US Politics

Russians on Trump

Guest: Laurence Bogoslaw on Russians on Trump: Press Coverage and Commentary published by Eastview.

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Russophobia in America: A Genealogy

My talk at the Kennan on the history of russophobia.

The Russian Propaganda Machine

Guest: Alexey Kovalev on Russian propaganda.

The American Mission to Save Russia

Guest: David Foglesong on the American mission to save Russia.

Title VIII and Ambassador McFaul

Carl Schreck, who is so far the only journalist to cover the defunding of Title VIII, has done a service by writing another article on the issue. (The coverage might increase in the coming week. I did an interview with a Moscow Times reporter yesterday and his article should come out late next week.) In this latest piece, Schreck points out that such prominent officials such as Madeleine Albright, Condoleezza Rice, and Michael McFaul, the current US Ambassador to Russia, all received Title VIII funding at some point in their career. According to his most recent curriculum vita, McFaul got:

Research grant from the National Council for East European and Eurasian Research (NCEEER), 2008
Research grant from the National Council for East European and Eurasian Research (NCEEER), 1999-2000
Post-Doctoral Research Fellowship, Title VIII grant from the Department of State, Hoover Institution, 1991-1992
International Research & Exchanges Board (IREX) Fellowship, Moscow, USSR, 1990-1991

Ambassador McFaul has also severed as a board and selection committee member for IREX and ACTR. Therefore, McFaul’s current service to the United States government was made possible by money from Title VIII.

So if anyone is wondering about the real world relevance of Title VIII support, one need not look very far.

Unfortunately, McFaul hasn’t commented on the stripping away of Title VIII funds for this academic year. I’m sure his position prevents him from making public statements. Nevertheless, I assume he’s not happy about all this. Russian studies is McFaul’s specialty and he owes a lot to the US government’s past financial commitment. I’m sure he’s dedicated to the State Department allocating funds to Title VIII in the future. I only wish that given McFaul comes from academia, he could have exercised some patronage over the program. After all, before being tapped to become ambassador in 2012, McFaul served on Obama’s National Security Council as the Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director on Russia and Eurasia Affairs. If that didn’t give him some pull behind the scenes, then what does?

Maybe the Ambassador can do his Russian and Eurasian studies colleagues and students as solid and start exercising some blat among his connections in the Obama Administration. And if he does do anything, I urge him keep in mind, this funding isn’t just vital to established scholars, it’s also critical for graduate students. Many rely on Title VIII funds for language training and dissertation research. Without this money, graduate students will face increased competition over already limited funds and, for many, their careers will be put on hold in an already economically precarious environment.

Defunding Title VIII

News that the State Department didn’t allocate funding for Title VIII, which provides funding for research and language programs related to the study of Eastern Europe and Eurasia, is just the latest example that our government sees little value in knowledge about foreign countries. “In this fiscal climate, it just didn’t make it,” a US State Department official told RIA Novosti. Knowledge has always been a cornerstone of foreign policy and international relations. The primary mission of State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, which administers the Title VIII program, after all, is “to harness intelligence to serve U.S. diplomacy.” Once again, fiscal myopia has taken another step in undermining that truism.

Yet, despite the importance of Russia, and the “dangers” of its hetman, Vladimir Putin, the geopolitical importance of Central Asia, not to mention the abundant oil and the natural gas, the State Department just doesn’t think that financially supporting knowledge about this region isn’t worth the $3.5 million in grant money it allocated last year

From the foreign policy standpoint, this move just boggles the mind.

As an academic, it’s just mind numbing.

As an American, the news of defunding is, unfortunately, not all that surprising.

Granted, this isn’t the first salvo on Russia related funding programs. In 2011, Fulbright-Hays, which funds doctoral dissertations to Russia, Eastern Europe, Latin America, and Asia, had to cancel its competition because of Congressional cuts. Earlier this year, Congress defunded political science grants from the National Science Foundation. This is part of a general pattern.

Many of us in the Eastern European and Eurasian knowledge community whether they be professors, policy makers, and students will be affected by this as Title VIII programs provide a a good chunk of money to conduct in-country research and learn Eastern European and Eurasian languages. Here’s a list of programs the Association for Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies (ASEEES) has compiled so far:

