Parsing Putin

Portrait of Nina Tumarkin in her office

Photo by Richard Howard

Back in the fall of 2015, when Nina Tumarkin—Kathryn Wasserman Davis ’28 Professor of Slavic Studies and professor of history—was planning her new first-year writing seminar, Vladimir Putin: Personage, President, Potentate, she had no inkling how popular the course would be, nor how prominently the Russian president would figure in U.S. politics. But when enrollment for the spring course opened last fall, it filled within the first 30 seconds. “Enrollment has been very robust!” she laughs. This was, of course, just days after the 2016 presidential election, when reports of “Russian meddling” began circulating widely.

The course continues to be full of surprises for Tumarkin, a Russia expert and director of the College’s Russian area studies program, because the story keeps changing with every news cycle. “I try to limit myself to never send my students more than three links to relevant articles per day, but it’s crazy, it’s all so relevant!” Tumarkin says.

This year is also historic for Russia—the 100th anniversary of the 1917 revolution—and so Russia is ripe for reconsideration. And it has been a poignant retrospective for Tumarkin, whose parents fled St. Petersburg that year, ultimately settling in the United States. “I was born in New York, but my parents really tried to keep Russian history and culture and literature alive for me,” she says. “In a sense I inherited that mission and am passing it along to generation after generation of Russian students.” Tumarkin, whose mother tongue is Russian, is also teaching a course this term on the Russian performing arts, from Stravinsky’s ballet The Firebird to the post-feminist punk group Pussy Riot.

For their final assignment in the Putin seminar, Tumarkin had her students write policy memos, directing their advice to either the Russian or the U.S. president. Giving advice to presidents is something she has some experience with herself, having been one of a handful of experts to brief President Reagan in advance of his first meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985. And if she were advising the U.S. president today?

“I would advise him not to focus too much on leader-to-leader relationships. This is not a totalitarian state, and Putin is not an emperor,” she says. “He is always having to negotiate with various factions in the Kremlin, and American policy makers don’t seem to understand that. I think my students—and they’re all first-years—know more about the Kremlin, I hate to tell you, than some relevant people in Washington do.”

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