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Lecturer explores ‘What Russia Wants’

April 26, 2019

Russia, according to a popular refrain that Julia Ioffe quoted at Bowdoin on Monday, cannot be understood with the mind alone.

Her lecture, titled “What Russia Wants and What it Means for America,” focused on the 21st century geopolitical history of Russia and its relationships with the West, in particular with the United States. Ioffe detailed President Vladimir Putin’s four terms in office and the short-lived transition of power from Putin to Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s president from 2008 to 2011. Medvedev’s single term in office, and Putin’s subsequent return to the presidency, was a crucial moment in U.S.-Russia relations, she said.

Ioffe argued that when Medvedev tacitly accepted NATO’s bombing campaign in Libya, Putin was incensed—he was sympathetic towards Gaddafi and feared that if he did not re-insert himself into politics, Russia would lose its power on the world stage.

She contended that Putin completely lacks ideology and instead prioritizes the preservation of a strong, centralized Russian state above all. She defended this statement by reminding the audience that Putin called the collapse of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century.”

Ioffe also addressed how events in the last few decades resulted in Russia’s interference in the 2016 United States presidential election.

Ioffe, a journalist for GQ and a respected voice on Russia and its relationship with the United States, was born in Moscow and moved to the United States with her family at the age of seven.

Laura Henry, associate professor of government, explained why the Government and Legal Studies and Russian Departments co-sponsored Ioffe’s visit to campus.

“[There are] a lot of students studying Russian who are also interested in contemporary politics,” Henry said. “So we started thinking about somebody who could come and talk about current affairs, and, in particular, help us understand the U.S.-Russia relationship.”

Alyssa Dinega Gillespie, associate professor and chair of the Russian Department, particularly enjoyed when Ioffe recalled her personal experience of reporting on the events she discussed in the lecture.

“[I] appreciated the ‘in-the-moment,’ human touch that Ioffe provided in recollecting these momentous events as they occurred,” Gillespie wrote in an email to the Orient.

Gillespie also appreciated how Ioffe brought out the “wry Russian sense of humor” by presenting images like a Russian state television gaffe showing the total votes cast in a region—the votes added up to 146 percent of the population.

Caroline Poole ’22 attended the talk at the invitation of Gillespie.

“I was surprised to find out just how deeply centralized Putin’s power has become, especially when [Ioffe] explained how no one really knows what to expect when he inevitably loses power,” she said.

Daniel Fitzgerald ’21 attended the lecture as an assignment for his Post-Soviet Russian Film class.

“I came into the lecture with a pretty naive view of Trump and Putin’s relationship,” he said. “I liked how she cracked this facade of [the] ‘bromance’ the two share and explored the deeper, darker reasons behind why Putin is meddling in our elections.”

Gillespie hoped that students would leave the talk having engaged with a new perspective on the United States.

“I think it was useful for students to … encounter the Russian opinions that American rhetoric on democracy and human rights is hypocritical and that western-style democracy is nothing but a circus and to consider the Russian discomfort with a post-Cold War world in which the U.S. aspires to be the only global power,” Gillespie wrote.

Henry echoed Gillespie’s sentiments.

“It’s so important to go beyond the headlines to see current events in context, in historical context, in the context of past relationships, to see current events from other points of view, not just our own,” Henry said.

Editor’s note, 4/29/19 at 11:07 a.m.: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Dmitry Medvedev was president of Russia from 2008 to 2021. Medvedev was president from 2008 to 2011.

Editor’s note, 4/29/2019 at 4:45 p.m.: A previous version of this article incorrectly attributed the statement “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century” to Ioffe. She was quoting Putin, who said as such in 2005. Additionally, Ioffe identified Medvedev’s acceptance of the NATO bombing of Libya, not Syria. Lastly, the phrase that Russia cannot be understood with the mind alone is a popular refrain, not Ioffe’s central argument.


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