Russia Direct sat down with former NPR correspondent Gregory Feifer to discuss his new book, Russians: the People behind the Power, as well as the similarities between the Russian and American national characters and the difficulties these two nations face in understanding each other.


Russians celebrating Maslenitsa in the city of Yaroslavl, March 11, 2013. Photo: Itar-Tass / Vladimir Smirnov

Gregory Feifer, former Moscow correspondent for National Public Radio (NPR) and Radio Free Europe, calls his new book an attempt “to demystify Russia for general readers in the West, many of whom find Russian behavior and politics baffling.”

Russians: the People behind the Power, is primarily based on Feifer’s eight years of reporting experience in Russia, as well as on his family history and historic documents.

Although it took two years to come up with the book, Feifer said it “was many years in the making.” Asked how many Russia’s regions he visited to write the book, Feifer can’t precisely remember. “I included episodes from my travels across the country from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok, the Caucasus to the Arctic far north and many places in between.”

Russia Direct discussed with Feifer his book, similarities between Russian and American national characters, the roots of U.S.-Russia misunderstanding and the ways how to deal with differences in bilateral relations.  

Russia Direct: What inspired you to write your book, Russians: The People Behind The Power?

Gregory FeiferGregory Feifer: Many in the West see Russia the way [UK’s Former Prime Minister Winston] Churchill explained it: a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. The bafflement is often explained by the existence of a Russian soul that's unknowable because it's different from Western sensibilities.

I believe there's no such thing. Russians is an explanation of behavior based on practical, knowable motives. They don't happen to be Western – it's no accident Russia seems a chaotic place to many foreign eyes. But that doesn't mean Russians aren't successful at achieving their own goals derived from their own culture. I wanted to explain that culture by describing the social behavior and attitudes on which it's based.

RD: In your book, you explore the forces that have shaped the Russian character for centuries, and that continue to do so today. What are they? What did you discover as result of your research into Russia's national character and history?

G.F.: Many factors have influenced the national character over several centuries, including Russia's vast territory – much of it uninhabitable – its harsh winter, its history and culture. As the Harvard historian Edward Keenan has argued, surviving under very difficult conditions has helped shape a unique worldview according to which groups of people are seen as the basic unit necessary for survival.

Individuals tend to be seen as weak, even threatening to the general well-being if allowed to commit rash actions. That's also helped shape a kind of fatalism: Russians tend to be cavalier about their health and seen as apolitical, both characteristics reinforced by the idea that there's little single people alone can do to change the way things are.

RD:  So what are the people “behind the power” like in Russia? How are they different from those at the helm, if they are?

G.F.: One of the key characteristics of Russian behavior in daily life is its secretive nature. That goes for the leaders, too. Russia has generally been ruled by an oligarchy that's obscured who makes important decisions and how with facades: parliament, the judiciary – institutions that have been largely imported from the West and served to mislead outsiders about how things are really done behind the Kremlin's high walls. Central to the exercise of power is corruption, the all-important tool that enables the authorities to co-opt and coerce much of the population.

RD: Why does President Vladimir Putin remain popular even as the gap widens between the super-rich and the poor?

G.F.: According to conventional wisdom, Putin engineered a social contract with the Russian people: as long as living standards continue rising, he's allowed to rule in an authoritarian way. In fact, I believe the real explanation for his popularity is that he resurrected the old, familiar way of doing things, under which omnipresent bribery and other illegal dealings give people a stake in the system – because they get something out of it – and enable the authorities to prosecute almost anyone.

Vladimir Putin speaking from a TV screen during a Valdai club discussion. Source: Kommersant

RD: Do you think the West understands Russia today? In general, do you find the West’s attitude towards Russia is fair, grounded and reasonable? Why?

G.F.: Russian institutions and rhetoric are often meant to deceive outsiders. Take the presidency: Western leaders spent the four years of Dmitri Medvedev's tenure guessing when he would assume real power. In fact, his reforming, western-looking image served to conceal the extent of Putin's personal power. The West's oft-repeated mistake is to take those institutions and rhetoric at face value, as it continues to do on Syria, Iran and a host of other issues.

RD: Based on your findings, what should the West take into account when dealing with Moscow at the negotiation table?

G.F.: Western leaders should understand Russian motives, which aren't Western ones. On Syria, Putin's overarching aim is to boost Moscow's role in the world by obstructing Western action.

Hoping the Kremlin will use its influence on the Syrian regime to negotiate a political solution is less than productive because it increases Russia's ability to do the opposite by boosting its importance. President Obama's Russia reset policy was a laudable attempt to overcome Moscow's view of foreign policy as a zero-sum game: What's good for you is bad for me and vice-versa.