  • The American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) will suspend all competitions in its East Europe Studies Program for 2013-14.   For further information, please contact Elisabeth Pop at epop@acls.org
  • The Arizona State University Critical Languages Institute has suspended competition for its Title VIII fellowships for domestic or overseas summer language study. Other student support competitions are NOT affected, in particular, the Melikian Scholar Award competition (open to all students, graduate and undergraduate), the Project GO Scholarship competition (open to ROTC students only), and the International Distinguished Engagement Award competition (open to all students). For further information, please see http://cli.asu.edu/fellowships or contact CLI at cli@asu.edu
  • Indiana University has suspended competitions for Title VIII fellowships for domestic and portable intensive summer language study. FLAS and Project GO funding are still available for students studying in the Summer Language Workshop (SWSEEL). For more information, please see our website http://www.indiana.edu/~swseel/ or contact Olia Bueva at swseel@indiana.edu
  • NCEEER will suspend any new Title VIII programming for Fiscal Year 2013 (October 1 2013 – September 30 2014). This suspension includes the National Research Competition, the Short-Term Travel Research Grant, the Hewett Fellowship, and the Indigenous Peoples Research Fellowship. At this point, current NCEEER Title VIII grant holders will not be affected. Questions may be directed to Dana Ponte, dana@nceeer.org.
  • The SSRC Eurasia Program has suspended the competitions for its Title VIII fellowships in 2013-2014. For further information, please contact the Eurasia Program at eurasia@ssrc.org.
  • The Woodrow Wilson Center Kennan Institute has suspended competition for its Title VIII Research Scholarship grant (3-9 months) for 2013-14.   For additional information, please contact Liz Malinkin at Liz.Malinkin@wilsoncenter.org

This list will certainly grow in the coming weeks.

I strongly urge anyone who cares about this issue to write their Congressperson to put whatever pressure they can on the State Department to restore funding. You can find their contact information here.

For more information about the defunding, read the excellent Carl Schreck’s article US Defunds Venerable Russian Studies Program in RIA Novosti. Carl has been the only journalist to report on this so far. And take note, he works for Russian not American media.

Besides RIA Novosti, Inside Higher Ed has a short piece on it here.

I know many journalists covering Russia read this blog. I humbly ask that they turn their attention to this matter.

Boston Conspiracy Theories Unite Americans and Russians

This week’s Russia! Magazine column, “Tsarnaev Conspiracy Theory Simulacrum“:

The bombings in Boston carried out by Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev brought the United States and Russia a smidgeon closer. Few are betting the goodwill will last long. Nevertheless, the bombing was a reminder the two continental empires share a common cause against terrorism. But that is not all. The brothers’ Tsarnaev’s terrorist attack also proved that when faced with uncanny events, some Americans and Russians turn to conspiracy for an exegesis.

Why do people believe in conspiracy theories? According to a recent paper, conspiracy thinking helps “reinstall a sense of order and predictability in the aftermath of threatening societal events” by explaining and rationalizing “complex real-world phenomena into a coherent set of assumptions about the existence of a powerful and evil enemy.” Put simply, conspiracist ideation is a means to put a chaotic, complex, and unpredictable world back into a comprehensible and moral order. Conspiracy thinking provides psychological comfort.

The Tsarnaevs’ Traumatic Narratives

I don’t have much to add about the biographies of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. I certainly won’t presume the cause or intent of their bombings of the Boston Marathon. Here we have two young men, the now deceased Tamerlan, 26, and captured and injured Dzhokhar, 19, both born in a Chechen diaspora community in the town of Tokmok, Kyrgyzstan. In 2001, they moved with their family to Dagestan, Russia. After a year or so, they came to the United States as war refugees. Like many American immigrants, the Tsarnaev family lived a working class life. Anzor, the father, worked as a mechanic. The mother, Zubeidat, was a cosmetologist. By most accounts, the Tsarnaev brothers lived a typical American male life: school, partying, sports, and alienation. As immigrants they lived an in-between existence. They had all the trappings of Americaness, but by their own admission, they felt not quite American. Eventually, both turned to radical Islam and developed an intense desire to reclaim their Chechen identity. At the moment, what dove them to violence is anyone’s guess.

There’s been a lot of debate about how much Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s “Checheness” figures into their bombing attack. Yet, what strikes me are the narratives of trauma that try to discern the meaning of “Chechnya” in the Tsarnaevs’ personal lives and, more often, as a implicit explanation for their violence. The discourse of trauma as a means to explain violence reveals how much psychological rationalizations imbue our public discourse. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But I would caution against using trauma to find the rationality in the irrational. For me, trauma only works as an analytic to understand how the irrational becomes rational to the traumatized subject. So far, the trauma talk around the brothers Tsarnaev seeks to identify the former and not the latter.

Many profiles of Tsarnaevs read as if the duo suffered from a litany of traumas: collective trauma, war trauma, the trauma of geographical displacement, and the trauma of fragmented identity. There are surely more. Even when commentators disavow Chechnya as having any role in the Tsarnaevs’ actions, the current ritualistic recounting of Chechnya’s tragic history, even when it’s to educate the American public, implies that they were nonetheless traumatized anyway. Indeed, the headline for a Bloomberg comment says it all: “Boston Revives Trauma for Chechens in U.S.

After all, the logic goes, for a people that have suffered as much as the Chechens have, how could these young men not be traumatized? If the trauma isn’t located in them specifically, then surely there are reenacting that of their forebears? It is as if to be Chechen is to be traumatized. In fact, based on a lot of what has been written in the last few days, Chechens are only afforded two subject positions: sufferers and violent rebels. As Charles Clover wrote in the Financial Times, “Suffering and violent rebellion are twin themes of Chechnya’s national mythology.” Suffering and violent rebellion are also born of the same source: trauma.

