Putin, Ukraine and Reading the Russians

Russian troops are encircling naval bases, Crimea is locked down. We Americans are looking across an ocean, flummoxed in a familiar way by the mind and the mission of the Russian president and people.

Suzanne Massie, who persuaded Ronald Reagan that he could hate Communism and love the Russian people in the same career, puts it this way: Why do we keep getting Russia wrong? Putin is only the latest in a series of Russian leaders that have divided American thinkers and policymakers against themselves. Is he a realist, or is he ruled by his emotions? by Cold War nostalgia? by a vision of Eurasian Union? Is he a fascist or a plutocrat, or is he simply reacting to the West’s expansion of NATO? Is he winning — or has he overplayed his hand?

We turn to Massie and other close familiars of Russian culture and history to try and figure out how to read the Russians, now and forever. Thought experiment: given that many of our best insights into Russian character and temperament come to use from their literary geniuses, can we summon some collective judgment on Putin, Ukraine and the Crimea from the contentious, often dissident wisdom of Tolstoy, the humanist; Dostoevsky, the Slavic Nationalist; Chekhov, the gentle star of both Moscow and Yalta; Solzhenitsyn, who argued forcefully that Ukraine must be an eternal part of Russia; and Vladimir Nabokov, who sailed out of Russia for the last time from the Crimea?

Guest List
Suzanne Massie
connoisseur of Russian art, music and literature whose private tutelage of Ronald Reagan gets major credit for his historic walk through Red Square -- and maybe for the cultural thaw that ended the Cold War. Her new book is the terrific memoir, Trust but Verify: Reagan, Russia, and Me
Mark Kramer
senior fellow at Harvard's Davis Center and director of its Cold War Studies Program
Maxim D. Shrayer
professor of Russian, English, and Jewish Studies at Boston College, and author of Leaving Russia: A Jewish Story and other books
Svetlana Boym
 Professor of Slavic and Comparative Literatures at Harvard University and the author of Another Freedom, a reflection on the cross-cultural conception of freedom
Reading List
Getting Ukraine Wrong
John Mearsheimer
John Mearsheimer, "Getting Ukraine Wrong," The New York Times: "The White House view, widely shared by Beltway insiders, is that the United States bears no responsibility for causing the current crisis. In their eyes, it’s all President Vladimir V. Putin’s fault — and his motives are illegitimate. This is wrong. Washington played a key role in precipitating this dangerous situation, and Mr. Putin’s behavior is motivated by the same geopolitical considerations that influence all great powers, including the United States".
Putting Putin on the Couch
Susan Glasser
Susan Glasser (and many others) put Putin on the couch  with comments on him as a political leader and as an individual in Politico
Putin’s long game? Meet the Eurasian Union
Leon Neyfakh
Leon Neyfakh discusses the prospect of a new Eurasian Union in the Globe's Ideas section
The Novel that Predicted the Invasion of Crimea
Michael Idov
Michael Idov  writes on Vassily Aksyonov’s “The Island of Crimea” written in 1979, and the novel's modern application for The New Yorker (blog)  
Why Are We Always Wrong about Russia?
Suzanne Massie
Suzanne Massie's 2001 speech, "Why Are We Always Wrong about Russia?,"posses the West's deep historical misunderstanding of Russia.

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  • Mark Aisenberg

    It’s difficult to psychoanalyze an entire country, but that won’t stop us from trying…

    It seems to me that baked into the Russian soul are pessimism and feelings of inferiority, perhaps rooted in their early conquest by the Mongols and more recent invasions by the French and Germans. Russia seems to be perpetually torn between wanting the approval of the West and feeling they are being persecuted by it. The country reminds me of the young men from difficult circumstances who value “respect” above all, and who use violence when necessary to achieve some measure of it.

    Russia has been tweaked in recent years repeatedly, by the fall of the USSR, the loss of its Eastern European satellites, the dismal performance of their economy (aside from fossil fuel extraction), NATO encroachment, Russian loss of influence in international affairs, the decline of Communism and Socialism in Europe and China, and so on. I imagine Russians (again, recklessly painting with a broad brush here) are on the lookout for ways to regain international and self respect. Yet we keep unnecessarily waving the red flag in front of them by such things as expanding NATO and planning to build anti-missile defenses near their border.

  • Potter

    Mark- what you write is right on!

