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A Reply to Jeffrey Tayler
By W. George Krasnow
June 22, 2001
"Russia Is Finished," proclaims Jeffrey Tayler in his article in the May issue of The Atlantic Monthly. Not only is it finished, "as a Great Power," but cannot expect any better future than that of "Zaire with permafrost…a sparsely populated yet gigantic land of natural resources exploited by an authoritarian elite as the citizenry sinks into poverty, disease, and despair." It is doomed irrevocably by its own history, religion, and the character of its people.
Dismissing Russia's current economic rebound as entirely due to higher oil prices,Tayler gives no credit for President Vladimir Putin. He scorns Putin's efforts to pull Russia out of the morass left in the wake of West-sponsored reforms. He portrays Putin's program of strengthening the state as a return to the autocratic tradition of the czars. The harder the Russians try to get out of their predicament, Tayler seems to be saying, the more they fail.
Tayler's article is more than a forecast: it is his final verdict against the country, its religion, historical tradition, past, current and future leaders, and the character of its people. Not only does Tayler squarely lay the blame for Russia's current difficulties on the Russians themselves. He leaves them no wiggle room to improve, no chance to regenerate or avoid their bitter fate. In short, it is a damnation of a whole nation.
I think Tayler is essentially wrong both in his description of Russia's current state of affairs and in his wholesale condemnation of Russia's past. Although Russia undoubtedly is going through a very difficult time, Tayler's forecast of the future is just as unfounded. Russia is down, but it is definitely not out, presently or in the foreseeable future. U.S. strategists cannot make a worse mistake than to accept Tayler's suggestion that Russia should be relegated to "strategic irrelevance."
Not that Tayler's article lacks some valid points. Several times he comes close to telling the truth." He reports that "because the West supported the bombardment [of Yugoslavia] and sided so openly with Yeltsin afterward, many saw the West as colluding with Yeltsin to weaken Russia." He acknowledges that "the violence [of the Yeltsin government against the parliamentary opposition] received accolades from western politicians whom most Russians until then viewed as honorable and above the tumult of Russian politics." He knows that the disastrous "shock therapy" was "advocated by the West." He admits that Anatoly Chubais' privatizatation, was both "blessed by Western governments" and "rigged." He alludes that IMF, "International banks and Western economists" were guilty of covering up the corruption of Russian bureaucrats.
Yet, while condemning the Russians, Tayler fails to issue even a mild indictment of the U.S. role. He seems strangely unaware of Janine Wedel's book, Collision and Collusion: The Strange Case of Western Aid to Eastern Europe 1989-1998 (New York: St. Martin's Press). According to Wedel, the U.S. government helped wreak economic and social disaster in Russia by providing inappropriate policy advice and aid to corrupt power brokers. Last September the U.S. Department of Justice sued Harvard University and two of its scholars, Andrei Shleifer and Jonahann Hay, accusing them of ''[abusing] their positions as high-level and trusted advisers to, and on behalf of, the United States in Russia."
Harvard's $57 million Russia project, which ran from 1992 to 1997, was United States' top foreign aid programs to westernize Russian financial system. Justice Department also accuses the now defunct Harvard Institute of International Development (for which Shleifer and Hay worked) of having "defrauded the United States out of $40 million," the amount paid to HIID to work on Russian economic policy in tandem with reformers like Chubais.
Among higher-level protectors of the Russian-American tandem (Chubais and Yegor Gaidar on the Russian side; Shleifer, Hay, and Jeffrey Sachs on the American) Wedel names Larry Summers, one time chief economist of the World Bank, then Secretary of the Treasury, and now newly appointed President of Harvard University.
Writing in the 24 June, 2001 issue of The Nation, Matt Bivens, former editor of Moscow Times, asks the legitimate question in conjunction with Summers' recent appointment: "Why did Summers, while he was a top official at Treasury, so ardently embrace the corrupt sell-off of Soviet industries?"
Just as important is the question Wedel raised about the legality of giving the award to Harvard "without competitive bidding," and for "foreign policy considerations." First, how could one instruct Russians about the importance of competitive bidding in a free market economy, if the choice of instructors was done without competitive bidding? Second, assuming that those "foreign policy considerations" included Russia's weakening, was it not a folly to weaken Russia far beyond what was thought to be "good" for the United States?