I’m still trying to figure out what all this might mean. But I find something attractive and deeply troubling about the media discourse framing the Tsarnaevs as potential embodiments of traumatic legacies. I’m drawn toward it because it tries, however imperfectly, to understand the motives of the Other on his or her own terms. At the same time, I’m disturbed by all this trauma talk. First, it renders the Tsarnaevs as victims in a crime they perpetrated and therefore robbing the real victims of their victimhood. I’ve read many reader comments , often disturbing, expressing outrage at articles that normalize the Tsarnaevs. I don’t agree, but I begrudgingly understand their anger. Second, by placing trauma at the core of Chechen identity you inherently risk, as Sarah Kendzior writes, “treating Chechen ethnicity as the cause of the Boston violence.” You may humanize the Tsarnaevs, but you nevertheless erase their complexity. But giving trauma explanatory power for the Tsarnaevs’ crimes does more. It reduces Chechen identity writ large to the materialization of the mythic suffering and violent duplex, thus rendering Checheness to a perpetual state of abnormality.

The Let’s Pretend Game

obama-laugh-putin

This week’s Russia! Magazine column, “The Magnitsky Minstrelsy“:

The passage of the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012 last December sent US-Russia relations into a dramatic tailspin. To many, the law and its subsequent list would finally demonstrate that the world’s preeminent democracy had enough of Putin and his gang. Forget all about the “reset.” Enough with the US divorcing its “interests from values” in dealing with Russia. Putin, of course, wasn’t going to take the Magnitsky Law in silence. In addition to its usual charges of hypocrisy, Moscow responded by banning US adoptions of Russian orphans, a callous and misdirected act that left many wondering who exactly Putin intended to punish. Nevertheless, thanks to William Browder’s crusade and whatever he did to cajole Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) to get them to “listen,” US-Russia relations are at a nadir. (I hope that one day an enterprising journalist will uncover exactly how Mr. Browder got so much pull with McCain and McGovern.) For years, pundits have proclaimed that US and Russia were steeped in a “new Cold War.” The Magnitsky Law is now a pivotal symptom in this diagnosis. Yes, four years after former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented her plastic “peregruzka” (sic) button to Sergei Lavrov, the reset now looks in rewind.

Maybe the reset is dead, maybe it’s not. Either way, we’ve witnessed this shuckin’ and jivin’ before. Rather than choreographing a new routine, the US and Russia seem satisfied with rerunning the same old minstrel. The US points its crooked finger at declares “Villain!” at Russia for its poor human rights record. Affronted, Russia cries “Pecksniffery!” followed by a laundry list of equitably egregious offenses. But really, it’s all a game. This is how the big geopolitical boys play in the sandbox. It’s what David Kramer and Lilia Shevtsova call the “Let’s Pretend” game. This is where the West feigns caring about human rights to bolster its own sanctimonious image, but could really care less. For the West, and for the US in particular, human rights are a weapon, like a rhetorical Sword of Damocles, and when economic interests dictate, a casus beli against the baneful. Russia, thanks to the orientialist discourse, is forever cast as devil, a dark mirror against the occidential mirror of light. It plays its part well, even when it’s sincerely revolting against its subaltern status. Given this dance, is anyone surprised that the Magnitsky Law entered with a diplomatic bang, but the Magnitsky List resounded with a pitiful whimper? Every drama needs its rising action, climax, and falling action. When it comes to the US and Russia, however, the denouement is eternally postponed.

 

Swine Flu Lands in Moscow

Hypochondriacs beware!  Swine flu has officially landed in Moscow. According to Novyi region, two women have been hospitalized in the capital. “Both women are citizens of Russia.  One of them arrived in Russia from New York yesterday, the second today.  They had fevers and were admitted to the hospital by our insistence,” Gennadii Onishchenko told Interfax. Interestingly, in Russia doctors call the virus, which has damned the good name of the pig the world over, “California 0409.”  That should make pigs feel better, but what of the sensitivities of us Californians?

Swine flu’s arrival makes Russia the fifteenth country to be infected.  The global hysteria sparked by the pandemic has led to altering flights, calls for a mass slaughter of pigs,  the quarantining of hotels at the first site of a Mexican tourist, and a whole host of other theories.  In Israel, the deputy health minister Rabbi Yakov Litzman won’t even say the word “pigs.” He officially calls the disease “Mexican flu.”

Of course, Mexico, where about 12 people have died and over 300 cases have been identified, has turned into a real life version of Outbreak. Mexico as epicenter has of course inspired our American xenophobes into a fury of anti-immigrant hateFox News has predictably led the anti-immigrant charge with accusations that illness is part of some kind of viral conspiracy against America.  It is only a matter of time they follow the Israelis in adopting “Mexican flu.”

Experts are still at a loss as to what to expect from the pandemic.  It could simply fizzle out or up its body count. If all this really does worry you, I advise reading Anatoly’s breakdown of the disease at Sublime Oblivion.

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