Russia has long been a canvas for Americans to project their thoughts or fears—of the Red Menace or Putin's quest for world domination. This tradition only accelerated after the 2016 election, when it seemed as though everyone was an expert on Putin’s agenda. There wasn’t an election he didn’t hack, a border he wouldn’t violate, or a U.S. ally he couldn’t manipulate. But the debate around Kremlin influence is shrouded in vastly differing perceptions of how the Russian state works. The very word ‘‘Putin’’ has come to symbolize a coherent, systematic destruction of the post-Cold War international order. Sarah Topol started her project with a question: What does Russia really want?
Topol traveled to Moscow to frame the parameters — to understand how Russians saw themselves. She visited Turkey, Egypt, and Germany—historical allies of the United States that were portrayed in the press as pivoting to Russia—to do the same. Since a nation’s foreign policy is in part built on its perceptions of itself, magnified to the world stage, if Americans tried to see the world as the Russians did, and as American allies did, could we better understand what any of these countries were doing? And if we understood what they really wanted, could we better understand the world ourselves?