Vladimir Pozner educates

Speeches – real life speeches in front of real life audiences – are beginning to reappear on line, though admittedly most were recorded prior to 2020.

I chanced upon a speech given at Yale in 2018, and I am glad of it. The speaker was Vladimir Pozner, and the speech was entitled How the United States Created Vladimir Putin. The video is nearly two hours long of which only 40 minutes is his speech, the rest being Q&A.

Spoiler alert! I was raptly absorbed by the entire thing, grateful to semi-retirement for making that possible.

I may have mislaid you slightly: the speech was merely 34 minutes long, the first six minutes of the video taken up by two introductions. My rhetor hat was redundant when Pozner spoke because he is so good and because what he had to say was much more interesting than any observations I might offer. Accordingly I shall unusually limit myself to critiquing the introductions.

Professor Douglas Rogers welcomed the audience, pointedly standing away from the lectern and speaking without notes. He filled his role very well. His default position for his hands (everyone should have one for those occasions when you have nothing else to do with them) was a fairly common one – clasping them loosely in front of himself. As a general rule this position looks most natural when your forearms are horizontal: hands too high looks as if you are pleading, too low looks as if you are in a free-kick wall in a soccer match. Rogers seems comfortable with his hands slightly higher than I would usually like, but these things are personal.

Professor Constantine Muravnik took over to deliver the speaker’s biography. He had notes, and unashamedly used them, because his material was obviously data-saturated, and he injected enough humour to make the speaker laugh out loud. He displayed more nerve symptoms than I would expect, but he handled them well. He made two introducers’ technical errors, both counter-intuitive. If the person you are introducing is behind you, don’t look around at them. It feels right but looks wrong. Muravnik did it only briefly so I wouldn’t have mentioned it except my rhetor hat is in danger of gathering dust. The worse error is in joining in with the applause at the end of the introduction. Again its feels right but not only looks wrong it sounds dreadful because you are doing it straight into your microphone.

Pozner begins at six minutes, and he is riveting! He covers half a century of the political and diplomatic relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union, later Russia, and does it in a manner that I find spell-binding.

Objectively I like the balance that he applies to what he says. His French/Russian/American background seems to hold him between opinion camps. Actually, as he is regularly citing chapter and verse of incidents that he recounts, there seems little actual opinion in what he says – and when there is he declares it.

Subjectively I like his view concerning the respective peoples as distinct from their political and diplomatic representatives. The people seem more eager to get on with each other than their representatives seem able. There are telling examples of this at 13:00 and more tellingly at 36:50 when he quotes – of all people – Hermann Göring. I also share his lamenting of the plummeting standards of balance in the mainstream news media. Had this speech been made today I bet he would have bracketed Big Tech in his comments.

The speech ends at forty minutes, and he sits with the host to receive questions which, with their answers, last more than an hour. It is not that there are so many questions but that they are so searching. Most of the questioners at this U.S. university audience turn out to be either Russian or from Eastern Europe, and he seems delighted to field an informed interrogation. At 1:38:30 he gets to dig at the mainstream media in both nations, and 1:44:00 – shortly before the end – he gets questioned on a matter he has obviously expected, and in which I as a Brit have a particular interest. Only a few months earlier Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia had been poisoned in Salisbury, England. What he has to say about that is worth waiting for.

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