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. 

Noontime Scholars Lecture: Laura Dean, “Incongruent Implementation of Human Rights-Based Policy in the Post-Soviet Region”

Laura Dean giving her Noontime Scholars Lecture on March 14, 2017

Every year, approximately one million people are trafficked throughout the post-Soviet world. Although human trafficking is a global issue, Laura Dean (Assistant Professor of History and Political Science at Millikin University) argues that the problem is particularly acute in the post-Soviet region. In her lecture, entitled “Incongruent Implementation of Human Rights-Based Policy in the Post-Soviet Region,” she explored why the region has had such a problem controlling human trafficking. Do the difficulties stem from internal or external forces? And what factors help or hinder the implementation of more comprehensive human trafficking policies?

In order to answer these questions, Dean’s research focuses on state structures and institutions, to see how responses to the problem of human trafficking have varied from country to country. In this presentation, Dean focused on three countries: Ukraine, Latvia, and Russia. Although every country in the post-Soviet region has adopted at least a criminal code against human trafficking, their responses beyond that have varied widely. In tracing out the particularities of these three states—each of which have different resources, institutional networks, and overall approaches—Dean aimed to explore what was working, and what could be improved.

Ukraine, the first state Dean discussed, was the first post-Soviet state to address the question of human trafficking with a criminal code in 1998. Despite this promising policy step, Ukraine has had problems with implementation: agencies and institutions have problems communicating with each other, local officials have little instructions on how to implement top-down policies, there is a lack of resources due to the overwhelming problem of internally displaced people from eastern Ukraine. Dean’s second example, Latvia, addressed many of these problems of implementation. It has fewer policies than Ukraine, but it has done a much better job of implementing them: agencies and institutions have clearly defined relationships, and they work closely with international organizations and governing bodies. Finally, Dean focused on Russia. While Russia has implemented a criminal code, it has no other state policy connected to anti-trafficking measures. There is also no centralized rehabilitative service; as a result, people who have been trafficked often have to rely on local institutions or Orthodox churches. Although there are people trying to tackle the issue of human trafficking in Russia, Dean noted, they are severely limited by the lack of state support.

Although Dean’s lecture focused on the state-level process, she also devoted some attention to broader, regional issues. Perhaps the most pressing of those issues is changing the perception of what human trafficking looks like. Due to the “Natasha Effect,” the popular imagining of a human trafficking victim is a young woman, usually trafficked as part of the sex trade. Though the sex trade plays a role in human trafficking, that a narrative ignores other forms, such as forced labor or organ trafficking. As the name “Natasha” indicates, it also emphasizes that most victims of this process are of Slavic descent, whereas in reality, Central Asians are increasingly becoming the target of trafficking operations.

Furthermore, Dean observed that it is important to use quantitative data carefully. One commonly used metric to discusses the success (or failure) of anti-human trafficking policy is to trace the number of initiated criminal investigations and the number of rehabilitated victims. The assumption is that higher numbers mean more effective enforcement, but lower numbers may mean a country’s approach is so effective that traffickers are more hesitant to use it. Pure quantitative data also gives researchers no information on how policies are implemented, another critical factor to consider.

Since only relying on quantitative data to study human trafficking policy gives a very limited view of the issue, Dean’s lecture underscored that researchers, policy advisers, activists, and others need to use a mix of quantitative and qualitative approaches to study the issue. States that have good legal structures, like Ukraine, may face challenges with implementation. Only using quantitative data would mask Ukraine’s trouble implementing human trafficking policies, and makes less apparent Latvia’s success in fostering inter-agency communication and creating policies that are easy to implement. In other cases, such as Russia, wider political narratives make tackling the issue of trafficking difficult. Given the vastly different approaches that states in the post-Soviet region have used, more research needs to focus on the long-term consequences and effectiveness of each state’s trafficking policies, using both quantitative and qualitative data.

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. 

