Professional Development Workshop: Terrell Starr, “Covering Trump in an Age of Russian Propaganda Wars”

REEEC welcomed back journalist and REEEC MA graduate Terrell Starr for a professional development workshop on March 30 entitled “Covering Trump in an Age of Russian Propaganda Wars.” Starr argued that in order to understand how many Americans today perceive the Russian government, we need to understand how Americans perceive threats. There is overwhelming evidence that the Russian government used hacking and technological manipulation to influence and perhaps even swing the recent presidential election. And yet, when confronted with evidence of this tampering, Americans who identify as Trump supporters are indifferent, or even supportive, of the Russian involvement. How do these supporters justify such a position?

Journalist and REEEC alumnus Terrell Starr

The answer, Starr proposes, lies in the way Americans perceive threats. People will either intensify or minimize a threat depending on their positionality. In other words, the extent to which people perceive an action to be threatening is not value neutral; it is calibrated through public discourse and private identity politics. Throughout his campaign, Trump played heavily into this process, basing much of his campaign around specific kinds of threats. By focusing on the supposed dangers of spaces like the US-Mexican border or Chicago, or on the process of refugee resettlement, Trump has created a narrative in which threats emerge from people of color. The narrative that Trump has created, in short, is a narrative that protects American whiteness.

The danger of Trump’s re-centering around American whiteness—beyond its obvious deleterious effects on the American social fabric—is that it allows threats like the Russian election interference to be easily minimized. As part of Starr’s journalistic work, he has spoken extensively with Trump supporters to try to understand the way in which they recontextualize information to fit it into this narrow vision of a threat. Starr noted that compared to ISIS, refugees, and the southern border, Trump supporters do not see Russia as threatening. Because the election interference does not fit into the Trumpian narrative of what a threat is, many (even most) of his supporters are unwilling to consider it one.

Starr himself has reevaluated his role as a journalist in light of these findings. He has made it his goal to learn about hacking and other forms of interference in order to better understand them. He then acts as an educator, explaining to the public how these hacking attacks work. There are limitations to what he (or any reporter) can do, as he cannot access any secret or classified information, but he has managed to gain an idea of how this sophisticated system of hacking functions.

Yet even while Starr has expanded his job as a reporter, he wonders what effect his actions will have. If we found a smoking gun that implicated the Russian government in election hacking, would it matter to a majority of Trump’s supporters? Drawing upon his interviews with them, Starr is not sure. The narrative that Trump has created has staying power, and many of his supporters are deeply invested in its promotion of American whiteness. What use is a smoking gun in an era in which a narrative is more powerful than facts?

Starr is also pessimistic about the ability of the Russian government to continue to interfere in the American political system. The Russian government, he notes, has been particularly adept at using racial and ethnic tensions to serve its own means. For example, Russian officials launched a DDOS hack on Georgia during the 2008 war, in which they fabricated and circulated a photo of then-president Mikheil Saakashvili with Nazi imagery. Although the photo was proven to be false, the damage was already done. This is the danger of information wars: even false information can have real power when they fit into the right narratives. It is a problem, Starr says, that will continue to have a real and tangible impact on our political system for years to come.

Deirdre Ruscitti Harshman is a doctoral candidate in the History Department at the University of Illinois. Her dissertation, “A Space Called Home: Housing and the Construction of the Everyday in Russia, 1890-1935,” explores how multiple, often conflicting, understandings of the home emerged across the revolutionary divide of 1917, and what these conceptions tell us about belonging. Her article “Cooking Up a New Everyday: Communal Kitchens in the Revolutionary Era, 1890-1935” was published in the December 2016 issue of Revolutionary Russia. When she is not doing academic work, she is working on perfecting her plov recipe. 

Alumna Rebecca Mitchell Awarded W. Bruce Lincoln Prize from ASEEES

Rebecca Mitchell

Rebecca Mitchell

Congratulations to Rebecca Mitchell (PhD in History, 2011) on receiving the W. Bruce Lincoln Prize from the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies (ASEEES)! The prize is awarded for an author’s first published monograph or scholarly synthesis that is of exceptional merit and lasting significance for the understanding of Russia’s past, published in the previous two years. Rebecca is Assistant Professor of History at Middlebury College, where she teaches courses on the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, and the relationship between music and power in history. Her book is entitled Nietzsche’s Orphans: Music, Metaphysics, and the Twilight of the Russian Empire (Yale University Press, 2016).

To view the original announcement from ASEEES, please see http://aseees.org/news-events/aseees-news-feed/aseees-announces-2016-prize-winners.

