Narrative Management On Ukraine At My Alma Mater

About a zillion years ago, I earned a history degree from Bowdoin College. I was a scholarship student and incurred some debt, but the price of a college education had not yet climbed into the stratosphere (currently $78,300 per annum). 

Today I live in another part of Maine but I often go to Brunswick to vigil for peace near my old campus. Yesterday, I attended the third in a series of talks on Ukraine.

Sponsored by the college’s Russian Department the lecture was, as advertised, an opportunity to bash the Russian Federation. Although I did not attend the first two lectures in the series, several friends did and reported back on delivery of a seamless CIA narrative on Ukraine (seamless except for my friends’ comments during Q & A that is). 

On November 18, I had a letter to the editor published in the student paper The Orient on the problem of one-sided information control at a liberal arts college:

I see the college is hosting a series of lectures on Russia-Ukraine, the first of which was already held (virtually) on October 27 when Ukrainian scholar Nataliya Shpylova-Saeed delivered “Russia’s War On Ukraine: Culture, Memory, Politics.”

I missed the lecture, so I can’t be sure how much the Orient’s coverage omitted, but I was troubled by Shpylova-Saeed’s neglect of historical context. She is quoted as saying, “There was very little understanding of what Ukraine was back in 2014,” but I doubt that she is unaware of the CIA’s involvement in a coup that year overthrowing Ukraine’s elected government. That event is well-documented, including the involvement of the U.S., and led directly to the civil war in which tens of thousands died prior to 2022. One may disagree with Russia’s entry into the conflict or argue about its motivations, but to ignore the context entirely while focusing on the “big man theory” that “bad Putin” is responsible for all of the death and suffering in Ukraine is silly.

Noting that two more lectures are planned in this series, dare I hope that more informed and balanced views will be shared on November 17 and December 1, perhaps by people who have read the RAND Corporation’s report from 2019, “Overextending and Unbalancing Russia: Assessing the Impact of Cost-Imposing Options.

Ironically, Senior Lecturer in Russian Reed Johnson was quoted as saying of the lecture series, “[we] feel very strongly about the importance of talking and teaching about these events so there’s a better understanding of that context, how we got here.”

May it be so.

Last night’s lecture was similarly disappointing. 

Leon Kogan, a Boston College lecturer, titled his talk “Blame it on Pushkin: Rethinking Russian Culture During the War in Ukraine.” The textual  focus was a recent poem by Andrey Orlov, “I’ve read to the middle the list of ships,” which Kogan read in Russian while projecting his own translated version in English. (I would love to give you a link to the poem, but I am unable to find one.)

The poet had employed a ships metaphor assigning various (all male) cultural heroes of Russia such as Pushkin, Dostoevsky, et al. and some cultural icons like ballet, to indict Russian imperialism. Kogan deconstructed the poem for us and introduced a related concept from  Hannah Arendt about the responsibility of even passive people for the crimes of their empire.

I thought this was highly relevant to those of us sitting in the largest empire on the planet.

My comment to that effect was scoffed at by Kogan.

Two of my friends offered context on the notion of Russia’s alleged imperial designs i.e. the CIA-sponsored coup in Ukraine in 2014, and relentless NATO expansion since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Predictably, these truths were characterized as “conspiracy theories.”

One of my friends distributed a Ukraine issue of Peace & Planet News that we’d brought along. He was warned by a Bowdoin professor that he was “abusing the privilege” of attending the lecture series. “Aren’t they public meetings?” he asked the prof. “They are for now,” she replied. 

(This suggests that Bowdoin may go the direction of nearby Bath Iron Works which has steadily restricted access to their public events over the years in response to our truth telling there.)

As an alumna I could probably still wangle an invite. It’s worth the effort because my audience is not a visiting lecturer who’s busy kissing the NATO ring. 

Cherishing the hope that I had helped introduce a glimmer of doubt about the prevailing narrative in the minds of even one of the students who were present, I went home satisfied.