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Ludmila Isurin: “My entire book prepared the reader for the fact..."

Ludmila Isurin: “My entire book prepared the reader for the fact that sooner or later the escalating situation and ideological hysteria in both Russia and the United States should lead to open conflict”

Ludmila Isurin, is Professor in the Department of Slavic and East European Languages and Cultures, and Chair of Undergraduate Studies in the Ohio University.


The main publications:


Reenacting the Enemy : Collective Memory Construction in Russian and US Media, by Ludmila Isurin (Oxford University Press, 2022)

Collective Remembering: Memory in the World and in the Mind, by Ludmila Isurin (Cambridge University Press, 2017)

Integration, Identity and Language Maintenance in Young Immigrants: Russian Germans or German Russians, co-edited by Ludmila Isurin and Claudia Maria Riehl (John Benjamins Publishing, 2017)

Memory, Language, and Bilingualism: Theoretical and Applied Approaches, co-edited by Jeanette Altarriba and Ludmila Isurin (Cambridge University Press, 2012)

Russian Diaspora: Culture, Identity, and Language Change, by Ludmila Isurin (De Gruyter, 2011)

Multidisciplinary Approaches to Code Switching (Studies in Bilingualism), edited by Ludmila Isurin, Donald Winford, and Kees de Bot (John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2009)

Dear Prof. Isurin, Oxford University Press just released your book “Reenacting the Enemy: Collective Memory Construction in Russian and U.S. Media”. You selected seven crucial events between 2014 and 2018: the takeover of Crimea; the conflict in Eastern Ukraine; the downing of Flight MH17; the conflict in Syria; the 2016 US Presidential Election; the 2014 Sochi Olympics; the Skripals’ case. In accordance with your theoretical framework mass media play the role of a ‘shuttle’ which connects collective memory and individual minds. You use two samples of sources: 1) more than three hundred publications in American and Russian leading media and 2) a survey of more than two hundred American and Russian respondents. The first sample shows how media reenact the image of “other” using schemata of memory and biased approaches distorting information. The data of the survey show the extent to which media impact minds and create public opinion. I believe your approach is very fruitful because it is applicable to other research studying complex relations in the “Bermuda Triangle” of memory, media and mind. I would like to ask a few questions related to some topics discussed in your book, but first let me ask about the subjects related to your personal background.

1. The main subject of our journal is memory studies. Therefore, we traditionally put the same question to our respondents. Jan Assmann believes that the span of communicative (family) memory is about 80-100 years, that is three generations. How deep is your family memory? Could you tell about your ancestors and parents?

One of the courses that I teach at the university is on academic writing within a theme of immigration and the very first assignment in that class is a memoir on family history. I ask my students to sit down with their family and ask as many questions as they can about their ancestry. I always add: Do for your children what I wish my parents did for me. Students love this assignment and always comment on how much they have learned about their roots through this essay. Those roots often would go a few centuries down the history, to the first American settlers. I am afraid, during the Soviet times the continuity in the family memory often was disrupted or such an essay would not always fly easily, which would be my case.

I come from two drastically different heritage lineages: Russian peasantry at the border with Latvia, on my mother’s side, and Russian aristocracy in St. Petersburg, on my father’s side. While growing up and spending my summers at a village where my grandparents lived, I knew that side of the peasant and illiterate – in case of my grandparents – family pretty well. However, I was drawn to a more mysterious and “forbidden” side – those nobles whose pictures I saw in our family album. My great grandfather was a member of the Nicholas II government, they owned lands and houses in the Vasilievsky island where, ironically, I was born in a communal apartment.

In the photo, Ludmila Isurin's great-grandfather Pavel Petrovich Maslennikov, his brother (Georgy?) and her great-grandmother Paulina Ferdinandovna.

My father would tell me some stories and take me on a skiing trip to the Smolensky cemetery where all those ancestors were buried. On Russian Orthodox Christmas we would go to my great uncle, the only living relative from that generation whom I knew. As a child, I was mesmerized by seeing this old man whose picture of a young Russian officer in the uniform (was it before the revolution or was he one of the White officers – I do not know) we had in our album. He was playing piano with the candle lit icons above it.

