Jeremi talks about the lasting effects of communism and Soviet influence on former Soviet countries and democracy with students, Maya Patel, Matt Maldonado, and Lauren Nyquist.
As always, Zachary kicks things off with his poem entitled, “Song of a Post Cold War Child.”
Maya Patel is working to create a civically engaged campus as the President of TX Votes and the Chair of the Campus Vote Project’s Student Advisory Board. Her work has led to 18-25-year-olds being the largest bloc of registered voters in Travis County, the PCL being opened as UT’s second polling location, and UT Austin receiving numerous national awards. Maya is also a Texas Orange Jacket and part of the Texas Friar Society.
Matt Maldonado is a Government and Russian studies double major. He’s a former Fulbright-Hayes GPA Fellow and Texas Civic Ambassador, who’s civic outreach work over the past two years has been centered around high school engagement in El Paso and Austin.
Lauren Nyquist is a Geography and International Relations and Global Studies double major at UT, where she works as a TA and research assistant, focusing on issues in sub-Saharan Africa. She is a member of Texas Votes and UT’s Geography Society.
- Matt MaldonadoResearch Fellow and Program Officer at the Central Asia Caucasus Institute
- Lauren NyquistTA and Research Assistant in Geography and International Relations at the University of Texas at Austin
- Maya PatelPresident of TX Votes and the Chair of the Campus Vote Project's Student Advisory Board
- Jeremi SuriProfessor of History at the University of Texas at Austin
Unknown Speaker 0:05
This is Democracy, a podcast that explores the interracial intergenerational and intersection of unheard voices living in the world’s most
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Jeremi Suri 0:20
Welcome to our new episode of This is Democracy. Today we’re going to discuss an issue that’s in the news, but also an issue with deep historical roots, the transitions of societies that have been part of the Soviet Union, to democracy or the difficulties they’ve had in those transitions. And we’re going to focus in particular today on Ukraine, which in some ways, is one of the largest and most important of the former Soviet states. And a society that’s gone through a lot of tumult in recent years, and most recently has just held the first round of a new presidential election. And we will be talking today about how we understand
and changes and difficulties in Ukraine and what that means for us. As we think about democratic transitions around the world. We’re very fortunate to have with us, three students who are conducting one of the most important research projects that I know of, on this topic. They’re spending a great deal of time with Ukrainian students and young voters trying to understand how they understand democracy and how they think about the future of their society and what we can expect from them. As as we hope soon they become the leaders of their society. These three students are all stars here at UT. And we’re fortunate to have them here. We have Maya Patel. Good morning, Maya
Maya Patel 1:40
morning. Thanks for having us.
Jeremi Suri 1:42
Our pleasure. Matt Maldonado. Morning. Morning there. And we have Laurin night quest. Good morning. So we have our All Star team. And before we get to our All Star team, we have our All Star poet. exactly what’s the title of your poet poem song
Zachary Suri 1:56
of a post Cold War Child.
Jeremi Suri 1:59
Let’s go here at post Cold War Child.
Zachary Suri 2:01
I have heard how they store into the streets. I have heard how they rock the sleep of thousands. I have heard how they killed my ancestors and millions millions of deaths. I have heard how they dripped blood in the alleyways. I have heard how you couldn’t hear the music. You wanted to dance to prance you under the cold skies. And I’ve heard you couldn’t speak through the telephone of anything but the quality of the dreadfully whipping weather. And I’ve heard that you couldn’t vote couldn’t eat couldn’t sleep. I’ve heard how the snow used to fall in the multi corners but I never seen the flurries. I am too young to have seen those snow drifts those dispatches from forever. I am too young to have seen the lies. The shoes stopped against the desk of the world. And I am too young to have seen the rotting bodies the fake votes tallied against the blood. And I am too young to have seen the reforming son the hope and the force of weapon silos. And I am too young to have seen the wall for the newborn adult streaming across the rebels female cross and their nylon plastic
Two cars. But I will not be too old to see the day the votes are counted in the light of democracy. I will not be too old to see the day when the music plays through every window. I will not be too old to see the free talk, the hopeful hums the opening of the world. And I will not be too old to see the day when I can walk through the rubble of the nuclear silos blown to the sun never to be used bombs buried into the earth. And I promise you I will not be too old to see the day that I can sing with my Russian neighbors as they sing my American song. And I can sing there. Oh,
Jeremi Suri 3:32
wow. Very historical Zachary. What’s your poem about?
Zachary Suri 3:37
my poem is really about just being being born in a society that was shaped by the cold war but never actually experiencing it, and how that gives me a unique perspective on some of these issues.
