Friday, 3 May 2013

Review: Karen Hewitt – Russia Today at BRLSI

Published in 'Thunk Magazine' 

In 1990, Karen Hewitt founded Perspective Publications in Russia because she feared that ‘the dream of Western literature being opened up at last to Soviet citizens was all too rapidly turning into the reality of massed piles of third-rate thrillers, pornography and books about how to make millions of dollars.’
Hewitt established academic connections between the Russian town Perm and Oxford by travelling there extensively for the last 24 years and setting up her own publishing company. Perm is situated in the region of the Ural mountains. As the Urals divide Europe from Asia, she stresses just how vast the difference between these two parts of Russia is. Therefore it is difficult to generalise, but on the whole she describes four very different generations living in Russia today: those who had reached 18 by the late Soviet period; during Perestroika; during Boris Yeltsin’s rule; and finally, those who were 18 by the time Putin came to power.

She explains that a strange a sense of nostalgia exists in those who wouldn’t like to bring back the USSR, but recognized that many things worked better for them, such as the free education, perks for pensioners and the free health service. She also outlines the contrast between the Western and the Russian view of Mikhail Gorbachev. The West remembers him as the man who ended the Cold War. For Russians, he was responsible for the chaos, economic ruin and the collapse of their country.

While the West saw it as a time of liberation and democracy, Russians remember it as a ‘time of horrors’ because the collapse of the Communist Party lead to the collapse of the country’s infrastructure, taking with it jobs in schools, factories and farms. ‘The Russian people at the time had the healthiest organic diet,’ said Hewitt, consisting of the vegetables grown in their back gardens, due to the hyper inflation. Furthermore, lots of men died prematurely at this time of heart attacks and alcoholism. Oligarchs were able to usurp wealth and power until Putin essentially sorted them out.

Hewitt adapts a much more positive view of Putin than the Western press, who seem to regard him as a man to be feared. She believes that rather than thinking of him as a KGB officer, he should be viewed as ‘a policeman’ used to dealing with criminals and who expects order. He forced the oligarchs to pay taxes and comply with certain rules, if they wanted to keep their wealth, forbidding their interferience with his idea of politics. However, Hewitt believes Putin’s determination to extend his reign will be his downfall, but also acknowledges that most of the Russian population would still vote to keep him in power. Footage, in the Western press, of protests against him, are generally conducted by a small minority of Muscovites. One of Putin’s biggest challenges, Hewitt mentions, is overcoming the confusion as to what political system should be adopted in Russia, if the previous two (the USSR state and Free Market of the 90s) both failed with horrendous consequences.

Hewitt concluded her talk by expressing a hope that the young generation will understand the full picture of Western Capitalism, and that, as opposed to students simply gaining a degree to make themselves wealthier, they should remember that the old USSR also promoted some good values, such as comradeship and pride in your country.

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