Alumni News

Ryan Eavenson (MA REEES, 2015) is pursuing an MA in Modern European Studies at Columbia University. He will also continue studying Czech language, history, and culture.

Maria Cristina Galmarini-Kabala (PhD in History, 2012) has published her book The Right to Be Helped: Deviance, Entitlement, and the Soviet Moral Order from Northern Illinois University Press.

Bethany Wages on Cataloging Pre-Revolutionary Manuscripts at the Library of Congress

This summer, REEES M.A. graduate Bethany Wages has been interning at the Library of Congress European Division. Check out her blog posts on her experience, including “How to Identify Yudin Materials 101”:

“So far, my favorite way to identify a Yudin item is by Klochkov tickets. Klochkov was a dealer in rare and antique books and helped Yudin acquire much of his library. Klochkov would put his personalized book seller tickets in the front or back of books he acquired for Yudin. They are often brightly colored (I have seen bright green, pink, blue, purple) and some are quite large and often depict Klochkov himself, spiderwebs and books, or even young people reading.”

Read more at: https://bibliotekarblog.wordpress.com/

Prime Minister of Georgia and U of I Alum, Giorgi Kvirikashvili Visits Campus

By Maureen Marshall

On Wednesday, April 27, 2016, the Prime Minister of Georgia, Giorgi Kvirikashvili, gave a public lecture in Deloitte Auditorium in the Business Instructional Facility at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Kvirikashvili is an alumnus of Illinois, having earned a Master’s in Finance from the College of Business. After being welcomed by the College of Business Dean Jeffery Brown and introduced by Interim Chancellor Barbara Wilson, he briefly reminisced on his time at the University (funded by a U.S. State Department program in the 1990’s), which he said taught him new ways to think about solving problems and gave him the skills to enter the world of finance. The Prime Minister also highlighted the importance of Georgian – American relations and then described a four- point plan for reform within his country that will focus on education, economic “liberalization,” infrastructure, and reorganizing government systems including the pension system and physical spaces.  Kvirikashvili also invited audience members not only to visit Georgia, but to invest as well, drawing attention to Georgia’s key geographic position on the “new Silk Road,” tying together economies from Beijing to Brussels.

Prime Minister Kvirikashvili then answered questions from an internationally diverse 200+ person audience. The first question was posed by a Russian student and concerned Georgian – Russian relations. Kvirikashvili reported that Georgia had worked to “cool down” tensions between the countries, while firmly stating that the normalization of relations requires that Russia recognize Georgia’s borders and respect Georgia’s sovereignty.  The second question came from an American student who asked who the Prime Minister favored in the U.S. Presidential Election – Kvirikashvili felt it best to refrain from giving his opinion. The third question came from an Armenian student asking the Prime Minister to elaborate on how Georgia had dealt with Soviet legacy of corrupt institutions, while the fourth was voiced by a South Korean student asking what steps the Prime Minister planned on taking to convince people that Georgia is a great place to invest. Professor Mohammed Babadoost asked about developing agriculture in Georgia and training scientists, while the final questions touched on issues relating to the oil market.

Prior to becoming Prime Minister in December 2015, Kvirikashvili served as Vice Prime Minister (2013-2015) while serving as Foreign Minister (2015) and Minister of Economy and Sustainable Development (2012-2015). Kvirikashvili received a Master’s degree in Finance from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the United States in 1998. He obtained an undergraduate degree in Economics from Tbilisi State University (1995) and an undergraduate degree in Medicine from Tbilisi State Medical Institute (1991).

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Dr. Maureen Marshall is the Associate Director for REEEC. She earned her PhD at the University of Chicago in Anthropology in 2014 with a thesis on “Subject(ed) Bodies: A Bioarchaeological Investigation of Lived Experiences and Mobile Practices in Late Bronze-Early Iron Age (1500-800 B.C.) Armenia.” Her research focuses on the bioarchaeology of early complex polities and empires in the South Caucasus and Eurasia. She is also the Associate Director of Project ArAGATS, the joint American-Armenian project for the Archaeology and Geography for Ancient Transcaucasian Societies.

Allan Mustard – Ambassador to Turkmenistan

The following is a re-posting of an article published by the ACES Office of International Programs about Illinois alumnus Allan Mustard, who is now the Ambassador to Turkmenistan. The original posting of this article can be found by following this link.

