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‘The New Tsar’ — a biography

Posted by: Oksana Ingle | 05/01/2016 Comments Off on ‘The New Tsar’ — a biography |

Putin book cover

Special to The Post and Courier • May 1, 2016

MANY RUSSIANS would love to have a tsar again. But in their hearts, they know that is not what Vladimir Putin is. He is more like a loyal, hard-working assistant who rose steadily through the ranks to become the CEO of Kremlin, Inc., which is how he comes across in Steven Myers’s new book, “The New Tsar.”

Even on the cover, Putin is wearing a gray suit and tie, seated inelegantly on a corporate armchair, staring down with an unprofessional glare of disdain. He certainly does not look like a grand Russian tsar.

This book is pitched (on the jacket) as a “riveting read,” but it will fall seriously short of that for the average reader. On the other hand, scholars, political scientists, journalists and others intrigued by Putin will relish all the details about how a nondescript, hardworking Soviet security officer from an ordinary Leningrad family unexpectedly found himself in the president’s chair in the Kremlin.

It is an incredible journey. After all, who would have thought that since 2000 Putin, despite severe criticism, would garner the favor of 60-80 percent of Russians and in 2015 be selected by Forbes as Number 1 on its list of The World’s Most Powerful People?

Myers is a New York Times journalist who has spent seven of his 26 reporting years in Russia. He is clearly fascinated by Russia’s long transition from the former Soviet Union to its still unsettled and undefined status. He is even more interested in the most common and visible thread running through this transition: Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.

Indeed, when the world thinks of modern Russia, it thinks of Putin, and it is Putin they try to understand as the barometer of what Russia is doing and where it is going.

Having myself been born and educated in Leningrad (St. Petersburg), and being well-acquainted with Russian culture and history, I am impressed with Myers’ painstaking and accurate fact-finding, his well-considered points of view and his arsenal of sources, which comprise some 80 pages of end notes and bibliography.
Equally impressive is how he resists stating his opinions. Instead, he objectively summarizes the attitudes and explanations uncovered during his research. He also includes many human-interest vignettes about Putin’s personal and professional life, and about Russian politics.

Despite Myers’ tendency to bog the reader down in too much detail sometimes, this book is a thorough, truthful story of Putin’s “Rise and Reign.”

Many Americans view Putin as a secretive and cunning former KGB agent defiant towards the United States. This book describes how Putin grew up in the backyards of a struggling, post-war Leningrad, joined a professional judo team and dreamed since the age of 15 about becoming a spy. To this day, Putin does not trust many people outside the circle of his old Leningrad comrades.

Myers shows how Putin became embroiled in Big Money acquired by the Russian government thanks to a nationalized oil and gas industry. There is no concrete proof, but Putin also is suspected of being behind the murder and/or imprisonment of obstinate oligarchs, outspoken journalists and vocal leaders of the opposition, all of which adds to the impression of him as vengeful, calculating and cruel.

At one point, Myers quotes President Barack Obama describing Putin as “sullen and insolent,” with “that kind of slouch, looking like the bored kid in the back of the classroom.” But, as Myers makes clear, there is more to Putin than the outward appearance of an immature, pugilistic persona.

Less obvious, and certainly less acknowledged by the U.S., is that Putin is more adroit in foreign policy than many of our own politicians.

At times, Putin is quick and decisive, such as when he made up his mind to annex Crimea, a move that evoked fierce criticism and sanctions from the West, along with euphoria from many Russians who shouted, “Crym nash!” (Crimea is ours!).

At other times, Putin seems to show restraint, such as when he influenced European leaders to join him in opposing America’s plans to bomb Syria at the beginning of the civil war there.
Then, not long afterwards, he “joined forces” with the West for targeted (and controversial) air strikes. In another instance, when it came time to grant asylum to Edward Snowden, Putin ironically, if not humorously, treated Snowden as a defender of human rights who “struggles for the freedom of information.”

It was another political chess move that showed how adept Putin is at putting himself in the best position to win in the context of what he considers to be the best interests of Russia, even though it remains to be seen whether his moves will be beneficial to Russia in the long run.

