The Eternal Collapse of Russia

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The Eternal Collapse of Russia
Published 29-08-2014, 08:35

Paul Starobin

Paul Starobin is a former Moscow bureau chief of Business Week and the author of After America: Narratives for the Next Global Age (Viking, 2009).

Despite centuries of dire predictions, Russia isn't going anywhere.

RUSSIA, IT IS often said, is a country that is barely able to stumble out of bed and put on matching socks in the morning. In the lead-up to the Winter Olympics in Sochi and continuing during the Games, the U.S. media declared open season on the nation. Americans were told that Russia is a country just about bereft of functioning elevators or toilets. Or even a national food, "except perhaps bad sushi.” Its people "hardly know who they are anymore” and its essence is defined by copyright infringement and "all-encompassing corruption.” All in all, Russia is "a country that’s falling apart,” as a New Republic cover story in February put it.

It’s a hardy theme. It’s also a completely bogus one. But that hasn’t stopped the media from reviving it again and again.

Thirteen years ago, for example, the Atlantic published a cover story, "Russia Is Finished,” on "the unstoppable descent of a once great power into social catastrophe” and ultimately "obscurity.” That was a particularly bad year to predict Russia’s demise, as an economic revival was starting to take hold. And these days, Russia is proving itself to be anything but "finished” as a geopolitical actor, with its aggressive seizure of Crimea and its arming of pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine—who appear to be responsible for the July shooting down of a Malaysia Airlines passenger jet as it flew over rebel-held territory. Nor is Russia’s determined and so far successful backing of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and its nascent alliance with China based on a historic energy pact, suggestive of a nation that is no longer a consequential player on the world stage. Russia remains a risk-taking nation—and as questionable, even reckless, as its gambles may be, as in its support for the rebels in eastern Ukraine, this is not the behavior of a country destined for insignificance. And while there is a great deal that is second-rate about Russia, from its sagging transportation infrastructure to its shoddy health-care system, such blemishes, common to many nations, including the United States, are hardly evidence of a fatal malaise.

The interesting question, then, is what lies behind this unbalanced mind-set—what might be called the "Russia Is Doomed” syndrome. What is the source of such stubbornly exaggerated thinking—and why is Russia chronically misdiagnosed in this fashion?

IT FEELS right, as a first line of exploration, to call in Dr. Freud. Maybe the strange idea that "the drama is coming to a close,” as the Atlantic piece prematurely declared of Russian history, is actually a wish of the collective Western subconscious—the silent urge of the id. The Freudian recesses can subtly affect our political desires, after all, and our twenty-first-century nervousness about Russia can be traced to long-standing European anxieties about despotic Russia as a kind of repository of the primitive in the human condition—dangerously and infuriatingly resistant to higher and hard-won European values. In his popular and bigoted early nineteenth-century travelogue, the French aristocrat Marquis de Custine said that in Russia "the veneer of European civilization was too thin to be credible.” His dyspeptic view of Russia has lived on ever since.

Russia was indeed less developed than Europe—according to standards of modernity such as science, technology and industry—but there was a self-serving element of power politics as well as cultural hauteur behind such disparagements. It is no surprise that the notion of Russia and Russians as representing an Other—as in, apart from "us Westerners”—was strikingly prevalent in nineteenth-century Victorian England. That was the time of the Great Game—the competition between Britain and Russia for influence and spoils in a swath of Asia stretching from the Indian subcontinent to the Black Sea.

The Crimean War of the 1850s, pitting both the French and the British against the Russians, sparked an especially intense British animus against a marauding Russian bear, pitted against the regal British lion, as the political cartoonists of the day had it. (Or a meek lion, as some illustrators sketched the scene. In one such cartoon, a massive bear, a Russian soldier’s cap on its head, sits atop a prostrate Persian cat, a lion looking on helplessly in the background.) Negative images of Russia seeped into British literature. George Stoker wrote an anti-Russian travelogue, With the Unspeakables, drawn from the Russo-Turkish war of 1877–1878. That book, in turn, may have supplied an impetus for his older brother, Bram, who later wrote of a pair of fantastical novels, Dracula and The Lady of the Shroud, that can be read as conjuring an "Eastern” or Slavic threat to England. In the end, of course, Count Dracula has his throat slashed and is stabbed dead in the heart.

