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Pulitzer Prize-Winning Biographer Reveals What’s Up With Russia

Gigi Kaesar

When it comes to relations between the United States and Russia, it can be hard to tease out the politics from the personalities. Sovietologist and political scientist William Taubman has made this task into something of a specialty. He has studied Russian language, politics and culture for 50 years, and  is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the biography, "Khrushchev: The Man and his Era" (W.W. Norton & Co./2003).

Taubman says that although Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Donald Trump initially seemed poised to make a deal, the two countries have returned to a “new Cold War,” with deeply-rooted aggressions that are both real and perceived. Taubman is giving a talk entitled, “What’s Up With Russia?” at a ticketed event at the Carolina Hotel in Pinehurst, North Carolina at 6:30 p.m. tonight.

Host Frank Stasio talks with Taubman, Bertrand Snell Professor of Political Science Emeritus at Amherst College, about his life’s work.


On the current state of Russia:
Russia is in a bad state in some ways and in a good state in other ways. Putin managed to bring it back from what he describes as a miserable time in the ‘90s. And from what he describes as the greatest political catastrophe of the 20th century, the collapse of the Soviet Union. So people are living better than they have for many years. 

But, on the other hand, as a result of the sanctions imposed by the West, and the fall in oil and gas prices, the standard of living is now going down after going up. Many people would like to demonstrate...Hundreds of thousands came out in 2011-2012. And Mr. Putin didn’t like that. So he began arresting them and threatening them. And so they went back inside, many of them, to avoid being detained. So in that sense, Russia is an unhappier place than you might expect. 

On Putin’s approach to building power:

Putin’s formula is to build his legitimacy now through nationalism and annexation of Crimea...What he and his media portray as a victorious war in Syria and their intervention in Ukraine. That is, until a few years ago, he seemed to be buying the loyalty of the Russian people by improving their living standards. But now he’s buying it by appearing to be a victorious statesman and warrior. And that of course makes life more difficult for the people around him and for us.

On Russian interference in the U.S. election:

One thing you have to go back to is that when the Soviet Union collapsed, at that time and for the next 10 years, the United States worked in various ways – out in the open – through agencies like USAID and others to help the Russians learn to practice democracy. We had people over there helping them to run campaigns and that sort of thing. But to a guy like Putin – in the KGB at that time and retaining that psychology – that looked to him like interference in their internal affairs. And although I can’t prove it, I am absolutely certain that when Putin put his minions up to interfering in our election, he said to himself: It’s no different. They interfered in our elections. We’re going to interfere in their elections. 

On the unfolding Trump-Putin relationship:

Up until now, Trump has been very positive about Putin, as Putin has been about Trump. And I must say that, as a Russia specialist all these years and somebody who watches the new Cold War closely, my thought was that this was not a bad thing. And that Trump might indeed be able to do a deal with Putin, which might be useful to both sides and the world. In the sense that, I think the new Cold War is too nasty. The new Cold War is nastier than it needs to be. 
You know, we’ve gotten to the point where it’s as if no senator or congressman in the United States can say the word “Putin” without prefacing it with “murderer” and “thug.” Putin is not a nice person. He’s a bad person. But it doesn’t help to conduct relations with somebody by prefacing their name with “murderer” or “thug.” So to the extent Trump wanted to make a deal, depending upon the nature of the deal, it might have been a good thing.  

Jennifer Brookland is the American Homefront Project Veterans Reporting Fellow. She covers stories about the military and veterans as well as issues affecting the people and places of North Carolina.
Longtime NPR correspondent Frank Stasio was named permanent host of The State of Things in June 2006. A native of Buffalo, Frank has been in radio since the age of 19. He began his public radio career at WOI in Ames, Iowa, where he was a magazine show anchor and the station's News Director.