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James V. Wertsch
James V. Wertsch
James V. Wertsch is David R. Francis distinguished professor and director emeritus of the McDonnell International Scholars Academy at Washington University in St Louis, where he teaches courses in anthropology and global studies. He is a consulting professor at Fudan University, an honorary member of the Russian Academy of Education and a fellow in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. His latest book is How Nations Remember: A Narrative Approach.

Basic national narratives such as the threat of invasion, creating a ‘Russian world’ and protecting pure Christianity are driving Putin’s actions. Rather than challenging them with facts and rational argument, what is needed are efforts to control the narrative and move it in a new direction.

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A recent poll shows the Russian president continues to enjoy massive popular support. This may be less because Russians lack of access to genuine information, but due to the pervasiveness of an ‘expulsion of alien enemies’ narrative.

Having inherited the narrative of victimhood at foreign hands and the need for a strongman leader to realise Russia’s destined greatness, Putin is only putting it into practice. Moscow’s actions on Ukraine and Georgia can only be fully understood in this context.

Russia’s actions towards Ukraine can be understood through the lens of history, with a legacy of foreign invasions informing Putin’s thinking. Ukraine has its own narrative, though, that highlights Russia’s aggression and rejection of Ukrainian sovereignty.

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The Fulbright exchange programme was born out of hopes for peace after second world war and reflected realism about the need to avoid another cataclysm. Stopping the flow of Fulbrighters between China and the US undermines decades of effort to build understanding and cooperation, and avoid uninformed miscalculations.

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The emotional scars of the opium wars and bullying by colonial powers resonate among ordinary Chinese in a way the West does not fully appreciate.

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