Don’t Ignore Russia

 

At the end of my last blog, I mentioned that Russia’s doping scandals have caught the world’s attention, if only for a moment (and have probably now been forgotten since the Olympics are concluded). However, as I implied earlier, Russia is not a country that should be ignored, although, given the problems that exist at home, it is easy to do. For those who keep track of the news, the Russian elections were recently held, and Vladimir Putin won by an enormous margin over his few competitors.

Although Putin and Russia might not seem to be the biggest story, especially given the headline-generating power of North Korea and Kim Jong-Un, it seems to me, as I look at sources, that overall, Russia is a much greater threat. They have significantly greater military and economic power and have already demonstrated a willingness, under Putin, to expand their power outside their borders (recall the annexation of Ukraine). But let’s briefly discuss the election and what it could mean for the future of Russia and Russia’s relations with the world.

First, there have been hundreds of accusations of voter fraud leveled against the Russian government during this election including everything from large quantities of ballots being forced into boxes by election officials to ballots being found in the boxes before voting had even begun. Will this hurt Putin’s reputation? In Russia, this is unlikely. If we neglect the accusations of voting fraud and the impact they could have had on the election, the most accurate calculations state that Putin won the election with a massive 76% of the popular vote. Despite the importance of the story of tampering with the election results, it is doubtful that it changed the outcome of the election. Putin is undeniably popular in Russia, and even without the results being effected, would most likely have won by a large margin. Having covered the basics of the election, what effects could Putin’s re-election have on Russia, both at home and in its international relations?

To begin this discussion, let’s look at Russia’s military presence. If military spending is given as a percent of GDP, Russia outspends all other nations including the United States. Additionally, Putin has been clear about his desire to make Russia a military superpower and even recently announced the development of new nuclear warheads that could avoid current missile defense technology. Although it is doubtful, at least in my opinion, that these warheads would ever be used, some of Putin’s past decisions indicate that he is not afraid to use Russia’s military power.

Although Putin has succeeded in improving the overall economic condition of Russia, he attempts to dissuade the population from focusing upon material things and to instead focus upon defending Russia from foreign threats and building up Russia’s international power. This emphasis is evidenced by his massive military spending and by the popularity boost he experiences whenever he describes Russia’s strength. He is heavily nationalistic – Russia comes first. It also does not appear as though Putin has much in the way of a moral compass – take for example that he has supported many brutal dictators in the Middle East.

So what is the overall effect of Putin’s re-election? The next six years will tell. But if there is one take away from this blog post, it is this: don’t ignore Russia.

World Literature Today

World Literature Today is a publication that is based out of Monnet Hall at the University of Oklahoma. It is one of the longest running literary periodicals in the United States, and its founder, Dr. Roy Temple House, was endorsed for a Nobel Peace Prize in 1948. World Literature Today is a periodical that discusses literature across the world. However, the organization behind the periodical does much more extensive work. Every one to two years, World Literature Today hosts a Puterbaugh festival at the University of Oklahoma for Puterbaugh Fellow of the year. The Puterbaugh Fellow is generally an international author who has gathered acclaim throughout their career. The Puterbaugh festivals are funded by a donation from J. G. Puterbaugh, a philanthropist who loved poetry, and their goal is to celebrate great international authors. This event exposes students and faculty to some of the most influential authors from around the world. The winners of the prestigious award are often current or future Nobel laureates. World Literature Today also offers a variety of other opportunities for students of all ages, including opportunities to attend Puterbaugh and Neustadt festivals, gain experience editing and marketing the periodical, and taking World Literature Today classes. World Literature Today also hosts a book club, of which I am a member. This book club meets approximately once per month. Each month a different book by an international author is read and discussed at the meeting. This provides an amazing opportunity for undergraduate like myself to be exposed to literature from around the world.

The most recent novel read by the World Literature Today book club was The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck, winner of the 2017 Puterbaugh prize. This is one of her more recent novels, published in 2014. The novel is a collection of four short stories, in which the protagonist dies differently in each story. The story insightfully examines the dramatic effects that can result from one small change in a person’s life. Stylistically, the novel is unique in several ways. First, between each short story, there is an intermission that investigates the changes that occurred because of the one small life change. And second, there are no names in the story. At times, it is nearly impossible to keep track of which character is which, who is the protagonist, and personality of any character. Although it’s challenging to ascertain why Ms. Erpenbeck made these choices, it seems to generalize this individual’s experience and make it more applicable to each reader. Perhaps because of these stylistic choices, I find myself contemplating the effect of one small change in my life. It has been an engaging book to read, and one that, without World Literature Today’s book club, I would not have had the opportunity to experience.

