On this episode, Dr. Bjorn Mercer talks to Dr. Jaclyn Fowler, Department Chair of APU’s English Department, about the Russo-Ukrainian War and how it compares to the way the Soviet Union was run during the Cold War.
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Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Hello, my name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer. And today we’re talking to Dr. Jackie Fowler, Department Chair in the School of Arts, Humanities and Education. And our conversation today is about Ukraine, communism, and writing. Welcome, Jackie.
Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: Hi Bjorn.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I’m happy to have you here. Your own story, your own biography, your own life, terribly fascinating. One of my favorite podcasts I ever did was about you in the Middle East. And so let me just key this off with, can you tell, tell us about your background in the USSR?
Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: So, it’s a great story. I was a kid from northeastern, Pennsylvania, small town, and the limit of my world was New Jersey and Maryland and Pennsylvania. I’d never been on a flight. I had never been far from home, but when I took my first set of courses in college, I took a course on the Nazi Resistance, and it was all about Ukraine’s resistance to Nazism. And, of course, then Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union. I was so blown away by the world I didn’t know that I changed my major from French to Russian, and I started to take International Politics focusing on the Soviet Union and history of the Soviet Union.
And about six months later, the Russian professor suggested I go study in the Soviet Union. And I came home, and I said to my father, “Hey, I can do this for free because of the tuition that I pay to the school. What do you think about me flying to the Soviet Union?” And my father had been daydream-traveling the “National Geographic” his whole life, so he said, yes, immediately. Now, I just want to say that years later, I finally cornered him on this and said, “I can’t believe you said yes to me going to the Soviet Union right away.” And he said, “I have six kids, one more or less, didn’t matter much.” And so, I was off flying to the Soviet Union and that was in 1987.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that is a great story because in 1987, I remember 1987, I remember growing up in a time when the Cold War still existed. I remember a time when I would hear a jet flying over and thinking, might that be an ICBM? And my dad being in the military, and I’ve said this before at a previous podcast, but I remember looking at the army field manual and looking at the nuclear charts, basically you die instantly within this many miles, you die within a few days of this many miles. And I remember just always reading that.
And having that paranoia, almost probably like the paranoia that people had in the ’50s, when it first started in the ’60s. I had that in the ’80s because of my direct connection to the military via my dad. And so, for people listening who maybe are a little younger, can you give a slight overview of the USSR and number one is an authoritarian government that had complete authority, not only over Russia, but also what we know now consider Ukraine and Belarus and Latvia, and Estonia and Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, and all these independent countries right now.
Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: Yeah. And not only did they have jurisdiction over the 15 satellite parts of the Soviet Union, but also they had the, what they called the Warsaw Pact. So, countries like Poland, for instance, were buffers between the Soviet Union and the West.
Of course, I studied all that, I knew where I was going, and I understood, in theory, what an authoritarian government was. But I think being sheltered in the upbringing that I was brought up in, my naivety, and perhaps my idealism, went out over my fear – or my paranoia – as you stated earlier. That changed quickly when we rolled from Finland into the Soviet Union and the soldiers boarded the train where we were. I had signed an agreement that I would not speak English, but I had only had less than a year of Russian. So, when the soldiers came up to me, carrying AK47s and were going through my bags with the tips of their guns and yelling at me in Russian, I understood much more quickly what I was about to do than any amount of classwork could prepare me for.
So, for instance, for those of you who have taken language, you can totally get the language and be able to speak the language and know vocabulary and be able to read and write – but until you adjust to the accent of anyone who is native to that language, you hardly understand anything. And so, in the very first hour that I entered the Soviet Union, I had a gun in my face and a soldier pushed me up against the wall of the train, asking for my “passport” [with Russian accent]. And I couldn’t understand what he was saying and what, “passport,” meant is passport. So as soon as I figured it out, I realized I was in trouble. I didn’t know how I was going to make it through the semester without being able to touch base with my parents. We weren’t allowed to call home. We weren’t allowed to go to the embassy without an appointment. I was by myself. I went without a single person that I knew or loved.
And what happens is you adjust really quickly to authoritarianism. You learn not to speak out; you learn to dress so that nobody takes notice to you; you learn to speak in a way that doesn’t draw attention to you; and you keep your eyes down. So here I was an American for most of my life, that was my training, and within a few hours, I knew how I was expected to behave in the Soviet Union, and I behaved that way. And whenever there was a moment where I may have forgotten something would happen to remind me,
For instance, we met a group of foreigners when we were in the Soviet Union. One was a person from the United States, and we went to a military museum with him. He stole a relic, like some kind of medal from World War II, and he was thrown in a Soviet prison, and they took his passport and shredded it. And so, he no longer was considered an American citizen in the Soviet Union. And he spent the better part of eight months in a prison before anyone saw him. So, we learned quickly what it meant to live in an authoritarian government.