Myers describes how Putin is equally savvy about domestic concerns. For example, Putin knows that most Russians spend hours a day watching TV, readily believing what they see and hear. Consequently, he makes a point of being on government-controlled television almost every day. His presentations and image are carefully staged by his Kremlin media advisers with remarkable effectiveness.

This constant publicity, in addition to serving his politics, bloats Putin’s self-esteem. As Myers says, Putin is presented as “an indispensable leader, even a glamorous, elite sexual icon.”
Russians would love to have a real tsar, but an international personality who is a strong, decisive man of action will suffice.

The reason, as Myers explains, is that the democratization Russia experienced in the late 1980s and early 1990s ushered in extreme forms of chaos, injustice, inequality and poverty. The majority of Russians did not want that kind of democracy, and American democracy seemed hypocritical to them.
Then Putin came into office and life got much better during his first two terms. St. Petersburg, as well as many cities and towns, never looked so good.

Meanwhile, corruption is not the hindrance that it appears to be from a Western perspective. Russians know how corruption works and, to a certain extent, they expect it and have learned to live with it.
They criticize their government and themselves, but they do not like being criticized by outsiders. They regard most criticism of Putin, too, as Western propaganda and tend to blame not him, but those in power around him for pursuing commerce and profit.

To the average Russian, Putin is a fearless, lonely warrior who has brought economic growth, progress and stability to Russia, as well as revived the national pride that was lost in the chaos of the 1990s.
From his perspective, Putin interprets criticism of Russia, from both outside and inside the country, as a national insult.

He sees himself as the protector of Russia’s place as the largest country in the world. At the same time, he seems determined to be recognized, on the world stage and in history books, as the savior of Russian pride, power and respectability.

Nothing offends him more than being demonized or, even worse, belittled rather than respected for this.
This aspect of his nature ties into one of the key findings from Myers’s thorough dissection of Putin’s background and character: that although Putin is in many ways a simple person, he harbors an indelible pride of country, his ego is growing, his political skills are on the increase and he is willing to take risks. All of these tendencies are exactly why many Russian admire him, and why the rest of the world, especially the West, cannot predict what he might do next, or how to respond when he does act. In this sense, Putin is, as far as he is concerned, The New Tsar.

under: Books
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Posted by: Oksana Ingle | 11/05/2015 Comments Off on “PULLING BACK THE CURTAIN” |

behind the curtain

Russia holds an interesting place in the American imagination—a country viewed suspiciously by many through the lens of Cold War rivalries. One student put her graduation on hold in order to learn more about this world and better understand its differences and its commonalities.

by Kathleen Holden, class of ’15 • from the College of Charleston Magazine • Oct. 21, 2015

I CAME TO THE COLLEGE knowing one thing: I was not going to take Spanish for my language requirement. Not ever. I took Spanish for three years in high school and still can’t even ask where the bathroom is.

Luckily, I had plenty of choices here, including Hindi and Russian. I have always had an interest in Russia; something about how big and far away it is always intrigued me. So, my first semester, I took Professor Oksana Ingle’s course, Window Into Russia, and fell in love with the Russian people and their culture. Coincidently, I found a language requirement that wasn’t Spanish! After completing Oksana’s course, I declared my Russian studies minor, which wound up fitting perfectly with my anthropology major. From there, I began focusing solely on those two areas of study.

I started my final year of college last fall, when Oksana was promoting her Maymester in Russia to all the department’s classes. I don’t think she was having very much success; a lot of people were afraid to go or didn’t want to spend the money to go “somewhere so cold.” At first, I didn’t even consider going. I was on track to graduate in May and was thinking about a million other things. However, one day I ran into Oksana in the hall, and she made me feel a little guilty about my lack of interest in the trip. When I explained that I was graduating in May and probably couldn’t go, she told me not to worry about that: She’d had a student on a past trip who’d already graduated.

It’s actually not quite as simple as she made it sound: In order to go on a Maymester after graduation, you must still take the required classes, and you have to push your actual graduation date back until the end of summer. These things were not explained to me up front, but – once I got the idea of going to Russia in my head – I wasn’t going to let anything stop me.