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Doping isn’t Dope

During the Winter Olympics of 2018, held in PyeonChang, a Russian curler was expelled from the competition because he was found to have meldonium in his system. Meldonium is a drug that increases blood flow, which is thought to improve athletic performance. Although other curlers have admitted there could be performance benefits by taking the drug, it seems remarkable that one would risk their career in a sport, and more than that, their reputation, by taking performance enhancing drugs (PEDs), especially in curling, a sport where athleticism is not at the fore. I don’t want to focus specifically on the athlete who is accused of doping, but upon the culture that seems to exist in Russia regarding this banned practice.

Much of the world is aware that over the past several years, it has been discovered that a large percentage of the Russian Olympic team, in some cases sponsored by the state, has been caught using PEDs. As a result of this, large numbers of Russian athletes were banned from competing in the 2016 and 2018 Olympic games. Many sports are known to have problems with doping but curling was not one of these sports. This idea appears valid because curling does not seem to be a particularly strenuous activity given its emphasis on skill rather than strength or conditioning.

To be fair to all concerned, doping occurs to varying degrees in all sports, because there will always be individuals who are willing to do anything, regardless of legality, to attain the highest level. However, at the highest levels of government within Russia, there is clearly an acceptance, and possibly encouragement, of athletes using PEDs to increase their chances of achieving international success within a sport. Now, even if this single Russian curler unintentionally used PEDs as he claims, Russia still has a problem with the practice. This is not a problem that Russia sees with itself but a problem the world sees with Russia. If I had to give one simple reason that Russia’s state-backed doping is a problem, it would be because Russia seems willing to do anything to achieve success or even domination in sports. And this desire, as will be explored in other blogs, extends outside the realm of sports. Russia wants to be a respected world power – and doping is just a manifestation of the deeper underlying problem.

A Brief Introduction

Since I’ll be writing this blog for a while, I should probably briefly introduce myself. As can be easily inferred from my URL, my name is Noah Bridges. I’m from Clinton, Mississippi and I’m currently a freshman at OU. As this blog indicates, I’m interested in studying abroad. As much as I’d like to say that’s all you need to know about me, I should expand on these ideas and describe myself a little more. As far as my academic interests are concerned, I love math, and most things related to math. I’m currently majoring in industrial and systems engineering, with the intent to minor in math. Just to briefly discuss my hobbies, I enjoy reading all kinds of books, but especially science fiction, such as Frank Herbert’s Dune series, and classic literature from the 19th and 20th centuries. Besides reading, I’m also a big fan of napping, watching Netflix, and eating; all common loves of most college students. But my passion is CrossFit. I’ve done CrossFit for five years, since I was 14 years old, and I have been coaching at various gyms for almost two years. Currently I work at Koda CrossFit Norman, and I probably spend more time there than anywhere besides my dorm room.

However, since the primary purpose of this blog is to chronicle my journeys abroad, I’ll talk about why I want to study abroad. It all goes back to the summer of 2013, when a German student stayed with my family over the summer holidays. He wasn’t an exchange student exactly – my dad and his father worked together on some projects, and Konstantin wanted to visit the U.S. As a result, he ended up staying with us for the summer of 2013 and part of the summer of 2014. This was my first legitimate exposure to someone from another country, and it was a great experience. We had a great time, discovering a mutual love of great hamburgers (and food in general) and indulging in lazy afternoons by my grandparents’ pool, among many other fun activities. But more importantly, we traveled through large swaths of the country that I had never before seen, such as the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas. Because of this incredible experience with Konstantin, it launched a desire to study abroad. This has remained to the present, and next fall my plan is to spend a semester in Italy, at OU’s campus in Arezzo. Hopefully, if circumstances work out, I’ll be able to visit Konstantin and his family while I’m in Europe.

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The OU German Club

As a part of my requirements for the Global Engagement Fellowship Program, I decided to join the OU German Club, since I am currently learning German and am interested in studying abroad in Germany at some point during my time at OU. The German Club puts on a variety of events related to culture, politics, and life in Germany. One of these events is the weekly Stammtisch, where students and faculty meet at House 333 on Campus Corner in Norman to discuss ideas and current events. Additionally, my favorite event I attended this semester was the event where the OU German Club hosted Dr. Stefan Buchwald, an official in the German Information Department, a branch of the German Embassy in the United States. He discussed the immigration crisis of 2015-2016 as well as its effect in the 2017 German Election. It was an enlightening event, to actually have an individual who lived in Germany offer his insights into the events about which I had read a great deal. The German Club is an excellent resource for enhancing one’s learning of the German language, because it offers events in which one can actually speak the language with others as well as informational sessions, such as the event at which Dr. Buchwald presented. However, the German Club is not limited simply to cultural concerns. At an event I was unfortunately unable to attend, a student named Erik Flom presented, exclusively in German, on the work he had done in Griefswald, Germany at the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics.

