Monday, April 4, 2016


Yesterday we teamed up with a friend from the Russian language meetup and went to the opening lecture in Reed College's Understanding Putinism event. Most of the talks sounded too scholarly for our ragtag group, but hearing "Crimea" = instant draw. It's weird- although I never liked Crimea much before (especially the capital)....

Hello, Simferopol!

... now I keep thinking about it.

We get updates from friends and relatives there, we'd-leave-if-we-could missives. They felt cheated right from the beginning ("we didn't vote for this!") and then the following chaos of currency changes and blackouts and new passports was like living through the 1990s all over again... but this time with no credit cards, no Paypal, no EU / US foreign investment, (and weirdly) no World of Warcraft.
Last winter, when the power was out, many business had to be temporarily closed. With nowhere to go and nothing to do, people started drinking. According to one neighbor, an alcohol curfew was set to curb the drinking but couldn't be enforced. Even though in Alaska D and I did a lot of sitting in the dark and drinking ;) , I think it's an infinitely sadder activity when it's not done for fun.

On the other hand, when the peninsula was annexed, some of my students actually left Kharkiv and moved to be with their families in Crimea, excited about the change. I taught English to one wealthy businessman from Kerch who was bummed about Ukraine's economy taking his import business down with it, but excited for his ex-wife; he'd bought her a hotel in Kerch as part of the divorce settlement and she was anticipating lots of tourism in future summers.

The lecture we attended was called Putin and Crimea: Anatomy of a Decision and we were all curious to hear the thoughts of the political scientist / professor giving the talk. For me, it was to reconcile the stories I'd heard from people who end up being pawns on the gameboard with the actions of the kings who dictate the moves. For D, it was to see a member of the reporting-on-Crimea media up close. And our friend, well, he's curious about everything. Everything.

No, not the other Putin! But I would 100% go to a lecture on His Catness.

So why is Russia now claiming Crimea? The lecture focused only on the motives of the Russian president rather than the government as a whole. Professor Treisman went right into these three images of Putin, all used by media to explain the annexation of Crimea:
  • Putin the Defender
  • Putin the Imperialist
  • Putin the Improvisor
Either Putin was a) trying to shoo away NATO and everybody else, b) trying to do a little of this-

or c) just reacting to what was happening. Treisman did a thorough job of going through each idea and finding evidence to support / disprove it, including what was said during an actual face-to-face conversation he had with Putin last year in Sochi. I have no political science abilities at all so he brought up a lot of questions I'd never even thought of, like whether Putin had expected Yanukovich to fail as a leader, whether the Kremlin had contingency plans in place, and whether Ukraine's interim government was planning to kick Russia out of Sevastopol. Watching all that happen from Kharkiv, I never thought of the bigger picture. It was always just thoughts of what tomorrow would bring for the average person.

His talk lasted a good 90 minutes and was so interesting that none of us made any absent-minded drawings out of boredom. It was all elbows-on-knees, leaning-forward-to-listen for everyone there. The professor's final verdict of Putin was that he's become a gambler... and the unpredictability of a gambler is always more dangerous than the known terribleness of a dictator. You can read the professor's thoughts more eloquently when they are published in Foreign Affairs in a few weeks.

After the last slide, the room opened up for Q&A. The audience had teachers, students, a few people with Russian-accents, and one guy dressed in a tie-dyed t-shirt and sandals with socks who angrily demanded to know "why the Russian people of Donetsk weren't having their rights protected". Uh, what?

There was a break for чай and печенье after the lecture. D discovered a new word: snickerdoodle (although he first had to be convinced that we weren't making the word up). I met a high school counselor from Kazan who works in Portland- she said she was surprised at how many young Ukrainians were immigrating to Oregon now, sans family. Eventually people finished their tea and conversations and drifted back to their seats for the next lecture. We headed outside instead because the campus at Reed College is crazy gorgeous. It could be a movie set.

Unlike that professor, I don't have anything smart or decisive to say in conclusion, sorry. The main thing I realized from his lecture is how long this conflict is going to last. There is no "someday things will 'go back' to normal". There is no candidate likely to back down and say "it's okay, you can have it". There is no winner. Maybe that's why I'm getting so thoughtful over Crimea- realizing perhaps we'll never see those friends and family in person again, perhaps this will be the reality all of us have to cope with forever. There were a lot of questions asked at the Q&A for this lecture, but one thing no one brought up is the future for Crimea.


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks for reading, Cindy! Hope your son and his gf are doing well :)

  2. The whole government situation in the area is really fascinating, especially not with this Panama Paper deal that was just exposed yesterday and Russians current financial situation.

    1. Yes, there is a lot going on these days... you certainly picked an interesting time to be there! ;)