Russian studies podcast explores our attraction to the “enemy”


Mackenzie Oster | Staff Photographer

Sean Guillory, the digital scholarship curator in Pitt’s Center for Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies, started the SRB Podcast — short for Sean’s Russia Blog — in 2015.

By Ananya Pathapadu, Staff Writer

Whether it’s a true-crime series on Spotify or one discussing the news on Stitcher, it’s likely you have listened to a podcast recently. In a year filled with tension in the United States, a podcast on another country might interest you — Russia.

Sean Guillory, the digital scholarship curator in Pitt’s Center for Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies, started the SRB Podcast — short for Sean’s Russia Blog — in 2015. Guillory speaks from his knowledge of Eurasian politics, culture and history and interviews academics about topics such as U.S.-Russia relations and historical and current events in Eurasia.

Guillory said he started the podcast because he wanted to take the knowledge in academia about Russia and present it to the general public.

“I realized that there is an audience for serious engagement of Russian history and contemporary Russia and the wider region. It’s just that most people who are interested don’t have access,” Guillory said. “They don’t go to a university, they don’t have access to peer-reviewed journals, academic books are very expensive.”

The SRB Podcast is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, SoundCloud, Tunein, Stitcher and other platforms. Each episode features a guest who joins Guillory to discuss a topic, event or book related to Russia.

Erica Fraser, an assistant professor of history at Carleton University, was a guest on an SRB Podcast episode about Soviet military masculinity. Like Guillory, Fraser said she thinks the podcast format allows for scholars to share their research with each other, while the conversational tone helps people from all fields understand the material.

“When academics talk to each other at conferences, for instance, we can get quite specific and theoretical,” Fraser said. “Those are important conversations for us to have with each other, but they don’t always help folks outside the specific field we’re in understand more about our research.”

Guillory said his interest in Russia came from growing up during the Cold War when relations between the United States and Russia were tense.

“I grew up being told the Soviet Union is an evil empire and about nuclear war. All of this scary Cold War stuff,” Guillory said. “And part of it is an attraction to the enemy. Why should we hate these people?”

According to Guillory, he initially wanted to learn more about Russia out of political interest in the Soviet Union and communism, which led him to pursue a degree in history from UC Riverside with a specialization in Russia. He went on to earn his MA from Riverside, and his Ph.D. in Russian and European history from UCLA. After traveling to Russia, learning about the culture and the people, he began to move away from seeing Russia as a foreign enemy.

“As I learned more about the history and the culture, going there, living in Russia, speaking in the language, my interests have moved far away from these naive interests based in the Cold War,” Guillory said.

Guillory has taken multiple trips to Russia since 2000 as a result of his studies and personal interest in Russian culture. He said the country that once felt unfamiliar to him has become, in some cases, more comfortable than the United States.

“When I first started going to Russia, and a lot of my friends and colleagues too, we used to have these really kind of … exotic stories,” Guillory said. “But now, going to Russia is like going anywhere else. In fact, on this last trip to Moscow, I found that Moscow was more convenient than it is here.”

Whereas Guillory’s relation to Russia has come from growing up through the Cold War and its aftermath, the guests on the SRB Podcast come from different backgrounds. Elena Gapova, a sociology professor at Western Michigan University, was a guest on an episode about the protests in her home country of Belarus.

“My interest is more in Belarus, where I come from,” Gapova said. “I started writing about my part of the world, as I was trying to understand what was going on there after the disintegration of socialism.”

Interest in Russia is not limited to academic study. In fact, Russia has always been in the United States’ radar, but even more so in the more recent Russian interference questions in the presidential election.

According to Time magazine, Special Counsel Robert Mueller published a report on this issue discussing possible Russian hacks into the Clinton campaign among other possible interferences during the 2016 election. Guillory said in his view, although many Americans think Russian interference a real possibility, Russians tend to disagree with the idea.

“As a Russian friend told me, if they were so successful in putting Donald Trump into power, if they actually pulled that off, he said, ‘It is a state I don’t even recognize because they can’t even manage the country,’” Guillory said.

According to Guillory, Americans’ views on Russia are founded on the idea that Putin is an all-powerful dictator-like figure who has the last say on all matters. He said this image plays into supervillain tropes and is not his actual image.

“Though Putin has an enormous amount of power, in terms of deciding things, he also has to juggle various interests. He has to juggle people saying one thing in one ear and another thing in another ear,” Guillory said. “In many respects, he’s like any leader, but one with lots and lots of power.”

Guillory explained a lack of a strong opposition leader who would win against Putin in the election allows Putin to remain in power. Moreover, this year, the government passed a constitutional amendment that now allows Putin to serve another two terms, even though he has already done two terms.

“What the constitution did is it zeroed out his terms, so he actually has two more terms if he wants to, which basically means, 2024 is the next presidential election, he can be in for another 12 years,” Guillory said.

Although Americans’ views on Russia come from the biggest news stories from the nation, which revolve around Putin and his administration, Fraser said it is important to differentiate between the government and its people.

“Like with any country, we should remember that the current federal government there does not represent all individual Russian people. ‘Russia’ did this, or ‘Russia’ did that, can be quite overly general and is the kind of language that only perpetuates assumptions and stereotypes,” Fraser said.

Guillory’s newest series of podcasts highlights the similar histories of the United States and Russia. So far, he has released episodes on slavery and serfdom, as well as how Alaska went from a part of the Russian empire to being sold to America. Guillory said his focus is on bringing attention to how these two countries are not as different as portrayed.

“The idea is to look at some of these commonalities because we tend to overemphasize the differences,” he said.