Beyond anything else, joining the OU German Club is an incredible chance to enhance your learning by immersing yourself in some aspects of German culture and connecting with other individuals who share your interest in German culture and studying the German language.

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A Continuing Discussion of the German Election and Immigration Crisis

In an event hosted by the OU German Club, Dr. Stefan Buchwald, a career diplomat who currently works at the German Information Center for the United States (based out of the German Embassy to the U.S.) discussed the immigration crisis of 2015 and 2016 and how this event impacted the most recent German election. By way of introduction, the immigration crisis has dramatically impacted German politics and the German state as a whole. It is an ongoing issue, but one that is steadily improving. I have already discussed some of the background to both the immigration crisis and the election in a previous post, so I’ll dive straight in to Dr. Buchwald’s analysis in this post.

First, it can be difficult for those of us in America to fully grasp the magnitude of the immigration crisis in Germany. To begin, although only having a landmass the size of Montana, Germany has a population of approximately 82 million. This is a much more densely populated area than virtually any large area in the United States. Additionally, over the period of time from 2015-2016, nearly 2 million refugees rushed to Germany seeking asylum; at the peak of this influx, 12,000 or more people entered Germany daily. Despite the magnitude of the crisis, Prime Minister Angela Merkel chose to keep the borders open for humanitarian reasons. As a result of this decision, the massive influx of refugees has caused a variety of difficulties for Germany. These difficulties are based around two primary issues: finding a place for the migrants to live and successfully integrating them into German society.

The first challenge, caring for the immigrants, was most challenging at the height of the crisis in 2016. During this time, when 12,000 or so immigrants entered the country daily, the German government, despite transporting immigrants all across the country, could barely find sufficient housing. But the migrants needed more than homes. They needed jobs to provide for themselves and other necessities. Caring for the refugees is an ongoing challenge for the German government; however, as the migrants become more self-sufficient and integrated into the German culture, this challenge becomes progressively less substantial.

The second issue, integrating the immigrants into society, has also been a significant challenge for the German government. When she allowed the migrants to continue entering Germany, Merkel acknowledged that there are “expectations” associated with immigration. Namely, that the migrants will learn German and obey German laws. In a word, they will integrate into German society. The German government has tried to make this transition easy, providing immigrants with classes to teach them the language and assisting them in finding jobs to help them develop autonomy. Although there have been distinct costs and difficulties associated with immigration, the immigrants have contributed significantly to German’s workforce, which, prior to the massive influx of immigrants, had been steadily aging.

Moving on to the German election, it is undeniable that the crisis shaped the outcome of the election. Alternative for Deutschland (AfD) experienced a dramatic boost in popularity because of the immigration crisis. Despite their meteoric rise, Dr. Buchwald expressed his hope that their popularity would be short-lived and they would fade to the background in future elections. He also asserted that they would gain more support the more that fear and the doctrine of isolationism is propagated throughout Germany. Additionally, Dr. Buchwald expressed his belief that AfD would not accomplish anything meaningful in the legislature, given that every other party represented in the Bundestag (the German parliament) is opposed to their ideals.

To conclude, the immigration crisis in Germany is a complex and multi-faceted issue that will undoubtedly have significant repercussions as time goes on. Despite the controversial nature of some of Chancellor Merkel’s decisions, the situation continues to improve as the German economy stabilizes and the state continues to integrate migrants. While the election was significantly impacted by the immigration crisis, Dr. Buchwald is hopeful that these changes will not be permanent. The German Immigration Crisis is not over – but the future ahead is bright for Germany.

