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Challenges of a changing Russia

When Elena Prokhorova, professor of Russian studies and the film studies program at the College of William and Mary, visits her native land, Russia, she doesn’t go there sightseeing.

Her goal is to use the tools of comparative analysis to assess the changes occurring in Russia. She recently returned from her yearly visit and her report is a mixed bag of good and bad news.

“I travel to Russia at least once a year, so the changes I see are incremental. But since 2014 — the annexation of Crimea, the war in Ukraine and U.S. sanctions — the economic situation has been worsening,” Prokhorova recently told the Gazette.

She explained that the Putin regime uses federal TV channels to whip up anti-American and anti-Western sentiment, blaming the U.S. for the revolution in Ukraine and for trying to destroy Russia.

“Whether people believe it is hard to tell, because with this increased propaganda comes caution and fear to voice dissenting opinions.”

She noted that many people complain privately about the prices for basic goods going up and the value of Russian currency dropping, but are careful not to connect the dots.

Since the U.S. elections, American domestic affairs have been the centerpiece of news and talk shows. “Basically, there are two news items on Russian TV: Ukraine and U.S./Europe. There is almost no Russian news, especially critical ones. And this is a problem.”

Prokhorova, who grew up in the Soviet Union and graduated from the prestigious Moscow State University, is uniquely qualified to pass judgment on the changes that are occurring in Russia.

“In terms of the standard of life, there is no comparison,” she said. “When I was growing up in the 1970s–80s, almost all goods were in short supply: food, clothes furniture, cars, etc. I lived in Moscow, which was better supplied because it was a showcase of socialism. But even there we spent much of our free time standing in lines to buy basic goods. Now, Russian consumers can buy anything. Nearly 50 percent of Russian citizens own a car. Private property didn’t exist in the Soviet Union. People couldn’t travel abroad; there was no access to information. All these have changed and have changed the country.”

Reflecting on the current relationship between the United States and Russia, Prokhorova said: “Misleadingly bad. Because it is not about the actual relationship between the two countries. Politicians and the media use inflammatory rhetoric for certain domestic agendas. For example, anti-Americanism is useful to Putin’s government because it distracts people from the failing economy, the crackdown on freedoms, etc. They don’t offer any solutions, instead stirring the familiar paranoia of the evil West being ‘Russophobic.’ ”

But Prokhorova is not without hope. She quoted Leo Tolstoy, the Great Russian writer, “Things will sort themselves out.”

She continued: “The U.S. and Russia have no other choice but to be allies: The alternative is simply unthinkable. Russia will be slowly and haltingly modernizing. Both Russia and the U.S. need to abandon Cold War patterns of thinking and, equally importantly, talking. The Cold War is over, Russia is a capitalist country, even if much of the capital is controlled by state-affiliated companies, and there is no real ideological or existential confrontation between the two. What is needed are well-informed and well-educated people who can form a strategy of dealing with Putin’s Russia without demonizing it.

“I am an educator, and I believe in the power of knowledge and nuanced understanding. The more people know about Russian culture and history, especially the people who made policy or influence public opinion, the more informed and balanced our thinking is.”

Shatz is a Williamsburg resident. He is the author of “Reports from a Distant Place,” the compilation of his selected columns. The book is available at the Bruton Parish Store and Amazon.com.

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