International Night at Carrie Busey Elementary

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On March 9, 2017, REEEC outreach staff and students participated in International Night at Carrie Busey Elementary in Savoy. It was a lively event with performances, crafts, national costumes, and food from all over the world. Stephanie Chung (REEEC Outreach and Programming Coordinator) and Nicholas Higgins (REEEC MA student) ran the Russia table, which featured the Russian folktale “The Firebird.” The Firebird from the folktale of the same name is usually portrayed as the object of a difficult journey, with many seeking it to no avail. This was of course not the case for the REEEC outreach staff and students, as it was one of the busiest tables! Elementary school students lined up to make firebird masks. After making the masks, many children put them on and wore them for the rest of the evening – trailing orange and red feathers everywhere. Many thanks to Carrie Busey Elementary and the Center for Global Studies for organizing such a terrific event!

New Directions Lecture: Christine Evans, “17 Reasons To Get Along with the Secret Police: Tatyana Lioznova’s ‘Seventeen Moments of Spring’ from the Soviet 1970s to the Putin Era”

David Cooper (Director of REEEC) introducing Christine Evans

On February 23rd, Christine Evans, (Assistant Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee and a scholar of Soviet culture, mass media, and plays) gave a lecture on the popular 1973 Soviet TV miniseries Seventeen Moments of Spring. Her lecture, entitled “17 Reasons To Get Along with the Secret Police: Tatyana Lioznova’s ‘Seventeen Moments of Spring’ from the Soviet 1970s to the Putin Era,” was a sociological study of the show, and its reflections of Soviet culture and thought. It was a case study of some of the work that Evans had done to argue that the Soviet culture of this time was dynamic and vibrant, even though it was in a kind of stagnation along with the Soviet system in general.

The miniseries follows the fictional narrative of Maxim Isaev, a Soviet spy in Nazi Germany during the final days of World War II operating under the name of Max Otto von Stierlitz. Depicted by Vyacheslav Tikhonov, Stierlitz works to disrupt negotiation efforts between the Nazi and US governments for a separate peace. Evans focused on how the show’s recurring themes spoke to the trends of the 1970s Soviet society under Brezhnev.

One such recurring theme is that of questioning what is seen. Many times on the show, documents profiling Nazi officers and other characters are featured. These documents mention the crimes and horrible actions of the Nazis they name. However, these same Nazis are later portrayed as quite human characters when they are on screen. They are shown drinking, laughing, talking, and engaging like everyday people. The viewer is left questioning how such atrocities could be done by people who seem so human and normal, and a general sense of moral ambiguity prevails throughout the show.

This, Evans argued, resonated with the Soviet Union of the 1970s. Many Soviet people knew that their state had done terrible things; yet, they also knew that the people in their government were still human, and that they had done much good for others. They, too, were morally ambiguous in a way.

In another parallel, German officers and intelligentsia are intensely loyal on the show to the Nazi regime either by suppression or fanaticism, just as Soviet officers and intelligentsia were loyal to the USSR for the same reasons. Stierlitz always does his part to work loyally within his authority structures—his spy networks and his taking orders from other Nazis while undercover—while at the same time, acting independently enough to do what he needs to do. In this way, the show comments on the loyalty that many Soviets felt to their regime and the need they felt to do their part to make it work. Stierlitz’s independence and authority of action, devoid of any considerations beside his tasks, hearkens to the shadow of Stalin that hung over the Soviet Union in the 1970s.

Evans explored many other themes of the show in this way, also discussing the reactions and reviews of film critics in the Soviet Union and the notes of the producers of the show. Her extensive study of Seventeen Moments of Spring was a compelling testament to the values of sociological analysis as a tool for the historian or anyone who wants to further their understanding of Eastern European, Russian, and Eurasian societies and cultures.

Nick Goodell is a sophomore at UIUC, double majoring in History and Philosophy. He also speaks weekly about history on the radio show that he co-hosts, “The People’s History Hour with Grant Neal and Nick Goodell.”