And then after a little while, Bjorn, it became normal. It’s so weird how we adjust to things. So, I had Russian roommates that lived in the room with me, and it was an old tsar’s building, turned into a dorm. And it was the size of a hotel room. And there were six of us living in the hotel room, and we just adjusted. Everything became normal. Even my Russian roommates – from time-to-time – would be pulled out by the KGB, beaten for being with foreigners, and they would come back the next morning, happy to see us again. Because – for them – it was part of the price they paid to learn how to speak English. And for us, while it was tragic every time it happened to our friends, we also recognized it was the price they paid.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: It’s such a great story, and tragic story, and terrible story to think that happened thousands and millions of times to people throughout the history of the USSR – and happens today in other authoritarian countries. One of the things that I think we who live in the U.S. are completely detached from is our freedom and our safety. We live in a country, so unlike over there in Europe and Eastern Europe, where literally people who live in a country have been attacked, or they have invaded their neighbors for hundreds and hundreds of years. And so, the safety component of Europeans is completely different than we as U.S. people, U.S. people, as we as Americans, North Americans, we’re so safe that one of the things that I always get frustrated with is the political commentary or commentators here in the U.S. are always crying fascism and crying this or that. I’m like, y’all have no idea what it actually is to be in an authoritarian country.
Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: Well, and we’re lucky for that. There are though, I must say, hints of authoritarianism in this country. As you said, I spent time in the Middle East, which is also authoritarian, the country where I was. And so, I recognize the groundswell of authoritarianism in the U.S. right now. And so, while it is not like the time I spent in the Soviet Union or the time I spent in the United Arab Emirates, it is unsettling and it’s something that we need to be really careful about. But in Russia, and especially in the Soviet Union, when I was there, you began to doubt your own truth. This is the pure maniacal evil of an authoritarian country; You forget what is truth and what is not truth. You’re in a hermetically sealed country.
When I was in the Soviet Union, I couldn’t speak to my parents. I couldn’t speak to anyone outside the borders, I could write notes home, and maybe they would get there. Sometimes they showed up with all kinds of dark marks over it so my parents couldn’t read what was happening, but I couldn’t get any mail in. And so, what happens on the news and on the street, and, of course, then there was no social media, but today social media, you are not sure if what you read is true or not. And after a while, you forget what it is, you forget what truth is.
And so, it’s really important as Americans that we don’t look at Russian citizens today through the eyes of an American because they are, again, being hermetically sealed off from the rest of the world. And they are bombarded every single minute of every single day with what Putin wants them to believe. And after a while, you can’t remember what truth is anymore.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: That’s why the war in Ukraine is in a sense simple because Russia invaded you Ukraine. So, Ukrainians are defending themselves against an aggressor, full stop. But it’s so complex in the sense that the history is so long, that the history of NATO is so long, and the risk assessment of individual countries against each other is so diverse. And none of that apologizes for the invasion, not at all, but there’s so much that goes into those conflicts and so much history. And especially with Putin wanting to bring back the glories of Imperial Russia and not even Soviet Russia, he’s going back to [stating that] the Russian Empire “owned Ukraine for hundreds of years.” And then even then Ukraine was then part of different empires besides that.
Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: Yes. The Soviet Union wasn’t born whole cloth, the dictates of the Soviet regime didn’t come from the air, and it was part of Imperial Russia. But what the Ukrainians have known, and have always known, is that they were the first. So, they were the seat of the Slavic Empire and Russia was a forest. Moscow was a forest when Ukraine was founded. So even the name of Vladimir, Putin’s first name, is from one of the emperors of Ukraine, and Ukrainians never forgot that. And there’s been a push and pull between those two countries for most of both of their existence. And some of it is from Imperial times, but also some of it is from Putin’s inability to hear “no.”
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: So, the best way I can compare that is if you’re part of the dominant culture, and you’ve been making the decisions for years, decades, or a hundred years, you become very biased by what you think is normal versus if you are the “minority” in a culture and what the minority has to go through. In the USSR and the Russian Empire, the Russians were the dominant culture, and they made the rules for everyone else. And everybody just had to go along with it. They had no choice. And so even the Ukrainians – who were a dominant part of both of those entities – were still a minority partner.
Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: I would say that’s a more relatively recent understanding of the relationship between Russia and Ukraine, yet for a long time, Ukraine was the dominant. They have a shared culture, but they’re different cultures. They have a shared language, but it’s a different language. It’s a mutually understandable language, but it’s a different language. I think if you look inside of Russia to the minority groups, the way you conceive of the Ukrainian-Russian, that would be more applicable inside. More like the Han from China.
So, people living inside Russia have had their cultures subsumed by the majority. The Ukrainians have always had a proud culture and have always stood against, in fact, in the ‘30s, Stalin starved country to try and break their will as Ukrainians, separate from Russians. And they persisted. The Ukrainians persisted.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: They did. And for anybody who’s never heard of the Holodomor – a please look it up. And then also look at the Great Purge. You got to know the history, and it’s much like in any kind of authoritarian government, the best and brightest and most humble, and most people who have humility and humanity in them are not the ones in charge. It’s the people who look at lives and just throw them away.
Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: And they’re most often those humble, intelligent people are the ones most often targeted and killed. And we see this happening today, more than 250,000 Russians have left Russia since the start of the Ukrainian-Russian war. They know what’s coming; they know what to expect. They are the middle class. As, in Russian they call it the intelligentsia, they’re the ones leaving the Soviet Union, which will have a generational impact on any kind of ingenuity in the Russian nation. But they are the middle class, so they have the means to escape, the rest don’t.
[Read her article: Ukraine: Resistance and Upheaval for Citizens and Schools]
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And so, Jackie, you’re part of a blog with Ukrainians, correct?
Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: Yes. It’s a weird story. My life started in a different way. As I said, I went to of the Soviet Union. I studied Russian, I did politics and Soviet history, and then the Soviet Union fell and they no longer needed Americans who spoke Russian, so they hired Russians who spoke Russian and could be in the West. And so, I changed directions in my life.
But about two years ago, I had a good friend who was working at Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv. And that’s in the Western part of Ukraine, about 50 miles from the Polish border. And I had finished a memoir of my time in the Middle East, and I sent him a copy and asked for him to critique it. And he asked if he could share it with his class of Ukrainian students. And I said, yes. Now what I didn’t know he was going to do is he shared it with the whole Ukrainian Catholic University. And so, the whole university read my memoir. And, again, this memoir was in raw form. It hadn’t yet been published. And they asked me to speak.
[Read her article: Ukrainian Resistance to Destabilization and Tyranny in Lviv]
So, it was during COVID. So, I spoke on Zoom several lectures, and then the head of modern languages asked if I would teach a creative writing class the following semester. And I said, oh yeah, maybe, I’ll think about it. And that was all it took for her to put me on the schedule. So, I volunteered to teach creative writing to students in Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv.
And from there, each semester, I just kept appearing on the master schedule. And last semester, the fall semester of 2021, I was asked to teach a course to professors about how to teach writing. And it was a really different course for me. It was a professional development and college credit course at the same time. I was working with my colleagues, professors in the university in Ukraine.
And so, what we did is I would teach them, I would actually teach my course to teach writing, and then we’d stop at the halfway point and I’d ask them to critique it. Tell me what you saw. Tell me what was different than the way you teach writing. What do you think could be better? And we dissected my teaching to help them understand why I made the choices in the classroom that I did. And out of that I gained friends.
In the prior semesters, they were students, and I get nice emails from students that I’ve taught, but in this course, we were all teachers and so we became friends. And when Russia invaded Ukraine, I sent out emails to my friends. I felt so helpless, I wasn’t there to put an arm around them or to comfort them or their children, or when something happens in a family, you bake something and bring it to their houses. And I’m not such a great baker, but I would have bought something to take to their houses. But I couldn’t do that because I sit six time zones away.
And what happened from the exchanges I had with those students is they began and to send me their war journals. So they, in English, were writing about their experiences during the war. And one student in particular, Anastasia, she sends me a journal every couple of days. And so, what I’ve done is I’ve adapted that into a blog that appears on AMU Edge, the content of on Edge. And so, we’re following war, which is abstract and unknowable for some of the same reasons, Bjorn, that you said that we haven’t had a war in this country for so many years, but she’s real, she’s real. And last week, for instance, when outside Lviv the army barracks was hit with bombs, 35 were killed. Among those who survived was Anastasia’s husband.
