“Understanding Russia: A Dramatic Return to the World Stage” Topic of 2019 Shasha Seminar

Cynthia RockwellAugust 13, 201914min

RussiaThis year’s Shasha Seminar for Human Concerns, “Understanding Russia: A Dramatic Return to the World Stage,” will be held Oct. 11–12. It begins on Friday with a keynote address by Andrew Meier ’85, a former Moscow correspondent with Time. On Saturday, a full day of panel discussions led by Wesleyan professors and alumni who are leaders in their field will be available to registrants.

The Shasha Seminar, an educational forum for Wesleyan alumni, parents, and friends, explores issues of global concern in a small seminar environment. Endowed by James Shasha ’50, P’82, the Shasha Seminar for Human Concerns supports lifelong learning and encourages participants to expand their knowledge and perspectives on significant issues. Last year, for example, the seminar explored suicide and resilience.

Peter Rutland
Professor Peter Rutland is directing the 2019 Shasha Seminar for Human Concerns.

In this Q&A, we speak to Shasha Seminar director Peter Rutland, Wesleyan’s Colin and Nancy Campbell Professor in Global Issues and Democratic Thought. Rutland frames the seminar in terms of providing discussion and insight into the recent aggressive behavior we’ve seen from Russia—military interventions in Ukraine and Syria, and interference in elections from Macedonia to Michigan, for instance.

Q: How did this year’s topic for the Shasha Seminar come about?

A:  I think this idea came from Marc Eisner, Henry Merritt Wriston Chair in Public Policy, who was dean of the social sciences last year, and who suggested a Shasha Seminar focused on Russia since it was in the news. Additionally, Wesleyan has been extraordinarily successful over the decades in producing people who developed an interest and expertise in Russia—and who stick with it for the long haul—so we were able to staff all the panels with Wesleyan alumni. Some are academics, some are in business, and some are in government service, so we have a pretty broad range of expertise and interests represented.

Q: What is so appealing about the study of Russia? Any generalizations on this diverse alumni group?

A: The pool of people who find Russia to be an intriguing field of study—a place that generates ideas and alternative ways of looking at the world—tends to attract those with a strong sense of curiosity. Russian studies continue to be a magnet for those who think outside the box.

Q: So what is the alternative way that Russia looks at the world?

A: Well, that is the question to which nobody has the answer. Is Russia really that different? Is Russia exceptional or not? People talk a lot about American exceptionalism and there’s more of a consensus that America is exceptional for various reasons. Russians also see themselves as exceptional—and a lot of their neighbors and enemies also see them as exceptional, but in a negative way.

Q: What distinguishes Russia from other large land-based powers in Eurasia?

A: I would say ‘geography is destiny’: Russia is the borderland between Europe and Asia, the tectonic plates between European and Asian culture and civilization. It’s a massive, expansive territory, 5,000 miles across at its peak, and the conflicting pressures from Europe and Asia go back and forth. Through most of its history, Russia has been more firmly rooted in Europe than in Asia. Eighty percent of Russia’s population is in Europe and the cultural and economic military ties with Europe have been very close over the past 300 years, while Russia’s ties with Asia have been more distant. However, the potential has always been there.

Q: What is Russia’s relationship with China?

A: In the last five to 10 years, Russia’s pivot toward Asia has come into play. Russia is now looking more seriously at developing stronger ties with rising China, which is now Russia’s number one trade partner, overtaking Germany. One of the big debates is: How far does Russia want to move toward partnership with China? It’s a very asymmetrical relationship because China’s so much bigger, so much wealthier, so much more dynamic than Russia. Russia would be the junior partner, not a position that Russia is comfortable with. David Abramson ’87, one of our speakers who is a State Department official, will be talking specifically about this Russia-China connection.

Q: Russia was our enemy during the Cold War. Then they were our allies, and now they seem threatening once again. What do you make of that?

