Journalist Julia Ioffe Discusses Modern Russia

Ariana Howard ‘20

Staff Writer

The annual Hansford M. Epes Distinguished Lecture Series honors individuals from a range of professions within the humanities field. The Series was established in 2012 in honor of Hansford Epes ‘61, who served in the Humanities program as a professor, specializing in German Studies, until his retirement the same year. This year, Julia Ioffe, a political journalist for The Atlantic, was selected to speak on Thursday, February 21st.

Ioffe spent her early childhood in Moscow in a Jewish family. Her family chose to leave Russia for the United States when she was only seven years old because of the overwhelming presence of antisemitism throughout the country. Upon leaving the country, the family members lost their Russian citizenship. Ioffe still travels back to Russia quite frequently, however, due to her career as a political journalist.

Dr. Amanda Ewington, Bacca Professor in the Humanities and Chair of the Russian Studies Department, explained that Davidson chose Ioffe as a guest speaker because she provides a unique narrative as a Russian-American Jewish public intellectual. Introducing narratives that contrast the conventional Western civilization perspective is a major goal of the Bacca Foundation for the Humanities program at Davidson. 

The Bacca Foundation is a program created by an anonymous donor in order to promote the humanities and push back against the purely Western civilization lens that the humanities is typically taught through. Ewington explained, “We wanted to bring someone in for the Epes Lectureship that can add value to what the Bacca program is doing. Julia Ioffe was selected because she’s more than just a journalist; she’s an important voice for understanding Russia.”

Ioffe’s lecture titled “What Does Russia Want?” explored the dynamics of Putin’s Russia. In front of a packed crowd in Hance Auditorium, Ioffe explained at the beginning of her lecture that her main goal was to “demystify Russia.” She hoped that by giving her audience a better understanding of the dynamics in contemporary Russia, they would be able to have a more nuanced perspective on the nation. For example, the traditional Western narrative of Vladimir Putin is that he is an oppressive leader who is promoting immoral values. Ioffe hoped that her lecture could demonstrate that “Putin is not a Bond villain.”

Although Ioffe has major issues with how the government is run in Russia, particularly how Putin became President amidst highly suspect and contested elections, she still wanted her audience to understand that Putin is one of Russia’s tamer leaders. Ioffe stated, “In the scheme of Russian leaders, Putin isn’t all that bloodthirsty or bloody.”

 In fact, she even went as far as to describe Putin as somewhat of a mediator. Though her views countered widely held beliefs surrounding Russia, Ioffe’s main goal was not to push a single view of the country. Rather, she added to the conversation by giving a perspective on Russia that is not typically part of the Western narrative.

Ewington stated after the lecture: “[Ioffe] is very sympathetic to Russia in the sense that she loves it in the way that only someone who really knows it would love it. She doesn’t demonize it, and she doesn’t romanticize it. Her background is able to provide nuanced understanding of Russia that doesn’t have a political agenda.”

Ioffe is nevertheless still a vocal critic of Russia. She does not worry about her safety, however, because the Russian government wants to avoid conflict with other countries, particularly the United States. She stated, “Nothing is going to happen to me. It’s my Russian colleagues who are in danger.” 

However, Ioffe cannot say the same in the United States. She asserted, “I definitely feel a lot less safe here than I used to, which is crazy. I mean, for the child of family who [left] the Soviet Union to escape persecution in order to feel safe…it’s incredibly disheartening.” 

Ioffe has been the victim of antisemitic hate speech and has even received several death threats, especially in the wake of a 2016 Atlantic piece in which she profiled Melania Trump. Ioffe received a phone call where the person on the other end of the line played a Hitler speech for her. Others have directly threatened Ioffe and made it clear that they knew where she lived. 

Ioffe has received intense harassment because she is a fervent critic of President Donald Trump. She worries that the violence against journalists will worsen with Trump’s efforts to discredit the media. Ioffe fears that this harassment will only intensify. She believes that Trump’s election has empowered citizens to act on their hateful ideologies. Ioffe explained, “He sets a really hateful tone. Not just about Jews. Not just about journalists. It’s about this embattled white male minority.”

Ioffe also asserts that American Jews need to be more cognizant of the hostility that still exists towards them. She stated: “You may think you’re white and some people might think you’re white, but the people who are now in charge do not. You’re not in the group you think you’re in. In general, you should be more aware and sympathetic to other groups as well. We are in the trenches together.” 

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