    We should look at the actual history of the Crimea. It was not always part of Russia.

    It seems it’s all about Putin, but Russians flock to him; they’re ripe for what they hear from him: the motherland, the glory of Russia, lack of respect by the the Western powers. This is reminiscent of Germany during the inter-war period:the same psychology arising out of loss of super-power status and humiliation. So with this feeling of resentment, loss humiliation that he describes, Putin chooses this path. A mature leader would concentrate on cultivating the Russian garden, perhaps more reflective as to the why of the collapse.

    Putin could have had it all if he were respectful of international law. What a thug he seems!

    It would be a long ongoing discussion (and a lot of reading too) about how the works of Chekhov, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy tell us about the Russian character, but I welcome it.

  • Potter

    Sometimes a photo such as the one on the front page of the NYtimes yesterday (I think it’s photo above) says it all.

  • Maria Dienhart

    The fact that Mr Lydon would invite Ms Massie to comment on this topic speaks quite a bit about his lack of historical perspective .

    It’s interesting that she feels that the fact the Mr Putin kissed her on the cheek at one time some how makes up for the imperialist atrocities perpetrated by “Russia” (Soviet Union) the towards the Eastern Block Countries over the last 300 years.

  • Robert W Peabody III

    Wow – no one from the financial sector on the show?
    Apparently, we are going to destabilize the Russian currency as we did with Iran.
    Maybe that will work for the Russians, culturally speaking.

  • After yesterday’s live broadcast, the producers of Radio Open Source asked me to recommend my favorite poem about Crimea. While the most famous English-language poem referencing Crimea (the Crimean War) is probably Lord Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade,” the text I would like to share was written by Ilya Selvinsky (1898-1968), a major twentieth-century Russian-language poet. A native of Crimea born in Simferopol and raised in Evpatoria, a descendant of both Krymchaks (Crimean Jews) and Ashkenazi Jews, Selvinsky was a military journalist and combat officer during World War 2. In January 1942 he became one of the earliest literary witnesses to the Shoah (Holocaust). What follows below is the opening of Selvinsky’s poem “Kerch” (1942), in which he reflects on how excruciatingly difficult it was to bear witness—through poetry—to the unthinkable. In light of the recent events in Crimea, Selvinsky’s poem has gained new relevance. MDS

    Ilya Selvinsky

    from “Kerch” (1942)

    In high school we divided the Crimea
    Into Hellenic and Wild. The coast
    From Eupatoria down and all the way to Kerch
    Was called Hellas. And then, if one should happen
    To steal across the mountains and descend
    Onto the steppe, we used to call this:
    “Going to Scythia,” although in jest
    We called our towns and cities
    By their Greek names, as in days of yore.
    I had long forgotten all about this.
    But suddenly when our landing forces
    Traversed the strait and took their position
    On the Crimean shore, when I saw
    Not far ahead of me the city of Kerch,
    My voice then whispered “Panticapaeum.”

    In lilac and orange fog, above the sea
    An amphitheater of a resplendent city
    Soared, while some white and lofty temple
    Rose from a mountain into the sky
    Amid smoking clouds. A distant cape
    Shone black over the bay of chrysolite.
    And silhouettes of buildings at daybreak
    Suggested porticoes and columns
    And statues in the forum, while Hellas
    Breathed in her deep slumber. Only the fog,
    Like reveries, encircled colossal sails,
    A horde of billy goats or a crowd of satyrs,
    And I was older by five thousand years.
    Enveloped by the dozing centuries,
    In my thoughts I roamed the square,
    Where the Hellenes bargained like old birds
    And fish scales passed locally for silver.
    Here bread and cheese were traded for horse mackerel;
    A copper shield filled to the brim with mullet,
    Was an apposite payment for an ode;
    And if with a spindly sturgeon they paid
    For a young lady of matching shape and form—
    The same aqueous sheen, the very same
    Body contours and flowing curves,
    The sturgeon wouldn’t be offended.
    (And what about the young lady? Of her offence
    They hardly thought in those ruffian days.
    A terrible age!) And suddenly upon this city,
    Like Furies dispatched by Zeus,
    Airplanes! And when out of the smoke
    The city once again appeared over the bay,
    And tanks with red flags rolled in, one after another
    Along the embankment, then encountered a ditch
    And drove through a bank’s façade into a side street —
    By now Kerch was lying there by the shore.
    Thus, in one day I got to see two faces
    Of the same city. But the war
    Held a third one in store for me. […]

    Translated, from the Russian, by Maxim D. Shrayer
    Copyright © 2013 by Maxim D. Shrayer
    Excerpted from Maxim D. Shrayer, I SAW IT: Ilya Selvinsky and the Legacy of Bearing Witness to the Shoah (Boston, 2013).

