You’re not a “Russia expert” if you don’t know Russian and have never been to Russia
I’m sorry, but it’s true.
I hate that this even needs to be said. But hey, that’s our new reality— especially on social media, where “Russia experts” have multiplied like rabbits following bombshell accusations of Donald J. Trump’s potential involvement with the Russian government, not to mention a spy dossier that alleges that the Kremlin has compromised Trump in all sorts of gross ways (that info is unverified, by the way — though some of the less salacious parts of the dossier have been corroborated by U.S. investigators).
Look, I get it. Russia is mysterious and exciting. It also has a brutal history and a pretty brutal present.
Trump, meanwhile, is a narcissist and a proud, boastful abuser who exploited America’s racist underbelly and conservatives’ fascination with autocrats and pseudo-autocrats to surge ahead in the election.
Trump likes Putin, because Putin is not bound by rules of traditional democracy and does pretty much whatever he pleases. Trump’s connections to Russia— whether financial or, for that matter, ideological— must be explored.
But mystery and excitement and brutality and famous villains also attract self-promoting crackpots. Crackpots who hurt actual, serious research into Trump-Russia ties.
It’s weird that people like, say, scholar Christopher Stroop even need to point this out:
Of course, Russia is “exotic.” And as much as we are drawn to the exotic, we also want to oversimplify it. We want to put it in a box. Fake “experts” are great at putting things in boxes.
This is all besides the fact that our political system is in a crisis, we need someone to blame, and it’s simply easier to claim that, “Russia did it all!”
It’s easier — but it’s simply not true. If we want to hold our officials to account we need to accept that the Russian government, opportunistic and clever as it might be, cannot be held responsible for all of our problems. To claim otherwise is to internalize helplessness.
Real experts are wary of blanket statements such as “Russia did it all!”, they’re interested in nuance and detail, they’re interested in what’s below the surface just as much as what’s on the surface. How boring, right? Who has the patience for that? If you think like this, you’re part of the reason as to why “alternative facts” are a big phenomenon.
Fake “experts” are intimidated by real experts. Hence their interest in launching smear campaigns and witch hunts. I’ve actually seen people on Twitter accuse others of being Kremlin spies, using the latter’s knowledge of Russian as “evidence.”
Their rationale? “These are dangerous times! Knowing the language of the enemy makes you suspect!” Their real rationale? “I don’t want people who focus on this particular area to compete with my ideas, so I need to discredit them.”
Obviously, there are plenty of people out there who have done some great work on/in Russia while relying on translators and the like. Or else have done some great work on Russia from afar. But exceptions tend to prove the general rule — ignorance and lack of experience are not assets.
Knowing one’s limitations is wise. I’ve lived in the Middle East, for example, and have written about it, but I would never call myself a “Jordan expert.” My Arabic is simply not good enough. (Knowing how to spectacularly curse someone out in Arabic doesn’t count)
It’s not just an issue of humility, it’s an issue of freeing up space for people who are, in fact, genuine experts. Self-promoters particularly don’t care for that. Because it’s all about them, in the end — their careers, their audiences, their desire to impose themselves on a particular narrative.
Should you trust every expert who speaks Russian and has been to Russia? Of course not. There are some scary and just plain weird people out there who know the language — something that’s true of any language.
In general, the field of Russia expertise is a bit of a zoo (no judgement! I’m one of the proud inhabitants). There are upsides and downsides to this. One of the upsides is that you’ll stumble upon stuff like this every once in a while:
(I dunno, maybe the author will say that it’s satire. People tend to claim “satire” about a lot of things they’ve done in Russia/with Russians)
Should every expert on Russia be absolutely fluent in Russian and be able to give you detailed directions to the Tretyakov Gallery as easily as they tell you to “go get on a dick” (this will always be one of my favorite Russian expressions — I can’t help it) if you piss them off? Obviously not. But a working knowledge of the language and the country is still necessary in order to opine about it, let alone lecture others about it and/or investigate it.
Genuine Russia experts can and do disagree with each other. This is good news for smart people who like nuance. It’s bad news for people who want a simplified, sensationalized picture of Russia, its current government, its relationship with the United States, why Putin decided he preferred Trump over Clinton (I don’t think this preference is up for debate), etc.
With media literacy already at a low, it’s important to understand who’s generally a reliable source and who, say, is more like a broken clock — only right occasionally, and certainly not because they’re working to be right.
And if you’re going to go with reliable sources you need to understand that they may pass on information that may challenge your established opinions and/or biases (we all have biases! But some of us are better than others at setting them aside).
Lots of people don’t like to be challenged. This is pretty much the reason why we currently have a White House (or as I prefer to refer to it these days: the Trump Clown Car) that lies to the people at will, has no patience for facts, and demonizes the press for trying to hold officials to account.
“But all politicians lie to an extent! Trump and his people are just more upfront about it!” — People who are not yet disillusioned say. What they’re basically admitting to is that the Trump Clown Car doesn’t even care enough to pretend. This is true of many fake “Russia experts” as well. When challenged about a particular “fact” they have thrown out, they’ll say, “Sure, that may not be true. But who cares?” As long as they give people what they want to hear, they figure they’ll be alright.
Trump figured it out a while ago, and his business dealings confirm this: A lot of people want to be lied to. Do you?
Ultimately, if conspiracy theories are like crack to you, I probably can’t help you. But if you feel genuinely threatened by Trump, and are actually worried about his alleged ties to Russia/dealings in Russia (as you should be!), you ought to know that you’re acting just like him when you dismiss real knowledge and reputable sources in favor of spreading hysteria.
Trump is the consummate internet troll, after all. Nobody loves a good conspiracy more than Trump does. Think about that next time you hit retweet on an “expert” who says that Putin engineered the Flint water crisis and their current hangover.