A: Well, that’s definitely what’s happened. There’s no question that the Soviet Union Russia was perceived as being a threat—and was a threat—to Western powers throughout the Cold War. Then, in the 1990s, partnerships seem to be possible, but I don’t think we were ever particularly close. It seemed aspirational on both sides, but it never really crystallized. Now we’re back to a period of confrontation. It’s not as bad as the Cold War, but it’s fairly unpleasant and antagonistic. And it’s a two-way street, partly our fault, in that we are projecting our fears onto Russia. And it’s partly Russia’s fault: they craved attention and recognition, and if they weren’t getting it through friendship and partnership, then they’ll get attention through being feared. And they’re okay with that. They would rather be feared than ignored.

If the U.S. sees them as an enemy and they see the U.S. as an enemy, then there is a kind of symmetry there. Mutual respect. And that’s pretty much where we are.

Q: Are the three real powers, China, Russia, United States, bullying each other?

A: The three power centers have economic levers: Russia has energy; the U.S. has technology and capital; China has a manufacturing base, and they’re all willing to use economic powers as leverage. It’s risky, obviously, because economics is a double-edged sword: if you impose sanctions, you damage yourself as much as you damage the other guy.

I tend to be an optimist despite all the evidence to the contrary. The benefits of economic engagement are so great that they overshadow the possible political benefits of using economics as a weapon. I don’t think any of the major players really want to shut down the global trading system.

Q: What drew you to Russian studies?

A: Fear, mainly. Growing up in England in the 1960s, fear of nuclear war was very real. My high school project was calculating what would happen if a nuclear bomb exploded in my hometown. I interviewed the civil defense people and they showed me how to calculate casualties at different points from Ground Zero, as well as the program for hospital triage. That was my initial introduction to Soviet studies.

Q: What do you hope the Shasha Seminar attendees will gain through participation?

A: The goal is to try to understand where Russia is coming from, how Russia sees the world, and we’ll leave it up to the participants to figure out the implications of all of that for U.S. policy. We’re trying to look at deeper roots of Russian behavior, what has stayed the same and how things have changed in the last 30 years. The Russia that our students experience today is very different from the Russia I knew as a graduate student. Discussing the new Russia is also part of the goal.

Q: “The new Russia”: Can you define this? I tend to think of the new Russia as having a hacker mentality.

A: That’s certainly part of, which again, is a long tradition in Russian culture: having extremely strong rules, which nobody pays attention to if they can get away with it. Russia is a rich place now: it has the fifth-highest number of billionaires in the world. Russian cash is flooding out of the country into Europe, into the U.S. It’s also very well educated, with a culturally sophisticated population. The young people are very independent-minded: they travel a lot now, they speak English and other languages. Moscow and Petersburg have a lot of cool hipster enclaves, like other big cities. And on a day-to-day basis, it’s a free society. There’s no control over the internet; it’s not like China. A lot of positive developments that have been taking place, which makes it all the more puzzling: How do you reconcile those positive features of the new Russia with the great power politics—invading countries, assassinating exiled spies, and so on. How do those 19th-century geopolitics go alongside the hipster, sophisticated, wealthy Russia of the 21st century? That’s one of the puzzles we’ll discuss.

Q: Tell us about Andrew Meier ’85, who will give the keynote address on Friday?

A: He’s a journalist and author who’s tried to tackle this question of the deep changes in Russian society and how they connect to the high politics. There are very few authors who’ve tried to marry those two, both the kind of daily life in the provinces and the trajectory of Russia as a nation, as a power. And we’re very fortunate that he happens also to be a Wesleyan alumnus.

Q: What else do we need to know?

A: I don’t want to give the impression that we are somehow trying to exculpate Russia. Understanding Russia doesn’t mean that you underestimate the crimes that the Putin regime has committed and continues to commit. It doesn’t mean downplaying the authoritarian nature of the regime. It just means that, if you consider Russia an enemy, it’s all the more important to understand why it behaves the way that it does. So the “understanding Russia” frame doesn’t mean that we are giving a platform to apologists. I don’t think any of the participants are anything but critical of the actions of the Putin regime. But we’re going to leave political debates off the table for the most part and just try and focus on hearing from and talking with people who have dedicated their careers to understanding Russia.