Professor Stephen Berk holds talk in Nott


Union College Henry and Sally Schaffer Professor of Holocaust and Jewish Studies Stephen Berk talked to a crowded audience in the Nott Memorial on Wednesday, May 17, about Russia and the U.S. in the age of Putin and Trump.
In attendance were current students and, as Professor Berk described them, “super mature” former students.
Professor Berk seeks to provide an understanding of the current political climate through an understanding of history.
Shortly after claiming, “You cannot understand the present by the present,” Professor Berk provided a brief overview of Russian history.
He detailed Putin as the product of a country deeply rooted in authoritarian rhetoric, xenophobia and the belief that Russia is a target. He discussed how authoritarian rule is synonymous with Russia with tsars and communist leaders bringing Russia to the world stage through authoritarian rule.
Professor Berk described how democracy is often perceived as a failed system that degenerates into mob rule.
These views combined with xenophobia and a belief that world powers such as the U.S. are out to get Russia created, as Professor Berk explained, a specific “Weltanschauen,” or worldview.
Putin grew up and was raised by this world view.
Enlisting in the KGB at a young age, Putin became loyal to the communist regime, a trait that allowed him to go far in the political system.
Professor Berk emphasized this loyalty and also talked of Putin’s love of money.
Corruption was rampant in the government before Putin, but increased dramatically afterwards.
Professor Berk described Putin as often willing to help others increase personal wealth, but Putin stresses that they remain out of politics.
It was here that Professor Berk drew back upon the authoritarian past.
After Putin gained office he drew upon three major themes in the Russian zeitgeist.
The three themes are nationalism, strength and a fanatical hatred of the democratic systems.
Professor Berk detailed how Putin appealed to nationalism by invading Ukraine, a country with many people who identify with the Russian culture.
Putin was successful in ending insurgent Chechens, while downplaying the cost of life.
Professor Berk claimed that one of Putin’s main goals was the collapse of NATO, the EU and the model of democracy found in the US.
Putin has openly supported right wing and borderline fascist parties.
Professor Berk’s main claim was that Putin has the same problem with Trump almost everyone has which is that the public has no idea where he stands.
Professor Berk detailed instances of policy flips that led Russia to criticize Trump were it had previously praised him.
During the campaign, Trump openly praised Putin in comparison to Obama. Trump later blasted Russia over North Korean and Syrian policy.
Professor Berk concluded that the importance of Real Politik is alive and well.
There are often more pressing matters at hand that cause leaders to overlook other problems.
Professor Berk cited Real Poltik for U.S. policy in Turkey regarding Russia and for the failing policy in Syria.
Professor Berk proposed a policy of “modified containment” for the Trump administration, avoiding placing lines as Obama did in Syria, while having a more informed and level headed foreign policy.
Professor Berk claimed that a strong American leadership was required on a global stage because European powers cannot stand up to Russia alone.
Professor Berk was also given an award, as it is his fiftieth year at Union College. Union College’s Hillel presented him with the award, for his jubilee year.
The award honored his time at Union and his dedication to Hillel.


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