| by Jason Warburg

News Stories, People

McGlynn, Jade
Dr. Jade McGlynn of the Monterey Initiative in Russian Studies appeared on Sky News in the United Kingdom on April 5, 2022. 
  (Credit: Sky News )

As a scholar whose research focuses on how Russian cultural history influences its policy choices, Dr. Jade McGlynn has met two challenges at once in recent years, taking on a significant role with the Institute’s Monterey Initiative in Russian Studies while becoming an in-demand commentator in the media regarding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

McGlynn’s association with MIIS began in 2018 when she enrolled in the Monterey Summer Symposium on Russia (MSSR), which eventually led to her current dual role as senior researcher with the Monterey Initiative in Russian Studies and codirector of MSSR. Through the same period, her media profile has grown steadily, including interviews by MSNBC, Sky News, and The Telegraph, as well as authored articles published in Foreign Policy, the Spectator, and the Diplomat. We recently spoke with Dr. McGlynn via email from London.

What initially drew you to Russia as the focus of your studies?

I became interested in Russia through the writings of Dostoevsky. I knew I wanted to read the works in the original and understand more about the cultural and sociopolitical context from which these books had emerged. That is why I decided to learn Russian from a “teach yourself Russian” book. I then went on to study Russian language and literature at Oxford University.

Tell us about your experience as a fellow with the Monterey Summer Symposium on Russia and how that led to your ongoing role with the Monterey Initiative in Russian Studies (MIR).

After returning from Russia, I did an MA by Research and then a PhD examining the role of propaganda and historical myth in mobilizing Russians’ support for Putin. I attended the MSSR as a PhD student in 2018 and I was very grateful for the opportunity. During my time there my esteem for Anna Vassilieva grew to gigantic proportions. We stayed in touch afterwards and I continued to collaborate with MIR. Then, in 2020, an excellent opportunity came up, and I jumped at the chance to be involved. Due to Russia’s war on Ukraine, my role has since evolved to focus more on the crisis facing Russian studies and its response to the catastrophe in Ukraine.

The most hopeful [option] is that the war stops for a while, turning into a frozen conflict, and everyone lives under the expectation of it flaring up again…
— Dr. Jade McGlynn

Please explain the concept of “memory diplomacy” and how it applies to current Russian policy and actions.

Memory diplomacy is when political actors create and develop commonalities in visions of the past for geopolitical purposes and/or bilateral relations. Unlike memory wars, which involve different actors contesting their countries’ historical—especially wartime—roles, memory diplomacy involves coalescing and converging the historical narratives around these roles. So when the current U.K. government references Churchill when speaking to U.S. lawmakers, that is an example of memory diplomacy, highlighting and using shared visions of the past (a love of Churchill). Memory diplomacy involves building a shared narrative (a memory alliance) of key historical events and also exporting a country’s own commemorative traditions (memory exports). It is a co-creation between at least two parties rather than an unrequited form of communication.

Russian memory diplomacy is also about exporting a certain worldview, where Russia has inherited great power status from its moral victory over Nazism. We see this during its current war on Ukraine, as it reserves the right to decide who or what is Nazism. Moreover, this narrative of “denazification” has been effective among longstanding target groups of Russian memory diplomacy (Serb nationalists, certain groups of voters in East Germany, certain parts of the millennial U.S. and U.K. left).

Tell us more about your forthcoming book on the politics of memory in contemporary Russia.

My forthcoming book, titled The Kremlin’s Memory Makers: The Politics of the Past in Putin’s Russia, will outline the Russian government’s longstanding obsession with using the past to legitimize its rule. It argues that the Russian government has promoted a mosaic of triumphant and tragic historical episodes, from World War II to the Soviet collapse, as an emotive way of convincing Russians to believe in the Kremlin’s vision of what it means to be Russian. Looking at how the past has been brought into everyday life, it examines the conflicts in Ukraine, in Syria, and with the West. It also includes interviews with civil society activists who support this memory making, showing that these militaristic historical myths were not forced on the Russian people, even if they are also not entirely a grassroots phenomenon. In light of Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, this book has sadly become a lot more relevant to understanding Russian propaganda and the Kremlin’s worldview.

McGlynn, Jade Oxford
Dr. Jade McGlynn

On Twitter recently you downplayed the possibility that mounting Russian casualties will generate resistance to the war in Ukraine inside Russia. Please summarize your thinking on this topic.

Personally I don’t see how increased deaths, combined with propaganda, will lead to Russians starting to protest the war. Imagine you are a mother whose son dies in the war. Would you choose to believe the Russian state media, who call him a hero and say he died fighting Nazis, or accept the truth that he died fighting in a terribly unjust war in an army that committed atrocities? It must be very hard to lose a child, but even harder to accept not even that that child died for nothing, but that he died doing evil deeds. Nobody would choose to believe that and Russian propaganda offers a much more alluring narrative. Plus, it is now illegal for Russians to criticize the war, so there is an added impetus to believe the state narrative. 

In your mind, what are the most likely scenarios for ending the war in Ukraine, and where do you think they lead in terms of both the future of Ukraine and the future of Russia?

Honestly, right now I can’t see a scenario where this war properly ends. Russia has made it perfectly clear they are not interested in serious negotiations by putting someone like former minister of culture Vladimir Medinsky in charge of them. Moreover, the war hysteria in Russian media is only growing, and any hint at concession is treated as treason. I also don’t see how Putin can “settle” for annexing Donbas when the entire mission is about “denazification,” which can only be interpreted as de-Ukrainianization. On the other hand, given how well Ukraine has resisted the invasion, they will also be less likely to offer concessions and have anyway made it clear that any ceding of territory or constitutional neutrality would need to be ratified by a referendum, which is unlikely to be approved.

So that only leaves a few options. The most hopeful is that the war stops for a while, turning into a frozen conflict, and everyone lives under the expectation of it flaring up again (which it will if there is not a serious change of government and direction in Russia). A less hopeful possibility is that Russia reinforces its army, orders mass mobilization, and then is able to take over more territory. Given the atrocities committed by Russian soldiers in the recovered territories, everything possible must be done to prevent Russia’s advance. The worst scenario is that Russia uses a tactical nuclear weapon on Ukraine and then incorporates its smoldering ruins into a union state with Russia and Belarus. The stakes are high and the outlook is bleak even in a best-case scenario.