Understanding Russia

August 1, 2015

According to recent polls, Donald Trump has surged ahead of his Republican rivals rallying the rank-and-file of his party with bravado, clear statements of good and evil, and ridiculing any of those with whom he disagrees. He thinks of Barack Obama as weak, and even his fellow Republican bomb thrower John McCain is not strong enough. He recently allowed as how McCain served honorably in the Vietnam War but said that, as for himself, he prefers people who do not get captured. Trump for his part, having taken advantage of deferments, managed to avoid serving in the military at all, which, we note, is a pretty good way to avoid getting captured.

Nevertheless, Trump and McCain will be unified in their desire to show more teeth to Iran and in so doing will align themselves with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel. Netanyahu staged a military buildup in 2011-2012 attempting to push the American government into a direct military confrontation with Iran, presumably hoping that the United States would bomb somebody. Netanyahu has further made a sustained effort, throughout recent years to find American politicians who will go to war first and think later. Now he has Donald Trump and John McCain and John Boehner and many other Republicans as allies. War and threats of war make for good campaign chest thumping and—as long as none of the candidates is being shot at—they can all be very brave.

Which leads to the unhappy result that American politics has become a playground for bombasts. Bombasts with power are dangerous. And while this is dangerous enough in the Middle East it is even more dangerous in our relationship with Vladimir Putin and the Russians. Pressure from our nationalistic right wing has been so substantial that Barack Obama has committed to deploy American weapons to the Baltic States and is considering supplying weapons to the Ukrainian government in Kiev. If McCain and Trump and the other chest thumpers have their way we will end up deploying American weapons nose to nose with Russian tanks in the eastern Ukraine. The proclaimed justification for these moves has been to stop or contain Russian adventurism, to prevent another annexation like that in Crimea, and to be sure that the Soviet Union is not reconstituted. The Republican candidates for president are therefore now increasingly belligerent when it comes to Russia, filled with self-righteousness in the defense of freedom, more accusations of Obama’s weakness and the need to show some true Republican grit.

Polls favoring Donald Trump demonstrate that a large number of Americans find this approach good for us. We are apt to think of international politics as a football game; we either win or lose and we win by taking the offensive. This is nicely simple. When the game is over one side is victorious and the other done, no longer to be remembered. Whoever remembers teams that lose in the Super Bowl? Americans are therefore apt to say that they won the Cold War but that we are losing in the Middle East; we are losing out to China in world economics and once we have lost, all will be lost, not a shred of American freedom or dignity will be retained.

Simple decisiveness, clear statements identifying mortal enemies, a willingness to march into hell for heavenly cause, all make good politics. Candidates who beat the drums of nationalism usually do well as against candidates who weigh complexities, alternatives, and, with regard to Russia, seek alternatives to confrontation rather than the satisfaction of a good fistfight. In the case of Russia, of course, there will be no such thing as a fistfight. A nuclear exchange today would be just as catastrophic to civilization as would have been a nuclear exchange in the 1980s. Any candidate who portrays himself or herself as brash enough, or “strong” enough, to prevent the revival of Russian power is seeing the world through this win-or-lose lens. Any candidate, further, who pretends that history was over after the West "won" the Cold War is living in a dark closet, in illusion. The darkness blocks out history, ignores the long-evolving culture of the Russians, the psychology of people who have never known anything but strong central leadership, and we, seeing only our own history—getting no help on Russian history from the mainstream media—feast on slogans about Russians not once putting ourselves in their shoes.

We ought to know better.

One has only to remember the reaction of president John Kennedy when Russia’s Premier Khrushchev attempted to put guided missiles Cuba, 90 miles from our shores. Kennedy and his advisors went into a cold sweat, readied our nuclear missiles for launch, and but for some last second re-thinking, would have started a nuclear war. Now, 50 years later, we are saying that the presence of NATO on Russia’s borders should be of no concern to them because our intentions are good; we are democratic and peaceful. We are the future; that future is democracy; and it will only be a matter of time until Russians accept our true nature.

There is probably not a living breathing Russian with red blood in his veins who sees America in this light.