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Allan Mustard’s professional goal wasn’t to become a U.S. ambassador.  But after about a dozen career moves, Mustard is now serving in his first year as Ambassador to Turkmenistan—a country a little larger than California that shares borders with Iran and Afghanistan. He describes his career path not as one with a calculated strategy, but more as a series of encouraging nudges and a stream of opportunities that led to an unexpected outcome.

Illinois Alumnus Allan Mustard being sworn in as Ambassador to Turkmenistan

Illinois alumnus Allan Mustard being sworn in as Ambassador to Turkmenistan

“I really didn’t have anything in mind, except that I wanted to do something internationally,” Mustard says. “I studied Russian and German because those were the only foreign languages offered at the community college where I started out. Had they offered Haitian Creole, I might have ended up on a sandy beach in the Caribbean.”

Mustard, raised on a dairy farm near Brady, Washington, completed bachelor’s degrees at the University of Washington in Slavic languages and literature and political science..

That combination opened the door to his first overseas job, as a guide and as an interpreter for the U.S. International Communications Agency at an American exhibit in the Soviet Union in the late ’70s.

The training took place on the University of Illinois campus.

Then came the first nudge.

“When I got to Moscow, I met Jim Brow, a USDA agricultural attaché,” Mustard says.  “He said to me, ‘Gosh, you’re pretty smart, you speak good Russian, and you grew up on a farm.  All you’re missing is a master’s degree in agricultural economics. If you get that, you can come work for us.’  So I did.”

Mustard received another nudge while at Illinois working on his master’s. He was encouraged to take the Foreign Service exam—a test so difficult that only about 1 in 100 people pass it. But Mustard was one of them.  As a result of his test score, he accepted an invitation to Chicago for an oral assessment.

The road appeared to be a dead end when the State Department lost his paperwork, so Mustard took a job with USDA.  After a month, the State Department called: they’d found the missing papers. They wanted him to take an entry-level course, beginning almost immediately. “I said I already had a job that would lead to an overseas career as an agricultural attaché.  They asked, ‘Why would you want to do that?’ I explained that the only advantage of coming to State is that I’d be eligible for an ambassadorship, and that would never happen for me.  So I stayed with agriculture, specifically because I didn’t think that I’d ever have a shot at an ambassadorship.”

Over the next couple of decades, Mustard held positions in Istanbul, Vienna, and Mexico City, along with being posted twice each to Washington, DC, and Moscow.

It wasn’t until 2009 that Mustard entertained the ambassadorship possibility.

“Some of my State colleagues said, ‘You really should apply for this,’” Mustard recalls. “‘It doesn’t cost anything and it only takes 45 minutes to fill out the paperwork .’ So I did—and here I am.”

Without hesitation, Mustard names his Illinois ag econ degree as a key career building block.

“I took courses in analysis and marketing from faculty like Hal Everett and Phil Garcia.

I studied development under Earl Kellogg and policy with Bob Spitze and Steve Schmidt. Foreign Agricultural Service officers tend to specialize in market development or are oriented toward food aid countries, but I did a bit of everything, and U of I gave me a full array of tools.”

Using technology was one of those tools. Mustard’s comfort with computer programming at Illinois led to his being “pigeonholed as the data systems geek” at the Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS).

“Rather than reject the title, I embraced it and split the difference; I did my analytical job, but I also did a fair amount of programming and tutoring.”

Years later, when he was a senior foreign service officer in Washington, DC, computer expertise came in handy again, garnering him a position as head of FAS data systems. Each career move presented new opportunities to put into practice what he learned about agricultural economics at Illinois.

Mustard points to one opportunity following the Balkans War of the 1990s as particularly meaningful. He was agricultural counselor in the U.S. Embassy in Vienna, Austria, covering seven countries in Central Europe, including Bosnia. Bosnia’s population of about 4.5 million included 2 million war refugees. Many were widows with children, receiving public assistance because their husbands were victims in the war’s ethnic cleansing. Mustard was tasked with leading a food aid effort to Bosnian refugees. According to Mustard, there is a right way and a wrong way to provide food aid to a country.

“We would not just deliver the food that was needed, but we would structure it around a program that would help get at least some Bosnians out of poverty.”

Mustard collaborated with 10 private charities and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

“My goal was to lift a certain number of villages out of poverty and restart their economies,” Mustard says. He struck a deal to divide assistance between the aid organizations’ traditional programs and credit programs for the municipalities. The intent was to inject money into the village economies at multiple points—to farmers, to consumers, and to those who sell inputs to farmers—in order to get the economies moving again.