So much for the U.S. role in the reforms of which the key results were indeed the weakening of the Russian state, emergence of the Russian oligarchs, and the impoverishment of the Russian people. And this is leaving aside the role of such American tutors of the "new Russian capitalists" as Mark Rich.
Tayler's damnation of Russian national heritage is not new. Many American Sovietologists had so little understanding of, and sympathy for, the pre-Soviet Russian heritage that they hoped they would never have to deal with it. They thought that Communism and Soviet Empire would last forever. Those Sovietologists could not even conceive of Russia's future in other than Marxist-Leninist terms. So wide-spread and insidious was Marxist influence among America's "the best and the brightest," that George Will, the conservative columnist, used to quip that there were more Marxists at Harvard than at any Soviet university.
Even those Sovietologists who were not pro-Marxist, nonetheless felt greater affinity with Marxist terminology since it was of Western origin and dealt with familiar topics, such as class struggle, colonialism and social inequality. It was not such a long time ago when it was more popular, at least among the American academic establishment, to denounce American imperialism, the "aggressive" NATO alliance, corporate war-mongers and free-markets than the Soviet Union.
The most hopeful scenario for the future Sopvietologists then offered was the division of the world into two peacefully co-existing camps. One, the West, consisted of countries with a strong democratic heritage. The other, the East, comprised the Russians, all the Slaves, the Chinese and other peoples whose authoritarian heritage allegedly doomed them to live under Communism.
In April 1979 in the pages of The Russian Review I challenged certain russophobic propensities in the writings of Richard Pipes, Professor of Russian History at Harvard University ("Richard Pipes's Foreign Strategy: Anti-Soviet or Anti-Russian?"). Pipes propagated the theory that Soviet expansionism was motivated not by Soviet leaders' Marxist-Leninist ideology ("minor influence"), but by their Russian national character. "Whatever the regime and its formal ideology," argued Pipes, Russian politicians cannot be trusted because they inevitably will follow "the persistent tradition of Russian expansion." Since many Soviet leaders "directly descended from peasantry," claimed Pipes, their mentality was of "a very special kind," including "slyness, self-interest, reliance on force, skill in exploiting others, and…contempt for those unable to fend for themselves." Next year Professor Pipes was appointed National Security Adviser under President Reagan.
Now Tayler continues to propagate the same theory. His article produced a lively e-mail forum debate, introduced by The Atlantic Monthly's editor, Sage Stossel, who asked the question: "Is Russia a tragic country doomed by its history and character?" The most perceptive readers saw through Tayler's anti-Russian bias, dishonesty, and superficiality and answered in the negative. However, Ms Stossel's other question----"Do you think that, given a few lucky breaks, Russia might have won the Cold War and dominated the globe?"--did not elicit much response. I don't know why. But I suspect that the Americans are not inclined to remember their history.
One of the lessons The Atlantic Monthly readers failed to recall was that the war in Vietnam, the antiwar movement and racial riots nearly brought America to the brink of collapse. As I became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1976, I remember very well that after the defeat in Vietnam the prevailing mood of the country was profoundly pessimistic and defeatist. The best the U.S. could hope for, it was believed, was to contain Soviet expansion and to work out some sort of détente with Soviet leaders lest they put in action the Brezhnev Doctrine in yet another country.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the Russian novelist who, after being expelled from the USSR, settled in Vermont, was in the forefront of a small group of patriotic Americans who sustained the conviction that there were many precious values and blessings of life in the West which were worth fighting for.
Yet, when in his "Letter to Soviet Leaders" (1974), Solzhenitsyn outlined a program of reforms to move the Soviet system away from Marxism toward re-awakening of Russian national consciousness, this letter was ignored not just by the Soviets. U.S. foreign policy strategists, the academic community, and the media also largely ignored it. And those who did not, denounced it as a product of an embittered and archaic mind. Neither the Voice of America, nor Radio Liberty/Free Europe deigned broadcast Solzhenitsyn's Letter to the captive audience of Soviet block listeners. And when Solzhenitsyn prophesied that not only his books, but also he himself would return to a free Russia, he was not even taken seriously. He was ridiculed for being so out of touch with the Realpolitik.
