Students offer clues to the Russian riddle
No Illusions: The Voices of Russia’s Future Leaders By Ellen Mickiewicz Oxford University Press, 264pp, $35.95 (HB) WINSTON Churchill is partly to blame. Speaking in 1939, he said Russia’s future course was a ‘‘riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma’’. With his gift for an arresting phrase, the British wartime leader had encapsulated the popular view of Russia. To this day, it is common to speak of the country as ‘‘other’’: an unpredictable, dangerous giant, a land of mystery and stark contrasts.
Yet while it is true that Russia can fascinate, it is also significantly less mysterious than it was in Stalin’s day. Indeed, today’s Kremlin often states its intentions and airs its disagreements quite openly, and there is a wealth of intelligence about the murkier aspects of Russian politics and policy. Decisions billed as “surprises’’ in the West are often foreshadowed or made with only half-hearted attempts at secrecy.
October 18-19, 2014
Knowing Russia and anticipating its actions is of increasing pertinence. In recent months, Moscow has annexed Crimea, continues to shape events in Ukraine and resists and deflects where others accept and integrate. It is an understatement to say the country does not accept its present geopolitical situation. It actively strives towards another future, with consequences for the wider world.
In No Illusions: The Voices of Russia’s Future Leaders, Ellen Mickiewicz, a professor of political science at Duke University in the US, interviews some of Russia’s top students. Mickiewicz, a veteran scholar of Russian media and policy, set up 12 focus groups in three of Russia’s elite universities. In total, 108 students, evenly split between male and female, were asked their views on the US, the West, democracy, free speech, the media, immigration and trust. The result is a timely, often surprising and fascinating contribution to Russian studies.
The book starts with the US. It comes as no surprise to learn that what the US does, particularly in foreign affairs, is of almost obsessive concern. The students tend to see self-interest and unfairness in American attempts to spread democracy and capitalism. They speak of the country’s brutal competitiveness and social disequilibrium, more than of its freedom and egalitarianism. And yet, admiration of its positive attitude and economic strength is also typical.
Mickiewicz notes the difficulty the students have in understanding the US often does not respond to Russia’s interest. The relationship can be deeply unequal, with Russia relentlessly interpreting, and disputing, the American version of events. It is a fascinating aspect of the book, yet also one that speaks of an unhealthy relationship.
Strikingly, many of the students discuss the notion of universal brotherhood. The evils of the Soviet era are not ignored or disbelieved, yet it is as though the original idea of a better world has become detached from Russia’s 20th century. It is easy to dismiss such idealism as typical of students, yet Mickiewicz notes their realism. Many are devoted to the idea of a better, but realistically attainable society. They do not invoke socialism or grand (and failed) utopias, but repeatedly return to the notion of man’s love for his fellow man.
It is a way of thinking that Russia’s 19th-cen- tury spiritual seekers, notably Dostoevsky, would instantly recognise. Mickiewicz interestingly points to the students’ ‘‘cognitive dissonance’’. They appear to contradict themselves frequently. Many are immersed in internet culture, yet quote Tolstoy or Gogol; are proudly patriotic, yet hold President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in contempt; reject racism, yet casually distrust people from the Caucasus. Long, serious-minded discussions about democracy or the nature of trust suddenly dissolve into sardonic, hostile critiques of other countries. Pride in Russia falters with the fear the US will bomb the country.
Mickiewicz also discusses the students’ interest in international online media, such as the BBC or CNN. They have little embarrassment or fear in admitting their distrust of the official Russian discourse. Medvedev’s recent entry into the blogosphere is uniformly ridiculed. Many of the students write blogs or engage in online forums themselves, taking the opportunity to express themselves very seriously. They engage in social media with a patent joy in going far beyond what their leaders say.
That said, Mickiewicz does not attempt to