In the photo, Georgy, Ludmila Isurin's great uncle

My world was so different outside of that apartment, and I knew that I cannot mention this holiday or icons to anyone outside of my family. Unfortunately, my father tragically died at the early age when I was only 10 years old and it left me with so many unanswered questions and so many old pictures: a young nursing mother (mat’-kormilitza) with a fancy peasant head piece on (kokoshnik) holding a baby, my great grandmother who I know was German with a “pince-nez” in her hand, or a postcard from Paris in the 1930s from yet another great grandfather who immigrated during the revolution.

In the photo, a nursing mother with one of Ludmila Isurin's ancestors

I managed to smuggle a few of those old family pictures when we were emigrating in early 1990 (we were not allowed to take any of those back then). Two years ago, I decided to do a genetic test and it placed most of my heritage in Latvia where those tall blond ancestors lived. But I always wanted to learn more about the other side of my family, the one from St. Petersburg…


2. Memory studies are pretty new and hence not fully an institutionalized discipline. Therefore it “enrolls” academics from different fields. Why were you involved in memory studies? Did your family and personal memory have any impact on your choice?

No, my travel into the field of memory was not ignited by any interest in the family memory. However, it was caused by my observation of how my Russian language skills were gradually deteriorating in immigration. Starting with my dissertation on memory and forgetting of first language and later doing more than ten years of research on cognitive aspects of memory as they apply to bilingualism and first language forgetting, I was sure that I had established myself in that specific area of memory studies. I also was interested in autobiographical memory and I collected personal immigration histories from Russian immigrants in Israel, Germany, and the US for my first monograph (Russian Diaspora, 2011). However, it was not until my colleague and I were publishing our book on Memory and Bilingualism with Cambridge University Press in 2011, and one of the reviewers mentioned a book published by the press two years earlier (Memory in the Mind and Culture, Eds. P. Boyer & J. Wertsch) that I got fascinated with the field of collective memory.

In 2017 my first book on collective memory came out. In that project, I looked into nine political events of the recent Russian past. I studied them through both media, encyclopedia, and history textbooks texts and later tapped into the minds of Russians in Russia and Russian immigrants in the US. I wanted to see to what extent the memory of those events was different between the two groups and how it was reconstructed over time. When I was finishing that book, the takeover of Crimea happened. I added that event to the survey and it was the only event in the book that triggered absolutely opposite reactions from Russians in Russia and Russians in the US. This is when I thought I would turn to Crimea later and write an article. But the subsequent events started piling up and there was no way to incorporate all of them in the size of a journal article. Hence, a new book…

3. You are a Russian émigré. After Putin's invasion into Ukraine a lot of Russian academics left the country and many of their colleagues are going to follow them. So our readers would be grateful if you share your personal memory regarding immigration and integration into American academia. Maybe you could also provide some recommendations to our colleagues?

I know quite a few Russian immigrants in the American academia. I am sure everyone would have a different story and a different path of entering the US universities and succeeding in American academy.