Although the reset is often mischaracterized as having promised to deliver concrete results – it did deliver some – more now is clearly needed because the reset failed to do enough. Unfortunately that means playing a game Russia would understand – being tough when necessary, not allowing Putin to score cheap political points such as promising to decommission Syria's chemical weapons – because it reinforces the Kremlin's sense that the way it acts now is working and should be kept up.

RD: Do you see any weaknesses in American scholars’ and academics’ understanding of Russia nowadays? What are they? Can your book help overcome them?

G.F.: There are many perceptive scholars of Russian affairs. The trouble is transferring our scholarly knowledge into the collective consciousness. That's difficult to do when Putin has become a caricature of a megalomaniacal authoritarian. In fact, he's a brilliant student of traditional Russian political culture whose power is nevertheless grounded in old traditions and popular behavior. I hope my book is useful for making a more complicated understanding of Russia accessible to general readers.

RD: What are the advantages of American scholars and academics that can help them understand Russia? Why and how can your book be helpful for Russian journalists and politicians?

G.F.: If Westerners tend to misunderstand Russia, the opposite is also true. I find Russians often believe the rest of the world functions much like it does at home, where corruption isn't just an unfortunate development that can be tackled, but central to society's functioning.

When Western newspapers publish stories critical of Putin, for instance, Russians sometimes believe they're ordered by the White House because that's how things are done in Russia. I hope highlighting the differences proves helpful for minimizing some of that misunderstanding.

RD: You have Russian origins. How did that help you write this book?

G.F.: My mother's Russian and my father is an American journalist who spent years writing about the Soviet Union. Of course growing up speaking Russian has helped me understand the Russian culture in a way I otherwise wouldn't have. Being an outsider who sometimes passes for an insider has helped me see Russia close up while being able to critique it in a way a native normally wouldn't.

RD: When did you first visit Russia, and what was your impression? Did it change after writing this book?

G.F.: I first visited Russia during a summer off from college in 1991, when I witnessed the failed coup d'etat against Mikhail Gorbachev. My impression of it was a place with a terrible recent history that was embarking on what promised to be a new era of international integration. My book is partly an explanation of why that didn't happen. If anything, writing it has helped me solidify my understanding of the larger forces influencing Russian behavior.

RD: What impact did the book have on you in other ways?

G.F.: It was a pleasure writing it because it enabled me to bring together various sources – my own reportage, my family history, my studies of history and culture – for explaining a single thesis about Russia. That's helped me appreciate just how complex and interesting a place it is.

Some of the things I love about the country – besides the often relaxed and intimate behavior of its people, the banya and vodka, to name a few – are the paradoxes and contradictions of Russian life. The huge wealth of resources and vast poverty, the warmth of private life compared to the public hazards.

I believe trying to come to terms with such contradictions has helped fuel tremendous creativity in art and other endeavors. Russia's intellectual life and the sheer drive of its people – just getting by in pulsing, seething Moscow is difficult enough – makes it a place that feels more alive than many Western countries.

RD: From the point of view of national character, what brings Russians and Americans together? What similarities and differences do we have?

G.F.: I agree with the widespread belief that Russians and Americans share many outward qualities, including their informality, hospitality and, sometimes, ingenuity. However, the two cultures are otherwise vastly different partly because Americans are part of European culture in a way Russians aren't. Ideas from the Enlightenment and Renaissance seeped into Russia much later and were often changed to suit the traditional needs of its leaders. The ability to adapt Western influences has helped preserve continuity and maintain stability against great odds, and reinforce a unique national character.

RD: According to the abstracts to your book, Russians are “a people who will continue challenging the West for the foreseeable future.” Are Russians inclined to challenge the West? Why? Are we not meant to be partners?

G.F.: Although I don't see signs that Russia will fundamentally change in the foreseeable future, that doesn't mean I believe it's fated to remain the way it is. As I've said, there are very practical reasons for Russian behavior and there's no reason they can't change under the right conditions.

That almost happened in the 1990s, when the country westernized to an unprecedented degree under Boris Yeltsin. For the first time in centuries, Moscow stopped ruling the regions through coercion, for instance.

Instead, the government bargained with the provinces over fiscal policy: taxes and federal budgets. That was a fundamental change Putin ended when a series of chances – economic crisis, Yeltsin's drinking and poor health and growing popular resentment toward the West – helped bring him to power.

Once installed, he amassed his huge powers by reactivating the traditional political culture. Changing it will require more than a new leader, but a transformation in the general behavior and attitudes I've mentioned.