(This is an unpublished piece I wrote last fall after the final presidential debate but before the election. I have added two brief notes here to reflect the outcome.)
As a long time observer of U.S.-Russia relations, I can say that this presidential election has been particularly disturbing to me as I watch those relations deteriorate.
I remember getting my first absentee voting ballot while living here in Moscow in 2004. I actually printed out the transcripts of the presidential debates between Kerry and Bush in order to cast a more informed vote. Technology is more advanced now and I’m able follow the news on my iPhone daily as I commute.
I still make it a point to watch or read the debates for myself first, before being exposed to countless opinions telling me what I should think about what was said. After watching the final presidential debate, I felt that sharing my perspective might be of value to some. During that debate, Hillary Clinton said herself that getting Donald Trump to clarify his position on Russia was “the most important question of this evening.”
I got a glimpse of Russia before Putin came to power when I first came here 1999. Tensions between our two countries were running high due to the U.S. actions in Yugoslavia. I spent that first summer in Smolensk, a city on the beautiful Dnepr river near Russia’s western border. I was impressed by the quiet strength and will of the people, who were in the middle of overcoming the challenges caused by the most recent banking crisis. I remember talking to a nurse who told me that she and the other hospital workers had been working for months without pay so that people wouldn’t die. This was very different from the sheltered world I had grown up in in the U.S.
Since then, many things have happened to affect the way Russians and Americans view themselves, their country and their leaders. Olympics have come and gone. So have presidents, although Putin came back. There is conflict with Ukraine. There have been terrorist attacks, both here and in the U.S. I have accompanied groups of Russian students to Ground Zero in New York City. I remember the day a bomb exploded in the metro line I take here, killing 41 and injuring hundreds. Beyond that, I get emotional just hearing the words Beslan and Nord-Ost’.
It is worth noting that the first leader to call the U.S. president after 9/11 to offer condolences and support was Putin. When the U.S. entered Afghanistan, Russian support was invaluable. When the U.S. prepared to invade Iraq, Russia and France cautioned against the decision. At the time, France took the brunt of American criticism for cowardliness with the absurd “Freedom fries” movement. That Iraq was a mistake is now recognized by all parties, whether they now admit to feeling that way at the time or not.
I have seen Russians participating in their local elections many times. Yes, national security is a concern but as boring as this might sound, the average Russian is more interested in schools, roads, healthcare and jobs, much like Americans. Unlike Americans, most Russians seem to be pretty happy with the job their president is doing.
The absurd circus of Russians and Americans failing to make sense out of each other really struck me recently on a live talk show on one of Russia’s State controlled TV channels. They showed a clip of Hillary Clinton’s appearance on ‘Between Two Ferns’ with Zach Galifianakis. Although the translation was accurate, the humor was lost on the Russian studio audience, who shouted down the lone American trying to explain that it was comedy.
Unfortunately, in many parts of the world the U.S. has a reputation for abusing its role as the lone superpower by being uncompromising and unapologetic. It’s hard to imagine us overcoming that image by electing a billionaire who essentially embodies those traits. (Note: We elected him.)
If we as a people have so much trouble choosing our leaders, why should we expect the rest of the world to be happy with those whom our government has propped up through regime change? There’s a strong case to be made that the U.S. and Russia should be working more closely together to ensure peace and stability in the world.
During this election cycle, it occurred to me that all of my grandparents, and great-grandparents for that matter, were born into a United States that did not even allow women the right to vote. Both of my grandmothers were small girls in 1920 when congress passed the amendment ensuring them that right. I find this significant as there’s a good chance, for better or worse, that our next president will be a woman. (Note: We didn’t elect her.)
Russia will be a different country within a generation. So will the U.S. The foundation for future mutual trust and cooperation between our countries has been much eroded during this election by candidates playing the so-called ‘Russian card’ for short term political gain. Simply put, complimenting Putin loses votes. Whatever reasons my fellow Americans have for voting for the candidate of their choice, fear of Russia should not dictate how they vote.
This week I got my 2016 absentee ballot. I will vote. Regardless of who wins the election, I will continue to work from where I stand towards more mutual understanding between our two countries with hope for a brighter future. In a democracy, not everything depends on the president.