Stu­dents of­fer clues to the Rus­sian rid­dle

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - An­dre van Loon

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

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