My path was not as straightforward. I am a two-time immigrant. My husband is half Jewish (on the “right,” mother’s side), which allowed us to apply for immigration in late 1989 after years of waiting for the official invitation (“vyzov”). By the time we received the permission to leave, the United States, our destination country, closed its doors for immigration to anyone who did not have a direct family in the US. With the Soviet citizenship revoked and having all bridges burned, we had no choice but to leave for the only country that was open for us – Israel. We were telling all our friends that we were leaving for the US via Israel. We did not know that “via” would translate into six years of very hard immigration, of settling down, adapting to a new and somewhat alien culture, finding professional jobs, and finally being viewed as successful by many Russian immigrants, which raised a question: Why would you like to emigrate again? I had a teaching job at an Israeli University, my husband had a job as an engineer. But being gentile and having a little child whose mother was not Jewish made me think of a way to finally get to the “port of call,” even if it did not happen the first time around. We were no longer viewed as refugees coming from Israel and becoming an illegal immigrant in America was out of question. I always wanted to get an advanced degree and the path of immigrating to America for education was the only acceptable one for me. I got accepted into Louisiana State University and in 1999 I graduated with my PhD degree in psycholinguistics. It took me another eight years of hard work as a part-time lecturer for two departments at the Ohio State University and then as the Director of Language Programs to get into a tenure track Professorial job. Ten years later, in 2018, I reached the highest rank in the US academia: Full Professor. It may sound easy and effortless as I write this. In reality, the US academic market is very tight and highly competitive. Very often the US/Western degree, experience of teaching in North America, and a list of publications in leading English-language journals are a must. From years of travelling to international conferences, I have to admit that rarely do I meet Russian colleagues at those venues or come across publications by Russia-based scholars in Western journals. I often feel that the intellectual thought in Russian academia goes in parallel with that in the West. At the present time, the situation is even more difficult for Russians to attend such conferences or visit the US. But it does not mean that such academic opportunities do not exist. As an example, this year my department is opening a new professorial position in a very wide range of Siberian Studies. Clearly, candidates would be coming from Russia.

As to my advice to Russian colleagues, hard work, perseverance, and bright mind serve as predictors of success in this country. From the three countries that I studied in my research and from similar findings by sociologists – Germany, Israel, and the United States – the US has the lowest level of professional downgrading. Just as a side example, my husband, who is very intelligent and very successful engineer, got his first job offers with the promise of the official work permit in the US and the “green card” without speaking any English. The companies were paying me, as his personal interpreter, to fly with him for his job interviews. Now he is the author of 15 US patents. The United States does give immigrants a chance to succeed, including a chance to make it all the way up in academia!


4. I am very impressed by the idea of your book that media news are the “drafts of memory” and memories created by the media strongly influence not only public opinion but historiography as well. You write: “Journalism is on the front line of recording history and constructing new memories.” I guess historians should be a bit upset with that, because most of them believe that the media should base their references to the past on the expertise of historic corporation. Could you clarify your concept and provide some examples?

I would not take credit for the idea that media create the first drafts of history. This is a repetitive reference in literature connecting the scholarship on collective memory and journalism. Although scholars acknowledge that “historians are very clearly invested in the claim that they are not journalists, and journalists are at least somewhat careful about this distinction and usually recognize what it entails” (Olick, 2014, p. 21), they also state that collective memories often have their origins in news events. “If the media have not chosen to remember – indeed, have not told the story in the first place – the official memory is also erased” (Birds, 2011). I can illustrate this on two specific examples from my previous work on Russian collective memory (2017): the Cuban missile crisis or the Caribbean crisis, as it is known in Russia, and the launch of Gagarin into space. While working on that project, I had access to the digital archives of Pravda, going back to 1915. I could read every single issue published over the span of a century. Soviet media provided very limited, if any, information about the Cuban missile crisis as it was unfolding and never mentioned it after it was resolved. On the contrary, the story of Gagarin occupied the front pages of Pravda for days surrounding this major event. Not surprisingly, all Russians surveyed in my project had a clear, almost photographic memory of this major event, and often the same memory was transmitted intergenerationally; whereas the majority of Russians admitted they have no memory of the Cuban missile crisis. Ironically, when I just came to the United States, my American friend asked me how my parents felt during that crisis and my honest response was: What crisis?


5. During the Soviet era we knew that newspaper Pravda is the lying media and meantime we believed that the Voice of America broadcasts the pure truth. It sounds surprising, but a lot of Russian liberals still believe that unlike the Putin’s propaganda the leading Western media are not biased. Your book destroys their sincere faith. You even argue that the Russian journalists are not so unanimous in sharing the government agenda as their American colleagues are: “it is interesting to see how bias featured in the news reports produced by the two countries. Here, we could clearly identify a similarity in how Russian state-controlled media and the majority of the U.S. outlets presented and supported the stance taken by their respective governments on any political event. Yet, if we take a separate look at Russian media, we can see a clear difference in some coverage of news by the independent press. … Journalists in those agencies do not hesitate to criticize their own government and its actions in some political affairs.” Could you tell how American media distorted reality providing the coverage of events, which are the topics of your book?