So great was there then a desire for making deals with Soviet leaders that the media often failed to report certain incidences of opposition to the Soviet regime for fear of disrupting the détente process. For instance, when on November 8, 1975, the 58th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, a mutiny broke out on the Soviet destroyer "Storozhevoy," moored in Riga harbor, the news never found its way to the media. The rebels seized control of the ship and took it to international waters where Soviet jets chased the fugitive destroyer. Strafing it from the air, they finally managed to stop it. I was told that though NATO personnel intercepted communications between the Soviet jets, they decided to sit on the news. (See my book under Vladislav Krasnov, Soviet Defectors: The KGB Wanted List, Hoover Inst., 1985)
Only after the American people elected Ronald Reagan to the presidency in 1979---in spite of the media's and intellectual establishment's overwhelming opposition, I should add-- only then did the United States rebound from its post-Vietnam moral downturn. But even then the two-term president was under constant attacks for his anti-Communist activities in Hollywood, for allegedly being "a trigger-happy cowboy," and for his forecast that Communism would be consigned to the dustbin of history.
So, to answer Stossel's question, the Soviet Union--not Russia--could have indeed won the Cold War, not because of a superiority of their socialist system, but because there were powerful forces in the United States who were ever eager to pander to the Soviets.
Tayler was just one of many Sovietologists who "developed a passion" for Russia in "its Soviet incarnation," the country that "had nuclear weapons and a powerful military, a threatening and subversive ideology, a tendency to invade its neighbors or meddle in their affairs, and the might to wreak havoc on other continents." Tayler's fascination with raw power--without any regard to its moral implications--tells more about him than the country of his passion. "Russians I came to know spoke of the future of their country as if it would be the fate of humanity, and I agreed with them," he says.
Tayler's passion for Soviet power was typical of many American Sovietologists. No wonder there were only a few of them who anticipated or expected the collapse of Communism in Russia or anywhere else. Hundreds of volumes, now collecting dust, dealt with the problems of "transition" from capitalism to communism, but there was none about going the other way.
One exception was my own book, Russia Beyond Communism: A Chronicle of National Rebirth (Westview Press, 1991) I started to write it immediately after Mikhail Gorbachev came to power. Convinced that Gorbachev's reforms would inevitably push the country "beyond" what he intended, I set out to monitor the emergence of a non-ideological Russian national alternative to Soviet ideology.
While the majority of Western Sovietologists held the belief that ethnic Russians enjoyed their "dominance" over national minorities, my research showed that the Russians were just as fed up with Communism. I argued that the rebirth of national awareness among Russians was no less legitimate than among the minorities and should be welcome in the West as it would eventually undo Soviet threat to the free world. I also argued that Russian nationalism, certainly in its moderate mainstream manifestation a la Solzhenitsyn, was a natural ally of the West because, unlike atheistic Marxism, it harks back to the common Judeo-Christian tradition. I predicted that the Soviet Union would fall because ethnic Russians refused to hold it together and that "Goliath" Gorbachev will be defeated by "David" Yeltsin because the latter "now champions Russia's national rebirth (337)."
In August 1991, after Boris Yeltsin suppressed the old guard putsch and replaced the Communist red flag with the Russian national tricolor, I gave him a copy of my new book as a gift. I never heard from him again. I can only surmise that his growing power attracted to him the kind of advisers and hangers-on for whom Russian national aspirations held little value.
Like Gorbachev's retinue before them, Yeltsin's "reformers" were all superficial "Westernizers." They were "Westernizer" not because they knew and appreciated the values of Western civilization but because they did not. They were superficial because the ideological isolation and insulation of the Soviet regime was such that it prevented them from a deeper knowledge and understanding of the West. And at the same time, they were the kind of people who did not know where they came from. They were like an "Ivan who remembers not his kin" (as the Russian saying goes).
The greatest obstacle to democratic and free-market reforms stemmed from the totalitarian legacy of the 74-year Soviet rule. It meant, first of all, that there were no opposition parties or groups who could take over the reins of the reforms. Naturally, all the reformers came from the ranks of the Communist party whose ideology had brought the country to an economic dead-end, in the first place. The self-appointed healers, on whom the West came to rely, were part of the problem. Even those among them, who sincerely embraced the ideas of democracy, retained the totalitarian mentality and habits of Soviet elite.