Granted, the British Empire was a promiscuous slanderer of its motley rivals—consider the aspersions regularly cast toward the French. Still, British feelings toward Russia were notably raw. The historian J. H. Gleason, in his 1950 bookThe Genesis of Russophobia in Great Britain, characterized the nineteenth-century English public’s "antipathy toward Russia” as the "most pronounced and enduring element in the national outlook on the world abroad.” The sentiment, Gleason concluded, was concocted by a manipulative, imperial-minded elite—and was off base, anyway, since Britain’s foreign policy was actually "more provocative than Russia’s” in this period. Others concur. "The world champion imperialists of modern history, the British, were in a permanent state of hysteria about the chimera of Russia advancing over the Himalayas to India,” Martin Malia observed in his 1999 book Russia under Western Eyes.

Nevertheless, British pigeonholing of Russia endured even among the most sophisticated of observers. Thus John Maynard Keynes, after a trip to Bolshevik Russia in 1925, wondered whether the "mood of oppression” there might be "the fruit of some beastliness in the Russian nature.”

BRITISH ATTITUDES, inevitably, migrated across the Atlantic to America. Continental America, of course, was thousands of miles away from continental Russia, although Russian colonizers managed at one point to establish a settlement at Fort Ross in northern California in the early nineteenth century. The perceived threat, though, was less about territory and more about the foreignness and sheer unsavoriness of Russian ways. "No human beings, black, yellow or white, could be quite as untruthful, as insincere, as arrogant—in short, as untrustworthy in every way—as the Russians,” President Theodore Roosevelt wrote in 1905, as the Russo-Japanese war was drawing to a close. By contrast, the Japanese were "a wonderful and civilized people,” he said. (Roosevelt won the Nobel Peace Prize the following year for his efforts to negotiate an end to hostilities between the Russians and Japanese.)

America’s foremost Russia hand, George F. Kennan, it is true, had a very strong, even mystical, attraction to Russia. "There was some mysterious affinity which I could not explain even to myself,” he wrote in his memoirs. But Kennan stands out as an idiosyncratic exception amongst the American political class. That became evident during the Cold War, when blunderbuss denouncements of the Russians were a rote element of the national discourse—with the Russians always seen as the active agent behind the Soviet Union, even though its ruler, until his death in 1953, was a native Georgian, Joseph Stalin (born Dzhugashvili). Vilifications of the Russians came from across the political spectrum. Even J. Robert Oppenheimer—nuclear physicist, admirer of Igor Stravinsky’s Requiem Canticles, global traveler, student of the Bhagavad Gita in the original Sanskrit, director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton—harbored the crudest of prejudices. "We are coping with a barbarous, backward people who are hardly loyal to their rulers,” he said in 1951, the echoes of Keynes and Marquis de Custine resounding in the distance.

Americans had plenty of encouragement in seeing themselves as the white hats in a Manichean struggle against the wild Russians. In his famous prophecy that America and Russia were destined to divide up the globe, set forth in the conclusion of the first volume of Democracy in America, published in the mid-1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville made clear where his sympathies lay. Glossing over the rough treatment of Native Americans by musket-bearing European settlers, he insisted that "the conquests of the American” are "gained by the ploughshare; those of the Russian by the sword.” What’s more, the "Anglo-American,” as Tocqueville described the incomers to America, "gives free scope to the unguided strength and common sense of the people; the Russian centers all the authority of society in a single arm.”

And yet Tocqueville’s assumption—that a democratic society like America would prove inherently less warlike than an autocratic society like Russia—while plausible on its face, represented as much as anything a hope that the future belonged to the democratic peoples of the world. Thus, Russia’s assigned role as a potential wrecker of this happy vision was made possible by John Locke, Thomas Jefferson and others with liberal ideas that had made only the tiniest of sprouts in the stinting Russian soil. Overlooked—Tocqueville’s gift of foresight was remarkable but not without limitations—was the fascist menace to come from within the very heart of Europe.

The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991—the expiration, if not of Russia itself, then at least of an enormous Moscow-directed utopian project, nearly three-quarters of a century long in the tooth—afforded a respite in such feelings about Russia. It’s always easier to be kind to the feeble: Russians were said to recover their humanity and decency precisely when their national power was at a historic ebb. As NATO expanded eastward, eventually to include the former Soviet Baltic republics on Russia’s border, there was even a weird idealization of the mostly compliant Boris Yeltsin as an avuncular, ruddy-cheeked, American-style democrat (with a touch of the ward boss about him). Not even Yeltsin’s war to subdue the breakaway province of Chechnya—which ended in at best a draw for him—ended the romance.

