Mar 29, 2014
06:28 AMConnecticut Today
Bear of a Topical Topic, Russia and Putin, Tackled Via Connecticut
The Western world faces a sticky problem in dealing with the increasingly belligerent behavior of Russia, a problem that originates to some degree in a lack of understanding of the Russian temperament, according to Gregory Feifer, an author with Connecticut ties who recently released “Russians: The People Behind the Power” (Twelve $28).
“The thing that interests me is that, two decades after the collapse of Soviet Russia, Americans are still mystified by Russian behavior,” said Mr. Feifer, a former senior correspondent at Radio Free Europe in Prague and NPR bureau chief in Moscow, where he covered Russia’s resurgence under Vladimir Putin.
He is the son of author George Feifer of Roxbury and a Russian mother and previously wrote “The Great Gamble,” a history of the Soviet War in Afghanistan, and co-wrote “Spy Handler,” with former KGB colonel Victor Cherkashin.
Mr. Feifer has been a keen observer of Russia since his first trip there in the early 1990s. He witnessed the coup d'etat attempt against Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991. While on a fellowship from the Institute of Current World Affairs, Mr. Feifer examined the end of the Yeltsin era and Russia's subsequent transformation into an authoritarian state, and he has observed the effects of Russia’s vast new oil wealth on an increasingly nationalistic society as well as Moscow's rekindling of a new Cold War-style opposition to the West.
“Americans don’t understand why Russians support Putin, who has rolled back democracy, fomented civil war and supported massive corruption,” Mr. Feifer observed. “My approach has been to look at the daily behavior of the Russian people, at family habits, at their drinking. My feeling is that from being as confusing and chaotic as it seems to outsiders, it is really predictable, very explainable. Russian motives and goals are different than ours.”
Primary among President Vladimir Putin’s goals, and those of his followers, is to bring back the respect the country enjoyed when it was one of the top superpowers.
“Putin has played on Russians’ widespread nostalgia for the Soviet past and its superpower position,” Mr. Feifer said. “Putin’s actions show him to be someone restoring Russia to greatness in the world—his foreign policy is a Soviet one: to be feared and loathed is to be powerful.”
By annexing the Crimea and threatening to invade Ukraine, Putin is promoting his image of Europe’s tough guy, but the invasion of Ukraine is also an emotional issue for the president, Mr. Feifer said. “You have Ukraine, which got rid of a pro-Moscow government, a hugely corrupt regime, and Putin’s response was to lash out and invade. I don’t think he has an ultimate goal—part of this is just emotional for him.”
While Western countries might be made nervous by a powerful leader who acts without due deliberation, Mr. Putin has the support of the majority of his people, according to Mr. Feifer.
“Roughly 60 percent of Russia’s population is conservative,” he related. “Putin’s statements about gays was terrible press for Russia, but two-thirds of Russians object to homosexuality. They support his actions, including invading Crimea.”