And so, there’s a real understanding, a personal understanding of what war is. I get calls in the middle of the night from students. Tomorrow morning, I’m meeting with a class to talk to them about how the Americans view what’s happening in Ukraine. Last week, I had a faculty meeting, at 4:30 in the morning, to discuss how we would bring students back online. Classes had been suspended when the war broke out, but now the president, President Zelenskyy, has asked for students to come back into the classroom virtually so that their lives could be more normal. And I just think it’s a testament to the Ukrainian people, to the resistance that they’re putting up, that they’re trying to create something normal in the midst of this incredible “abnormal” that they’re living through. And it’s brought me full circle, because the class I took that put me on the road to the Soviet Union was the Nazi Resistance in Ukraine. And now I’m seeing the resistance again, and this time against Russia.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And even for the people you know in Lviv, it’s in the far western portion of Ukraine, but still getting bombed. So, it’s not like Mariupol, which is so tragic and just being bulldozed by war and the murderous instincts and inhumanity of war. The absolute worst comes out in humans. And at the same time, individual examples of just human courage and bravery and humility, humanity come out too. But those are lost to history because we oftentimes don’t see those. And what we see is just the worst of it. And in a sense, no war is good. And I’ve had conversations about how I always think World War II skews our view of war, because World War II was “good and evil.” The bad guys were really bad, and we were fighting the bad guys, but most wars that have existed exist because some guy just decides “I’m going to invade.” That’s it. No good reasons. They’re reasons, no good reasons to kill people.
Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: Well, and this is part of Putin’s playbook. We’ve seen it before. It’s interesting to note that we haven’t responded as strongly as we respond to Ukrainians, but we saw Putin do this in Chechnya and he leveled Grozny. He killed the population in Grozny. He’s done it in Syria. He helped Bashar al-Assad gas his own people. He flattened Aleppo. It was Putin who flattened Aleppo in Syria. And yet there’s something about Ukraine that has piqued our interest in the U.S. Part of it is, I’m sure that their skin color is white as opposed to those in Aleppo or Grozny, where Putin played out his evil plans against Black and Brown people. While I wholeheartedly want us to back Ukraine and wholeheartedly help them, and my friends are there, my friends are there. I also think after this, we need to take a hard look inside and understand why we let Putin gain so much power.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I also want to throw in Georgia, the terrible conflicts in Georgia and South Ossetia and how so many excuses were made to invade a sovereign country, because “there are Russians in that country.” And most borders are arbitrary. They were created by people long time ago. And borders are often not drawn with populations in mind. It’s just, there’s a line in the sand besides this conflict that I think of the horrible conflicts between India and Pakistan, and how thousands and thousands and tens of thousands hundred thousand people died because one country decided to invade the country, forcing populations to shift over these lines when, if you go back, it’s not that people lived in peace and harmony all the time, but then once a conflict starts, again, the base instincts of humans comes out – and it’s terrible. And little things like ethnicity and your religion could get you killed. And I don’t mean to say they’re little things, but in the grand scheme of life, those shouldn’t matter because it’s human life.
Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: Well, I think for Americans to think that we’re far away and safe, if what Putin uses to invade countries, to kill the civilian populations, is there are Russians, ethnic Russians that live in those countries. We have a lot of ethnic Russians living in the United States. We should begin to feel nervous about how Putin is conceiving of his right to go to war – because it could affect us.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: One of the difficult things of watching the commentary about Putin is everybody is guessing, of course, everybody’s guessing what are his goals? What are his objectives? And he had that one-hour long interview where he just played his hand, which was amazing that if a leader would even do that, but he’s talking about historical grievances that go back decades, if not a century. And every country has historical grievances, Mexico could be pissed off that Texas broke off from them. So, Mexico we’ll be like, we have a historical grievance against the United States and Texas. Or here in Arizona, taking the Southern part of Arizona from Mexico or California. You go back not even that far, there are historical grievances for everything, not even to talk about the indigenous population that live in the US – a or all the Americas and the grievances that exists there.
Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: A while back in this interview, we talked about authoritarianism in the United States. And I just want to make a parallel now because you’ve made a clear connection. For years Putin has been dehumanizing the Ukrainian people. They’re not really people. He uses that language so that his soldiers feel no remorse at sniping at families trying to cross a bridge to get out of a war-torn city. The language of dehumanization is something we hear in this country now, and that is a step into fascism. In dehumanizing people it gives us the opportunity to provoke violence against them without having any kind of moral stalling, let’s say it that way. So I think it’s really important that we look at Putin’s playbook and recognize that he has played out his playbook through cyber warfare here in the United States.