Noontime Scholars Lecture: Kirill Maslinsky, “The Trace of the ‘Thaw’ in the Emotional Palette of Soviet Children’s Literature”

Kirill Maslinsky

Kirill Maslinsky, Fulbright Fellow at Illinois Wesleyan University and a Visiting Professor at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, gave the REEEC Noontime Scholars Lecture entitled “The Trace of the ‘Thaw’ in the Emotional Palette of Soviet Children’s Literature” on February 21. He presented an innovative approach to studying literature through machine learning tools and language processing. Maslinsky focused on the “Thaw” under Nikita Khrushchev, which has received renewed attention in Russian cultural studies, and how that period shaped the emotions depicted in Soviet children’s literature.

In the 1950s, two opposing camps formed within children’s literature over the issue of sincerity. The divide was instigated by Vladimir Pomerantsev, who argued in his article “On Sincerity in Literature” (1953) that literature for children should eliminate all real conflict and show no dark sides to life. His view aligned more with Anatoly Aleksin’s short story “Two Presents” (1952), in which a five-year-old child comes to understand what production is and feels joy about it. However, other scholars viewed the “Thaw” as a period of instability and contested ideas that should be depicted in children’s literature. Lidiia Chukovskaya wrote the essay “Rotten Tooth” to voice her doubts about the sincerity of emotions shown in children’s literature. She believed that the emotions portrayed were false. In her essay, she used the metaphor of the rotten tooth to argue that any falsehood was a rotten tooth that should be extracted. Another scholar, Alexander Drozdov, also criticized children’s literature from that time period, noting that characters don’t have their own personality and don’t suffer; they never experience any negative emotions.

Maslinsky’s presentation demonstrated a way to incorporate digital humanities into an analysis of Russian literature. He explored this issue of sincerity by tracing the changes in language for describing emotions that were related to Thaw-era discussions about sincere emotions in children’s literature. He focused on the emotional discourse of the Thaw as sincerity and hypocrisy. To do so, he used a method known as “machine learning”  to mine the emotional language in children’s literature and evaluate the results on graphs. For example, he searched for emotional keywords and filtered out laughing from crying. He split novels into fragments (episodes) and measured the presence of each emotional category in each fragment.

One of the observations that he was able to make from this analysis was that male and female authors addressed emotions differently. For example, during the 1950s, texts written by women represented crying more often than those written by men; more women also wrote about love.

Another method he used was measuring emotional clusters. He presented four distinct clusters that portrayed four different ways of portraying emotions. Examining these clusters of emotions, Maslinsky observed that more female authors wrote about emotions than male authors. He also concluded that works written during the Thaw depicted more social and abstract emotions, which were more realistic.

Although Maslinsky did not explicitly say so in his lecture, his method indicated a shift in the argument regarding sincerity to a gender debate. His repeated observations that more female authors wrote about emotions in their works hinted that there could be a latent cultural bias in the debate. Maslinsky posed questions that could lead his research to become a more comprehensive project that might include translations, reprints, close reading, and a study of readership (older vs. younger children). Whatever new form it takes, it would be a significant contribution to the field, especially in its inclusion of technology as a way to analyze children’s literature.

Stephanie Chung is the Outreach and Programming Coordinator at REEEC and a Ph.D. Candidate in Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her research interests are in Soviet literature and culture, Russian women’s writing, and Czech literature. She received her B.A. in Plan II Honors/Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies in 2007; and her M.A. in Slavic Languages and Literatures in 2009 from the University of Texas at Austin. She is currently writing a dissertation on Soviet women’s memoirs as literary and media texts.

Russian Language Program – Urbana After School Child Care Program at Leal Elementary

This past fall, I had the opportunity to step out of my usual teaching role in the Slavic Department and instead share my knowledge of Russian with some younger minds: the fourth and fifth graders of Leal Elementary School’s Afterschool Program. I admit, at first this seemed like a challenge. I was used to teaching Russia to college-aged students and, in general, Russian-language programs for elementary-school-aged children are not very common. How was I to adapt foreign grammar lessons to accommodate those who have not formally learned all grammar concepts in their native language? How could I convince the kids that learning Russian is more exciting than just memorizing a new alphabet and a whole bunch of grammar rules (and exceptions to those rules!)?