Jeremi Suri 3:49
That’s a really good point to start on a Maya Why is it been so hard for Ukraine and countries like Ukraine to transition from the cold war to a post Cold War?
Post Soviet world.
Maya Patel 4:01
Yeah, I think in part, it’s because there still is so much influence on the region. And, you know, both sides, you know, the western side and Russia trying to influence the country and how it goes and their elections and you know, who’s who leaves the country. So, they have a unique perspective, because when talking to some of these students, they don’t, some of them truly don’t feel like there are free and fair elections. Interesting. Interesting. Matt, do you do you find the students who you talk to, are they and as they’re thinking about these transitions? Are they cynical or what are your views of them? Um, yeah. So in our experience, running these focus groups with the Ukrainian students, I think,
Matt Maldonado 5:01
all the candidates that are running are corrupt and that their vote doesn’t matter. And unfortunately, that seems to be the case with the young generation, which we in the West hope to be the the the generation that really brings Ukraine into the modern world. Right. So you don’t see them as idealistic. I don’t really, um, it.
It hasn’t been all that positive, it
Jeremi Suri 5:23
Laurin, your team has, has interviewed so many of these counterparts of yours. They’re beyond beyond this cynicism, and concern about leadership, what what else strikes you about them?
Lauren Nyquist 5:37
I think it’s just a lack of direction in which to turn and I think that’s perfectly are articulated in what we are seeing out of Ukraine this Sunday. I don’t think any of us are particularly surprised because of what we’ve heard from these students, is, as my counterparts have said, they’re so disenfranchised from because they’re like Zachary was saying earlier is they weren’t there necessarily during the Soviet during Soviet rule. However, they are the product of the trauma from that time period. And so we don’t necessarily hear them drawing lines of connection between that time period and today. But we see the impact of it. It’s kind of like trauma and how trauma is magnified generationally down the line. And so we’re seeing kind of Zelinski as I wouldn’t necessarily I don’t think Yeah, as Matt said earlier, I don’t think we see any ideal kind of outcome from them. But I think they see the Lenski as kind of a protest vote.
Jeremi Suri 6:45
Excellent. Zielinski is the media star, the comedian in Ukraine, who plays a president on TV and ends now run for president and have the most votes in the first round? Right. That didn’t surprise you?
Lauren Nyquist 6:58
I don’t think it did. Because I think think that you will see a perfect dichotomy between an establishment Porsche and go who is at the most, the establishment, he is the current president. He is tied to all of the different kind of
established areas of Ukraine. And then we sees Alinsky, who actually came out of nowhere and the last six months, right, right. So that’s just that perfect dichotomy, which allows us to kind of see that anti establishment.
Jeremi Suri 7:27
Gotcha, gotcha. And Matthew D, is your sense that voters resiliency see him as a as a positive alternative, or is he is he more of a none of the above kind of candidate? I think he’s more of a none of the above kind of candidate and in some of our readings that we’ve done in connection to this election, we looked at the 2010 election where Viktor Yanukovych took the presidency, and people were drawing some connection between that situation and this situation.
Matt Maldonado 7:59
Yeah, people you got a coach as a protest vote against the establishment at that time was Viktor Yushchenko. and in this situation, I think about for the landscape is being taken quite literally, by by voters as a vote against the establishment.
Jeremi Suri 8:14
Interesting. Is there a communist candidate? Is there still a Communist Party me one of the legacies of, of the Cold War is of course, how communism continues through other means and certain societies? My Is there a Communist Party?
Lauren Nyquist 8:27
I would jump in and just say that, so it’s hard to distinguish. If there’s a particularly communist candidate, we were talking yesterday, because someone in the survey results, we were piecing through all of our survey results. And someone said they were a What was it? A national socialist national
Matt Maldonado 8:46
Lauren Nyquist 8:47
which is a it’s actually illegal. So someone did say that it could have been, we always have to discount some of those outliers when getting survey results back. But there were 47 candidates in this alone from different political parties. So there are certain politicians who may like who do align more with the legacy of the Soviet Union, more so than others. So it does exist, but it is technically legal to be
Maya Patel 9:16
political. There’s no like, outright, communist candidate, I would say, but there are like 47 candidates, and it’s hard to see what each one is trying to say.
Jeremi Suri 9:26
Because one of the one of the issues, of course, in many of these societies are the ways in which first of all communist former communist leaders hold on to power and other names, but also ways in which certain communist assumptions about politics and and political organization carry over. In fact, one of our students had a question directly related to this. This is from Austin Buffkin. And let’s see what Austin has to say.
Austin Buffkin 9:50
How do you think that Ukrainian citizens experience with communism helps change and refine their implementation of democracy? And do you think their experience communism is beneficial or detrimental to the effectiveness of democracy in their country?
