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How Russia's history informs its present and future

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Michael Hemesath, Nick Hayes and Gary Eichten.
(From left) Michael Hemesath, Nick Hayes and Gary Eichten recently discussed the legacy of the Russian Revolution and its impact on Russia's role in the world today.
Courtesy of St. John's University

Two Russia experts from St. John's University explore what have we learned about politics, economics and history in light of the Soviet experiment, and discuss Russia's role in the world today.

Since the Soviet Union crumbled, Americans thought Gorbachev and Yeltsin were the most popular leaders and now wonder why Russians keep Putin in power.

Professor Hayes said Vladimir Putin "enjoys a strong popularity in Russian society, and we have to come to grips with it." Hayes believes Putin would have been resoundingly re-elected even without holding an election that most have said was only cosmetically democratic.

President Vladimir Putin meets with the media at campaign headquarters.
President Vladimir Putin meets with the media at his campaign headquarters in Moscow on March 18, 2018.
Sergei Chirikov | AFP | Getty Images

When the Berlin Wall fell, and communism fell, Hayes said the movements in Russia and eastern Europe "weren't all aspiring to democracy, or if they were, they had a very limited notion of what it entailed." He added, "the driving force was nationalism."

"I don't think we properly understood the mentality of the anti-communist leaders of the time as to what their longer agenda, or their view towards domestic politics, would have been."

Hayes said Gorbachev often spoke to "our common European home, about being a participating great power in the European context." But, he said, "in recent years, Putin has driven it in a different direction, increasingly speaking of Russia as part of Eurasia."

Michael Hemesath discussed Russia's economic past and future, and said Russia has "wasted" twenty years. Russia is "an important big middle income ecoonomy, but I don't see them being a world power going forward, and their 'playing footsie' with China isn't going to change that," he said.

Nick Hayes is University Chair of Critical Thinking at St. John's University and is writing a book about his many visits to Russia and how it has changed over the years.

Michael Hemesath is president of St. John's University. A Harvard-trained economist, he has directed study-abroad programs in Russia and Ukraine. 

Gary Eichten moderated the event held March 26, 2018 at the Museum of Russian Art in Minneapolis. He was a longtime host at Minnesota Public Radio and retired in 2012.

To listen to the discussion, click the audio player above.