussy Riot is widely despised and dismissed in Russia. And now, of course, the U.S. intelligence community has determined that Russia meddled with our 2016 presidential election. So, it’s not that Russia has become more interesting—it always has been—Russia has just become more relevant to us.
AM: Has Russia’s interest in the U.S. remained strong in that same time frame?
AL: Russians know a lot more about American society and culture than we know about their culture. Under Soviet rule, it was difficult to get news about the West, and that helped feed a fascination with Western culture and with American culture in particular. But I wouldn’t call it a love affair. Russia is simultaneously striving to be a Western country and claiming an otherness to the West. That has created a culture of competition that I think explains why Russia has over-performed in nearly all cultural spheres—literary masterpieces, classical music, physics, ballet, painting, space exploration. They contribute so profoundly to Western civilization, but there is also very deep anti-Western sentiment, and that has been exacerbated by the sanctions America has imposed on the country.
AM: What impact have sanctions had on Russia’s economy?
AL: The economic situation within Russia is tough right now. Sanctions have taken their toll. As a political strategy, I think they were meant to sow dissatisfaction from below and get people to rise up against their own leaders. But the sanctions themselves are not impacting people in the high levels of government; they’re impacting average citizens and vulnerable populations.
AM: So why invade Ukraine? Why annex Crimea and risk international backlash?
AL: To understand that, you need to understand Putin’s basic desire to re-establish Russia as a superpower. That imperial ambition is “playing to his base,” to use a phrase we often hear in relation to our own president. Putin wants to show Russia as a great military force again, even at significant cost.
AM: Is that also why he would be interested in influencing the U.S. election?
AL: It’s no secret that Russians would like the sanctions lifted. And I think they thought they would get better traction with a Trump administration than a Clinton administration. As Secretary of State, Clinton developed a deep knowledge of Russia, and I think there was a feeling that the more she knew, the harder it would be to change her mind. But there’s another possible reason being investigated. A lot of the sources I read suspect that the Trump organization—before it became the Trump administration—was deep into debt with Russian sources and Russian banks. As the special counsel continues to investigate and “follow the money,” it will be interesting to see if those suspicions are true, if there was some indebtedness to Russian financial institutions that would make working with the Trump administration easier and smoother for the Russians.
AM: Putin has suggested that “patriotic Russian hackers” may have been behind the meddling in the U.S. election, and not his government. Is that a plausible scenario?
AL: I would say it’s highly plausible that there are some extremely savvy Russian youths in the provinces who could be messing with something like the Michigan electoral computer system. But that’s certainly not the full story, or the end of the story. Russia, and Soviet Russia, has vast experience controlling elections. It’s beyond our imagination how sophisticated they are at it, and how blatant they are about doing it. The 2011-2012 protest in Russia was a reaction to widespread election rigging in their own country. And now, people in Russia are talking about the Olympic doping scandal. What we see there is a state-sponsored, organized effort all the way down to planting fake urine samples for athletes. The Russian government is a coordinated machine, and has been for the past several centuries.
AM: So, you think it’s possible that the Russian government launched a highly coordinated effort to influence the outcome of the 2016 election?
AL: I do, but I also think that we, as a society, can’t quite wrap our minds around that. It just doesn’t jibe with the American way of thinking. We have such respect for the democratic process that we can’t imagine accepting the idea that that process could have been manipulated to the point where we have an illegitimate outcome. The consequences to our institutions are just too great.
AM: It has been reported that Russians used social media as one tactic to influence Americans, to the surprise of even the very people who created these social media platforms. How exactly did they manage that?
AL: I think we’re way out of our league in terms of influencing elections and spreading “fake news.” The Soviets invented fake news; they called it state-sponsored propaganda, and they were very good at it. The Russian people are used to it, and they understand that they need other sources before they can believe something they see on state television, for example. We are just beginning to understand it and recognize it.
AM: The phrases “fake news” and “alternative facts” are now part of our vocabulary.
AL: Yes, and that has global consequences. A good friend of mine in Russia said, “We used to know that everything we heard on television was fake, and if you wanted to know what was really going on, you had to … read a Western source. But now we can’t even believe the Western sources.”
AM: Does that benefit Putin?
AL: I would say that both Putin and Trump share an interest in “how it looks,” almost more than “how it is.” And that has tipped us into a political world where reality and how state decisions actually impact people seem less important than how it looks on television.
AM: How does President Trump “look” to the Russian people?
AL: Trump’s understanding of power is familiar to Russians. It looks similar to Putin’s and that makes him more relatable, which I think to some extent makes him more likable. But, if there’s something that defines Russian culture today, it’s a desire for stability and predictability. This is a society that has gone through multiple revolutions that have had devastating consequences. If there’s a system in place and there’s a game to play, if you know how to play it you can live a normal life. Initially, I think the Russian people saw Trump and thought, “Here’s someone we can deal with; here’s someone who understands power the same way we do.” But now they are watching what’s happening in North Korea, for example, and in Syria, and they’re starting to see Trump as unpredictable, and that’s at odds with their desire
AM: Will that desire for stability keep Putin in power?
AL: There’s a presidential election coming up in 2018, which Putin is expected to win. Surprise, right? But there are other candidates, like Ksenia Sobchak, a young woman and television personality who is running to make the point that it’s time for a change. Many Russians don’t trust her, though—they see her as a Kremlin-backed candidate whose real reason for running is to show the West that they are having a democratic election. Still, there are signs that the Russian people might be ready for something else, someone else, in the future.
AM: Is studying Russian language and culture more relevant now than ever before?
AL: I would argue it is. I encourage my students to study languages—any language—so they can understand what’s happening in a country, in a society, within a culture. One of the things that I’m proudest of is that many Russians tell me what they’re thinking. They treat me as someone who can understand and appreciate what’s happening in the culture, almost as an insider. You can gain insight that way that you can never get from any news source. You can learn what people think, what motivates them, what their values are. I think it’s critical that we have people in this country who have a more nuanced, more complex understanding of what’s happening in the world.