Talk to Russia? Yes We Can!

Julian Henry Lowenfeld is an author, poet, and prize-winning translator of Russian poetry, celebrated in Russia for his renditions of Pushkin. 

He is the translator of Everyday Saints, the #1 best-selling book in Russia for the last 4 years, by Father Tikhon Shevkunov. The English edition is a runaway success in the US and England.

A revised and expanded edition of his seminal dual-language book, My Talisman (2010), a biography of Pushkin with translations of 140 poems, will be released in September 2015 by Moskvovedeniye Publishers in Moscow. 

He spends time between his native New York City and Moscow.

This piece was originally submitted to the New York Times Op Ed page, but was turned down.

The idea which staved off war came “off the cuff.”  At a coffee break at the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg in 2013, Putin suggested to Obama putting Syria’s chemical weapons under UN control for later demolition. Done. A breakthrough from just 20 minutes’ chat.  

What might our leaders have achieved in full-length talks? We can only wonder: Obama cancelled their previously planned separate summit, citing “our lack of progress on missile defense and arms control, trade and commercial relations, global security issues, and human rights and civil society.”  

Sure, Obama disagrees with Putin on many things. But do disagreements really justify not even talking?  That’s not what we tell the Israelis and the Palestinians, despite their lack of progress over decades.

Why doesn’t Obama cancel summits with China’s Xi Jinping despite “irrefutable evidence”… “that Chinese Army Unit 61398 was involved in direct cyber-attacks on Federal agencies and major U.S. corporations,”  even when the Pentagon complains of China’s “deliberate strategy of direct hacking, massive economic espionage, theft of trade secrets, export control violations, and technology transfer.”  China rattles sabres with Japan, enables North Korea, helps rogue regimes evade sanctions.  Trade? China cheats nonstop. The environment? China is the world’s worst polluter. Human rights?  Ask the Tibetans or Falun Gong (even China’s gays, routinely beaten or treated for “mental illness,” forced into marriages, and otherwise hounded in ways which make the Russian ban on same-sex propaganda for minors seem a picnic).  

So why three summits with Premier Xi, yet just twenty minutes with President Putin?  Obama claimed “Russia’s disappointing decision to grant Edward Snowden temporary asylum was also a factor.” Was that Realpolitik  or pique? (What if a former employee of Russia’s security services revealed a secret spy Russian program, and came to America seeking asylum? Is there any doubt we’d grant it?)  

“Lack of progress on arms control”? What did we expect after putting missile defense systems and F-22 Raptors right by Russia’s border? Would we want Russian missiles in Mexico and Cuba?  As to Syria, Assad may be a monster, but why are we aiding thugs linked to Al-Qaeda and mass murderers whose atrocities against Christians, war prisoners, and countless civilians have been documented?  What of UN investigator Carla del Ponte’s report that the rebels also used sarin?

And are we so impeccable? What’s our track record?  In Afghanistan and Iraq we have “made a desolation and called it peace.” In Libya, we promised “limited airstrikes” (sound familiar?) then blatantly effected régime change.  When Secretary of State Kerry called the proposed attack of Syria “unbelievably small,” not  even the British believed him.  

As to the Ukrainian crisis, how is a solution conceivable without at least talking to Russia?

Why did Kerry fly to Paris instead of Moscow for the 70th anniversary of V-E Day?  Did the French win the Battles of Stalingrad and Kursk? Did the French cause 85% of all German casualties in the war, while sacrificing 27 millions of their own people to free the world from Nazism, a grief that should be above all politics? Snubbing the Russian people’s commemoration of their unequalled and undeniable heroism was frankly disgraceful.  No wonder it rankled.

If we can talk to the Chinese, Cubans and Iranians, why not the Russians too? The need for Russian-American dialogue transcends politics.  We‘re the world’s two main nuclear powers.  Only together can we tackle such challenges as terrorism, drug and human trafficking, climate change, the crisis of the oceans, nuclear proliferation, preserving the Arctic and Antarctic, peacefully exploring space, and, yes, peace in the Middle East and Eastern Europe.  

Nobody says it’ll be easy, but we must try.

Beneath our traditional rivalry, there is amity.  We’ve been allies before, and not just against Hitler.

“Friendship between Russia and America is an element essential to the universal political equilibrium.   Our two great lands, at two ends of the earth, are forever bound by a natural community of both interests and sympathies, a common interest in the spiritual as well as the material progress of mankind.”  

So wrote Russian Foreign Minister Alexander Gorchakov to President Abraham Lincoln, on July 10, 1861. Russia backed these words by sending its fleet to Boston, dissuading Britain, then the global superpower, from intervening in a terrible civil war – ours.

If only we could talk, we’d see how much our two peoples, spanning continents, proud of our exceptionalism and diversity, unique, yet both profoundly influenced by common Judeo-Christian values, share.  

We might even find a familiar freedom-loving spirit in Russia’s national bard, Alexander Pushkin:

Rulers! Your crown and laurels do

Not come from God, but from Law’s hand.

Above the people you do stand,

But Law Eternal stands o’er you.

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