Know thy Enemy: Time to Learn Russia

This is a good time to learn Russian. But not for the reasons you might think.

Many imagined that if World War II had ended differently, the world would be speaking German today. Instead, English and American culture are ubiquitous. English is the language of global empire, as French once was.

For the same reason ours is a wonderful language for poetic expression, English is a terrible language for diplomacy and global business. Our lexicon is a vast and temperamental ocean of words whose meanings can change based on context and the speaker. The nuances–important ones–are often lost on non-native ears and tongues.

So why learn Russian? Because Russia has tipped the balance of geopolitical leverage in their favor. How? Because Putin and his apparatus know us better than we know ourselves. Much of the world does.

Our culture has invaded nearly every continent (but we’ve got our eyes on you, Antarctica) through military conquest and economic domination. The arrogance and power-drunken swagger in our action movies are not a far cry from our international policy. The Cold War bred animosity between the West and Russia, casting the Russian language as sinister. The language of the enemy, inside the cinema and out.

Whether it was from Hollywood or not, Putin and his people know us far better than we know them. That he speaks English much better than our President-elect speaks Russian speaks volumes; he can lie and manipulate as fluently in English as our current president-elect. This imbalance could well determine the power dynamic of the next four to eight years, or longer.

Russia invaded Crimea; no one lifted a finger. The rest of Ukraine is barely holding together. Russian bombers leveled most of Aleppo, and the West’s hands remain glued to the table. Putin is doing what he wants when he wants to, and no one can or is willing to do anything about it. Sounds a lot like appeasement…you’d think we’d have learned from history.

So I’m suggesting a counter-punch. Not against Putin himself or his machinations, but against the imbalance. Learning Russian, or at least what it means to be Russian, as well as Putin and Russia know English and what it means to be American, is a good place to start.

You could think of it as a “know thy enemy” sort of thing. Putin certainly knows his. But once we know a bit more about his country and its culture we might discover something unexpected.

This is the Russian I’ve grown to know:

Pierre’s insanity consisted in not waiting, as he used to do, to discover personal attributes which he termed “good qualities” in people before loving them; his heart was now overflowing with love, and by loving people without cause he discovered indubitable causes for loving them.”

That’s Tolstoy, in War and Peace. The tome is at once a soaring epic, a study on human emotion, an essay on history and geopolitics from the perspective of a profoundly introspective Russian. If only Americans enjoyed Tolstoy as much as they do vodka.

This is the aspirational beauty I’ve come to know by reading Russian literature. Understanding that beauty exists in that wintry tundra, that they can experience the joy of spring the same way we do…I cannot look at Russia as the enemy.

Putin has positioned his country as a competitive, subversive rival — one which currently has the upper hand. We cannot counter him with force without risking nuclear war. What are we left with for ammunition?

Understanding. Know thy enemy, and you may find he is not your enemy at all. Our enemy is not Russia; the enemy is ingrained ethnocentrism.

Duolingo can help with the language, there’s even a free app for your phone. With 5-minute lesssons that anyone can complete, there’s little excuse not to try. A bookstore and Wikipedia can help with the history and culture.

It’s time to learn Russia as well as Russia has learned us. To get to know ourselves better through the process. To arm ourselves with understanding, to kill animosity with empathy.