It was Friday, June 9, and Indiana University School of Global and International Studies Dean Lee Feinstein was welcoming participants in IU’s Summer Language Workshop to Bloomington and the School.
“So, did anyone watch TV yesterday morning?” Feinstein inquired of the crowd gathered in the auditorium.
There was a wide ripple of laughter. June 8 was the day former FBI director James Comey testified before the Senate intelligence committee about the investigation into possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russian officials.
“You know,” Feinstein deadpanned, “Russia’s back!”
It wasn’t news for the 83 students enrolled in the nine levels of intensive Russian language study being offered this summer. Those studying Russian join others pursuing proficiency in languages from Kurdish to Estonian, Chinese to Haitian Creole. Altogether, 207 students are studying 16 languages at the summer workshop, which is celebrating its 67th year.
Feinstein’s own language study, he told the workshop students, dated to a previous moment of heightened tension between (then-Soviet) Russia and the US. Having started studying Russian at Vassar College, Feinstein arrived in Moscow for the spring semester of his junior year the same day that the Soviets invaded Afghanistan.
En route to Moscow that last week of 1979, Feinstein stopped in Warsaw. He would return 30 years later as the US Ambassador to Poland. “Be careful what you choose for your year abroad,” he warned, “because it could influence your career path.”
The dean’s own career path has been guided and bolstered by his language training, he explained. “My initial area of specialization in the government and in think tanks was in arms control and nonproliferation—so very technical business—but of course intricately involved with the Soviet Union and later, Russia. I’ve never conducted negotiations in the language, but I could read it effectively, and always felt greater confidence understanding negotiating styles, cultural differences, and points of view, having had that training and that experience.”
It’s the kind of education foreign policy analyst Anne-Marie Slaughter endorsed in her IU commencement address in May. The international lawyer, who runs the New America institute, is also a SLW alum. “Her most important credential,” Feinstein joshed, “is that she was here, where she studied Russian.”
Feinstein reprised Slaughter’s remarks encouraging students to persevere in the acquisition of the so-called “soft skills,” through cultural study. “They are critically important, and they can’t be automated or outsourced. The skills you’re acquiring,” Feinstein told the workshop students, “will be very translatable whatever career you have.”
Feinstein’s talk – “From Washington to Warsaw: US Policy Toward Central and Eastern Europe” – kicked off the workshop’s Strategic Language and Cultures Lecture series, which – along with film screenings, a soccer club, art tours, and music and dance performances – complements the hours of daily language instruction the students undergo. Stipulations of the federal funding SWL receives (through Project Go and Title VIII) require that the program cultivate regional and cultural expertise along with linguistic skills.
In addition to Feinstein, speakers who have presented at the series thus far have illuminated both how Russia perceives itself with regard to the rest of the world and the way it chooses to present itself. In their respective talks, Sufian Zhemukhov, senior research associate at George Washington University, and Patrick Michelson, associate professor of religious studies at IU, examined the role religion plays in constructing “post-atheist” Russia’s national identity and international role.
“The authority that’s vested in the Patriarch is also political,” suggested Michelson, showing a slide of the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian president commemorating the 700th birthday of Saint Serge of Radonezh. “He and Putin—I don’t want to say they’re tight, but they see a lot of things the same way. Partly what [Patriarch] Kirill imagines, and partly what Putin imagines can overlap—about how they imagine Ukraine, about how they imagine Syria, and how they imagine the West.”
In his talk June 23 “The Church Abroad: Russian Orthodoxy on a Global Stage,” Michelson introduced the audience to the church’s top tier—Patriarch Kirill (Gundiaev) and Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeev)—the parenthetical names harking back to their identities before being “tonsured as monks.” Lest that expression conjure the image of the hermit in the forest, Michelson’s presentation proceeded with images charting both men’s activity in the world.
A photograph from 2016 documents the Patriarch with then-President François Hollande of France, discussing the civil war in Syria and ways to protect Christians there—a meeting that occurred against the backdrop of Russia’s exclusion from the EU, NATO, and other transnational alliances.
As chairman of the R.O.C.’s Department of External Church Relations, Metropolitan Hilarion is equally if not more ubiquitous, Michelson pointed out. In addition to hosting a weekly TV show, Tserkov’ i mir (“The Church and the World”), writing books, and teaching at prestigious universities in Europe and the US, the Oxford Ph.D. travels to meet political leaders around the world.
“He’s an international jetsetter,” Michelson asserted. “He’s everywhere. He knows people. He gets things done.”
For all his networking, however, the Metropolitan can keep a low profile. In a photo of Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill in February 2016, the cleric behind this historic first meeting of the heads of the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches stands literally behind Cuban President Raul Castro. In another photo, taken in Washington in May 2017, Hilarion hobnobs with Franklin Graham, the son of evangelist Billy Graham, and Vice President Mike Pence at the World Summit in Defense of Persecuted Christians.
The church’s ability to wield soft power on the global stage combines, Michelson pointed out, with the Putin regime’s use of religion to justify political and military action—attributing the same sacred meaning to Crimea for Russians, for example, that the Temple Mount has for Jews and Muslims.
In couching the seizure of the Crimean Peninsula in religious terms, Putin was betting on the groundswell of Orthodoxy Russia has experienced since the dissolution of the Soviet state. In two talks June 15 and 16, Sufian Zhemukhov not only confirmed the resurgence of Orthodox religious practice in Russia, but pointed to the boost in popularity the Crimean annexation gave Putin. Timed three days before the conclusion of the Sochi Olympic Games (February 7-23, 2014) – a time when all eyes were trained on the Black Sea – the invasion of Crimea would seem to undermine the goodwill and positive branding Russia may have sought to engender by hosting the games.
“For the international community it was a paradox why Russia invaded Ukraine,” Zhemukov acknowledged, “and threw away all this investment in the Sochi Olympics — this rather good international image that Russia developed hosting the Sochi Olympics. The Western media kind of regarded it as a puzzle.”
In his recent book, Putin’s Olympics: The Sochi Games and the Evolution of Twenty-First Century Russia(Routledge, 2017), Zhemukov and co-author Robert Orttung argue that producing the mega-project that was the Sochi Games was born of the same spirit that mandated the military invasion.
“We resolve this paradox,” Zhemukov explained, “by arguing that the invasion into Crimea was not a break with the Sochi Olympics but it was a logical continuation from the Russian perspective. Because Putin’s and the Kremlin’s ideology is that Russia is rising up from its knees—so for them Russia held the Olympics and rose up from one knee, then returned to Crimea and rose up from the other knee.”
Putin’s two-pronged approach seemed to have worked. Regardless or perhaps because of Western disapprobation, Zhemukov noted, the Russian president’s approval rating rose 20 percent after the annexation of Crimea. Hosting the Sochi games had bumped his ratings a mere six percent.
The Summer Language Workshop continues through July 28 with a series of films, lectures, and events open to the public.