Photo by Andrew Wigdor / Assistant News Editor
Students and faculty of MTSU gathered in the College of Education Building on Monday evening to listen to Dr. J. Arch Getty, a professor of history at the University of California, Los Angeles, provided a lecture on the historic background and American perception of Vladimir Putin.
The lecture, entitled “Understanding Putin,” was sponsored by The Strickland Visiting Scholar Program, which hosts a visiting scholar lecture each year at MTSU.
Getty began his lecture by stating that he was originally planning on discussing a completely different topic but decided on the Russian president due to Putin’s relevance in the current election.
“We have demonized Putin,” Getty said. “This demonization of him is a symptom of a primitive way of looking at politics.”
He continued, stating that the media and presidential candidates have commonly provided the American people with the perception that Putin is innately evil.
“We have assumed that Russia behaves, and Putin behaves, because of evil. I think it is not useful to think of him this way,” said Getty.
He then announced that America should work towards negotiating with Russia. Getty defended this position by acknowledging the common enemy of both countries: International terrorism.
Getty stated, “Sooner or later, we are going to have to find a way to talk to Putin. And the more we make him a red-eyed devil, the harder that is going to be. The demonization of Putin is counter-productive.”
Getty described the origins of this “demonization” of Putin, saying that it is related to short-term issues and whether Putin does what America tells him to do.
“This is not a very good criteria for judging any world leader, in other words, judging how compliant he is. But it’s also just unsophisticated,” Getty said.
In the next section of the lecture, Getty challenged the audience to put themselves into Putin’s shoes to better understand his rocky relationship with other countries. He stated that Putin was placed into a geopolitical situation with a limited number of options.
Getty said, “Geography dictates what Putin can and cannot do. Geography is also a function of cultural forces. People are products of our history.”
Getty explained that examining Putin and Russia’s history can provide insight into his current leadership. Stating that Russia’s history is one of being constantly invaded, Getty recognized that a mentality of defensiveness must have formed within the country.
“The memory of World War 2 is alive there. Twenty-seven million people died. The Cold War made Russia feel like she was surrounded. And most recently, the spread of NATO seems to them to be repeating history,” Getty stated.
He then related Russia’s current perception of the outside world to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Getty explained that the fall of the Soviet Union led to a decline of “status and personality.” Continuing his analogy, he stated that people who suffer from PTSD are often paranoid and react quickly and intensely to small threats.
“If you combine this trauma from a recent loss of empire with a history of being invaded, you go a long way towards understanding the historical attitudes of Putin and the Russian people,” said Getty.
In the final segment of his lecture, Getty identified five key attitudes of the Russian people that he had observed through his research. The five attitudes that Getty provided are as follows: The Russian people see their position in the world as distorted. They see themselves as the victims rather than oppressors. They have a pathological fear of being invaded or surrounded. They believe that our western customs represent hypocrisy. Lastly, they want to be part of the west as much as they fear the west.
“Putin speaks to all of these attitudes. That’s one of the reasons that he is incredibly popular. He speaks the way Russians think in terms of the rest of the world,” Getty said.
Getty acknowledged that a common American idea is that Putin wishes to resurrect the Soviet Union. This inaccurate ideology strengthens the Russian perception of the United States, according to Getty. He said that most Russian people saw the Soviet Union as a drain on the country’s resources, and Putin simply wishes to create strong borders.
“Nobody in the Russia wants the USSR back. Yet, in the west, it persists that they do. Russians are bewildered by this, and Putin, in particular, is amazed by this,” Getty said.
The lecture ended with a question and answer session in which Getty provided a final piece of advice for college students who are interested in learning about Putin.
Getty stated, “Read a lot more. Do not be satisfied with what the government tells you. Do not be satisfied with what newspaper columnists tell you. The smartest thing to do is to educate yourself.”