Before I turn to specific examples of how American media distorted information related to the events that I investigated, I have to say that the majority of respondents in my pool happened to be on the liberal side of the political spectrum: They did not vote for Trump in 2016 (US) and they did not vote for Putin in 2018 (Russia). And both groups agreed that their media are not trustworthy in the coverage of world affairs; the distrust, however, was bigger among Russians (79%) than among Americans (52%). Regardless their skeptical attitude towards their respective media, the memories of the events from 2014-2018 were constructed along the ideological lines promoted by their media.

I would also like to cite the words of James Wertsch who wrote a review for my book and his words resonated with how I feel about this work: “Her conclusions may be uncomfortable for both American and Russian readers, but that is the point and one the book’s great contributions.” In other words, while answering your specific question, how American media distorted reality, I wanted to remind you that I was equally critical of both the US and Russian state media in their ideologically biased coverage of those events.

Now, to the question of distortion on the American side. My definition of distortion in this book was to see how the events initially were reported and how the narrative was changed later by omitting or misrepresenting the originally reported facts. In this light, distortion can be exemplified by how Crimea-related reports in the U.S. media first acknowledged the referendum and the fact that 97% of people voted to join Russia, then labeled it as sham, and later totally omitted any mention of the “free will of the people” in Crimea. Moreover, the information that Crimea was transferred from the Russian Federation to Ukraine by the “voluntarist” decision of Khrushchev and that the majority of the population of Crimea are ethnic Russians was not mentioned. Next, the U.S. reference to a Russia that “seized Crimea by force” contradicts all the immediate American reports where no military force or violence was mentioned and where the takeover was described as a bizarre “low-key invasion” with some friendly and polite military personnel in unmarked uniforms present on the ground. The somewhat overt involvement of the U.S. government in the orchestration of the power change in Ukraine reluctantly was admitted by a few U.S. media outlets only after some evidence was presented by Russians. However, it was quickly dropped from any further discussion and Russia was blamed for another low in posting such compromising documents. Also, when reporting on the Sochi Olympics, the U.S. media deliberately downplayed any big success that Russians had at the Games – that was before the doping scandal that stripped many Russian athletes of their medals. Moreover, there was much distortion of the information in the U.S. media related to the MH17 investigation and the Skripals’ poisoning. Since the Dutch-led investigation could not identify who fired the missile that downed MH17 or from where it was fired, as some American journalists rightly acknowledged, others proceeded with making false, though definitive-sounding, claims that it was fired by Russian separatists or even by the Russian military. In the case of the Skripals, only the nature of the nerve agent used in the attempted assassination was established by reputable international organizations; however, most American reporters quickly stated that the origin of the agent was found and that it was manufactured by the Russian government.

One of the things that I looked at in my analysis was the use of the language in reference to the discussed events that also illustrated distortion. To provide just a few examples, the deliberate reference to Russian-speaking separatists who are Ukrainian citizens as Russian separatists or simply referring to the civil war in Ukraine as a war between Russia and Ukraine appeared in most U.S. reports related to events that happened in 2014-2018. Defining the takeover of Crimea not simply as annexation but as a Russian invasion, intervention, or occupation, and later overusing derivatives of the word “terrorist” to label the Ukrainian separatists and Russia as a whole were common for most of the U.S. media. The bizarre adherence to the word “invade” led to an awkwardly written piece where the author described a pro-Russian demonstration in Eastern Ukraine as people holding signs calling for Russia to invade their land (the original photo of the sign saying “Putin vvedi voiska” is included in my book). Also, when describing the protests in Eastern Ukraine, pro-Russian demonstrators were labeled as a “crowd” or “militia,” whereas the neutral term “pro-Kiev demonstrators” was used to depict the opposite camp. Furthermore, to project the clear superiority of the American reader to the Russian reader who supposedly is ideologically brainwashed, a ridiculous statement that American people instinctively know the truth made me question where such healthy instincts in Americans come from, if not from their press that is equally ideologically biased.


