Engaging Russia in the 21st Century
KPLU-FM in Tacoma, one of two local NPR stations serving the Olympia area, carries the Bob Edwards Weekend show, which I heard for the first time this past Saturday. I’ve been a Bob Edwards fan since I first heard him on Morning Edition in 1979. He has a voice that was born for radio and has always impressed me as an interviewer. I’m glad that he found a new venue after NPR dumped him.
The show I heard featured an interview with the Russian/Soviet spy, Sergei Tretyako, and Peter Earley, author of Comrade J, which recounts Tretyako’s role as the head of Russia’s spy network in New York that operated from Russia’s UN mission during the 1990's. Probably the most notable statement he made during the interview was that Americans foolishly believe that the Cold War is over since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
That comment reminded me of an enduring fact of which American’s are largely ignorant, namely that Russia is always Russia, whether its leaders are czars, commissars or technocrats. That was a major lesson I learned in college studying Russian history and following events in that country for the past 40 years. Simply put, Russians have a great sense of their nation’s destiny, a sense that equals anything Americans believe about the United States.
This sense of destiny grows out of the Russian state’s 1,000 year history and has been consistent regardless of which of the two competing strains of thought prevail at any given time. One strain, the Slavophiles, holds that Russian culture and society should base itself on Russian history and experience, that the west and other societies have no relevance to Russia and offer no lessons or models for Russia. Even the Communists, who emerged from the international Marxist movement, were largely Slavophilic despite their internationalist rhetoric. The second strain, the Westernizers, believe that Russia should look to the West for ideas and culture. Peter the Great and Catherine the Great are perhaps the most notable Westernizers. Maybe Gorbachev. The Bolsheviks were no doubt influenced by non-Russian ideas but Stalin ruled as a Slavophile.
Parallel to this sense of destiny is a sense of inferiority, the belief that despite its history and culture, Russia is at a disadvantage in competition with other nations (ie, the west). Given Russians’ belief in their cultural superiority, Russia’s disadvantage can only result from subterfuge or sabotage, thereby further heightening Russians’s sense of encirclement.
What all this means to me is that the demise of the Soviet Union simply changed the format of Russian government and gave various nationalities the opportunity to declare independence (Ukraine, Georgia, Kazakhstan, etc). It did nothing to change Russians sense of destiny. Along with this sense comes paranoia, the fear of alien, non-Russian ideas that can corrupt the national will, something to always guard against. The early post-Soviet years only heightened this fear as Russians saw their empire fragment, economy tank, and corporate oligarchs take control of major industries. In those years, Russia was a carcass, pickings for foreigners and capitalists, a great nation .
A decade later, much has changed. Vladimir Putin, a Slavophile, has reasserted Russian nationalism and is pushing back against western influences and encroachment. This is no surprise to me. Rather, it’s simply Russia being Russia, a nation that believes in its destiny and is now in a position to demand that other nations recognize what Russia considers its vital interests.
Russia has always sought to buffer itself from the west, by embargoing the flow of outside ideas and by surrounding itself with friendly (or at least compliant) states. The czars did it. So did the Soviets. These days Russia is looking at its immediate neighbors and seeing NATO allies. Americans seem to consider Russia a defeated nation, a second rate power in a world of American hegemony. Needless to say, Russians do not share this view.
Therein lies the danger of American policy toward Russia. Expanding NATO to the east, placing missile defense batteries on Russia’s doorstep and dealing with Russia as a second-rate nation plays directly into Russian fear and paranoia. And we are seeing the result of this misguided policy. Now that Russia is emerging as a major energy producer, its leaders are in a position to assert its national interests far more effectively than could the commissars or their immediate successor, Boris Yeltsin.
Mr. Tretyako’s revelations are a reminder that American interests remain at risk to Russian initiatives and policies. The Cold War did not end so much as change one of the competitors. The American belief that we won the Cold War is an illusion. Communism collapsed largely due to its internal contradictions, influenced perhaps by American policy. What did not change was Russia. Russia remains Russia, a culture and society that sets itself apart from the world.
I’m not advocating a return to Cold War truculence and competition so much as I am asking American leaders to look at Russia on its own terms and develop policies that recognize this context. We should have been doing this for the past 60 years. It's not too late to get real now.