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As it turned out, the kids, along with some helpful teaching resources provided by REEEC, made the process much easier than expected. My students were engaged and committed to learning Russian. Often, they’d want to delve deeper into the grammar and vocabulary than I ever planned. Even though Russian was a choice among many other afterschool activities, my students (a group of about 10) attended consistently, and were always eager to know what we would be working on next. They even took notes and brought their worksheets home so that they could study, even though it was never required.

We met twice a week and each session was 45 minutes. One day a week was devoted to learning vocabulary and grammar, while the other was devoted to cultural topics. Our grammar lessons mainly consisted of learning how to read and write the Russian alphabet. Each day we would learn a few new letters. As the students acquired knowledge of more and more letters, we were able to start learning certain words, and eventually we even were able to formulate simple sentences and questions. The cultural topics ranged from folk tales to art and geography. Among my favorite lessons was comparing a map of the Soviet Union to a map of Russia (this was actually a request from a student!) and recreating our own art pieces in the style of Malevich. We ended the semester with a screening of the Russian Winnie the Pooh and, of course, Cheburashka – both of which were a huge hit among the students!

Teaching at the afterschool program reminded me what I already knew: These programs are important. Learning language is important. At any age.

Nadia Hoppe is a PhD candidate in Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Illinois.

A Summer in St. Petersburg

Peter-Paul Fortress

Peter-Paul Fortress

This past summer, I had the opportunity to study Russian abroad in St. Petersburg, Russia, thanks to the Foreign Language and Area Studies fellowship. I had been to St. Pete before in late winter of 2013 on a short homestay. Prior to leaving, I was ecstatic to experience a familiar city transformed by summer. I expected to have a tough immersive experience with Russian while also being able to soak up the culture first hand.

My summer abroad strengthened my language capabilities in ways I couldn’t have imagined. If you have ever been on a crowded subway or even through an old McDonald’s drive-through, you know the struggle of understanding someone who talks too quickly through a grumbled speaker. This is the norm on Russian public transit. By the end of my term, the grumbled Russian ramblings became understandable. In August, I could carry on a conversation about Russian-American relations with the bartender who, in June, referred to me as the “silly American woman.”

Peterhof Fountain

Peterhof Fountain

Outside of classes, I spent my time in some of the most beautiful and interesting places I’ve ever been. The Summer Garden was my favorite place to sit and watch people. The first time I was in St. Pete, the garden was closed because it was winter. The Peter-Paul Fortress was where I spent most of my Saturday mornings. It was my favorite spot in the city in 2013, but it was even better with warmer weather. I experienced new places, such as Moscow, Peterhof, and some small villages and towns outside of the city. During my last week in St. Pete, I took a boat tour around the city, as it is made up of many canals. I watched the sunset over the fortress and, later that night, I watched the drawbridges rise over the Neva river. It was a necessary sight to see when you’re there over the summer.

I learned a lot about myself, the Russian language, and the culture during my time in St. Pete. To some degree, I expected much of what I learned and experienced. Perhaps the most valuable learning moments I had on my study abroad trip were through experiencing Russia as a foreigner on an extended stay. Going into my study abroad, I expected to be treated like I was on my first trip: people weren’t reluctant to use English to help me out when I was struggling to communicate my thoughts; when presented with my documents, they were kind and even struck up a conversation about me being American. This summer, the kindness towards my being American was drastically lacking. I experienced hate for my nationality. While in a McDonald’s, I was yelled at to “get out of our country.” Experiencing blatant distaste due to where I call home was new for me. What I felt in these instances has been branded into my brain more so than anything else I learned while abroad. Everyone says that the study abroad experience changes your perspective on the world and can even be life-changing. This is true in more ways than I can explain.

Sharadyn Ciota is an undergraduate double majoring in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies and Political Science at the University of Illinois. She was a Summer 2016 REEEC FLAS Fellow.