The above line is adapted from the title of a poem by Agha Shahid Ali, “I See Chile from My Rear View Mirror.” I heard him read the poem years ago at a Westminster Poetry Series reading; while he was hopelessly drunk by the time he got to this poem, he read it with feeling. The poem involves, among other things, the overthrow of Salvador Allende and the subsequent nearly twenty-year rule of the military dictator Pinochet: the imprisonments, the torture, the unjustified arrests.
empties Santiago; he watches
--from a hush of windows--blindfolded men
blurred in gleaming vans.
The poem ends with the line,
The waters darken. The continent vanishes.
So what does this have to do with Russia? Everything. Last week I thought I had it figured out: relations between Russia and the West had thawed, life is better there now, things are easier.
In an odd way, the fear I had of Russia as a child has re-emerged: the country in many ways is as repressive as it was during the Stalinist era, even during the feudal ages. Most Russians struggle to make any kind of living, to have the basic necessities of life, while the Gazprom executives (the oil magnate billionaires) and the ruling politicians live in unimaginable luxury. Sort of like the 1% here and the rest of us, only much worse—“the rest of us” in Russia have very little.
This past Friday night we were invited to a dinner hosted by three Russians, our friend Tamara of last week’s blog; her student O., a mathematical climate genius; and O.’s wife I., who was a doctoral candidate in climate research in St. Petersburg. Tamara wanted to thank us for the Moab tour, but, more importantly, she wanted us to meet O. and I. They prepared a meal of traditional Russian foods: a thin soup of potatoes and vegetables, a very spicy carrot salad, a tomato and red paper salad, potatoes with head cheese, caviar on black bread, and blini (thin pancakes rolled up around sour cream and jam—very delicious). We ate and talked; O. had good English, I. some English, and Tamara very limited English. Again, I only have 20 words of Russian. Toward the end of the evening, the conversation turned to a discussion of life in Russia today.
Ivan explained that after the end of the Cold War, most Russians believed that daily life would improve in their country: they would begin to acquire the material things that most middle-class Westerners take for granted. But when after a generation this did not happen, Russians became cynical and disillusioned. Today a mafia that came primarily from the KGB controls most of the country while the average Russian struggles to scrape by. His own mother is a doctor and works endless hours for very little pay. The educational system is, according to our 3 hosts, a disaster.
“Russian professors and researches cheat,” O. announced, his thick black glasses slightly lowered below his brows.
We understood the sentence but not its meaning. He went on to explain that there are no external controls on research within Russian institutions. It is not necessary to verify one’s data before releasing the results. For example, a director of a Russian research institute publishes her/his own journal. He selects who will publish in a journal, usually among his colleagues and students. In the international community, when someone wants to publish research, that someone submits the article to what is called a peer-reviewed journal (with no name attached). The anonymous article goes to two or three experts in that particular field, who review it. They either accept it, accept it pending revisions, or reject it. I have been through this process numerous times myself with my articles and books on Henry James, with all three of those possible outcomes happening. I do know that while the process takes months or even longer, the laborious method guarantees that the author’s data and conclusions have a high degree of validity. Authorities, with no personal ties to the author, make sure that the research is legitimate.
This does not happen in Russia. In the vast majority of cases, scientific and other articles are published without any validation. While they may be revised for style and grammar, no one checks the facts. Thus, as O. announced, Russian researchers cheat.
Then the conversation took a turn neither Bill nor I would have ever expected. The following information I am reporting is true in its outlines. Some of the details as to the timing of the events may be off, though, as we both had trouble understanding some of what I. told us. She spoke with emotion and not a little fear. She is tall and slender, with a pretty face and long dark hair tied behind her head in a ponytail.
I. looks at deep layers of sediment in the Arctic oceans, trying to track what climate change might be doing to sea life of all kinds. She conducts her field research from various ships. Recently she accompanied an American expedition to the Chukchi Sea, which lies within the Arctic sea between Russia and Alaska. It must have been an amazing trip: she recounted seeing a mother polar bear with her baby along the way.
When she presented a paper detailing some of her findings at a conference in St. Petersburg afterwards, though, colleagues from her own department accused her of “sharing secrets” with Americans. What possibly could be political about doing research involving climate change? Bill later explained that there can be valuable mineral deposits in the deep sediments, for example manganese nodes, that Russia would want to keep for itself.
Obviously I. is a very talented woman, as in the meantime she had been invited to Maryland to work on her projects in the fall of 2013.
Back in St. Petersburg, though, her fellow professors had another surprise in store for her. She had finished her dissertation and was ready to defend it, but abruptly her committee cancelled her defense. No explanations, no defense.
But worse, accusations came: she was a spy and she could go to prison for an indeterminate length of time. At one point as she talked I heard, “CIA.” She had been accused of collaborating with Americans to steal Russian secrets. She would have no recourse in the current Russian system. If there were a trial, it would be heavily weighted toward the university. We are not even sure if there would even be a trial, let alone a lawyer.
She has not been back to Russia since these accusations surfaced, and she married O. in Las Vegas before Christmas. (They could not marry in Utah because they are not citizens—go figure. Let’s not even get started on who can get married in Utah and who can’t!). But they are legally married and now can begin their application for a green card, O. applying as he is employed in the country with very good prospects of further work at universities. Evidently he is considered to be brilliant in his field, with fellowships in Cambridge, Germany, etc. They need ten letters of recommendation for the green card, and we will each write one for them.
So, not only do Russian researchers and professors cheat, they can send one another to prison at will. While my English department had serious feuds over my twenty-five plus years as an academic, no one ever tried to send an enemy to prison. Bill and I both suspect that her Russian colleagues were jealous of I., who also seems to have quite an international reputation for someone so young (27?). She had received international grants and attention, and her work was going well. Since it is probably impossible for some of her colleagues to achieve her success, particularly if they have come through a system where there is little oversight of their work, it would be easier to get rid of her. No, not refuse her tenure or fail her at her dissertation defense, imprison her.
She is afraid to go home.
So, that is what I have earned about Russia this month. I don’t want to go there, either. I hope that things work out for this young couple; they will be assets here, as we try to deal with the burgeoning effects of global warming. What insanity, for a country with as much natural wealth as Russia to lock up the very people who might bring about such positive things for Russia—and the entire planet.