The Russian Riddle

For many Americans, Russia once more is the name of the riddle: a mystery wrapped in an enigma that may or may not be deciphered in an FBI investigation. The faithful detectives in Washington and in much of the media want to believe that this is the story of how our President got his job, and how he could lose it. But for us, the exact relationship between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump is less interesting than the broader narrative of how these two respective nations developed in tandem; and why they are now, once again, butting heads.

The dynamic today, we believe, is framed by trauma: their loss in ‘89 of both empire and ideology; our 9/11 loss of imperial immunity.  This national insecurity unfolds in the form of  a new chess game—not quite a Cold War—being played out by strong men and bullies, plutocrats and oligarchs, small-time hired hackers and big-time Big Data collectors.  The result is not only the spread of so-called fake news (a new name for the old propaganda) but also a broader eclipse of truth.


Masha Gessen in conversation with Nicco Mele at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center (Illustration by Susan Coyne)

We began this week by attending a talk given by Masha Gessen at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center. 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. If we want to understand the seemingly unimaginable transformation of politics in both countries, we need to understand their citizens: America in the context of Americans; Russia in the context of Russians.

Taking up Gessen’s challenge, we’re trying to understand life in the Slavic slice of the political scene, with help from some of the smartest Russophiles (and -phobes) we know.

Richard Lourie has given voice to Russian dissent and dissidents—in a Boston accent, no less—for many years. The Mattapan-born Russian translator helped bring the words and works of nuclear physicist / heroic activist Andrei Sakharov into English. More recently, he’s taken on the Russian president’s fatalistic politics in the forthcoming book, Putin: His Downfall and Russia’s Coming Crash.  On our program, Lourrie helps us understand how Russia’s leadership created a disaster during a time of great national promise and potential.


Robin Hessman—director of the 2010 Peabody Award-winning film, My Perestroika—sees a more complicated situation. Her film documents the lives of Russians who grew up in the Soviet Union and came of age in the 90s, in a radically altered country. Through her work and her friendships abroad, Hessman found many competing visions of what Russia might have looked like, and of what the country’s citizens actually wanted during perestroika time. But in each narrative she tells, one senses an underlying theme of traumatic loss. Her subjects experienced, for better or worse, left behind a world they understood, and were thrust into a nation transformed. The messiness of this adaption may be one of the underlying causes of our own vague, mystified and Westernized understanding of Russian life and politics today.



On the other end of the spectrum, historian Timothy Snyder and political theorist / podcast host Yascha Mounk offer stern warnings about what we should fear in the Russian model. The country’s problems and neuroses, for them, manifest not only in the form of internal national entropy, but in active aggression against Western liberal democracy (not just in the U.S.). Both men are now offering their own models of resistance and urge us to be alert to the warning signs of creeping totalitarianism.


Yascha Mounk and Timothy Snyder

David Filipov, the Washington Post’s Moscow bureau chief, rounds out the hour with an on-the-ground report from the recent wave of massive, anti-corruption protests. These street-level resistance movements, which look rather similar to the Women’s March and anti-immigration-ban demonstrations in the U.S., may provide the most acute point of comparison between the Russian and American experience today.

Guest List
Richard Lourie
Russian translator and author of Putin: His Downfall and Russia's Coming Crash
Robin Hessman
Filmmaker and director / producer of My Perestorika
Timothy Snyder
Historian and author of On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century
Yascha Mounk
Lecturer on Government at Harvard University and host of The Good Fight podcast

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  • J.g. Hayes

    Mr. Lourie says at the beginning of the show that “we now know for certain” that Russia hacked the DNC/Podesta emails. But we don’t know that at all– what’s more accurate is that many people undoubtedly WANT to know that, for their own purposes. The declassified intelligence briefing is full of “consistent with”s and “probable”s, and frankly I trust Julian Assange, who in ten years has never released false information and who has insisted all along that the leaks (not hacks) came from someone inside, on this side of the puddle, more than many other elements. Would love to see a more in-depth look at/analysis and reaction to the actual releases rather than kill-the-messenger disinformation about their source. Who in the media has done that? Maybe Jimmy Dore? Especially the Clinton campaign urging upon us, and asking the media to support, a “pied piper” Republican candidate like Trump. My God the comeuppance is like Greek drama– talk about being hoisted by one’s own petard. As a (perhaps former) progressive Democrat, I am deeply disturbed by this, deeply disturbed by the lack of accountability by the offending, colluding Democratic Party apparatus, and the continual “Look, the Russians!” denial that the media has willingly been party to in the defense of Clinton Inc.