Jeremi Suri 10:06
What do you guys think?
Maya Patel 10:07
So I think when we talk about democracy, and in like a US context, we have a very different definition than what maybe the Ukrainian students consider themselves. So for example, one of our our survey questions was, are you an active Ukrainian, which basically translates to like, Are are you like civically engaged? Are you like, an like an active citizen? I guess? And and a lot of them said, No, but then we asked, like, are you involved in non formal political activity? So many more people said, Yes. And like in our definition, we would say like, if you’re civically engaged and involved in, like, if you’re involved in all these non formal political activities, you’re an active US citizen? Sure. Um, so I think it’s interesting to see how their definition of democracy is very different.
Jeremi Suri 10:52
And what do you take from that? Why do they not consider their non formal activities political?
Maya Patel 10:57
Well, I think a lot of them are hesitant, hasn’t tend to call themselves inherent like political people, but they do care about politics and in like, a way that like, here, if you like, mildly care about politics, you’re like, yeah, I’m like, kind of interested I boat. But they’re, you know, being seen as a political person is almost like taboo, like a bad thing. And they don’t want to call themselves that.
Jeremi Suri 11:20
For a long time. There was a there was a Scott, there was scholarship about anti politics that that, in fact, the the notion was, if you were a serious person, you shouldn’t be involved in politics, because politics was corrupted by the communist influence. Do you see that playing out? Man?
Matt Maldonado 11:34
I do. Because I think a lot of these students are fundamentally influenced by their parents who grew up under either Brezhnev, or individuals, like drop off or turn the ankle. So these while Soviet leaders in the 70s and 80s, these were the essay leaders that highlighted the stagnant period of Soviet history. And as a result, I think, growing up in these households with these parents, that mentality is kind of followed them into young adulthood. Laurin, you agree?
Lauren Nyquist 12:06
I do, I do kind of want to, I guess, have a more positive outlook on it. But I do see a, I guess, move away from recognizing just a dichotomy between a kind of communist like communist system and a democratic system, as was established kind of in the Cold War period where we saw an either or right. And I think right now we’re kind of seeing, I mean, I guess one of the articulated responses, when we asked what political system is ideal, was, it hasn’t been defined yet. It wasn’t Oh, I aligned necessarily with Russia, or I align with the political system of the United States anymore. It was more, I want to move past these established systems and move towards something that is going to be inherently unique to Ukraine. And I think that may draw out of their experiences with communism, I wouldn’t say that it hinders or necessarily helps. I think that they’ve just been disillusioned to both sides. And so they are, I guess, we have a very specific kind of group. We’re seeing very critical thinkers coming out of universities, those are the students that were interviewing or surveys or more wide kind of spread. But they are critical thinkers. And they’re looking beyond the established kind of paths that were, I guess, articulated in the in the Cold War.
Jeremi Suri 13:35
And how do they view the United States and America’s traditional diplomatic and democratizing mission?
Matt Maldonado 13:46
I’m one of the one of our focus group interviews was with students in Odessa. And that particular sit down took place right after the end of the US government shutdown. So there were definitely a lot of questions about Trump and his actions in regards to Congress. So I think the Trump presidency has kind of just opened up a lot of doors for, I guess, questioning about the US political system. And so far, the students have been very curious about that
Jeremi Suri 14:19
interesting interest and other other reactions. You’ve heard from them. I think
Maya Patel 14:22
it’s been surprising to hear how many students were
like, one of our first focus groups was with Ivana Francie, students, and they were talking, like a lot of them supported the border wall and thought it was a good idea. And, and we’re, like, had a positive view of Trump, which I thought was really interesting. And yeah, it was kind of surprising to hear that. And, and I think, you know, part of the reason why Zelinski one or has won the first round might be because they’re very like, done with the system and want change. And I think that was like, similar to what we like software reasons why people voted for Trump.
Jeremi Suri 15:03
Interesting, interesting. What about their view of international organizations? Do they do they see themselves connected to a world of international organizations?
Lauren Nyquist 15:13
I think that was probably one of our our most, our largest questions that we kind of got responses on was particularly about the EU, I think we either saw students who really wanted to be a part of the EU, or saw the EU as a future goal. They don’t see themselves as ready to join the EU or necessarily worthy, I think they’re very critical of where their country is, economically, politically, and socially. They don’t they there was a statement that kind of caught me off guard because it said, Ukrainians themselves aren’t ready. Which is definitely when we associate political organizations, we don’t necessarily look at us, like I’m my new scale to that degree. But it was definitely an interesting question, because they would look towards the EU as a pinnacle of economic success, or a stepping point to right now, we talked a lot about Brexit is that you could possibly foster a economic economic system of growth or anti corruption initiatives or help with systems like that. And then they could later leave once they’ve established themselves as a strong country. But that was definitely a
Jeremi Suri 16:32
that was as true for students in the West Coast and the east. Traditionally, the east is felt closer to Russia, right?
