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The Dartmouth
June 17, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Historian Ivan Kurilla discusses Russian society during the Russia-Ukraine war

In his guest lecture, Kurilla described Putin’s repression of independent organizations and popular opinion in Russia following the outbreak of the war.

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On May 8, the Dickey Center for International Understanding and the East European, Eurasian and Russian studies department co-hosted Wellesley College visiting professor Ivan Kurilla for a lecture titled “Russian Society Under Putin At War: A View From Inside.” A former history and international relations professor at the European University at St. Petersburg, Kurilla was fired in March for his decision to work at Wellesley on his sabbatical. 

Kurilla spoke at length about the Russian government’s repression of independent organizations and popular opinions regarding the Russia-Ukraine war. Approximately 50 people attended the event, which was held in the Rockefeller Center. 

Cooper Puckett ’25, who attended the event, said Kurilla’s lecture was “great.” 

“It’s obviously incredible to be able to listen to someone who’s been on the ground over there,” Puckett said. “As long as [Russia is] expansionist, we’re going to have bad relations.”

Kurilla began his lecture by discussing the transition from a total lack of “independent activity” in the Soviet Union to the emergence of grassroots initiatives in Russia in the early 1990s. Organizations that were unaffiliated with the Russian government developed an increasingly active role in public life during Russian President Vladimir Putin’s first two terms in office from 2000 to 2008, he explained. 

Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012 after “falsified elections” marked a shift in Russian government policy, Kurilla said.

“Putin started to suppress and to destroy any possible center of independent organization,” Kurilla said. “This included not only opposition parties, which were very weak already by that time, but also independent organizations which had nothing to do with politics.”

Kurilla said the Russian Academy of Sciences — a coordinating body for scientific research in Russia — had become less independent since 2012.

According to Kurilla, while the Academy was “loyal to the Soviet state” as well as the post-Soviet state, it always retained its own “source of independent expertise and authority.” However, after the 2012 election, the Academy “lost all of its budget” and “its material sources of independence” due to intervention from the Russian government.

Kurilla added that the Russian government has become increasingly authoritarian since the beginning of the Russia-Ukraine war. He said that after the war began in 2022, the Russian government “almost immediately” pursued “a very repressive” approach to opposition. In the first few days of the conflict, 20,000 people were arrested at protests , including several protesters who were given long prison sentences. Kurilla said that prison sentences of up to 15 years were common.

“Russia never had such prison terms since the Stalin regime,” Kurilla said.

Kurilla explained that, in general, a country’s populace may react in three different ways to any policy change: “exit, voice and loyalty.” According to Kurilla, all three reactions were exercised in Russia. Hundreds of thousands of Russians emigrated out of the country after the conflict began, numerous petitions and protests emerged and a majority of the population supported the war effort.

In light of the repression, Kurilla said many Russians had begun to “associate their experience” of repression during the war with the experience of people living under Nazi Germany. 

“Before the war, most of the Russians never associated themselves with the Germans,” Kurilla said. “We were enemies, but now people start to think about themselves as a people like [the Germans] during the Nazi regime.”

Following the lecture, Kurilla hosted a Q&A session with audience members. In response to a question about Putin’s ideology, Kurilla said  the Russian leader and his advisors “are more or less opportunistic,” but their general vision is “anti-liberal,” “anti-Western” and based on “traditional values.”

“[Putin] needed to invent something ideological which was opposite to American values, so he invented traditional values,” Kurilla said. “Then [the United States] elected [Donald] Trump, and he [realized] there are traditional people of traditional values here inside the United States — and that he could do something with them.”

After fielding another question, which asked about the division between views in rural and urban Russia, Kurilla said “rural Russia looks more loyal” partially because soldiers from such regions can earn compensation in the military that is up to 10 times as much as their regular pay, but also because there are fewer “ways to express your voice” in rural areas.

Elisaveta Samoylov ’26, who attended the lecture, said she found the talk “informative.” She is in a “modern Eastern European history class” where she is currently learning about the aftermath of World War II. 

“I think it's good to hear about something a bit more recent,” Samoylov said.