Meeting Putin, Working For Gorbachev, And More Lessons From Russia
Robert Ahdieh’s brush with Vladimir Putin in the early 1990s didn’t leave him with the impression that the future president of Russia would prove to be a person of much consequence.
As an undergraduate studying and working on legal reform issues in Russia, Ahdieh participated in various gatherings on constitutional and legal questions. It was at one of those events that he was introduced to the deputy mayor of St. Petersburg.
“He didn’t really stand out at the time, but that deputy mayor was Vladimir Putin,” said Ahdieh, dean of the Texas A&M University School of Law. “For my research, I was interviewing people about the process of legal and constitutional reform. He didn’t even cross my mind as someone it would be a good use of time to interview. He wasn’t a figure of note.”
When Putin was named Russia’s prime minister a few years later, Ahdieh said, he was still mostly a non-entity: “Most, myself included, were like, ‘Who?'”
More than 25 years later, Ahdieh is watching the devastating reverberations of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Ahdieh, who is the Anthony G. Buzbee Endowed Dean’s Chair at the law school in Fort Worth, said it’s been painful to see the killing of thousands of Ukrainian citizens and the destruction of cities across the country.
“This is so needless in many ways, and seeing the loss of human life in places I know and have spent time is even more disheartening,” he said.
From 1990 to 1996, Ahdieh traveled to Russia multiple times a year to study and conduct research. This period had a large influence on his professional interests in law, and his research focus on the role of legal systems in society. He later entered academia as an expert on Russian and post-Soviet law. Under Putin’s leadership, however, he saw law became more of “window dressing” each passing year – with the real decisions made based on politics, not law.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, Ahdieh became interested in how the burgeoning country would function in the absence of the moral and ethical commonalities normally provided by legal systems.
The dean saw this process play out firsthand during a pivotal time in the country’s history. But prior to observing how a new democratic society would emerge from the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was Russia’s people who originally drew him to the country.
Israel To Russia
Wanting a unique experience before finding himself behind a desk for the bulk of his adulthood, Ahdieh spent a year after high school in northern Israel, volunteering as a janitor at the Baháʼí World Centre. The apartment building where he lived was also home to many Russian Jews who had for the first time been allowed permission to emigrate from the Soviet Union.
Ahdieh had never lived on his own. He also couldn’t cook, and quickly started losing weight.
“Among my new neighbors was this little Russian babushka who saw me and was unhappy that I looked like I was fading away,” he said. “She would drag me into her apartment, and that was my introduction to Russia. I totally fell in love with the culture. They were incredibly warm. They loved literature, poetry, art, and were consistently smart and highly-educated.”
At the end of that year, Ahdieh spent three months traveling around the Soviet Union. By the time he arrived at the Princeton University campus that fall, he knew he wanted the country to be at the center of his coursework and research.
Ahdieh was determined to learn the language. He walked around listening to lessons on tape and signed up for Russian classes his first semester. When a professor told him that he would likely never be able to speak the language fluently, Ahdieh worked even harder.
He returned to Moscow in the summer of 1991, shortly after an attempted coup to wrest control from the president at the time, Mikhail Gorbachev. Ahdieh stayed busy studying at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations and doing volunteer research on legal reform issues.
It was clear that change was coming – and soon – to the Soviet Union. Ahdieh, who was 19 at the time, decided to spend time studying among an older generation of professors, who were “true believers,” to hear their perspective before they were gone.
The Soviet Union fell apart just a few months later. After Gorbachev resigned that December, the former president established his own foundation. Ahdieh would later track him down backstage at a lecture at the University of Pennsylvania. He walked away with Gorbachev’s personal fax number and an internship opportunity.
Ahdieh spent several months in 1992 and 1993 doing research for Gorbachev and his senior staff.
“He’s a fascinating historical figure, and hearing him talk about where the country was at that time and where it was going was incredibly interesting,” Ahdieh said.
Years later, Gorbachev sent a photo of himself to the professor who had doubted Ahdieh’s Russian skills. On the photograph, Gorbachev wrote a note. “It said in Russian, ‘I want you to know you are a good teacher, because Bobby speaks Russian well,'” Ahdieh said. “She later framed it on the wall of her office.”
Soviet Era Sentiment And The Invasion Of Ukraine
Looking back on that time, Ahdieh said the collapse of the Soviet Union – what the West saw as a moment of great progress – was seen as a “dark day” by many in Russia. Once a significant player in the international order, it was “suddenly an inconsequential country.”
This sentiment loomed large among Russians in the 1990s, he said, and today Putin has tapped into that same sense of grievance to help justify invading Ukraine.
“I think he’s been able to frame it as, ‘No longer will we be deprived of our rightful place as a major power.’ I think that has sadly contributed to the dynamic there,” he said.
Theories abound as to Putin’s motivations behind the war. Ahdieh said the end goal is unclear, and described the conflict as so “irrational” that its origins could be attributed to any number of sources. With an eye to declining public approval, he said Putin’s decision could have simply come down to politics.
Putin’s statements are not reflective of the entire Russian citizenry, Ahdieh points out, but Putin is also appealing to a strand of Russian thinking that capitalism and wealth have made western countries “soft and lacking in backbone, and easily pushed over.” This is likely how Putin viewed Ukraine, Ahdieh said, betting that an invasion would prove easy.
“As it turns out, however, the Ukrainians were quite willing and ready to fight back,” Ahdieh said. “When freedom is at stake, people sometimes prove stronger than expected.”