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An American Professor in Russia

Justin Lifflander

Moscow, 25 July 2017

There are at least 20 towns in the United States named Moscow. But towards the end of my visit to America in June, I took the appearance of this sign as a sign, and headed home. Then again, it could have been an attack by Russian hackers on the design computer of the road-sign factory. We’ll never know, and there will never be proof anyway.

I departed with a heavy heart, having fathomed – with help from the American media – the depth of the abyss into which US-Russian relations have sunk.

Hope had landed on my Moscow windowsill briefly in March. When I heard that Jon Huntsman Jr. was to be named ambassador to Russia, I read his biography and took heart at the possibility of an improvement in relations. To facilitate that, I immediately sent him a copy of my book. I have no idea if he’s read it, but if he has questions, I am ready to go to the airport and meet him at the bottom of the staircase when the plane lands. Then again, he might have other priorities.

Cornell University

Returning to Moscow on 10 June, I immersed myself in final preparations for the Russia lecture tour of Professor Glenn Altschuler. Professor Altschuler was my faculty advisor at Cornell University 34 years ago, and is my son’s advisor now. I pitched the idea of inviting Glenn to Russia to the US Embassy’s cultural affairs department in the spring. They agreed to sponsor his visit and be the main organizer. We settled on four topics that he could speak about here, based on his publications and experience: the origins of rock & roll; best practices of managing a major university; legal advocacy in the US, based on his recent book Ten Great American Trials; and the history of US presidential power.

Over the previous two months I had leveraged every friend I have in Russia in order to find host venues and appropriate audiences. My apprehension grew as show-time approached. We were coming up short. My contacts, as well as those of the embassy, were dealing with the usual bureaucracies. But there was also an unspoken undercurrent. Perhaps it was not the best time for an American academic to attempt to penetrate the walls of state institutions, not to mention the minds contained therein. 

If they only knew Glenn Altschuler, I thought, people would flock to his lectures. He is a teddy-bear with a PhD. His body is compact, but his head is full of stories. Stories resulting from a habit of reading not less than 100 pages a day for the last 41 years. (That’s approaching 1.5 million pages, if you are counting) Add to that a four-decade career as a senior member of Cornell University’s staff, and his adventures around the world— speaking about the books he’s written, fund raising for Cornell, or teaching classes on and off campus—and you can imagine what a fascinating person he is. And it is understandable that, with a head so full of stories, there is not much room left for hair. His bristly mustache, hovering above his sprightly smile, compensates for the hair deficit. His eyes twinkle in a big way, magnified by his thick glasses—a consequence of all that reading. 

Finally, it started to come together, much thanks to the charm and persistence of Kim Scrivner and her team at the US Embassy Moscow cultural affairs department, and some of the contacts my friends provided.

After a gentle ramp-up in St. Petersburg, where he did the trials lecture twice and rock & roll once, we readied to head south to the capital. On the eve of Saturday’s departure, we got the revised schedule for Moscow. Glenn's popularity was skyrocketing. He was set to give three lectures per day, for three days straight, interspersed with several press and PR moments. 

Glenn’s sprightly smile drooped a bit, and I think I heard a slight hiss, as I informed him of the revised schedule. “What? I’ve never done 3 lectures in one day in my entire life!” I took the blame, but gently scolded him for being too polite in our earlier exchanges when I tried to pin him down about the volume of work he would do here.  I also made a note to identify the location of the medical emergency kit at every venue, since Glenn does not smoke or drink.

Glenn, Marina and my friends from Beslan enjoying a white-night cruise on the Neva.

Glenn’s stamina had convinced me of his omnipotence. For example, he set off from Ithaca, in upstate New York, early Tuesday morning, took a bus to New York – a 400-kilometer trip — came into the city to give a lecture to a law firm, went to the airport and got on the transatlantic flight to Moscow, where I met him and we flew to St. P together, arriving Wednesday afternoon. We enjoyed a stroll, then dinner with some visiting Cornellians and my token native – a good clown-friend Marina Shusterman. Glenn knew he could not refuse when she invited us back to her apartment for tea and pie. I can confirm that Glenn’s normally brisk Brooklyn-native walking pace doubles when he is genuinely exhausted and wants to make it back to his hotel room to pass out.

The speaking tour was a success. He spoke to more than 350 people during 11 different lectures and a radio interview, many of which were live-streamed and garnered several thousand viewers.

Anyone who has ever given a public presentation knows the energy that goes into it, and how drained one feels afterwards—particularly if a passionate question and answer session follows. When the speaker successfully connects with his audience, there is an energy transfer – not unlike boxing or humanitarian clowning. And Glenn did connect. Muhammad Ali would have been proud.

Glenn connecting with St. Petersburg Lawyers

Jaws dropped and gasps of pleasant surprise were heard when this very American man mentioned that his father was born in Russia. Sometimes Glenn would single out a person in the audience worthy of an intellectual challenge or friendly rebuff. Glenn’s straight man was always well chosen and the other listeners benefited from their banter. And Glenn is the master of the dramatic pause: “When Dan White got out of prison, he killed again….this time, he killed himself.”

The one speaking tool that required a bit of honing was Glenn’s self-deprecation shtick. Glenn often says that he wants everyone to leave his lectures more depressed than when they came in (that is to say, to be thinking…). But his jests about his advanced age and avuncular appearance occasionally baffled audiences. Not something they expected from such a respected figure.