The mist dried from the Western eye with the ascent of the strongman Putin—viewed, not without reason, as a sort of composite throwback to the autocrats of the Soviet and czarist past. Feelings of revulsion reentered the discourse. "The Russians, on whom I have wasted far too much of my life, are drink-sodden barbarians who occasionally puke up a genius,” Ralph Peters, a retired army lieutenant colonel and commentator, declared in 2008 at an American Enterprise Institute forum on Putin’s invasion of Georgia. Unlike Yeltsin, Putin, however cynically, embraced "old” Russian traditions like Orthodoxy, and he baldly affirmed that Russia had its own special character and destiny and was not to be a "second edition” of America or Britain. As a KGB officer he had been stationed in Dresden, and he bridled at ingrained Western preconceptions of Russians as "a little bit savage still,” as if "they just climbed down from the trees,” as he remarked to a group of American journalists back in 2007.

And now, a century and a half after the Crimean War, the conflict that arose there this year serves as a reminder of the durability of American and European derision for Russia, seen as "a gas station masquerading as a country,” in the words of Senator John McCain. "Russia is an anti-Western power with a different, darker vision of global politics,” Anne Applebaum, an author and journalist who is married to Poland’s foreign minister, Radoslaw Sikorski, wrote in Slate. (The headline: "Russia Will Never Be Like Us.”) The seemingly everlasting British tradition of Russophobia is nowadays embodied by an editor at the Economist, Edward Lucas, a former Moscow bureau chief for that magazine who, in a Daily Mail column back in May, labored to draw scary parallels between Hitler and Putin in their respective "expansionist” ambitions. While Putin’s actions no doubt fall far short of Hitler’s atrocities, "the Austrian corporal and the German-speaking ex-spy do share troubling similarities,” Lucas said. "History may not repeat itself. But, as Mark Twain once said, it often rhymes.” And in an imagined letter sent by Machiavelli to Putin, crafted by Josef Joffe, publisher-editor of the German weekly Die Zeit, Russia’s leader is scolded, "You have just reaffirmed a historic Russian habit: You would rather be the great spoiler and outsider.” Surely Europe, though, as Joffe must be keenly aware, has seen a great many spoilers in its periodic lettings of blood and gore. The history of Europe, it sometimes seems, is a prolonged case of pots calling kettles black.

IT IS TEMPTING to conclude on this note, punctuated with the wry observation by the Russian philosopher Nicolas Berdyaev that "the Russians have a disturbing effect upon the peoples of the West.” So they do. But the story has another and maybe even more curious facet. For it is also the case that a prime source of negative stereotypes about Russia—and of a seeming desire for a wiping away of "traditional” Russia—comes from within the bosom of Mother Russia herself.

The truth is, Russia often has been maddening to a certain strata of educated Russians (and by Russians I mean not just ethnic Russians, strictly speaking, but all peoples native to or attaching themselves to Russia). A recurrent motif, just as in the West, is Russia’s inherent and seemingly inescapable backwardness, as captured in Gogol’s supposed quip that Russia has just two problems—duraki i dorogi (fools and roads). Lenin, born Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov in the Russian heartland, was a standout student of Greek and Latin who came to see old-style Russian institutions and beliefs—czarist autocracy, the land-bound wooden-hut peasantry, icon-worshipping Orthodoxy—as so retrograde as to be beyond the scope of reform. The solution was demolition. Lenin castigated "that really Russian man, the Great-Russian chauvinist” as "in substance a rascal and a tyrant.” And his utopian dream, of course, was for Russia to fade away into a transnational amalgamation of the global proletariat.

This, then, is the tortured dynamic—the tension between a Russian intelligentsia with a liberal, radical or revolutionary critique of the country and a populace and a political elite generally accepting of Russian traditions and at times embracing them with fervor. And the criticism tends not to stop at the leader of the moment—in the current instance, Putin, who often does seem to be heartless and cynical, as in his efforts to dodge any responsibility for the downing of the Malaysia Airlines plane—but rather to include the Russian people themselves. In 2002, with Putin embarked on post-Soviet Russia’s second war in Chechnya, and with the public rallying in support, the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya wrote in the Los Angeles Times that

it is common knowledge that the Russian people are irrational by nature. The majority of them do not require candidates running for offices to provide clear-cut economic programs. In fact, the people are even slightly irritated, as opinion polls show, when a candidate is too intelligent—or at least more intelligent than the mass. At the same time, Russian people love macho—they love brutality, demonstrations of strong-handed policies and tough moves made for show.