We often forget that Soviet censorship isolated Soviet people not only from the knowledge of the West, but also from their pre-Soviet and Soviet history. Glasnost' opened the eyes of the Russian people not only toward the outside world but also to their history which had been stamped out and distorted during the Soviet rule. But there was little time to absorb the knowledge. Consequently, the "Westernizers" were as blind about Russia's past as they were ignorant about the West.
Marxist education conditioned them not to expect anything good from Russia. After all, Marx himself was an Eurocentric russophobe. Consequently, they did not look very hard for the lessons from Russian reforms of the past. Moreover, since the books of Russian past proffered neither money, nor ready-made advice, nor fully-paid trips abroad, the "Westernizers" quickly shut them down in favor of all those things streaming toward them from the West.
Thus they became the willing executioners of whatever schemes came from the West, even those about which serious Western economists had grave doubts. The intellectual atmosphere was ripe for imposing on Russia-- by presidential decrees -- of such misguided, mismanaged and possibly criminal schemes as that of the Sachs-Shleifer-Gaidar-Chubais clique. Alas, all this time, Western media remained silent about undemocratic and illegal behavior of the "Westernizers" that went against the grain of everything that the so-called democratic West stands for or, at least, supposed to stand for.
Tayler chooses to call such behavior on the part of Yeltsin "czarlike." Peter Reddaway and Dmitri Glinski, two scholars with a considerably deeper knowledge of Russian history, more aptly called it "Bolshevik." Their book, The Tragedy of Russia's Reforms: Market Bolshevism Against Democracy (U.S. Institute of Peace Press) puts to shame everything Tayler says about U.S. sponsorship of poverty, crime, corruption, and oligarchic tyranny in lieu of the promised democracy, prosperity, and the rule of law.
As a result, the decade after the Russians so hopefully and freely (for the first time during the atheist Soviet rule) celebrated the millennium of their Christianity in 1988, was wasted on a foolish attempt to replace one extreme Western economic scheme, Marxism, with another, almost equally extreme, Monetarism. The cost of that folly in terms of human suffering, humiliation, and the loss of life was staggering, far exceeding what the Americans remember as the tragic years of the 1929 financial crash and following depression.
The 20th century turned out to be the most tragic in Russian history. It survived two World Wars on its territory, the second one taking more then twenty millions lives. It survived the Bolshevik Revolution, Red Terror, and the Civil War, no less devastating than the civil war in America. It survived the Gulags. It survived the Cold War during which it developed its industrial and scientific base comparable to the best in the world, but at an incomparably greater cost to its people. It survived "Market Bolshevism" proffered in the guise of Western benevolence. It is a miracle that Russia is still alive on the threshold of the 3rd Millennium.
After the nearly fatal "Shock Therapy" and other Western medicine, Russia is still feeble. That's why even honest observers can interpret her vital statistic as symptoms of approaching death. Presently, she may still be listed as a patient in critical, but stable condition. But she shows signs of recovery. Moreover, for the first time since 1991, the polls show that the majority of the Russian people, put a cautious trust in her doctor, President Putin, assigned to put her back on her feet. Putin's KGB background may not be the best credential for a healer. But neither was Yevgeny Primakov's. However, it was Primakov who first started chasing away the oligarchic jackals and their Western advocates from Russia's ICU.
Besides, since the U.S. sponsors another KGB boss, Eduard Shevardnadze of Georgia, and even plans to drag him to NATO, it is clear that it is something else the media don't like about Putin. That "something" is apparently Putin's efforts to strengthen Russian statehood and territorial integrity that some elements of U.S.government so foolishly sought to undermine. They largely succeeded in their task, but only at the cost of undermining U.S.' own credibility and discrediting the once-cherished notions of democracy, rule of law, free press, and free markets we were supposed to promote among the Russians.