In fact, he often got a supportive backlash, with listeners grumbling in negation of his purported self -perception. 

At times, the wave of positive emotions he elicited from the crowds became hazardous. I had taken on the role of being his personal bodyguard, sans earpiece. I jokingly promised that, as long as he kept to the agreed topics, he would not wind up, as some opposition leaders here have, covered in green iodine. Glenn, being naturally conflict averse, very politically savvy, and also a small target, was at no time in any real danger. But there were two close calls.

Glenn connecting with Russian history

I sank into the big fluffy couch in the back of the living room at the home of the US Embassy deputy chief of mission in Moscow, while Glenn began to present to an enthralled group of mostly middle-aged female administrators from Moscow’s leading higher-education institutions. The intellectual pheromones began to fly. As I observed one lady educator in the front row, I realized my position in the room left me unable to defend him. The rapture on her face as he spoke; the gyrations of her hands as they stroked the air around his words which floated in her direction (she was overwhelmed with the joy that she had found someone who understood her plight); the wiggling of her hips on the chair…I took these as signs that she might, at any moment, leap up and hug him to death. I would be unable to make it to the front of the room and tackle her in time to save him.  Eventually, she calmed down, and so did I.

At one point during a lecture, Glenn made it clear he was available for marriage offers, and subsequently distributed his email address (the real one). I find it hard to believe he didn’t receive at least a few takers, though a Cornell ring was prominently displayed on his right ring finger— making it clear who his wife really is.

And there was the Friday evening lecture in St. Petersburg. A group of 40 or so young people between the ages of 14 and 18 had gathered to learn about the origins of rock & roll. I never knew that the term was slang from the 1950s for having sex. And I had no idea that Little Richard’s song Tutti Frutti was about homosexuality.  As Glenn described the sensuality of rock & roll, I suddenly remembered we have a law in Russia against promoting non-traditional sexual relations to minors. (I do not know if we have a law against promoting traditional sexual relations to minors). I had visions of a SWAT team softly traipsing up the carpeted marble steps and bursting into the room. Where to hide Glenn? Roll him up in the carpet? They’d likely notice the lump. Stuff him up the chimney? It had long been sealed.  Leap out the window together? I think the police troops sometimes repel down the sides of buildings they are storming.  By the time my paranoia subsided, he was safely on to the next topic. Something about Elvis’s hips.

The lecture on Ten Great Trials was well received by lawyers and the general public alike. The theme running through it was a paraphrased quote of Jorge Luis Borges: The future belongs to those who tell the best stories. In both court cases Glenn used in the lecture – O.J. Simpson and Dan White – it was clear that the defendant killed people, but was either acquitted or given a reduced sentence because his defense team did a better job at telling their version of the story than the prosecution did. Glenn reminded his audiences that “Facts do not speak for themselves.”

Beyond describing the nuts and bolts of legal advocacy, Glenn pointed out the essential strengths of the American justice system, as revealed in most of the cases he and coauthor Faust Rossi analyzed: it’s good to be lucky; it’s better to be smart and lucky; it’s best to be lucky, smart and rich. One young lawyer told me he was intrigued by what he had learned about the US legal system: much more room for creativity than in Russia.

The last lecture Glenn delivered was about the balance of power between the president of the United States and the other branches of government. An audience of about 40 people, undaunted by the security control necessary to enter, gathered at the American Center in Moscow, which is housed inside the embassy building on Novinsky Bulvar.

The listeners were impressively versed in the intricacies of American politics and government structure. Glenn still impressed them with his summary of challenges to the balance of power created by the executive branch. These include threats to the independence of the judiciary. He used Trump’s immigration ban and the court-imposed decrees around it as an example.

Glenn highlighted efforts to circumvent legislative authority—a trend which picked up steam under every U.S. president since Ronald Reagan. Case in point: Obama’s using executive orders and administrative procedures to ease tensions with Cuba. I learned that “signing statements” – documents a US president can issue to accompany a bill he signs into law which state his interpretation of the law and what he will and will not act on – are also an increasingly popular tool used by recent administrations to maximize their power.

The discussion turned to the administration of President Trump, how it came to exist, and what to expect moving forward. As far as the first question is concerned, Glenn had given me a simple illustration earlier. He described his grandmother’s approach to choosing between candidates. She would simply ask family members, “Do I vote for the Donkeys or the Elephants this year?”

Glenn reminded the audience that Americans have always been suspicious of the exercise of political power. He quoted Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis: “Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.” Sentiments appropriate for leaders of all persuasions and systems

When asked by a member of the audience what can be done to restore relations between our two great countries, Glenn added a final quote, from Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci: “I'm a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will. The challenge of modernity is to live without illusions and without becoming disillusioned.” Then he said, with that twinkle in his eye, “We need to keep doing what we are doing right now: being in contact, talking, trying to understand each other…”

I consider myself lucky to have been able to spend seven days with Glenn, living in the same hotel suite, sharing meals, travel, and many hours in Moscow traffic jams. Our relationship evolved from being long-term acquaintances to good friends. I hope he returns.

Meanwhile, I wonder: does the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs have a similar program for sponsoring cultural figures to go on speaking engagements in the United States? Ok, Josef Kobzon wouldn’t make the list, and I wouldn’t recommend offering former Ambassador Kislyak, just yet. But it’s clear the people-to-people element is one of the few levels of cooperation still functioning. It would be great to see  genuine competition between the two countries in this format.