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Yale 62

Banned for Life from the Russian Federation
By S. Frederick Starr

Dear Volodya (if I may),

Thank you for including me among the latest list of twenty-five Americans sanctioned by your government. I have been on many lists but I was gobsmacked when they told me that I had made a list that included five members of the U.S. Senate, the heads of federal agencies, and (gasp) Sean Penn and Ben Stiller. What is this list, I asked? Why, they replied, it names twenty-five Americans who will be banned for life from the Russian Federation. I immediately swept a lifetime’s worth of awards and trophies from my mantlepiece and replaced them with a placard reading “Banned for Life from the Russian Federation.” One question, however: does this refer to my lifetime or yours?

Does this honor come with a plaque, or perhaps a lambskin scroll? Do not trouble yourself to frame it, for I have a good frame shop just around the corner, run by an old Ukrainian. When I told him the news he sadly shook his head and said, “I hope that one day I, too, might receive such an honor.”

Lest my salutation seem too familiar, let me remind you that we spent interesting hours together when you were working in St. Petersburg as Mayor Sobchak’s assistant. I knew the city well, having spent a year and a half there myself. I was therefore the more pleased at your generosity in sharing many pieces of gossip about your boss and other prominent local figures, especially members of the city council. Some of it was quite juicy, and I admired your gusto as a storyteller.

Your office back then was in a tsarist palace where the “Great Reforms” of the nineteenth century were planned. These occurred after Tsar Nicholas I’s army failed miserably in the Crimean War and the country demanded change. Does this sound familiar? The resulting reforms were the subject of my first book on Russia. In it I showed how a new tsar, Alexander II, responded to the Crimea disaster by developing institutions of local self-government that earned the backing of great figures like Tolstoy and Chekhov. Do you not face the same situation today? I realize that you believe that any movement in this direction would lead to Russia’s collapse. But I would have welcomed the chance to persuade you otherwise.

Please don’t worry that I might find the travel ban inconvenient. I have been fortunate to have spent many years in your country, first as a student, then as founding director of the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies, and also in connection with research on my nine books on your country. Besides, since I am eighty-two years old, my travel days are winding down anyway.

I nonetheless regret not being able to visit the Siberian city of Magadan, the heart of the Gulag Archipelago, where tens of thousands of citizens of the USSR perished, but where a great Soviet jazz band existed in the 1940s, thanks to the camp’s swinging commandant. If I can’t go there myself, perhaps your assistant can send me the film about Magadan produced by the Memorial Society before your government closed it down.

I shall also regret not being able to visit the stunning cylindrical Moscow home of the great Russian architect Konstantin Melnikov, which has recently been preserved as a museum. As I wrote in my biography of that great avant-gardist (which the new museum is publishing in Russian), this bold statement of individualism in architecture was erected back in 1927, before the Soviet government suppressed its innovating designer.

Were I able to visit your country, I would also want to express my condolences to a man purported to be your friend, Alexander Dugin. I refer, of course, to the recent death of his daughter. Back in 2006 Mr. Dugin was my guest in Washington for a week. I invited him because he had gained prominence among your military, but Americans knew nothing about him. While our many conversations were cordial, he left the universal impression in official Washington that he was a madman and that anyone who believed his bombast must also be one.

Politics aside, I hope that those responsible for this murder will be punished. Some Russians claiming to be your friends have even asserted that your Federal Security Bureau had nothing to do with this act. Pay no attention to this rumor. These slanderers want to deny you credit for an action they consider commendable. Be assured that many in the West know better.

I assume that the honor you conferred on me arose from your reading Putin’s Grand Strategy, a book that I edited with my colleague Svante E. Cornell, or perhaps by our The Guns of August 2008: Russia’s War in Georgia. I invite you also to read my less time-bound works, especially the Russian edition of my book, Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age. This tells about the millennia-old heritage of a region that is rediscovering its identity after almost losing it during more than a century under Russian rule. I’m told that your friend, oligarch Alisher Usmanov, an ethnic Uzbek, was so enthralled by the story that he ordered for his copy to gold-bound and ornately ornamented. Perhaps he’d loan to you.

What will be the impact of the honor you have conferred on me and twenty-four other Americans, and of the unanimous spirit with which we have all received it? I would be most grateful for your thoughts on this matter. But since you are so busy and because we have heard reports on your flagging health, perhaps you should ask Sergei Lavrov to convey them to us. We all thank him for so faithfully presenting your thinking to the entire world.

Yours sincerely,
Fred

S. Frederick Starr Chairman, Central Asia-Caucasus Institute American Foreign Policy Council

 

We welcome your comments below.

10 comments to Banned for Life from the Russian Federation

  • D. Floyd Russell

    Hmmm … a thank you note with just a touch of sarcasm!

  • Breaux Castleman

    Fred – what an interesting life! And the friends you made along the way. And the “award.” Well, it is a form of recognition of the impact of a virtual lifetime of study and writing. And you seem to have accepted it for that reason. Bully for you. Nice to hear about you after all these years.

  • Neal Freeman

    I’m with Putin on this one, Fred. You have been consistent and truthful. Of course he should have banned you. Now, can you do something about Iran?

  • A delightful read. Perfect response given Czar Putin’s Russia.

  • Ken Merkey

    Started traveling to Russia just after the wall came down. Spent a lot of time in Khanty Mansisyk. The local oil guys loved Americans and hated anyone from Moscow. (Not dissimilar to folks in the provinces of France who hate Parisians.) Not sure that I would ever go back. Were it not for Putin, it would be a great country.

  • charles merlis

    Fred, it seems you have richly deserved this honor, and I congratulate you. I wonder if you have thrown salt on Putin’s Russian wounds by advocating for America’s continued military support of Ukraine and maybe using some of our advanced weaponry on Military targets within Russia that is being used to attack Ukraine’s infrastructure.

  • Norman Jackson

    Mmmwhaahahahaha! Superb.

  • Peter Cassar Torreggiani

    Thanks for this. I’m struck by your remark below about Russian fear of self implosion, which I have come across before, but am still seeking to understand.

    “Your office back then was in a tsarist palace where the “Great Reforms” of the nineteenth century were planned. These occurred after Tsar Nicholas I’s army failed miserably in the Crimean War and the country demanded change. Does this sound familiar? The resulting reforms were the subject of my first book on Russia. In it I showed how a new tsar, Alexander II, responded to the Crimea disaster by developing institutions of local self-government that earned the backing of great figures like Tolstoy and Chekhov. Do you not face the same situation today? I realize that you believe that any movement in this direction would lead to Russia’s collapse. But I would have welcomed the chance to persuade you otherwise.

    Can you still help persuade him otherwise, perhaps to have Lavrov sit down to help draft an inalienable rights of nations binding declaration? The acid test must surely be the Israeli relationship with Palestinians.

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