Putin may yet succeed in his task of making Russian economy worthy of a great nation. But, unless he learns well the lessons of Russian history, his chances of success are nil. It seems that he has learned the lesson that the Russian State, not foreign advisers, should be in charge of reforms. Neither Peter the Great, nor Alexander II, nor Peter Stolypin relied exclusively on the benevolence and good sense of their foreign advisers. Neither of the three took dictation from abroad. Neither of the three undertook reforms from a position of weakness. Putin may yet find out that the deeper he looks into Russian history (with its Orthodoxy, Mongol yoke, serfdom, and other real and alleged warts), the more inspiration he will find in the perseverance, patience, humbleness, good sense, and courage of the Russian people.
Russia has much to learn from other countries, especially, Western Europe and the United States. However, all that learning will do no good until Russia stands on her own national feet. The sooner she restores the roots of her historical existence, spirituality, and religion--disfigured, cut and trampled upon under the atheist Soviet rule--the greater are the chances of her re-integration into the family of free and prosperous nations.
As to the arrogant doomsayers, like Tayler, it may suffice to reply with the Russian proverb: "Don't spit in a well. You may need to drink from it." Poor and unsightly as the Russian well may now seem, it may yet serve as a source of wellness not only to the Russians but also to other nations.
Fortunately, not all foreign observers of Russia are as superficial, haughty, presumptuous, and self-serving as Tayler. Some few combine greater knowledge with insight and compassion. One of the few was Walter Schubart, a German scholar who fled Nazi Germany to Latvia because he refused to pander to russophobic and anti-Slav tenets of its racial ideology. In 1938, he published his major book, Europa und die Seele des Osten (Europe and the Soul of the East), in which he envisioned a fusion of Western civilization with its "Eurasian" Russian variation, both of which are derived, he argued, from the same Judeo-Christian tradition. While fully aware that Russia under the Bolshevik rule "was in her death throes," Schubart was convinced that only [a reborn] Russia would be capable of restoring a soul to modern mankind, wallowing in materialism, consumerism, and power aggrandizement. Alas, as soon as Soviet troops occupied Riga, Schubart and his Russian wife Vera, were arrested and later perished in the Gulags.
Russia of today may not have fully recovered its soul, but it is a new Russia of the kind in whose rebirth Schubart believed. Don't count this Russia out. It still controls the largest landmass, has great natural and human resources, and nuclear arms. I believe it is in the interests of the United States to see Russia become stronger. Contrary to Tayler's suggestion that Russia's decline makes it "strategically irrelevant," I'd say that the weaker Russia becomes, the more difficult it would be to safeguard its territorial integrity, and the more strategically relevant for the United States would become the entire area Russia now controls.
In his book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (Simon & Schuster, 1997), Samuel Huntington, a Harvard professor, described Russia as one separate civilization and "a civilizational bloc, paralleling in many respects that of the West in Europe." That "bloc" exerts a magnetic pull not only over a number of Slavic and neighboring countries. Russia may have lost its Soviet status as "a superpower with global interest," Huntington observed, but it is still "a major power with regional and civilizational interests (pp.163-164)". He also suggested that the balance-of -powers politics of the past are likely to be replaced, in the post-Cold War era, with building the balance of civilizations. I think that this Harvard professor got it right, and that's what Western strategists should be thinking about each time they look at Russia's map.
We need Russia as a close friend, strong economic partner, and reliable ally. Russia can yet become all those things. But this can be achieved only when Russia proudly stands on her own feet, and we respect her independence and the right to maintain her own identity. If the genius of European civilization is in the West, its heart may well be in Russia. One may see the United States as a Western, Euro-American, wing of the Eagle of European civilization. Russia may be seen then as its Euro-Asian wing. This wing is currently crippled. But it's no reason for us to feel smug. In the long run, without the full extension of the Eurasian wing, the Bird will not fly too far.
Was I too harsh in my criticism of the United States and too soft on Russia? Perhaps. However, as a former Soviet dissenter, defector and naturalized U.S. citizen I feel that my primary duty is to criticize my adaptive country that offered me hospitality and protection when I needed it most. However, when the people who threatened the free world ruled the country of my origin, I did not shy away from criticizing them. Democracy is never more in peril than in the moment it is taken for granted.
W. George Krasnow (aka Vladislav Krasnov) is former Professor and Director of Russian Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. He now runs Russia & America Goodwill Associates (RAGA) in Washington: www.raga.org