This Week: The Putin Problem, Perestroika in Yoknapatawpha County, + Teeing off with Trump
This week: the Russian riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma — with Richard Lourie, David Filipov, Robin Hessman, Tim Snyder and Yascha Mounk. Listen today at 2pm on WBUR or anytime on our website.
Mary McGrath: Richard Lourie is our favorite Russia watcher. His Boston accent (by way of Mattapan) gives him street cred and style in our book. His book, on Putin (coming your way in July), is illuminating on all fronts and just plain fun to read.
One of Lorie’s key insights is that when Lenin and the Bolsheviks took over Russia after the Tsarist collapse in 1917, they were ready with a new flag, new patriotic songs, symbols, and heroes; they had a story and a theory of history — a dream. As Trotsky wrote: “Man will become immeasurably stronger, wiser and subtler; his body will become more harmonized, his movements more rhythmic, his voice more musical. The forms of life will become dynamically dramatic. The average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx. And above this new peaks will rise.”
In 1991, after the Soviet Union had collapsed, taking the country by surprise, all Putin had waiting for the Russians was a giant void and some empty hope about what the free market could bring. A generation of parents and children grew up saluting different flags and singing different anthems. A country of icons suddenly had none for the first time in a thousand years. It’s a zombie culture, Lourie says; a country that doesn’t know who or what it is, with a Soviet past that’s not part of its post Soviet present, and Lourie says it could have been avoided, critically, had Putin used the Russian oil bonanza in 2004–5 to transform itself from a kleptocratic petro-state into a 21st century knowledge economy. Richard Lourie says the U.S. and Russia resemble each other now —as countries in post traumatic states — we from 9/11, Russia from 1989. David Filipov saw similarities in the protests in Moscow this week and ours after the Trump election, and also with the reactions from Trump and Putin supporters railing against the “elite media.”
Zach Goldhammer: Tackling this Russia story has been a difficult for us at OS, in part because we’re deeply skeptical about the real relevance of Russian interference in the results of the U.S. Yascha Mounk was helpful in connecting this skepticism with other real concerns. Mounk admits that the primary issue was not that Russia might have put its thumb on the scale, but that Trump was in striking distance in the first place. Still, Mounk urges Americans to, in some ways, break with their sense of exceptionalism and look at Russian interference in other Western democracies. The weapon of choice for Russia today, Mounk suggests, is not expensive missiles or costly military invasions, but instead relatively inexpensive means of manipulating information, hacking not only computers but also our sense of reality.
Still, Mounk’s warning (or at least the encapsulation of it that Slate chose for the subhed of his recent piece) that we need to return to a “Cold War mentality” seems unnecessarily alarmist. In some ways, so do many of the recommendations collected in Tim Snyder’s On Tyranny.
I’m still fairly agnostic on the Russia threat and am not sure how relevant Putin’s hacking habits are to our foreign policy doctrines. I also don’t think hacking is symptomatic of some creeping totalitarianism or mid-20th c. style dictatorial domination. More likely that we’re still readjusting to new and novel challenges of a digital age (challenges which were also present under Obama.)
I was happy to hear at least some of my doubts echoed in Masha Gessen’s talk at the Shorenstein Center earlier this week. The Russian-American journalist and trenchant Putin critic warned that while their Vladmir might offer some behavioral insight into our Donald, we shouldn’t try to explain the election of the former solely through the influence of the latter. While both men may try to dominate and distort our sense of what is real, we shouldn’t indulge in conspiracy theories.
I also appreciated Robin Hessman’s resistance to giving us an easy or simplistic narrative about generational change. We called the My Perestroika filmmaker initially to try and pick up some of the themes Gessen mentioned in her talk; particularly about the shared trauma of the 90s generation. But Hessman was committed to telling a more varied story, and not reducing her various subjects to a single theme. As someone’s who’s been banging his head against the wall trying to write about generational politics for a commissioned piece, I’m realizing more and more how limited the generational frame really is. The generalizing impulse embedded in any broad question about generations often demands an answer that obscures the actual lived experiences of so many. Just saying things are complicated doesn’t always make for great radio, and it’s hard to distill the subtleties of really great longform filmmaking into a 5 minute pitch, or even a 2 and a half minute trailer.
For a more expansive take on Hessman’s work, here’s Open Source producer and resident film and philosophy buff, Frank Horton.
Frank Horton: While present-day Moscow is a far cry from William Faulkner’s fictive Yoknapatawpha County, after watching My Perestroika (2011) a similarity struck me solid. Robin Hessman’s brilliant film follows five Muscovites as they go about their everyday lives in a world completely antithetical to the one they grew up in. (All of the film’s subjects graduated from college in 1991 — the year the USSR collapsed — officially marking them the last generation of Soviet children.) While each of the characters in the film looks back on events of the fall and sees something different, a kind of Faulknerian relationship to the past unites them. French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, in one of his amphetamine-infused essays, ”On The Sound and the Fury,” describes William Faulkner’s vision of time — or metaphysics — in the following way: “The past takes on a sort of super-reality; its contours are hard and clear, unchangeable. The present, nameless and fleeting, is helpless before it. It is full of gaps, and, through these gaps, things of the past, fixed, motionless and silent as judges or glances, come to invade it.” For Faulkner (or at least Sartre’s version of Faulkner) time manifests itself as a dynamic interplay — a constant struggle — between the warring forces of the past and the present. Cursed with “an excess of memories” Faulknerian characters find themselves, in their private thoughts and dreams, forever “sinking back into the past.” But while novelists, like Faulkner, can directly access or represent the consciousnesses of their characters, documentary filmmakers, like Hessman, cannot. Instead, they must selectively capture the actions and behaviors that betray a special correspondence. In My Perestroika, Hessman’s camera notes the shifting glances, the nervous laughs, the faraway looks, the quickly dissolving smirks. Collectively, they serve to reminds us that history is never merely a textbook, a concept, an abstraction; history acts on our nerve endings. At the end of “On The Sound and the Fury”, Sartre ultimately rejects Faulkner’s metaphysics on the grounds that it fails account for the future and “the silent force of the possible.” Sartre is mistaken here. In Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County and Putin’s Russia, the possible of the future exists — it’s just that it’s a return to the past.
MM: There’s a theme here suddenly. And lots of bad golf jokes come to mind.
Duffer in chief? Bi-lateral hazard? What’s the president’s handicap? Can we play through? No more mulligans, Mr. President!
See you on the green,
Mary, Zach, Frank and the OS crew