Lauren Nyquist 16:38
We Yeah, I don’t think we saw anyone who particularly said we need to align ourselves with Russia, I think
Maya Patel 16:44
we did meet that we there were there were a lot of students who are like, I don’t think the EU’s a good idea. And we heard a lot of like, we need to become stronger on our own first before joining the EU. And then also, one girl was like, we’re not in the right mindset, we, like we are, it almost seemed like they weren’t have like a high enough moral standard to join the EU, which I thought was an interesting comment. Um, but yeah, there was a pretty wide range of like, we should join, or we shouldn’t.
Jeremi Suri 17:15
This is this is such valuable research, we’re thinking not just about the historical evolution of Ukraine and other societies going through post communist transitions, but also over thinking about US policy, right? If our goal is and should be, to build connections with the next generation of leaders and important countries, like Ukraine, Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria, etc. We have to understand where they’re coming from. Right. And with that knowledge that you all have put together and that you’re bringing out in your research, what do you think are the insights for thinking about American policy? What what what would you suggest that the United States do to connect with these these students who are so important for their future and our future? I think,
Lauren Nyquist 17:58
continue using these micro level kind of education initiative and funding more research like yeah, to establish Yeah, I guess so. Yeah. Because we’re talking at a very personal level, and I don’t think you can, especially if Ukraine chooses to go a different route and not necessarily democratic, I think that it’s going to be important to have these connections so that we respect that i think i one of the biggest faults and kind of undermining our position abroad is that we often don’t respect a move away from a democratic system. And if we can understand that some of our students really just want a leader who will make decisions to lead the country in the right direction and not necessarily listen to the citizens themselves. They want someone who will make strong economic moves and make anti corruption moves outside of necessarily being held accountable.
Jeremi Suri 19:00
You don’t think we should oppose that?
Lauren Nyquist 19:01
I think that we should not, I think, at a greater level for foreign like policy, I think that we often see ourselves as having to be have the same political system as economic as countries abroad, because I think that that creates a basis. But I think that what this project has shown me is that at this micro level, we can understand where their perspective is. And we have to be able to respect that because if they’re democratically elected in this election, and we haven’t seen any reports of abuse by the political system necessarily yet. But we do have to respect that. And I think that this allows us to create this respect, which is kind of absent at this broader right geopolitical level, because you don’t have
Jeremi Suri 19:44
that connection. Right. Fair enough. Other thoughts on what we should do?
Matt Maldonado 19:48
Yeah, if I could just chime in. I think one of the biggest policies is that has made our work on this project. So so valuable, has been programs like like flash and Fulbright, foreign language and area studies and Fulbright a student and faculty exchanges, right. Yes. So I received a Fulbright. Yes, I received a Fulbright GPA grant. And a class this year, I think, yeah. Programs like that are important because it gives students undergraduates opportunities to make these exchanges on their own first, and then later on, potentially get into some deeper research. And our faculty, the faculty members who have been helping us about standing, and they also they themselves have also received similar types of grants. So I think in order to continue making these types of connections with students down the line, we need to continue funding these kind of programs.
Jeremi Suri 20:42
Good shout out for faculty well done. Zachary, did you have a question?
Zachary Suri 20:47
Yeah. I was wondering how do these students view Russia, they view it as a threat or something that can help them grow as a society?
Lauren Nyquist 20:55
I think so we have two different things. So we do the focus group, which is where we talk about students. And if someone else wants to chime in on that, I’ll try one on the survey, which is a different kind of part of our research. And what we got from the survey is that Russia largely hinders the the free and fair election and progress towards a democracy like a democratic institution. And we kind of saw that dichotomy with that question. Particularly, we saw that institutions like the EU, NATO and the United States are associated with helping, whereas Russia, is associated with the war, Crimea, and hindering any free and fair election and democratic institution.
Maya Patel 21:37
Yeah, and with the focus groups, I think we saw similar themes. And students weren’t as like, ready to, like outwardly call out Russia and over over the focus groups, but I think you like got that kind of vibe, I guess from them. They weren’t really, really willing to, like, say it outright, but sure, you could kind of see that they were trying to say not sure.
Jeremi Suri 22:00
Sure. Well, and this connects to another student question we have on our side, which is really about how students like all of you can do more, can all get involved? Let’s hear the question from Miranda Rodriguez.
