Last year, I graduated with a Master’s degree from the Graduate School of Management at Saint Petersburg State University. In these past two years, I have not only been a student of international business, but I have also been a student of culture, politics, and national dialogue as someone caught between two countries. In the time that I have sojourned back and forth between the United States and Russia, I have had the unique opportunity of evaluating both sides of a New Cold War story that is rapidly being written. From the hyper-sensationalism of the Trump-Russia saga, to the bated breaths that held on as the United States and Russia ostensibly approached direct conflict in Syria just a couple months ago — I have played third-party to this ever evolving amusement park since what seems like day one.
That said, this third-party status I now find myself in has been fairly eye-opening. As someone who speaks Russian, I’ve been able to watch Russian television, engage with Russians and their points of view, and simultaneously compare that experience with the national dialogue unfolding here in the United States. Interestingly enough, the most surprising thing I’ve discovered since going abroad is that Russians are very aware of what Americans are saying about Russia and topics involving Russia. Americans, on the other hand, I find are almost totally unaware of what Russians are saying about America and issues of mutual interest. Now I don’t know if my anecdotal sample is say scientific or if I’ve just happened to meet a lot of politically attuned Russians, but I have a theory for as to why in my experience Americans are not as well acquainted with the other side. That theory is that perhaps we’re not even hearing the other side.
If you remember back in April, a slew of local news stations owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group were shown in a video reciting the same exact script verbatim to millions of viewers. This incident caused shock and outrage. Armchair pundits across Twitter called the video “insidious” and “terrifying,” and yet the Sinclair scandal somewhat mirrors the way our nation has dealt with issues involving Russia. For the past two years, journalists, pundits, and self-described Russia experts across the mainstream media have parroted the same talking points in regards to Russia. Repetitions of “Putin is a former KGB agent,” “Russia is seeking to sow discord and undermine our democracy,” and “Russia is acting as a rogue state” have plastered news columns and television screens, and could easily be compiled into a Sinclair-like clip.
Although our media is full of good people with good intentions, what we have when it comes to Russia is a monolithic consensus that shows growing shades of groupthink. There is limited discussion of alternative perspectives and alternative courses of action. Our conversations often lack meaningful context and we are often unaware of own faults. Simply put, we have a national conversation that is on the verge of malnourishment, void of the sort of thought diversity that fosters better group decision-making.
What we need is a balanced diet, and what’s currently missing from our diet are Russian voices. As a matter of fact, ask yourself, when was the last time you heard a truly Russian perspective? And no, I don’t mean Russian dissidents like Garry Kasparov who are paraded on television to echo the same talking points as everyone else. Kasparov, for example, hasn’t been to Russia in over 10 years, and more importantly, doesn’t represent a viewpoint shared by a majority of Russians. For most Americans, the summit at Helsinki was the brief and only interaction with a Russian perspective. For that reason, many Americans I talk to find themselves totally clueless of what Russians would say on topics like Syria, Crimea, and even the Trump-Russia saga. Yet in my experience, there is a lot more common ground between Americans and Russians when both sides know what the other side is saying.
Take for example, Crimea. Americans overwhelmingly value democracy and the idea that people have the right to self-determination. Coincidentally, Crimea is a quintessential example of democracy and self-determination on display, and yet there is a fundamental disconnect between America’s values towards democracy and the official position of the U.S. government. And perhaps this is because Americans don’t know how Russians or even Crimeans view what happened in Crimea.
The fact is, and what Russians will rebut with, is that in 2014 an overwhelming majority of Crimeans voted in a democratic referendum to reunify with Russia. And in fact, numerous polls showed that a majority of Crimeans favored reunification with Russia as early as 2009. Even a post-referendum Gallup Poll found that 82.2% of Crimeans believe that referendum reflects the views of most Crimeans. Now it’s fair to question the timing of that referendum and advocate for a referendum that could be internationally recognized. However, that’s not what the United States has done. The United States has instead levied sanctions on Russia and introduced sanctions that specifically target Crimea. Those hard-hitting Obama-era sanctions targeting Crimea present a very obvious contradiction between American values and American actions. While decreeing it illegal to export and import goods and services to Crimea, the sanctions targeting the Crimean peninsula illogically punish Crimeans for voting their conscience — something Americans traditionally consider a value worth defending.
Why then is there this disconnect? The truth is, Americans are generally consistent at maintaining their values when given both sides of a story, but that starts with having both sides of the story. So could it be that in a country where we question everything, our gatekeepers in the media have failed to question and engage with Russian voices? I think so. I think our media has a tremendous impact on both our government and our politicians, and there lies the deficiency in our national diet that impedes us from matching our values with our actions. The conversations and debates held on our mainstream media outlets often inform our politicians and policymakers, but missing from this crucial national dialogue about Russia are Russians. Interestingly enough, we bring on Republicans and Democrats to discuss the issues. We bring together Israelis and Palestinians to discuss the their differences. It’s time we start inviting Russians to the table.
Hunter Cawood is a recent graduate from the Graduate School of Management at Saint Petersburg State University. He holds a Master’s in Management as well as a Bachelor’s in Political Science from Kennesaw State University.
A shorter version of this article appears in The Sentinel: http://ksusentinel.com/2018/09/17/opinion-americans-are-missing-russian-voices/