I changed my graduation date to August and started looking for enough scholarship money to pay for most of the Maymester abroad. I knew early on that the typical Center for International Education scholarship wasn’t going to cut it, but then I learned that the School of Humanities and Social Sciences (HSS) and the anthropology department were both offering special scholarships for summer studies abroad. Both were competitive scholarships, and I knew whatever research I wanted to complete in Russia would have to stand out in order for me to be considered. In addition to an upper-level language class and a Russian literature course, I would be conducting an independent study – and that was what I was most interested in, and I had the freedom to choose any topic about Russian life, history or people.

Earlier in 2014, I’d learned that Russia would be hosting the 2018 World Cup and that the government was attempting to “modernize” the host cities there. I’d taken Social and Cultural Change the semester before, and knew that words like modernize are red flags for cultural change. Seeing the perfect connection between anthropology and Russian studies, I developed an independent study of the economic and cultural effects of Saransk hosting the World Cup. After what happened in Brazil, the World Cup and its effects had become a hot topic, and the subject caught the attention of both the HSS and the anthropology department. I was able to get enough scholarship money to go abroad!

It didn’t hit me that I was actually going to Russia until the night before I left. The two months before had been a blur: I was focusing on graduating and moving out of my downtown apartment, definitely not on being in Russia. Maybe that’s why I had almost no preconceived notion of what to expect. Everyone else, especially my parents, seemed to expect the Russians to hate Americans. They worried about how our little group would be received in Russia – that we would not be safe there.

Kathleen and I in St. Petersburg in June 2015

Kathleen and I in St. Petersburg in June 2015

The opposite was true. While St. Petersburg and Moscow are like any other big city in the world – lots of people from all over, and nobody exceptionally friendly – Saransk, a little town south of Moscow, was where we spent most of our time. And, in Saransk, the people are amazing! They were extremely open and welcomed us with open hearts. None of the young people behaved as if they hated Americans; they were just curious about our lives and the differences in how we grew up. As it turns out, there are very few differences, perhaps because American pop culture is so big there. The older people were a little reserved, but not because they hated Americans; rather, the Russian government portrays America in the same light that the American government does Russia, so they were skeptical and thought that all Americans hated Russians. Once we were able to sit down and talk to people, it was clear to see that – aside from cultural differences – we were not different at all. We’re just people trying to make the best life we can in this world.

This made my independent study especially interesting. People wanted to share their thoughts and feelings on Saransk becoming modernized for the World Cup. Most people thought the city needed to become modernized (e.g., new roads and better infrastructure). But many also felt like the government didn’t have the community’s best interests in mind. Economic security, a good education system and health care are what matter most to the people of Saransk, and they don’t really feel like the government is taking those things into consideration. Instead, they feel the government is only planning for the short term. It makes them a little uneasy.

Overall, I loved my trip to Russia. It was a great experience, and I learned a lot about the culture. It was not the easiest thing I’ve ever done – getting enough scholarship money, overcoming the language and cultural barriers and completing my independent study – but it was definitely the most beneficial. I was very lucky to make a couple of amazing Russian friends, as well as have my independent study published in one of Saransk’s academic journals. I will always be in Professor Oksana Ingle’s debt for encouraging me to have this amazing experience. I wouldn’t trade it for the world!

– Kathleen Holden ’15 graduated this past summer with a degree in anthropology and a minor in Russian studies.

This article appeared in the October 21, 2015 edition of The College of Charleston Magazine.

under: Articles, My Travel Journal

Russia Study Abroad 2015

Posted by: Oksana Ingle | 07/08/2015 Comments Off on Russia Study Abroad 2015 |

Watch our video of Russia 2015 College of Charleston Study Abroad

under: Videos

Superb Pictures of St. Petersburg

Posted by: Oksana Ingle | 11/13/2014 Comments Off on Superb Pictures of St. Petersburg |

SPBFromAbove01 Санкт Петербург   вид сверху

SUPERB PICTURES of St. Petersburg by American photographer Amos Chapple.

Click here to see all of them.

under: Pictures

A New Book About “Russians”

Posted by: Oksana Ingle | 05/28/2014 Comments Off on A New Book About “Russians” |

Russians-book-cover-smallAS A NATIVE of St. Petersburg, Russia and now a citizen of the United States, I found Russians very interesting to read. I got excited right away because the author, Gregory Feifer, starts by recalling the morning he arrived by train in Lithuania and learned about the 1991 coup in Moscow.

