A couple of months ago a friend gave me a booklet entitled Perceptions of a Great Country, written by an Englishman named Peter Lowman. The great country in question is Russia. Dr. Lowman is fascinated by the greatness of Russia, but he is also aware of its incongruities and shortcomings.
A few weeks ago, together with other Americans, I was perplexed (the mildest way to describe the feeling) by the conversation that President Trump had with President Putin. I followed this by listening to an interview that Chris Wallace had with President Putin, in which I felt sorry for Mr. Wallace. In the first place, President Putin wanted to dominate the interview and told Mr. Wallace numerous times that he should wait. He did not want to answer more questions, he wanted to give very long answers, and some answers did not pertain to the questions at all. As someone who has done interpreting, I felt bad for the translator because there was no way the translator could keep up with such speedy responses. Lastly, President Putin took some questionable historical turns like his statement that the Crimeans democratically invited the Russians to come into their country.
As I watched, I caught myself thinking like an Eastern European. For people who lived in Eastern and Southern Europe, there were two powers who oppressed us. When we hear them talking about their concept of justice or, even worse, their magnanimity, our bodies react. One time I was in Turkey, and the guide said that the Turkish people are among the most hospitable people that you could ever encounter. Immediately I replied in my mind, “You should ask for testimonies from the people that you have oppressed from the fall of Constantinople in 1453 onward. Ask the Greeks, the Bulgarians, the Romanians, and even the Hungarians about Turkish hospitality!” But the tour guide did not remember any of those things. He and his fellow citizens remembered the best of their country from people and goods were all taken to benefit the ruling class of Istanbul. Some people remembered a time of prosperity, while others remembered bloodshed, poverty, and doing what they had to do to survive.
Peter the Great ruled from 1696 to 1725. During his reign, he moved towards Western Europe in an attempt to make Russia a great power. Since then, the neighboring countries learned how to survive without being swallowed up. That picture with Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin at Yalta is regarded as the moment when they signed oppression into existence for the next 50 years. No country in the Russian sphere of influence rose to the economical level that other countries achieved in central and western Europe until perestroika or glasnost (when Gorbachev came to power).
American presidents and candidates were very ignorant in their understanding of Russian desires. It is true that the Russians were our partners among the Allied forces in World War II, but the rewards that they received in land and people were phenomenal—about half of Europe became occupied by Russia. The American diplomats encouraged countries to revolt but when they did, there was no help from Western countries. The Hungarians waited for help that never came and thousands of young people were killed in the streets and in Russian jails. There were other revolutions such as the Velvet Revolution of Prague and the Polish Revolution, but the West did not help much in any of them.
Trump’s understanding of Russian philosophy and politics is similar to the understanding of Jerry Ford. When Ford was a presidential candidate debating Jimmy Carter, he mentioned that Eastern European countries were free and enjoyed political liberty. The American military presence in Romania, Poland, and Ukraine is regarded as a threat to Russia, even though the countries asked for this kind of defense. Putin argues that the Crimeans have not been annexed; instead, he insists that they freely voted to be a part of Mother Russia.
When we come to any type of conversation with Russia, the Russians are very beguiling. It is not what they say or what they have written that is important; the things that they do clearly communicate their goals and ideals. In the words of President Reagan, “trust and verify.”