It is all very well for Americans to think of themselves as the ambassadors to the future but it is quite another thing for Americans to declare that Russians have no right to the same feeling about themselves. Russians have a kind of messianic streak not much different from our own. Putin can look at economies in disarray in Europe and the United States, the troubles with Greece and the shakiness of the euro and then turn to look at China's command economy, a centralized approach that has almost nothing to do with democracy but a great deal to do with economic prosperity, and say to himself I think I will follow the Chinese model. For the United States, therefore, to have sought to impose a Western banking system on Russia in the 1990s now begins to look very much like our trying to put a saddle on a zebra. It has never been done. Our attempt to superimpose values of contract, commercial code, banking, and free trade upon a traditional system that distrusts strangers, fosters secrecy, and is knit together far more by personal connection then by the rule of law, was at best ignorant and at worst delusional.

When American teams were working in the Soviet Union in the years before and just after its collapse, lawyers and scholars would approach us asking for help in drafting a constitution that would guarantee a "normal" society, meaning a society in accord with the rule of law. Some Western advisers urged simply adopting the right codes and constitutions. To create an independent judiciary, they said, just put it into law. Which is the same thing as saying, if you pass a law history will be irrelevant.

This, too, was delusional. A society held together by personal connections—often outright bribery—is not held together by codes or constitutions or Western legal history. America’s post-Cold War aspiration was high-minded but our understanding of the complexity of Russian history, psychology, and traditions of friendship was minimal. Maybe it was not our fault. We had been denied access to the secret society of the Soviets for nearly 70 years and could honestly say we knew little about them. But for whatever reason, the thought that we could merely come into another country's history, a culture that honored other heroes than our own, other poets, other music, and had suffered tragedies beyond our imagination, was fantasy. We could not, and did not, abolish history.

Vladimir Putin is the Russian people’s response to the 1990s, its chaos, its apparent abandonment of Soviet prestige, and its desire for strength at the center. If the US attempts to back Putin into a corner, this time there will be no strong liberal Russian intelligentsia to pull off a coup and replace him. Quite the opposite: the Russian bear, if cornered, will come out swinging with complete popular support.

All of which is to say, that most political candidates now running for the presidency of the United States, and most Americans trying to size them up, are tempted by the simplicity of proclaiming America the good and Russia the bad. Unfortunately, the bombasts just don't know what they're talking about. They have not spent time to get underneath the superficialities and slogans of either communism or Putinism to understand what is possible and what is not possible.

If we want to encourage Russia’s hope for democracy, we might first ask what they hope for that does not have a western stamp upon it; what is it that knits together the history of Russian greatness in Europe, that remembers Catherine the Great, Czar Alexander I’s repulse of Napoleon, and the Russian sacrifice of as many as 26 million in the second world war. In the absence of some consciousness concerning this history we are apt to fall easy prey to the bombast of the current campaigns. And in the absence of advice from someone who has drunk vodka in the kitchens, attended weddings and funerals, we have some way to go before we divide the world into good and evil, and put the Russians irredeemably on the wrong side.

I believe that if I were to return to Moscow tomorrow I would be received by friends whom I have not seen in 20 years with open arms and an invitation to sleep on the couch. Friends in Russian culture are bound more closely, need each other for survival more sincerely, then friends in our highly atomized West. Over there, friends are cherished. How can this be all bad?

There are, therefore, at least two Russias. One is the official, nationalistic, self protective Russia of Vladimir Putin, and the other is the Russia lived by it's millions in their daily lives. There are very clearly evils at the government level. The seizure of Crimea tops the list and Putin is up to no good in Ukraine.

But neither will history look kindly upon the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, (surely a war crime), or our repeated invasions Latin and Central American countries in the early 20th century. Those invasions, more than 20 of them, were to protect US dominance in our hemisphere which is not much different than Putin trying to maintain Russian dominance in his. 

Nor can very much good be said about our long war in Vietnam. It does us no good therefore to be self-righteous about our own history nor does it do us any good to assume that our motives, whether on behalf of the sugar cartel in Latin America, or on behalf of the oil and gas industry in the Middle East, were somehow more benign then Vladimir Putin's annexation of Crimea.

For so long as Americans can assume superiority and not recognize that millions upon millions of Russians live lives of beauty and compassion, care and concern for one another and a desire for peace, we will be prone to accept the bombast of today's campaigns.

Let us hope, therefore, that some part of the conversation, outside the campaigns, in the press and in schools, on public television and radio, will search more deeply and lead us to something greater than a revival of jingoistic nationalism.