He was on his way to Moscow but no tickets were being sold because of the coup, so he decided instead to go to St.Petersburg (Leningrad)—where I happened to be after just arriving on a much delayed train from Moscow! He and I were in nearly the same place at the same time, both of us unaware of the magnitude of events.

As I continued reading, however, my excitement faded because Feifer focuses so much on the oppressiveness of Russia’s autocrats, politics, corruption, and extreme aspects of life in Russia at the expense of unraveling the real character of ordinary Russian people.

Admittedly, it is no easy task to convey Russia’s complex history, culture, and politics in one, easy-to-understand package—which Winston Churchill observed when he said: “Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”

The title of Feifer’s book, however, led me to think that that is what he was trying to do. And although the book provides a candid, first-hand account by an experienced journalist with blood ties to Russia (his mother is Russian and his American father worked in Russia), it paints a bleak picture that makes for consistently heavy reading which is best suited for readers already familiar with Russian history and wanting to dig deeper.

In that sense, Feifer makes a valuable contribution. He interviews hundreds of people from different levels of society and he uncovers harsh facts about life throughout the centuries, up to and including a still soviet-tainted Russia. His 12 chapters—intended to reflect specific attributes that he thinks are intrinsic to being “Russian”—include titles such as Extravagance, Poverty, Drinking, Indolence and Inefficiency, Cold and Punishment, Clan Rules, Grandiosity and Bombast—not exactly a flattering list.

He does spin a positive note by praising Russian literature, art, ballet, and theater, and by saying, “Despite the extravagant squalor, waste, greed, and indifference, Russia remains full of life, inventiveness, and beauty.” But for the most part, he dwells on the former without elucidating the latter.

It has never been easy for Americans and Russians to understand each other, and the difficulty is only further increased when they each try to measure the other with their own yardstick. In this case, many of the author’s conclusions will only reinforce the suspicion, distrust, and disparagement that many Americans generally feel toward Russians.

Author Gregory Feifer

Author Gregory Feifer

Meanwhile, many positives remain unstated. For example, that ordinary Russians are very friendly toward Americans and fascinated by life in America. Or that Russians are exceedingly hospitable and generous to their American guests. Or that Russians value friendship deeply, cultivate it carefully, and honor it with integrity. Perhaps most importantly, that Russians, like Americans, don’t like that they find themselves caught up in a huge socio-economic-political system that holds tremendous sway over their lives.

Although, we cannot deny that Russia’s history is to a large extent turbulent and tragic, it is worth noting that Feifer’s research relied heavily on the works of two scholars with distinctly pessimistic views. Edward Keenan is considered an iconoclast and nihilist for some of his works, while Richard Pipes, who experienced the siege of Warsaw and lived one month under German occupation, has said: “…my knowledge of Nazi totalitarianism has conditioned me to feel extreme hostility toward its Soviet variant.” Clearly, these influences cast a gloomy shadow over Feifer’s interpretation of Russian history.

Some facts are also open to discussion. For instance, Feifer states that Moscow was founded in northern Slavic forests when in fact it started as a village of Finno-Ugrian tribes in the early 12th century. In other places he perpetuates the myth that Russians are Slavs, whereas Russia has been multicultural for centuries, just as the United States. He also claims that mercantile towns became important only in the 19th century, and yet Novgorod, which is near present-day St. Petersburg, was thriving almost 10 centuries before that.

This book certainly makes you think, and while the author’s journalistic style does not make for an easy read, I do consider it a valuable book. Just because the truth can be dense and dark at times doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be told.

This review was published in the Post and Courier on Sunday, May 25, 2014.

under: Books

“Putin is on the Blitz” by Garrison Keillor

Posted by: Oksana Ingle | 03/09/2014 Comments Off on “Putin is on the Blitz” by Garrison Keillor |

Click to hear Garrison Keillor singing his lighthearted song about the recent crisis in Ukraine: “Putin is on the Blitz”:

To see the source of this clip, click here.

under: Articles

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