NPR Michigan does some really great work

And, I really enjoy listening while I work.  Kimberly Martin, PhD, professor of political science at Barnard College, on now discussing Crimea, Ukraine and Russia.

Italy and Russia, in the pool

Made some friends at the pool in the last couple of weeks. Luisa and Cristiano are from Italy, and Tatiana is from Saratov Province in Russia. Talking about Berlusconi with the former and Putin, Tolstoy, Chekhov and Dostoevsky with the latter has been a delight.

I mention this because, where I live, it’s unusual to hear anything but English. Also, I don’t often have the chance to speak Russian. It’s a treat, as is talking about Russian literature with a Russian.

Last outdoor swims of the summer in the next couple of days — and the beginnings of new friendships.

A lovely language

Heard some men at the pool today speaking Russian. Asked them a question in Russian and ended up talking with them for several minutes. Told them I’d had an opportunity when I was in Russia for the summer in 1991 to buy a train ticket for the price the Russians were paying — to and from Vladivostock from Moscow for equivalent of about $10. Was about to buy the ticket when my instincts or intuition kicked in — listened and didn’t buy the ticket. One of the men today said that it was a good thing I hadn’t gone. “You’d have been raped or killed,” he said. Wasn’t surprised to hear that. Figured my intuition had kicked in for a reason.

So great to speak and listen to Russian today. A lovely language!

Meeting Capitalina

I’d been waiting for the gates at Catherine The Great’s palace to open when an older woman walked up, asked me a question and told the guard to let me in. He knew her because each morning, she bathed in one of the ponds.

Already I liked her.

Capitalina was about 75 years old at that time. Long white hair in a bun on her neck. Bright blue eyes. Mischievous.

“Did you know of Catherine the Great’s reputation for love?” she asked while we were touring the grounds. I smiled, which was all she needed to elaborate on the Empress’ prowess in the bedroom. Her eyes twinkled as she told story after story after story.

After touring the palace, Capitalina  invited me to the apartment she shared with her husband. She wanted me to see their poverty and to know that her husband had been an officer in the Soviet army.

They had two rooms and a bathroom. The living area was separated from the sleeping area by a tablecloth hung from wires. The kitchen could barely fit one person.

Capitalina spoke no English, and I was pleased she understood my Russian. She began to tell me about her grandchild. Gradually, I came to understand that her only daughter had had an abortion and that Capitalina had never shared this with anyone else.

This lovely, spirited woman remains a bright memory of my summer in the USSR. And, by the way, how she got those guards to let her in every morning to bathe in the ponds is a story I didn’t think to ask.

She was just that charismatic.

Thinking about Russia

In his article published on May 6, Jeffrey Mankoff, associate director of International Security Studies at Yale University and adjunct fellow for Russian studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, says about U.S.-Russian relations:

“Previous attempts at building a strategic partnership failed because Western leaders assumed Russia would eventually come to see itself as part of the West. Thus Western leaders argued that NATO expansion was in Russia’s interest, since Russia was presumed to value NATO’s commitment to democracy and collective security, too.”

I disagree. Mr. Mankoff fails to take into consideration the inherent reluctance on the part of Russia — historically and traditionally — to join a global cause whose leader is any nation other than itself. Mankoff’s view is heuristic. That is, it ignores Russia’s considerably complex history in terms of influences it has allowed in and those it has prevented from taking root.

This is significant. By ignoring Russia’s own proclivities, Mankoff mistakenly attributes the U.S.’s failure to establish a strategic partnership with Russia to American hubris.

While U.S. policymakers often fail in this regard — and might also have done so here — I believe the reasons we do not today have a strategic partnership with Russia have less to do with our flaws than with the desire of the Russian nation to continue along its path of glorious nationhood.

This desire springs from Russia’s history and, indeed, from its own soul and the souls of its people. The answer to the difficult question of strategic engagement with Russia lies in understanding what the Russian soul values and deciding whether or not we can have a hand in delivering it.

For Mankoff’s article, click.

© Kate Oatis and Having my say (2009).