Politkovskaya was certainly not wrong to discern a thuggish element in Putin’s Russia—she herself was murdered in Moscow in 2006, on the day, suspiciously, of Putin’s birthday. (Gangsters in Russia have a habit of making "presents,” solicited or not, on the name day of their "bosses.”) Still, what stand out are the sweeping and unsustainable generalizations—the idea that Russians are "irrational by nature” doesn’t square, for example, with a society that produced world-class scientists from Mikhail Lomonosov in the eighteenth century to Andrei Sakharov in the twentieth. Such declarations amount to a form of masochistic self-flagellation—and seem to hold Russians themselves as collectively culpable for producing malevolent leaders.

Nevertheless, such critics are influential in the West—and have found a welcome in leading U.S. publications. "Russians have told so many lies about themselves they hardly know who they are anymore,” Masha Gessen, a Russian American born in Soviet Moscow and currently living in the United States, began an essay last year in the New York Review of Books. "These days,” she continued, Putin

talks gibberish about Russia having a "cultural code,” which he seems to imagine is some sort of a spy code for the spirit. They should have started with food. There is no common Russian equivalent for the saying "you are what you eat,” but it is no accident that Russians have hardly any idea of distinctively Russian food.

The overstatements are easy enough to correct. In my own experience living in and traveling around Russia, I have had no trouble finding Russians with a secure sense of identity. Once I asked a friend in Moscow, a young history professor, if he could point to some essence of Russia. He immediately suggested the ancient Orthodox church known as Pokrova, situated at the confluence of the Nerl and Klyazma Rivers near the medieval capital city of Vladimir. Viewed from afar, the church seems to be floating on a pool of water, the clouds reflected on the surface. A religious symbol, yes—but also, my friend stressed, a symbol of Russia’s deep immersion in nature. Nor have I had difficulty finding food that Russians (including my own Russian Uzbek wife) assured me was characteristically Russian, such as the cold soup, okroshka,typically made of sour cream, vinegar, potatoes, cucumbers, eggs and dill, which is a summertime favorite in southwestern Russia in particular. (And yes, it is also enjoyed in Ukraine, large parts of which, for most of its history, have been part of a greater Russia.)

IT IS PERHAPS an exaggeration to say that the impulse of Putin’s critics inside Russia—some, not all, of them—to deny Russia its Russianness is simply a species of loathing, since such critics do have an ideal of what their Russia should be: a model that amounts to making Russia more like Europe and America. This alternate ideal leads to the current spectacle in which Russia is beaten over the head for its regressive stand on matters like gay rights—an issue that is at the cutting edge of civil-liberties activism in America and Europe but not of any particular resonance in Russia outside of progressive enclaves in places like Moscow. In the West, the Pussy Riot episode made celebrity dissidents of the feminist punk band jailed by Russian authorities for hooliganism for their stunt in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior two years ago when the group prayed, "Virgin Mary, Mother of God, banish Putin.” Masha Gessen enshrined the affair in her recent book, Words Will Break Cement, to a laudatory review by Anne Applebaum in the Washington Post. But in Russia, an opinion poll found that only 5 percent of Russians believed Pussy Riot deserved "no punishment” and nearly 50 percent supported either mandatory labor or a large fine.

In this vein, the lectures directed at Russia on what it ought to be rival and possibly even exceed the instructions that today’s China also regularly gets from the West on how to better itself. Russia needs to "sort out some of its psychological issues,” including "paranoid projection,” an "inferiority complex” and "delayed adolescence,” Julia Ioffe, the New Republic’s leading writer on Russia, counseled this February. (The headline for the piece was "The Russians Think I’m a Russophobe? They’re Right.”) A Moscow-born Russian American, Ioffe was also the author of the cover story on how Russia is "falling apart.”

It might be relevant that Ioffe, as some who take umbrage at her barbs are apt to sneer, is Jewish (which in certain Russian nationalistic circles can be taken to mean decidedly not Russian). Masha Gessen, too, is Jewish, and there is plenty in the Russian experience—the word "pogrom” is of Russian origin—for any Jewish person to despise and fear. (I’m Jewish myself, with ancestors from Russian lands.) Gessen also is a lesbian. But while not being an ethnic Russian may help to dispose one toward criticism of Putin’s Russia—and being a lesbian all the more so—such things don’t quite account for the passion displayed in reprimands of the country. The active ingredient in such chastisements seems to have, as much as anything else, an aesthetic component. Russia, it is clear, is not to everyone’s taste.

