November 7, 2017— Marvin Kalb, distinguished journalist, author, and the founding director of the Shorenstein Center, discussed President Vladimir Putin and his relationship with President Donald Trump, Russian involvement in the U.S. election, and more during a visit to the Shorenstein Center.
Kalb also shared some of his experiences living and working in Russia following Stalin’s death in his new book, The Year I Was Peter the Great: 1956—Khruschev, Stalin’s Ghost, and a Young American in Russia, included in the full audio recording. Below are some highlights and the audio from Kalb’s conversation with Shorenstein Center Director Nicco Mele. The Shorenstein Center’s podcast is also available on iTunes, Google Play, iHeartRadio, and Stitcher.
Putin is frightened by one thing more than any other, and that is an uprising in the streets.
“Putin is frightened by one thing more than any other, and that is an uprising in the streets. When the people speak, he quakes. He’s a very nervous man. This goes back to the time when he was a colonel in the KGB based in Dresden, Germany, and the mobs in 1989 I believe, came storming into KGB headquarters and he was very frightened—he writes about this, by the way, in his own book…he said he called KGB headquarters in East Berlin and no one picked up the phone. So he called KGB headquarters in Moscow, which a colonel would not normally do, and no one picked up the phone. And he says he made up his mind right then and there that that would never happen again. The idea of the people taking control of an autocratic state under his authority was something he could not tolerate.”
“For a couple of years now, in answer to questions by reporters about how will you celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, he began to make answers suggesting he’s not going to celebrate it at all. And after a while it became clear why: Because that was a revolution where lots of people got into the street objecting to the czarist government. If he celebrates that idea, why can’t people go into the streets today?”
Russian involvement in the U.S. election
“I think we have inadequate information about what’s going on, that’s number one. Number two, a lot is going on where there are Russian fingerprints on some of it but not all of it, so there’s a lot going on that may involve other people as well. So if you have other people involved, who are they and what’s their purpose? And then isolate that and ask what is the Russian purpose? “
“The Russian purpose at this time is to make trouble in the West, yes, but that’s a dangerous thing. I don’t believe that Putin wants a war, I don’t think that he even wants a return to the Cold War. I think he would like to get his way in the use of cyber warfare as best he can, but I think he’s a very cautious man, and as I said, I think he’s a frightened man. So I have a feeling that we’re over-reading the Russian angle on this, although maybe the CIA is onto it completely…I think we are in a period of intense technological revolutionary change, and in that moment, we don’t know ourselves exactly what is happening and we latch on to theories, and it’s clear that the government has latched on to the Russian theory. They may be absolutely right—but they may be wrong.”
Putin and Trump’s relationship
I think that Trump is caught up in something that he may not be able to control himself. He is riding a tiger who may turn around and eat him up.
“I think that Putin—this I have [heard] from a number of Russians, who were very close to Putin and now live abroad—what they say is that throughout the campaign, two things were very clear. One, Putin couldn’t stand Clinton, and was in fact fearful of the prospect of a Clinton presidency and what that would do to U.S.-Russian relations.”
“Second, he wants to make a deal, he wants to do something with the West, and he defines the West as the United States of America. What kind of a deal? There’s one deal that I have heard from these Russians, which makes sense to me, and that is that Putin thinks in long historical terms. What he would like to do, that would give him security at home and build up the image of Russia once again as a great nation, is to sit down with the president of the United States and look at the map of Europe and say, like in the old days, ‘this is mine, this is yours’…and you would have a Yalta II agreement, which is what the Russians, not jokingly, call it. Now whether that is absolutely accurate, I don’t know, but that’s what they talk about.”
“They say that in the Kremlin on election night, first they were stunned that Clinton lost. Putin was delighted that she lost, and tantalized with the prospect of Trump. Wasn’t he the guy who kept saying nice things about me? Wasn’t he the guy who was laying out prospects of a deal? And I like that, so maybe there’s something that we can do. And that expectation of a joyous honeymoon existed right through the early spring of this year, and now it is very, very chilly. That has been a complete turnaround, and the idea of a honeymoon is replaced by the prospect of a new Cold War, because he no longer trusts Trump—this is only what the Russians are telling me—that Trump has said things to him that he has not lived up to…I think that Trump is caught up in something that he may not be able to control himself. He is riding a tiger who may turn around and eat him up.”
Trump and the media
“I can tell you that on February 17 of this year, Donald Trump said something which had a very major effect on me, and my attitude toward journalism and my own role in it, and that was the time that in an email, Trump said that the American journalist was the enemy of the American people. I found that to be one of the most ugly, crossing of the red line kind of statements that an American president could say.”
“I am now literally in the opening phase of research for a book that I have to do about what effect Trump has had, not just on American journalism, but on American institutions, and my own feeling is that it has been negative. He doesn’t understand the institutions, he does not read…he never wrote the books that he wrote, he is not a man of intelligence and historical understanding. He’s not Harry Truman, who didn’t have a college degree but read constantly.”
“Trump is trying to tame the media. What he does is he cuts into it, he invalidates it, he makes fun of it, he demeans it, and if after a year or two or three, that attitude comes to be acceptable, comes to be seen as the norm, then if you want to take more vigorous action against the media, you can do it without the American people, or the media for that matter, rising up in opposition. So my own feeling is that we are witnessing a creeping authoritarianism coming into play.”
Article by Nilagia McCoy; photo by Allie Olympius.