  • chris

    I wasn’t prepared for the intensity of feeling here around Ukrainian identity.

    Maxim Shrayer responded tartly on the air to what he called Suzanne Massie’s “Russo-centric” view of the general situation. Ukraine, she had said, was “the birthplace of Russian civilization” but “never anything but an intimate part of Russia” until it became an independent state in 1991. It is today “perhaps an independent state but not a nation,” she said, divided by religion, language and ethnicity and unable so far to find a leader.

    Our friend Askold Melnyczuk, the novelist, teacher and founding editor of AGNI, gives me permission to post his personal email this morning:

    “Ms. Massie’s observations remind me of Bellow’s remarks about the Tolstoy of the Zulus….Turned out, he later wrote, there was one… Ukraine, perhaps the only modern nation spawned by book of poetry, is quite a beautiful place. With a deep and thriving culture. Have you ever been there?” Not yet, alas.

    Askold added in bold print a letter from an eminent poet and novelist in Kiev, his friend of many years, who just wrote to him: “Gosh, dear, wake up! It WON”T stop in Crimea. Poland, Baltic states and Finland are the next in the line, as Ukraine has been since Georgia 2008! Not to speak of Moldova – the “corridor” from Crimea via Transnistria to the Balkans is already in preparation! And all the EU governments and parliaments are literally swarming with the Gazprom agents, and the Moscow-Berlin axis since 2008 has been almost overtly ruling the world! The West have totally overslept the “third tyrant” – a synthesis of Stalin and Hitler fortified with new information technologies! Now, that the time to pay the unclosed historical debts of the 20th century… finally rings the bell, you still believe the world can stay the same? FORGET IT!!!!!! … Beware.”

    • Maria Dienhart

      Agreed! Not sure how the title of “Russian Connoisseur” some how give Ms Massie Journalistic credibility .

  • Robert W Peabody III

    re: the Moscow-Berlin axis
    Here’s a way-out film recommendation: Béla Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies
    The Hungarians know something of being caught between a Russian/German dynamic and “unrealized capacities”.

  • potter

    ( thank you Mr. Shrayer for the Selvinsky poem)
    I realize that I have been reacting to Putin perhaps the way my grandparents who spoke Russian and Yiddish all their lives would have. They came to America, to New York City, from a shtetl south of Kiev in the beginning of the 20th century.

    What I love about this discussion is that we have so many views, some overlapping. I have read most of what is linked and listened to Ms. Massie here.

    Ms. Massie’s perspective is deep or long, nuanced, complementary, a contrast to the others. What stood out for me in her interview is how Putin’s violations of international law, law that we have developed and agreed upon so far, seems a non or minor factor. After all and too, Russia has retained a seat on the Security Council and has a responsibility. We have not annexed any country. He has crossed a line. But the real question is how do we avoid getting into further contention with him or do we have to? How should we react given his perceptions?

  • David

    We have not annexed any…thanks Ralph Nader for bringing up Guantanamo. Here’s the question: Why are all of us, including me, a day late & a dollar short save Ralph?

    How helpful it would have been if all these scholarly Massie critics (including the second guest) had kept their shoulder to the wheel and read up a little on modern asymmetric warfare (little tweeks with minimal investment turning a great big tide…snipers eg knocking off folks on both sides). Call it cold if you want…over time it could’a ended up a light brigade replay.

    “How should we react given his perceptions?” Add a little dose of Husserl to our perceptions maybe? Which would entail understanding his. Begin here: http://nader.org/2014/03/21/obama-putin-say/

    • Potter

      Nader has no credibility with me regarding Guantanamo. We would not have had GWBush as president, nor the Iraq War, were it not that Nader was very helpful in getting him elected as far as I am concerned. No other argument helps to dissuade me.

      • David

        Link gives Bush-win argument a ride in Wiamea shorebreak.