6. One of the main subjects of your book is analysis of schemata of memory, which Russian and American media “refresh” in the minds providing news. Could you present the main schemata of both countries?

If we start chronologically with the Sochi Olympics, the major scripts on both sides referred to some relatively distant events, such as the Iron Curtain, the KGB background of Vladimir Putin, a despotic leader like Stalin or a defeat of the Soviet hockey team by Americans back in 1980, known as “Miracle on Ice” in American collective memory (in American media) and to the patriotic events in the Russian past, such as the victory in WWII, the launch of the first man in space, as well as the fact that Russia is surrounded by haters (in Russian media).

However, things have drastically changed after the takeover of Crimea in 2014. Besides portraying Putin as a villain and drawing sympathy toward Ukraine, the early U.S. reports, prior to the takeover and immediately following it, were in an apparent search for the right script to contextualize what happened as a surprisingly quick and bloodless act of redrawing international borders by Putin. Although initially American reporters acknowledged Russia’s claims of NATO’s expansion to its borders and the accusation of less than stellar U.S. acts in toppling Libya’s government as well as its war in Kosovo, such claims soon were dropped from U.S. media coverage. Instead, the takeover has established a new storyline and a new script, that later was referred to as Russian annexation, intervention, invasion, and occupation. All subsequent events would be framed within what happened in 2014, reminding American readers about the hostile nature of the re-emerging old enemy.

Russia, alternatively, has created its own discourse on Crimea where the free will of the Crimean people to join Russia, the ultra-right nationalist groups that brought the turnover of power in Kiev and threatened ethnic Russians in Crimea, the illegitimacy of the new Ukrainian government as well as the legality of the reunification process were emphasized. Having justified the takeover of Crimea in such terms – the narrative that would be repeated all over again when discussing other political events in those years – Russian media have established a portrait of the U.S. as the notorious other that orchestrated the overturning of the Ukrainian government. Stressing the obvious burden of unjust economic sanctions imposed on Russia as the result of the takeover, Russian media created a new script within which the West and the U.S., in particular, were discussed. The image of Russia as a heroic savior of the Crimean people from the danger of ultra-right/ “fascist” militant forces, and the image of the U.S. as a puppet master behind the coup in Kiev, have entered a new script, deviations from which did not happen in the next few years. Moreover, while the US media would outright blame Russia for subsequent events, even before the evidence was available (the crash of MH17, the chemical attacks in Syria, and the poisoning of the Skripals) by reminding their readers that Russia forcefully occupied Crimea, Russian media would remind their audience about the US role in Kosovo or the infamous test tube that allegedly contained the “hard evidence” that Saddam Hussein had chemical weapons, which justified the beginning of the recent US-led coalition war in Iraq. Such reminders, interwoven into a new scrip, served to discredit any accusations made by America.

What is interesting is that the reference to the referendum in Crimea has recently resurfaced in the US media in light of the preparation for similar referenda in the Russian controlled Kherson and Mariupol during the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. A CNN reporter aggressively claimed that those will be sham referenda, all the results will be falsified, all will be a lie and Americans should not believe a word coming from the Russian side. Sadly, this is an example of how a script based on recent events is used to interpret future events that yet have to happen.

7. You not only analyze discourses of media but you also made a survey, which allows you to represent the impact of media on individual minds. Let me reproduce the table from your book: “How Well Americans Remembered the Events”

It is obvious that the American audience is not very involved in discussions around the crucial subjects of foreign affairs. Your respondents remember better the downing of flight MH17 (I guess because it concerns the Western people) and they are almost “amnesiac” regarding the long term conflict in Donbass region of Ukraine. How do you explain that unusual, from the Russian perspective, picture? Maybe the American media did not pay a lot of attention to the coverage of the seven events from your sample?