And so oftentimes in the United States, we hear Putin’s own words being spread in our country. And it’s time we wake up and recognize eyes that we shouldn’t, none of us should want to think like Vladimir Putin, because the consequence of that – look – Putin is not only killing civilians in Ukraine, but he is moving his country to hermit status. This is generational. This loss is generational for Russians who have just recently crawled out of the Soviet mess that they were in. And so, my heart breaks for the Russian citizens, who’ve had nothing to do with this and who will be hurt by the sanctions and by one man’s egomaniacal grab for power.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And Russia’s not a small country. It has not been able to transition from the USSR to a democracy. And even the best of times countries greatly struggle going from authoritarianism to democracies. And it’s hard to even think of one country that made that transition successfully, because it’s such a cultural shift.
Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: Well, it’s also easier, it’s easier to be in an authoritarian country because you don’t have to worry about, your voice it doesn’t matter. You don’t have to pay attention. You don’t have to do anything. Your voice is not important to the process. In a democracy, it’s the voice of the people that keeps democracy a democracy. And that’s why, in the United States, we see polls that say we’re just tired. We’re tired of the fight for democracy. That’s chilling. We don’t have democracy if people aren’t willing to pay attention and fight for it. Democracy is not kept by leaders; democracy is kept by people.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And if you look at the history of humans and look at the history of countries, if you slip back into authoritarianism, say if countries start doing that, then there’s going to be wars all the time, because one guy, I say guys because most of these leaders throughout all history have been men, minus Catherine the Great and stuff like that, decide that, hey, I want that island. I want that piece of land. Wars will just explode literally, because of the stupidest reasons. And the relative peace that we’ve had in three generations, I say relative peace within Europe, not the rest of the world, there’s always wars in Africa, there’s always conflicts in Asia, is not an anomaly, but it’s been precious. And humans need to really focus on keeping that because, again, humans, the oldest profession is actually war.
Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: Yeah. It’s funny you bring up Catherine the Great because Putin loves Catherine the Great and Peter the Great. Catherine the Great is one who went after Ukraine and “brought it back into the family again.” And I put that in quotes. And she was so proud of it. That was her proudest moment. And yeah, I think you’re right. I think authoritarianisms see power as a continuation of land grabs. So in order to keep the people appeased, you need more, you need more, you need more. Putin is there. Hea came to power during the Chechen War. That’s what he did. That’s what he did to appease. And the disinformation worked inside his own country. So, people in Russia believed that the war against the Chechen rebels was valid.
It’s really important for us to recognize that authoritarianism may be an easier form of government, because we don’t have to worry about it. But you’re right, Bjorn, with authoritarianism comes the need to grow bigger, get larger as consume more, because the impulse is not to look to the country to make the country and the citizens of the country comfortable, it’s to make yourself as the leader comfortable. And when people start to complain, you need to go out and take from somewhere else.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Recently there’s been quite a few shows about Catherine the Great. She, Catherine the Great tried to bring Russia to more “modern practices,” but that’s a multi-generational process, which even if you go into the 20th century, hadn’t occurred fully. And she was in the late 18th century. And so the easiest way to distract population from the misery that they live in is, yeah, just go have a war. And the strong man attitude wear, Putin is strong. That is, for some reason, so hardwired in humans, oh, we want to follow a strong leader. Strong leaders usually don’t care about anybody, but themselves. There are extreme narcissists, and they will literally send you to die for their pride and to make sure that they stay in power. All you have to do is look at every authoritarian leader in the world today, they use lives like tissue paper. They just throw them away and they don’t care. The only thing they care about is themselves.
Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: But the beauty of the human psyche is that we always start in the default of “it can’t happen to me.” And so we’ve seen throughout United States history, for instance, that people who have little vote against their own needs and desires, and they choose the strong man over what may be more beneficial for them in their living situations. We default; our default is “it can’t happen to me.”
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Exactly. And we can talk for hours, but absolutely wonderful conversation. Thank you for sharing your experience. Any final words?
Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: I would just say, if you have the opportunity and the means to support what’s going on in Ukraine, the people of Ukraine, one of the best charities I’ve found is Chef Jose Andres’s World Community Kitchen. They are feeding thousands and thousands of refugees, and it’s whoever crosses that border gets fed. And so, if you have the money to spare, if you believe in karma like I do, that money will come back to you in your greatest need.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Today, we were speaking with Dr. Jackie Fowler about Ukraine, communism, and writing. And, of course, my name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer. And thank you for listening.