Miranda Rodriguez 22:15
How can college students in the United States become more educated about democracy in former Soviet countries, which we still see as so different from us?
Jeremi Suri 22:26
And I think that I think Miranda’s question presumes that most students are not going to have the time to do the kind of in country research you’re doing, and in many cases, won’t be able to learn the languages. Right? So how can they as voters in the United States who are going to be influencing us policy here? How can they act our students more effectively to help students in the societies like Ukraine?
Maya Patel 22:49
I think that like when university professors have these classes about various countries, if there could be some sort of like global classroom, even if it’s just like one or two class, like Skype sessions with students, or young people actually bringing them into the club? Yeah. So like, you know, you don’t need to, you know, dedicate a whole semester to like, calling three times a week to the country. But I mean, I think even just like a few, like a few calls. And even just like, from the first time we ever talked to Ukrainian students over Skype, I learned so much from just like, an hour. And so I think that’s one way.
Jeremi Suri 23:22
That’s, that’s a great suggestion. My other thoughts.
Lauren Nyquist 23:25
I think social media has allowed us so many. It just another way for us to connect with students abroad. So getting involved on something like v k, allows us to what is BK? It’s a Russian social media. Yeah, platform.
Jeremi Suri 23:43
So first time on our podcast, anyone has advocated BK but uh, well,
Maya Patel 23:46
or telegram or
Lauren Nyquist 23:49
tiger, but BK, because Matt and I were in Russia last summer. And so BK is kind of how we connect with them and see like the cultural initiatives, I think, going behind yourself, the blanket political system and seeing that there are people, but I think it needs to happen at in the United States at kind of a broader education level, our education initiatives, especially for high school and middle school, when we teach history, portray these these countries in a very negative way. And I think that’s, if we need we need to vote in our state board, or like our state board elections, we need to vote in our local education elections to kind of change that. Because I think, coming into by the time we get into college, we’ve got these perceptions about these countries that are so deep seated within us, that it becomes automatic to associate these countries with a particular level of development with a negative connotation of governance. And that’s the product of our education system.
Jeremi Suri 24:46
Absolutely. Absolutely. That’s, that’s another great suggestion. Lynn. Matt, what do you think?
Matt Maldonado 24:51
I think students just need to stay vigilant with their current events, and maybe even go back a couple of years. I think it’s important to realize that, yeah, not all former Soviet states have been directly in the Russian sphere since 1991. I think it’s important to remember that Russia fought a war with Georgia and 2008. Or that, I mean, people still forget that Russia annexed Crimea and 2014. So I think just staying with their ears close to the ground is going to be helpful when regards to current events, because these issues are ongoing, and there they will continue to be. So an informed citizen is a good citizen. Right. And and
Jeremi Suri 25:32
we have to also ask our news coverage to provide information. It’s interesting how little the Ukrainian election was covered. Yeah, I
Maya Patel 25:39
was just about to say, like to build off of what Matt was saying, like, and not just making sure that we’re reading our Western sources, but making sure that we’re reading the sources of news that are local, to whatever region you’re studying, because there’s, there’s a certain way that, you know, these different news stories are covered in the US or in like, more or less Junior up. And I think it’s important to also be reading local news sources and looking at the influencers that are on the ground, and you know, looking at all perspective, right, absolutely,
Jeremi Suri 26:09
really getting a deeper sense of what’s happening there. Exactly. Do you think young people today are interested in these issues and will follow them?
Zachary Suri 26:18
Oh, I do think so. But I think, I think, as Lauren was saying, it’s it’s very ideological, Cliff focused like that these countries have so much corruption and are still in the Russian sphere, when really we don’t understand them as as independent sort of very vibrant countries. And I think that with better education, and, and a more broad, unbiased look at the world that can only help
Jeremi Suri 26:48
as we move forward. Right, right. Well, I am super optimistic after our discussion here, because I think what we see with Maya, Matt, and Lauren, and Zachary, and what he hearing about students in Ukraine, is that there’s a lot of confusion and even a lot of cynicism. But there’s also it seems a commitment to try to understand and cynicism can turn to idealism, when it’s focused on getting beyond propaganda, well beyond the ignorance to actually understand the ways in which societies change. And as I think Lauren said so well, when it’s also about trying to show the respect of trying to understand the people behind the words. And I’m so proud that all of you are doing that. And I think there’s more and more of an interest in that maybe distrusting party lines and headlines is a good thing for our society. And maybe that’s a reason why more podcasts are helpful. Thank you for joining us today for this fascinating episode of This is Democracy.
Unknown Speaker 27:56
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Unknown Speaker 28:10
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