You are right, there was almost no coverage of the conflict in Dondass after 2014 in the US media. Similarly, high emphasis in all US media outlets on the current “special operation” in Ukraine has gradually subsided and there are hardly any headlines as days go by… My interest was in how people who vaguely remember the events would respond to the survey questions. Those mostly fell back on the stereotypes established in their memory and, as a result, reporting totally false memories.


8. There is a joke: “Russia is a country with an unpredictable past,” which implies the rewriting of history under the ideological pressure of undemocratic regimes. But there is another reason why honest historians should revise their conclusions: the new crucial events inevitably change our perspective on the entire plot of history. I believe that Putin’s invasion into Ukraine is a critical incident, which impacts on our understanding of the takeover of Crimea and other events analyzed in your book. It was finalized and sent for the publisher’s editing at the end of 2020 but it was released a few months after the 24 of February 2022. Did you make any changes in the text on the eve of its release? Whatever, either you did or did not do any changes, could you comment on your decision?

This is a good question When I sent my finished manuscript to Oxford in summer of 2020, I thought that my book would be quite timely. When it came out in April 2022, two months after Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, I sadly admitted that it was already outdated. Unfortunately, Western presses have very strict rules on how much the author can change the content once the manuscript is sent for typesetting. The last time I could make any small changes or add some information was in August 2021. After that only spelling or grammar corrections could be made. In other words, after November 2021 I could not change a thing about this book. Moreover, I urged the press to speed up the publication process in light of the intensified tensions between Russia in the US, and my request was not granted. As we say, welcome to the publishing world… If I had the opportunity to add something after February 24, I would say that my entire book prepared the reader for the fact that sooner or later the escalating situation and ideological hysteria in both Russia and the United States should lead to open conflict. And I don't think it wasn't provoked in part by the country where I live. And maybe I'd change the title of the book from "Reenacting the Enemy" to "The Enemy Reenacted."


 9. What are your academic plans?

I am very grateful to be part of a small group of international researchers working on collective memory. It is led by leading scholars in the field of collective memory, James Wertsch and Roddy Roediger. Last November I received a grant through that initiative to conduct my new study, tentatively titled, Memory of Defeat in Shaping the Future Collective Thought. This project focuses on the collective memory of defeat and how it may or may not shape the collective future thought. The original design had three defeats under investigation: The Vietnam War, The Soviet War in Afghanistan, and the US-led Coalition War in Afghanistan. The goal of the study is to analyze how the memory of each defeat was constructed by media both in Russia and the US and how it was reconstructed over time, both in media and school history textbook (in case of the Vietnam war and the Soviet war in Afghanistan). The second part of the project is supposed to involve a large-scale survey both in the US and Russia (this is where most of the grant money would have to go). I got into contact with Levada Center in Moscow and I was really excited about an opportunity to get the data from human participants through them. But all my plans were halted, if not destroyed, by the current political situation. As you understand, all cooperation and business ties with Russia are severed and we are not allowed to conduct any research in Russia. To be honest, I do not know how to proceed with this project past the analysis of media. Massive data collection is under way and I decided to include the current crisis in Ukraine, even if it is too early to see the outcome or know how to define defeat in this situation. I keep thinking why American politicians interfere with our academic plans. Don’t they want to know more about the mind of the now “reenacted enemy” through our research?...

Works cited:

Bird, E. (2011). Reclaiming Asaba: Old media, new media, and the construction of memory. In M. Neiger, O. Meyers, & E. Zandberg (Eds.), On Media memory: Collective memory in a new media age (pp. 88-103). Hampshire, UK: Palgrave Macmillan Memory Studies.

Boyer, P., & Wertsch, J. (Eds.). (2009). Memory in mind and culture. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Olick, J. (2014). Reflections on the underdeveloped relations between journalism and memory studies. In B. Zelizer & K. Tenenboim-Weinblatt (Eds.), Journalism and memory (pp. 17-31). Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave Macmillan Memory Studies.

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