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Follow up to Robert D. English lecture on the Crisis in the Ukraine

Following the lecture given by Robert D. English on 1 December 2014 in the University of Montana President’s Lecture Series, there have been some interesting developments in the local press. On December 9, this guest column appeared in the Missoulian Newspaper, to which I wrote the following response:

Immodest responses to modest proposals


The lecture that Robert English presented on Dec. 1 in the University of Montana’s President’s Lecture Series gave serious offense to a number of people, not only to Boris Soukonnikov, the author of “Lecture on Ukraine full of Russian propaganda” (guest column, Dec. 9).

As the coordinator of the lecture series, I have received e-mail messages and telephone calls voicing extreme displeasure over Professor English’s lecture, “Ukraine, Russia, and the West: Crisis, Causes, and Consequences.” What were my criteria in bringing to Missoula such a coarse-minded propagandist for Vladimir Putin, more than one person has asked me this week.

It is easy to see why people would be quick to condemn the credentials of English, the director of the School of International Relations at the University of Southern California. He has but one Ph.D., and it came from an institution of higher learning well-known for its shoddy scholarship: Princeton University. His published work includes three books, but only one of them has won major prizes. What could I have been thinking to assume that it might be worth hearing from a man who has occupied himself for the past dozen years or so laboring on a soon-to-be-released political biography of Mikhail Gorbachev and now is engaging actively in our national debate on the Ukraine crisis?

In addition to these grave defects in his scholarly record, English squandered many years of his life working for the U.S. Department of Defense, involved in strategic and conventional force planning. He also worked as a senior researcher on the Committee for National Security, for which he analyzed strategic defense and space weapons, treaty verification and compliance, and general Soviet political-military affairs. This professional experience probably has not enriched very much the courses that he teaches at USC on Russian and Post-Soviet Politics, Strategy and Arms Control, the Political Economy of Eurasia, Ecological Security and Global Politics, and Nationalism and Ethnic Conflict. Yes, the choice of this man to give a lecture at UM manifestly is a black mark on my 28-year record of coordinating the President’s Lecture Series.

Soukonnikov professes himself to have been shocked by a lecture he describes as “a recitation of Russian propaganda” and “pro-Russian falsities.” Yet fair-minded members of the audience would have noticed that the lecturer attempted to find a middle ground between the United States and Russia, the two principals in the Ukraine crisis. He criticized both sides: the United States for breaking its promise to Gorbachev not to permit the expansion of NATO toward the borders of Russia and for meddling in the internal politics of Ukraine; and Russia for Putin’s policies, which he told us no one could admire and were not truthful.

Soukonnikov himself bears the responsibility for the genuinely shocking aspects of the lecture by English. Laboring under the misapprehension that he and not English was to be the featured speaker of the evening, he vehemently interrupted the lecturer and accused him of lying to the audience. English stood accused in the lecture hall of serving as an apologist for Putin. Later Soukonnikov took advantage of the Q-and-A to give a lecture of his own. Completely self-absorbed, he showed no concern at all for the rights of the other 500 people in the room. It was an appalling display of incivility and an embarrassment for the university.

I had some hope of seeing a letter from him in the Missoulian. Instead of what he wrote, however, the letter should have taken the form of an apology to the UM community and to English, who did not deserve the shabby treatment that he received in our lecture series.

Published inNotebook

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