OXFORD, UK – “There’s a great deal about Putin that nobody knows about,” Dr. Gayle Lonergan told a room full of St. Bonaventure students in this year’s Francis E. Kelley Oxford Program. “There’s only ever the story you’ll be given.”
Lonergan, a graduate of both Cambridge and Oxford universities, has taught and worked in highly regarded institutions of learning in the United Kingdom and in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Russia, influential in modern-day world politics, is believed to have embarked on disinformation campaigns targeting the 2016 United States presidential elections and the 2016 Brexit vote in the United Kingdom. For much of the last 20 years, Russia has been under the leadership of Vladimir Putin, who served as its president from 2000 to 2008 and again since 2012.
Speaking about this well-known and yet somehow mysterious figure, Lonergan made it clear that both Putin and his ideology are quite popular in Russia.
“What I am going to do today is I’m going to show you… what Putin offers to Russia that makes him so undeniably popular because there is nobody else but Putin,” Lonergan said. “He enjoys genuine popularity.”
On the screen in the lecture room, Lonergan showed pictures of Putin during his younger years. He had been a member of the Young Pioneers, a Boy Scout-like group in the Soviet Union with a focus on teaching the Soviet system.
“From the Pioneers, you went into the Komsomol and from there it was directly almost into a nice career,” Lonergan said. “He was already on his way.”
Lonergan also spoke about how Putin’s parents survived the Siege of Leningrad and how deeply that came to shape the Putin's mindset.
“That is one of his big things,” she said. “Survival.”
Putin became involved in the Cold War efforts of the Soviet Union and led a relatively successful life.
“Putin goes straight into the KGB and becomes a spy,” Lonergan said. “He gets married. He’s doing extremely well.”
Then, in 1991, the Soviet Union falls.
“He described the collapse of the Soviet Union as the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century,” Lonergan said.
From there, Russia fell into widespread economic poverty, in no small part due to capitalism being forced upon the country with no adjustment period through a tactic dubbed shock therapy. Male life expectancy dropped by five years from 1991 to 1994, and violent crime increased by 27 percent.
The government fell into turmoil, and Russian President Boris Yeltzsin bombed parliament in October of 1993.
“What 1993 showed Putin was that you never handed power over to the parliament,” Lonergan said. “The parliament was there to rubber stamp what the president said.”
Lonergan emphasized the importance of patriotism to Putin’s power.
“Russian patriotism or Russian nationalism has become a symbol of Putin,” Lonergan said. “If you are a Russian nationalist, you must be pro-Putin. Otherwise, you are anti-Russian.”
Such Russian nationalism had a goal: an ideology of the unity of the Russian people in nations such as Belarus, Ukraine and Serbia. Lonergan said Putin justifies actions such as the invasion of Crimea, an area of Ukraine, by saying that its people are always Russian citizens and can never change their citizenship. Thus, there are either traitors or patriots and there is no limit to Russia’s reach when it comes to dealing with these Russian citizens.
“They don’t want liberal Western democracy,” Lonergan said. “Putin has said Western democracy is not Russia’s.”
According to Lonergan, Putin’s mindset is a product of the past in Russia and the 1990s and all the struggles that Russia had to deal with during those years made democracy and capitalism very unpopular to the people of Russia and to Putin.
“This is what you really have to understand,” Lonergan said. “Putin even said, ‘Western democracy is not ours, and it will collapse and we will still be here.’ "
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