–submitted by Andrea Kaminski; photo by Stacy Nemeth
…began David McDonald, UW-Madison Professor of History, in his presentation called Russia Resurgent: Vladimir Putin’s Quest for Russia’s “Place at the Table.” An expert on the history of imperial Russia and the politics of contemporary Russia, McDonald went on to explain that in the 1990s Russia was considered a “spent force” but that it is once again a world power.
He commended UW-Madison for having maintained its focus on Russia for many decades. He noted that such investments by universities are a “long–term bet against unseen issues” for which our country needs to be prepared.
McDonald said that President Putin’s rise is not surprising when you think about the lives of average Russian citizens when the U.S.S.R. was dissolved in 1991. They had housing, schools, healthcare and likely some savings. They had enough money to travel on holiday. Then suddenly they were in a position where they might have to purchase the apartment they were living in and pay for utilities. They saw the collapse of their armed forces. They were dismayed by the disgrace of their sports programs, especially hockey. (As a Canadian, McDonald could relate!) Matters got even worse in the economic downfall of 1998.
Most of all, Russians were distressed because they no longer lived in a nation that was feared and respected worldwide. They wished to regain Russia’s place at the table.
The triumph of Putin, McDonald said, was the product of a scheme that was many years in the making. Former Communist Party officials and KGB operatives took advantage of a weak civil society and a high level of disengagement by citizens. It didn’t help that the United States did not invest a major effort in helping to rebuild Russian government after the dissolution of the U.S.S.R., as it did in Japan and Germany following World War II.
As the economy eventually improved, Putin was able to convince people that the money that was coming into Russia was his doing. More importantly, he gave people hope that Russia could again be a respected world power. He discovered the power of nationalism, appealing to Russians’ pride in their nation’s history of imperialism and its resurgence after World War II. These were examples of how Russian values helped their society overcome privation.
As a result Putin enjoys great support in Russian society, McDonald said. Most citizens are “delighted and impressed” by what he has done to reclaim what they believe is Russia’s proper place in the world.
McDonald noted that what Putin can accomplish will be limited by the struggling economy and “brain drain.” He explained that entrepreneurs and academics are leaving Russia as a result of Putin’s demonization of educated society. McDonald finished his remarks by noting that Putin is “running out of room to maneuver” as he attempts to preside over disparate forces in his own country and on the world stage.