    • David Miller

      Thank you. I’m on exactly the same page, and could have written your very comment, though not as well. It’s funny you mention Jimmy Dore, as I was listening to his podcast and a rant on this very topic just before turning to this week’s Radio Open Source.

      I will say that there are a few other journalists looking critically at the 24/7 anti-Russia, anti-Putin hysteria, including Glenn Greenwald, Matt Taibbi, Mark Ames and (personal favorite) Michael Tracey. Stephen F Cohen still struggles to get his views out; this week he has a long interview on Alternative Radio which I recommend. But mostly its the Masha Gessens (and even she, who has done so much to vilify Russia and Putin in the minds of Americans, is getting worried where this is all going), the Julia Ioffes, the Richard Louries, the Timothy Snyders, the Louise Menschs (!) who do their part to hew to the officially accepted anti-Russia narrative.

      I’d also classify myself as a “(perhaps former) progressive Democrat” – and this lemming-like rush to a new (cold) war reminds me of nothing as much as the 2002-2003 pre-Iraq War propaganda onslaught, the same gas-lighting, the same opportunism, the same ubiquitous outrage and BS. But this time its from “my side.”

  • Murph262

    With regard to the comments below, as of Sunday morning April 2, the FBI has announced almost definitive proof from signal intel and human intel (read that, a mole or spy on the ground).

    …recently in Congressional testimony a former FBI agent described how Trump echoed almost perfectly echoed and magnified Russian fake news and charges against Hillary.

    NATO ally Merkel is treated coldly as the Egyptian human rights offending leader is being welcomed to the WH. Worrisome? I think so.

    • Murph262

      To abandon facts is to abandon freedom.
      More precisely, the intelligence community is making a high-confidence assessment, which means that they have multiple reasons for concluding that, both based on things like signals intelligence but also what’s known as human intelligence – so in other words, moles, spies that reported to the CIA in this case to say that they knew this to be the case. This was the…
      To reach a high-confidence assessment, you have to have – the intelligence community has to have a great deal of intelligence, an extraordinarily strong case that they were able to build, based on both electronic intercepts as well as human intelligence.

  • Potter

    I am trying to grasp the depth of depravity right here in this country. Without our home grown corruption, made worse by the Citizen’s United SCOTUS decision, we would not be talking about Russian interference, interference that took an opening or was welcomed. As well enter Wikileaks and Assange who show themselves to be on the dark side if they ever were anywhere else. Now, we are so corrupted in the Congress that it’s an uphill battle to get a believable investigation.
    The trauma of the collapse in Russia in 1989 is for me comparable to our 9/11 only maybe if you add our reaction to it-our wars in the Middle East. The case was not made well by Lourie in this hour about both collective traumas. It does seem though that we have lost confidence in ourselves, as Russia has, but more gradually. So “make America great again” had great appeal apparently. Ironically Trump is taking us down further.
    Lourie makes an excellent point which he repeats: i.e. that Putin failed his country by not taking advantage of that period in time when he had the resources to improve Russia. But Putin always seems all about himself, like Berlusconi was and now our Trump. It’s great to see people demonstrating.
    It was also said in this hour, bottom line, that this deteriorating situation is really about the people, here and in Russia, what they will tolerate, what they will deny, what they choose not to know, how vulnerable they are to propaganda and and lies, as many in pain, resentment, false nostalgia, look back to to an imagined better time.

    I am at the moment very affected by Jane Mayer’s article in the New Yorker about the Mercer family and how they, their money and their off the deep end ideas have taken hold of the Trump Presidency after working years towards that goal.

    This should be free to all who want to read it. Long but necessary….

    We had better inform ourselves.

    Excellent ROS newsletter, excellent guests. Thank you.