        I went with probability and did not vote Nader, but Democrats haven’t wised up. It’s my fault, your fault, and all our faults. All I have to do is listen to NPR to realize Ted Rall would make a better president than 95% of the Dem pols who’ve served in my lifetime. One can certainly find out how little that 95% knows via said org, cause the 95’s shock doctrine is getting to be all it spouts (if they’re disallowed to bring truth to bear on Ukraine, some of the hosts are still astute on other matters).


        “Yugoslavia was deliberately dismantled. It continues to be further broken apart by U.S. and other foreign interests who want to divide and conquer the country economically. They want to exploit its resources, its people, its markets; and the consequences have been a human disaster from Slovenia to Macedonia.” Ramsey Clark 10/6/00

        • Potter

          Hard to believe that Nader did not take more votes from Gore than Bush. Believe what you like, but that Nader went around the country and was in the media campaigning that there was NO difference between the two would be enough for me as well.

          I’d like to mention an irony about Guantanamo and the Crimea and that is that we stayed on that island even longer because the Soviets were meddling too close to us, pointing missiles. My understanding of what happened after the breakup of the Soviet Union is that the West tried hard ( or as well as they were able) to bring Russia into the fold. This is another discussion. With this Crimea move, I think we are mainly talking about Putin, and not the Russian people.

          Our Representative Jim McGovern just sent a note to us about a petition he is gathering signatures for to end the Cuban embargo. I signed it. It’s long overdue.

          • David

            I saw at the “Ukraine Crisis” article in Wikipedia a little colored map that would appear to put my views in an extreme minority if nations were the people on the earth. Funny thing, though, it left most nations in Africa grey…without any color designating where they stood on Russia defending the will of the Crimean folks against the professional insurrectionist crowd. And then I remembered, didn’t I, that the African Union had maintained Yanukovych was in there legit. What’s the deal with Wikipedia??? Wikipedia’s not alone if I’m not mistaken; Google doesn’t seem to be able to find anything on the AU’s stand re this either.

            You’re fortunate to be in MA up their having McGovern for a Rep. But, Lord, I hate reading stuff from Ron Paul Inst that sounds like it’s as in depth as Common Dreams. Downright scary.

            Ok, DBT list (privatized incompetent pork barrel contract) scrubs 7000 names at least 54% of which were Afro American. Always wondered if the software knew a probability that same-names = sons or nephews of felons.

  • Robert W Peabody III

    Yes, the diverging views made the show a great experience, which came down to this irony:
    Associate the Crimea with the imagination of artist-writers and that the Crimea is an extraordinary place, is certain.
    Associate the Crimea with the political reality of facts and numbers and the place becomes uncertain.

  • Marc McElroy

    I was excited to listen to this show when I read the preview, and I was really surprised while listening to it. The first half hour was a far right view vs a center right view. I literally had to stop listening at times because the out of balance discussion was LITERALLY and I mean in the truest sense of the word, making me dizzy. I liked the literary bit, it was interesting, but overall, the show was a bit upsetting. There is a bigger problem going on than just the view represented, it’s the “professional class of Russian experts” who get a chance to strut out when these kind of events flair up. The ones who say in short, “the events are predictable, and this fits exactly the hypothesis I put forward in my book(s)… did I mention I wrote a book on this any it all fits in..” The truth is the events of the last month are more like a Putin hail Mary (Slava Maria?) pass and we’re watching the players scramble. It proves these “Russia experts” wrong, not right, but don’t tell them that.

  • This Putin/Crimea Radio Open Source discussion was intriguing but in need of two dimensions that haunt the analyses:
    1. Emerson’s ghosts.
    2. Jean Renoir’s “perspectivism.”

    In his 1836 “Journal” entry on Harvard’s bicentennial jubilee, Emerson says, “Cambridge at any time is full of ghosts.” (there’s a plaque near one of the Harvard University gates that gives the Emerson 1836 entry)

    Cambridge’s ghostiness is of course matched by those of Kiev and Crimea: The Yalta Conference, “Charge of the Light Brigade”, Crimean Tartars, Isaac Babel’s world in his “Odessa tales”, Vassily Grossman’s Berdichev and the Holocaust. (depicted in Fred Wiseman’s “The letter”). The writer who epitomizes the tug-of-war between Ukraine and Russia is of course Gogol. The movie “Taras Bulba” (1962?) is based on his novella and shows the tenuosness of the position of the Jew Yankel. “Babi Yar” near Kiev is the final culmination of this antisemitism.