“A year later, it was astounding that we had brought to life 50 moribund municipalities,” Mustard says. “War widows who had been living off of handouts were working again at their private businesses and supporting their families. Meeting those widows was probably the most emotional experience of my life. They were so grateful. And I had done so little—provided some policy direction for the NGOs. The organizations did the heavy lifting—but without guidance, I’m not sure the aid would have had as deep an impact.”

Mustard again mentions his study of economics and development at Illinois with Earl Kellogg.

“I was reaching back to my graduate studies to come up with the constructs of how to provide relief and then figure out some way to apply them practically in order to revive the villages’ economy.  It all worked.”

Today Mustard faces new challenges as Ambassador to Turkmenistan—which he describes as “one of the most closed societies in the world.”

He believes the U.S.  embassy can help open a window for Turkmen citizens by offering English language instruction.

“We have a library of English books at the embassy,” he says. “The classes are always full, and we have a waiting list of 300. These efforts can have an outsized impact because we’re reaching the people who want to learn English and are self-selecting to become leaders.”

So, how does one become an ambassador? To students interested in international careers, Mustard recommends starting with agriculture.

“That is the only sector of the economy that runs a trade surplus.  Being an agricultural officer for the FAS is about as good as it gets.” All you need to do, he says, is look at where the growth potential for agriculture lies—and, of course, learn another language or two.

“With 96 percent of the world’s population outside the United States, that’s where the growth is—particularly in Asia,” he says.

“If I were to do this all over again, I would probably have studied Chinese rather than Russian, and Spanish instead of German.  But that said, I think you can study any foreign language and put it to good use. Think about a career with FAS, and take a shot.”

What’s his next career move?

“Right now I’m focused on being successful at this one,” he says.

Article submitted by Debra Levey Larson, 217-244-2880

Sources:

Allan Mustard

The Ascendancy of Nationalism in Central Asia

On October 7, 2014, Russell Zanca, Professor of Anthropology at Northeastern Illinois University, gave a REEEC Noontime Scholars Lecture. Russell Zanca received his PhD from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1999. Over the years he has published works mainly on the country of Uzbekistan, covering topics such as collective farming, the cotton monoculture, cuisine, religion, gender, and Soviet history. He co-edited Everyday Life in Central Asia with Jeff Sahadeo (2007) and wrote Life in a Muslim Uzbek Village: Cotton Farming after Communism (2011).

russell zanca

Professor Russell Zanca

His talk, entitled “The Ascendancy of Nationalism in Central Asia,” examined the state (or status) and intra-regional conditions of political sovereignty in post-Soviet Central Asia. The argument he made is not exactly one of success or failure, but rather examines the very successes and failures that exist in Central Asia from the standpoints of political integrity and political development—despite or because of dictatorial rule and concomitant degrees of freedom of conscience and economic decision-making. The latter Central Asian political development subsumes economic and cultural development.

Recently, scholars and pundits have meaningfully examined many hyper-nationalist aspects of the Central Asian countries’ politics. The basic argument here is that nationalism has prevented the kind of intra-regional cooperation that would have fueled greater development and freedom throughout Central Asia. Generally speaking, nationalism may be necessary to independence, but it is rarely considered positive in terms of development and human freedom by most social scientists. While there may be much to recommend this position, Zanca looked to data and analyses history from more than 20 years prior to compare different visions of independence, areas for national and regional comity and strife, and treaties and agreements that have fostered and foiled individual and regional growth and freedom.

An interesting point professor Zanca made was that the Central Asian republic’s ethnic territorialization projects did not occur directly after the collapse of the USSR. He suggested that scholars look back to the state-socialism of the USSR for explanations of post-Soviet occurrences.

Another interesting point he discussed concerned political and economic relationships within the Central Asian states and Russia after 1991. His argument was that these states function under state networking interdependence in the areas of economics, labor, residential flow, and a wide imbalance of power between the states. He deduced that because of these factors there is a much lower risk of conflict between ethnicities and of territorial disintegration.

Zanca concluded that while relations between the five Central Asian states are unhealthy, nationalism has helped keep an uneasy peace. Due to this, he stated that we are likely to see greater nationalism in Central Asia in the future. He attributed this future nationalism to Central Asian political leaders working to make sure that there is continuity in their government after they are gone. He connected this ‘top down’ nationalism to the legacy of Soviet Rule. With this continuity, he predicted that there will not be many significant, violent conflicts in the near future.

After professor Zanca concluded his presentation a lively discussion about his research was produced by both faculty and students alike.

Bethany Wages is a graduate student in Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her current focus of study is History. She received her B.A. in Honors/History and English Literature in 2014 at Wright State University.