Russia’s Rotting Empire
Writing in the MIT Press Journal, Nikita Khrushchev’s great-granddaughter Nina (a professor at the New School in New York City), offers her perspective on what she calls Russia’s “rotting empire.” She begins by observing: “There is one thing to keep in mind when talking about Russia — it doesn’t change.” Russia has, she argues, no viable alternative to destruction and malfunction except stasis and decay.
That is just about as damning a criticism of a civilization as can be made and, don’t forget, it’s coming not only from a Russian but from a Russian whose ancesor once ruled the country. Khrushcheva’s point is irrefutable: Putin claimed that Yeltsin’s reformers tried to change the country too rapidly into a demcratic republic, and then he turned around and moved back towards a neo-Soviet oligarchy with even more devastatingly breakneck speed and totally without deliberation. She states: “The structures of democracy today are as undeveloped as they were under Peter the Great and will likely remain as underdeveloped in 25 years as they are today.”
That’s because it’s simply not in the interests of Russia’s ruthless authoritarian leaders to empower the mass public. As the legacy of the USSR clearly shows, Russia simply can’t generate the massive wealth that would be required to hold such a population in check — the USSR couldn’t even do so in regard to Russia’s cowed, clueless masses. In Russia, authoritarian rulers need a weak, sick, helpless population in order to maintain control.
So she starts of wonderfully well. Pity, then, that in classic Russian fashion she wanders into confusion and misrepresentation before the end.
Khrushcheva notes that when Russia rebuilt itself after Soviet collapse, it didn’t create new symbols for a new country, but rather brought back the double-headed eagle crest from Tsarist times. And it wasn’t long before Putin had revived the Soviet national anthem and had it playing at the Olympic games. Russia has also embraced the anachronistic Orthodox church and its rituals, creating a society that is truly Byzantine and disconnected from the modern world.
Khrushcheva sees the August invasion of Georgia ironically, as a tangible expression of Russian stasis. Unable to alter its past, Russia reflexively, unthinkingly repeats it. It reaches out to take Ossetia exactly the same way the USSR reached out for Afghanistan, and the tsars made many equally ill-fated bids to increase Russia’s already unmanageably large territory. Russians tell themselves, in their insular, ivory towers, that they have “taught a lesson” not only to Georgia but to the the United States — failing to realize, just as the USSR did not, that it becomes ever more isolated and vulnerable with every passing day. They still believe that not only Ossetia but “Tbilisi, Sevastopol, Kiev and Tallinn” all “belong” to Russia.
And Vladimir Putin personifies this stasis. Khrushcheva writes: “Now only 56, in 25 years he will be just a few years older than Leonid Brezhnev or Josef Stalin, who both died in office in their mid-70s. With some 30 years of Stalin and 20 years of Brezhnev, Putin could easily split the difference and stay on for 25.”
Then, in typical Russian fashion, Khushcheva jumps the rails and ploughs headlong into a muddy ditch. She claims that the rhetoric of the Bush administration has served to push Putin further into stasis than he otherwise would have gone, making an argument that is not just unconvincing but factually bogus. Has she already forgotten Bush’s public declaration, after looking into Putin’s eyes, that he was a man whou could be trusted? It seems she has forgotten not only that, but the entire thesis of her paper, namely that Russia is burdened by crushing historical continuity that dates back to time before the United States even existed. She lauds John Kennedy, and her own great grandfather, for their “restraint” in the Cuban missile crisis in a manner that sounds like nepotism, forgetting that Kennedy instantly threatened Russia with brute force, invaded the Bay of Pigs and escalated the Vietnam conflict all out of innate hostility to basic Russian values. She refers to her grandfather as a “reformer” but it’s dubious to say the least, delusional to say the most, to imagine that Kennedy ever saw him that way. She ignores the amazing progress achieved by Ronald Reagan in galvanizing American allies and driving the decrepit USSR into the ashcan of history, giving Russians their best chance ever to build a new society.
And then her analysis becomes even more bizarre, as she stumbles upon a mighty weapon that the West can wield against Russia, in the form of the nation’s self-inflicted economic crisis. She admits that it was another economic crisis that gave Mikhail Gorbachev “no other choice” but to relax repression and seek reforms, but she forgets that Gorbachev’s partners in that effort were the virulently anti-Soviet Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. But for the pressure they put on Gorbachev at the opportune moment, Gorby might well have continued the same coverup he inherited from Brezhnev. Is she advising us to simply ignore this weapon, speak kindly to Russia’s demonic KGB ruler and hope to coax him out of his primordial cave? Is she so long away from Russia that she forgets how Russians detest this type of patronization, and so unfamiliar with history that she does not realize there is not a single example in all Russia’s long life in which such a policy ever bore fruit?
Khushcheva acknowledges that one possible way of inducing Russia to change might be to create a booming, prosperous, powerful state in Ukraine that Russia could not help but notice. Yet, she does not call for aggressive efforts to shield Ukraine with NATO membership or any other measures to bolster its defenses against a Russia that, she seems to have forgotten, believes it is the true owner of Sevastopol, and indeed perhaps of Kiev as well — utterly only mealy-mouthed platitudes about “helping Ukraine support its claim that it belongs within the European fold.”
Only a Russia could be so ignorant and naive as to forget that no matter what tender words of encouragement Barack Obama may dispense to Vladimir Putin, KGB-led Russia will never allow Ukraine into the NATO fold without a massive fight. Khushcheva’s words should be galvanizing us to prepare for such a fight, but instead they only dilute and confuse the issue.
And so it goes with the Russians.