    The other dimension derives from the movie ‘La regle du Jeu” (“Rules of the Game”), the 1930’s French classic. In the first scenes of the movie, Jean Renoir plays the character “Octave” who serves as a kind of Greek chorus in the movie and comments after the car he’s in falls into a ditch, “chacun a ses raisons” (“everybody has his own reasons”).

    How to deal with this “sandwich” of Emerson’s ghosts and Renoir’s private “reasons”? They bracket the ROS discussion.

    If you ponder this puzzle of relativism, you will find yourself in “the garden of forking paths,” to quote Borges.

    The only practicable resolution of these issues might have been that America as the sole hegemon might have set an example over the decades which would have counteracted global tendencies to chaos and caprice in the world political system, which is what we have now. America’s neocon-led rampaging set the stage.

    The purpose of the neocons (Robert Kagan and his wife Victoria Newland were very active in supporting extreme-right groupings in the Ukraine such as “Svoboda”. Their purpose was to encourage disorder, bloodshed, political criminality, since for radicals like these, “worse is better” and “much worse is much better”.).

    America’s failure to break the neocons led to the criminalization of American foreign policy and this feeds into Putin’s sense of impunity and an “anything goes” and “save himself who can” anarchic atmosphere in world politics everywhere.

    This then takes you right back to Emerson’s “ghosts” and Renoir’s “reasons” which surround Putin and the Crimea and should frame the ROS discussion.

    For more Ukraine/Russia “ghosts”, see:


    See Maxim D. Shrayer entry above in ROS comments, which fits.

  • David

    Don’t think it would have been practicable. Empires are susceptible to group narcissism. Fromm pointed this out pretty clearly. Also to mimetic crises, internal/social wars of all against all, and then going out yonder looking for scapegoats.

    I’m on vacation (seven days), so might look up the “forking paths” thing.

  • Kiev: Below is my opus 3800 word Yahoo article about the Crimean Invasion from near 6 years here. Interesting show, but somewhat Russocentric. Very little about the actual brutality of it, with Russians beating torturing kidnapping soldiers and critics, or the great cruelty of this invasion after the incredible successful Marathon protests against the biggest thief outside of Africa.

    I’m really sick of the constant nonsense charges of right wing Neo-Nazisn in Ukraine that have been Russia’s propaganda club for 75 years, NON of which I’ve seen a speck of. My parents were both German immigrants, I’m first born-American in family and hate Nazi’s. The protests were more a popular mildly leftist revolt against the criminal oligarchs, the most outrageous + extreme of whom was Yanukovich- in fact they were more similar to a pure optimum form of Communism than any right-wing action- Russia despises Ukr nationalists cause they were the only people that resisted Soviet mass-murders. Robert Parry, esp, has gone around the bend on this issue- he is obsessed with neo-con conspiracies and knows nothing of Ukraine.

    IMPERIAL STRETCH: A Bridge Too Far – Yahoo – New
    With his reckless invasion Putin has unleashed titanic forces that may sweep him from power in 4-5 years: inspiration to 6 separatist regions of Russia, economic devastation from sanctions and Euro resource diversification, reinvigorated NATO + EU, EU pushed into Ukraine’s arms, EUAA signed, $36 billion of loans + grants; outraged Russian liberals, desperate oligarchs blocked from dirty money, world economy closed



    • David

      There does seem to be a complication with the emphasis on the right’s participation, at least in my mind. If the new Ukrainian gov includes Israeli-Ukrainian nationals, then it must be a new kind of rightist org. That would mean this new right would be defined as chiefly anti-Russian, no longer anti-Israel? When Russia was disappeared would they revert back?

      Read about Israel’s involvement near the end: “Myth, Meth and the Georgian Invasion” http://d-princetonian.livejournal.com/8081.html

  • theCrowdisUntruth

    They say we proles’er too digitally obsessed (and I know it’s true) but how bout these wonks re-hashing each other’s stuff night & day off the screen?


    There’s a lot in the Reuters article from December FAIR links: “He [Yanukovich] believed the IMF had ignored what he saw as reasonable demands to lift tough conditions for its earlier help, such as increasing the retirement age and freezing pensions and wages.” http://uk.reuters.com/article/2013/12/19/uk-ukraine-russia-deal-idUKBRE9BI0E320131219