BUT A NATION is not a piece of art that one can choose simply not to hang on the wall, never to have to look at. The reason that the "Russia Is Doomed” strain of criticism matters is that this perspective is grounded in unreality. Russia isn’t going anywhere. Critics tend to exaggerate its ailments or fail to place them in proper context. Consider corruption. Systematic corruption, from the bottom to the top of society, is indeed pervasive in Russia—and this has been a condition of post-Soviet Russia going back to the corrupt deals struck in the 1990s between the Kremlin and a rising generation of oligarchs. But corruption also is endemic in nepotistic (and yet fast-growing) one-party China, and in democratic India. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, in the Gilded Age of the "robber barons,” America, too, was a swamp of malfeasance, as the rich and powerful bent government to their will. There is no reason to think corruption will harm Russia more than it does other societies.

As for Russia being little more than a "gas station,” in McCain’s words, the country’s vast oil and gas resources are without question current-day Russia’s prize economic asset. Russia is the world’s top natural-gas exporter and possesses the planet’s largest proven gas reserves. But energy is much more to Russia than just a source of cash: the Kremlin is adeptly using its fossil-fuel treasure to accomplish geopolitical objectives, as in the recent megadeal to ship natural gas by pipeline to China. Beijing and Moscow may never be close friends, but energy gives them a practical reason to work together. Meanwhile, the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, a persistent critic of Putin’s Russia, has pleaded for the United States to use its own energy reserves as a "strategic asset” to help Europe reduce its current reliance on Russian gas. Such an appeal underscores the reality that Russia’s petroprowess is apt to endure well into the twenty-first century.

What about Russia’s grim demographic profile? The analyst Nicholas Eberstadt at the American Enterprise Institute labeled Russia "The Dying Bear” in a 2011 essay in Foreign Affairs. "The country’s population has been shrinking, its mortality levels are nothing short of catastrophic, and its human resources appear to be dangerously eroding,” he wrote. Critics of that piece pointed out that Russia in 2010 actually had a lower mortality rate than in 2000. And this progress has continued. In a Wall Street Journal piece earlier this year, Eberstadt conceded:

Russia’s post-Soviet population decline has halted. Thanks to immigration chiefly from the "near abroad” of former Soviet states, a rebound in births from their 1999 nadir and a drift downward of the death rate, Russia’s total population today is officially estimated to be nearly a million higher than five years ago. For the first time in the post-Soviet era, Russia saw more births than deaths last year.

It seems the ursine creature is not, after all, dying.

In any case, our taste for a country—favorable or unfavorable—shouldn’t dictate our foreign policy, which is properly shaped by a cool calculation of our national interest. On these terms, America is right to resist Russia if Putin seems truly bent on bullying his way to a redrawn map of Europe, but also right to try to keep working with Russia on matters of mutual concern such as Islamic militancy. And that same calculation will hold when Putin, as must happen eventually, exits the Kremlin, willingly or unwillingly, whether replaced by a new autocrat or a more democratic figure. Today’s heightened tension between the United States and Russia, conceivably the first chapter of a new cold war, with Europe as ambivalent as ever about its role, underscores that Russia is likely to remain one of America’s most vexing and formidable diplomatic challenges for a long time to come.

So the future of the presentation of Russia as a hodgepodge of unflattering stereotypes seems bright. The naive liberal notion that the world has a teleological disposition toward a progressive end—if only holdouts like Russia would get with the program—is deeply entrenched. Headlines datelined in Russia—on corrupt oligarchs, or on control-freak KGB-generation political operators—will continue to nourish sweeping criticism of Russians, from their leaders on down, as primitive and psychologically ill. Probably no other nation is so easy (or so safe) to caricature.

And the "Russia Is Doomed” syndrome is bound to survive because Russia, alas, still matters. The object of such concentrated anxiety over the centuries, far from heading down a path to obscurity, remains a global force and impossible to ignore. So the worries will live on, too, as will the sublimated wish to efface Russia. But perhaps the good news for the critics is precisely that Russia is not about to go away. They will have plenty of grist for their mill for decades to come.

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