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Oles on the Election

Watching from afar: American elections as seen from Russia

By Griffin Edwards October 19, 2016

Originally published on the Star Tribune Blog.

I’ve been asked a few times to write a post for “Oles on the Election” about how Russians view the American election. At first, I was hesitant: most of the Russians I’ve spoken with about American- or even international or Russian- politics respond with the conversational equivalent of a resigned, if disillusioned, shrug. But after reading Alex Betley’s analysis of Danes’ opinions, I felt that giving an account of Russian attitudes would be both timely and interesting, especially as tensions heat up between “us and them.”

I should note that I’m far from the globalist glamor of St. Petersburg or Moscow- here in Veliky Novgorod, Russians and foreigners come together to tour some of the 99 churches and admire a UNESCO-world-heritage-site kremlin, not make international peace or trade deals. And, disclaimer, I can’t speak for all Russians: in a country of about 150 million, with 160 individual ethnic groups, that would be impossible. I can only give my perspective as an international student in a Russian university. But I’ll try to paint a picture of what Russians might think about the election, and what’s at stake from a Russian point of view, without using brushstrokes that are too broad.

The Democrat nominee has already had a fair amount of contact with the Kremlin. When Hillary Clinton first became Secretary of State in 2009, she presented Russian officials with a red “reset” button to represent a new era of Russian-American cooperation. However, due to a minor translation error (and Russia’s unforgiving spelling rules), the word printed on the button in large, bold letters read “overdrive” instead of “reset”.

I share this story not only because it gives me comfort- if even the greatest international agency in the world gets Russian translation wrong sometimes, maybe I’m not doing so bad myself- but also because I think it exemplifies US-Russia relations over the past eight years: well-intentioned, but often missing the mark. Actions ranging from American and Russian interventions in Syria to sanctions imposed in the wake of the Ukraine conflict to military exercises performed in and around the Baltic States have only raised tensions with between the nations, making Russian citizens and officials alike wary of American foreign policy.

Unfortunately, Hillary Clinton has largely been the face of these decisions, so when Russians are frustrated at America’s involvement in Syria, she’s the one to blame. And perhaps rightly so: if Russia were to support a rebel army (or multiple) in a nearby US ally’s territory (let’s say, Costa Rica), wouldn’t we be a little angry?

But tensions didn’t really flare up to their current point- a level many pundits have declared to be the highest since the Cold War- until Clinton blamed the DNC email leaks on Russian hackers. Putin’s response has been to denounce Clinton’s “Russophobia” for the sake of protecting Russian communities both in the US and elsewhere. Clinton’s saving grace to Russians, as to Americans, is her experience: she may not be perfect, but she’s professional and knows how to handle power.

But that doesn’t mean Russians have dismissed Trump altogether either. In some ways, he shares a lot in common with Russian elected officials- a wealthy businessman with lots of political connections. That’s a valuable point compared to Clinton, whose policies, demeanor, and gender affiliate her with Germany’s Merkel and other female European leaders, seen as responsible for Russia’s current economic slowdown. However, because he lacks the political experience, clout, and professionalism of Clinton, he isn’t perfect either. For all his assertions that he and Putin would be best buds, many Russians find him too sour to stomach. Some even liken him to the businessman-politician oligarchs of the post-Soviet period. He may be a man with a microphone and a suit, but that does not a successful politician make.

Russians and Americans both view the election with distaste: both candidates leave something to be desired. But maybe one is better than the other? Explaining the wild card of third parties is tough in English, but even tougher in Russian: when trying to talk about my candidate of choice, Gary Johnson, I’m met with blank stares and, “I thought you only had two parties?”. Apparently Russian news media doesn’t do third parties much justice either.

What, then, about rising tensions? What’s the way out? Who might be the better candidate to avoid some sort of boiling over?

Trump’s rhetoric is certainly conducive to a pro-war conservative. His unprofessional attitude and boisterous, unapologetic demeanor could easily cause an international incident. But under Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy direction the United States bombed multiple countries without a single official declaration of war from Congress; that is, illegally. Truly, there is no anti-war candidate in either major party.

Last summer in Moscow I enjoyed coffee and blini with three other St. Olaf students, our professor, and a theater actor. We asked him about Russian-American relations, and his response has given me hope ever since. “People don’t make war; governments do.”

The study of international relations often praises the work of organizations like IMF, UNICEF, ICRC, MSF, and other acronyms. But this overlooks the power of individual relationships and connections that easily trump nationalistic fervor. In my experience, Russians have been friendly and interested to learn about life in America, just as we are friendly (I hope) and interested about life in Russia. If anything, today’s technological advances have made the world a more neighborly place, no matter how much politicians- both in America and Russia- wish otherwise.

Special thanks to Sarah Bauer and Anna Perkins for their editorial expertise.

About the Author

Griffin Edwards is a St. Olaf senior from Encinitas, CA, majoring in Russian language and international development. He is currently studying abroad in Veliky Novgorod, Russia.