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On the 2017 German Election

As international citizens, we have a responsibility to be informed on current events the world over, and the German election was a momentous event for politics in the EU. As a disclaimer, I’m not relating my views on these events, just summarizing commentary that I’ve read on the subject.
To begin, let’s look at a general overview of German politics. Germany is generally moderate to liberal on the political spectrum, and no far-right groups, as they are called in the US, have succeeded in German elections since World War 2. That is, until approximately 2 months ago, when Alternative for Deutschland (Afd) succeeded in gaining representation in the German political system. Having covered the basics, let’s look at some of the more detailed background information of German politics.
German Politics, especially in comparison to many other Western, are considered to be fairly stable and centrist. Germany’s role in keeping the Euro strong is a clear example of its stability and influence in the EU. In spite of this, recent events, most notably the immigration crisis caused by Syrian refugees in 2016, have created some disorder and dissatisfaction among some among the German population. In 2016, Prime Minister Angela Merkel signed a law allowing up to 1.3 million primarily Islamic immigrants from Syria into Germany (1). The Afd has used this event as a rallying cry, asserting, among other things, that Germany is no place for Islam. Some consider it to be the parallel of the populist Trump movement that occurred in the U.S. in the 2016 election. The Afd is still a minority, only winning approximately 13% of the popular vote in Germany. Nevertheless, this is a dramatic increase in popularity for the party, and shows that the political landscape may be changing in Germany.
So what led to the Afd’s sudden rise in popularity? To begin, I’ll cite a graph, presented in an exhibition on immigration in Germany in Kaufmann Hall at OU, relating the number of asylum seekers entering Germany for the past 4 years. From 2013-2016, the number of asylum-seekers entering Germany each year expanded from 127,023 in 2013 to 745,545 in 2016 (2). This serves to highlight the dramatic increase into Germany over those four years. While the immigration crisis may have been the catalyst for the Afd’s success, it does not explain everything, as John Burn-Murdoch, a contributor to the publication the Financial Times, points out in his article, “Germany’s Election and the Trouble with Correlation.” Interestingly enough, most of the common markers of political views such as religious views, race, age, etc. have no strong correlations with the Afd’s success. Although Burn-Murdoch points out there are some slim relationships, none can account for Afd’s success. In manipulating statistics, Murdoch notes that the success of Afd is rooted in the region that was East Germany. In what was East Germany, only 3% of the population is first or second generation immigrants, whereas in what was West Germany, nearly 20% of the population is first or second generation immigrants. Murdoch asserts that this cultural discrepancy, the difference in migrant population, is largely responsible for Afd’s success in the most recent election. The reason, he hypothesizes, is that since more individuals in what was West Germany have been exposed to more cultures, they are more accepting of those whose background is different than their own. In his own words, “as exposure to people from other cultures increases, prejudices diminish.” (3)

1. From Reuters, “Germany’s far-right AfD has more immigrant MP’s than Merkel’s conservatives.”
2. Statistics from the Federal Minister of the Interior of Germany.
3. Murdoch, John — “Germany’s Election and the Trouble with Correlation.”

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Der Großer Stammtisch

On September 29, 2017, the OU German Club organized a großer Stammtisch at Das Boot Camp in Norman, OK. I should probably start by defining the term großer Stammtisch. Translated literally from German, Stammtisch means cracker barrel, though not referring to the restaurant so well loved throughout the United States. In this context, a Stammtisch is a gathering of individuals to discuss current events and other topics of interest. And the adjective “großer,” which precedes the word Stammtisch, simply means “larger” or “greater.”

Unfortunately, as a newbie to the German language, I was unable to fully participate in the discussions going on at this gathering – much went over my head. Nonetheless, it was eye opening to hear individuals speak fluently in a foreign language, even while drinking what could easily be described as a substantial amount of beer. This leads me to a discussion of the food and drink at the Stammtisch. I had only had German food once before, and I could barely remember what I had; as I recall, it was Spätzl, German pasta covered in Gouda cheese. At the großer Stammtisch, I tried one of the most famous German dishes, Wiener schnitzel. Essentially, it’s breaded, fried pork. Although it was definitely tasty, in my opinion, Chick-Fil-A has them beat when it comes to fried food (although as an enormous fan of Chick-Fil-A, I might not be completely unbiased). What was more remarkable than the food, however, was the large quantities of alcohol that could be purchased at the restaurant. Their signature glass in which beer was served was a glass in the shape of a boot, and these glasses ranged in size from one liter to a massive three liters. No one ordered the three-liter option, but the idea of drinking anything, much less beer, in that quantity astounds the mind.

Although I did not get to participate in many German conversations, attending the Großer Stammtisch was an illuminating experience that, I am sure, only begins to capture the feeling of actually being in Germany, where everyone speaks a language that is foreign to you. One day, hopefully by the time I go to Germany, I’ll be able to join in these conversations. The Großer Stammtisch organized by the OU German club offered me a great opportunity to see the great German love of beer and food and experience conversation in a language other than my own.

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