Evanston RoundTable, March 30, 2022
Irwin Weil remains in close touch with his friends in Russia, and what he hears is gloomy.
“Of course they can’t say it in so many words,” says the longtime Evanston resident and Professor Emeritus of Slavic Languages and Literature at Northwestern University regarding the Russian war on Ukraine. “As you can imagine, phones may be tapped. But you can hear how upset and angry they are in their tone of voice and the way they talk.”
In the course of a 39-year teaching career at Northwestern, from 1966 to 2005, Weil made annual trips to the Soviet Union and, after the USSR dissolved, to Russia. He cultivated many friends in the academic and intellectual communities, primarily in Moscow and Leningrad (now St. Petersburg).
“In the university in Moscow where I helped set up the American Studies Center, they never had a good word for Putin. They like him even less now,” Weil said. From talking with Russian émigrés outside Russia Weil can gauge the full extent of their feelings against the war in Ukraine. “They don’t mince words; they say it’s a horrible, terrible business.”
Weil, who turns 94 on April 16, is no less angry. “It is awful that this country, Russia, which has produced some of the greatest writers and composers in history, is now responsible for creating millions of refugees and thousands of deaths,” he said.
However Weil also had sharp words for President Joe Biden’s statement, at the end of a March 26 speech in Warsaw, apparently ad libbing about Putin, “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power!”
“It was a bad mistake,” Weil said. “How would we feel if a foreign power tried to bring about regime change in America? It’s not our business, it’s for the Russian people to decide.”
The problem, as Weil acknowledged, is that Putin has almost complete control of the Russian media, so the vast majority of Russians have no idea of the extent of casualties and damages. “It’s a crime even to use the words ‘war’ or ‘invasion’ in Russian media,” he said. “Censorship is very strict. The overwhelming majority of Russians don’t know what’s happening. The ones who do know are quite angry.”
Of course, as more body bags return to Russia, more families and friends of deceased soldiers are awakening to the carnage. But still, Weil said, that’s a small percentage of the country’s population.
As for the Russia’s military performance, while acknowledging that he is no military expert, Weil said “it’s clear” the invasion has foundered without achieving its goals.
Meanwhile Weil feels Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has conducted himself with almost Churchillian leadership. “[Zelenskyy] has made a tremendous impression. He has managed to touch the country’s national feelings in a very intense and deep way, as Churchill did in 1939.”
Weil will continue his regular calls to his friends in Russia. “I want to reinforce to them that they have good friends in America. It means a great deal to them, especially now.”