As a student of Russian culture and politics, I was terribly disappointed by both politicians' obvious lack of understanding of that nation as expressed during the debate.
It is easy to vilify Putin as an evil KGB thug, but he is extraordinarily popular with his own people, and that phenomenon bears examination. The American media bandies around words like "oligarch" without a substantive discussion and analysis of the real Russia today. Shockingly unaware of the ways in which Russian society has been transformed during the past nearly ten years under Putin’s leadership, we are inclined to shrug off the fact that the current Prime Minister is considered a real hero by many. Our thinking seems to be that we are free, so we know better; if Russians adore Putin, they are wrong and we must defend them from their false thinking.
The fall of the Soviet Union was not seen as a heroic moment by most Russians; it was certainly not the harkening of the era of peace that Americans and many Europeans celebrated. Mikhail Gorbachev was not their hero; in their eyes, he was a blundering fool and even a traitor who gave away the Motherland without even a ruble in exchange. The prosperous 1990s left Russians behind, and seemingly overnight an entire nation was left penniless. People who had had sacrificed everything in the name of creating a brighter future for their children’s children were left devastated. Pensions dissolved, crime (previously unheard of) skyrocketed, health care evaporated, and the entire infrastructure of the nation crumbled. If Americans are in an uproar over our own current economic crisis, we cannot even begin to imagine the extent of the catastrophe that befell Russia.
Americans saw this as proof of the inevitability of Russia’s decline, but we were mistaken. Russia has been crushed before, but has never been long defeated. In our arrogance, we assume that we will be able to outwit or overwhelm the largest state on the planet, overlooking that we are hardly its toughest historical opponent. We forget that our erstwhile enemy is nothing if not resilient; it endured several centuries of terror under the Mongol yoke; staved off Hitler’s plans of annihilation at the cost of eating leather boot straps and one’s own pets; remade itself out of whole cloth under the banner of socialism.
Russia is massive beyond the mind’s limits of measurement and perspective. According to the CIA World Fact Book, it measures over 17 million square miles, or approximately 1.8 times the size of the US. The greatest tragedy of Russian history is most certainly the brutality that the various regimes have resorted to in order to reign-in the vast territories the state engulfed. The second greatest tragedy may be the fact that repeated invasions have proved the necessity of a strong state; in most Russian minds, the state must be strong in order to survive. It is worth mentioning to true believers in US-style democracy that Lenin’s own revolution emerged out of the instability created by the floundering democracy immediately following the Tsar’s abdication.
A similar power vacuum emerged under the inept Yeltsin years. Shock therapy, or the immediate implementation of market prices and individual ownership of state enterprises, directly led to the phenomenon of the oligarchs. In order to meet the strict output regulations during the communist years, factory managers resorted to the black market for their supply line. The technocrats at the top of each industry under the Soviet system just before it dissolved were the ones who were able to play the shadow market game the best (in order to survive, you had to meet the specified outputs regardless of circumstances to avoid being accused of sabotage).
When they suddenly became de-facto CEOs of the new private enterprises, they kept their old behavioral patterns alive; becoming not just businessmen but the captains of massive organized crime leagues.
The competitive market provided opportunities for untold millions, and competition between varying oligarchs-the new rich strong-men- began to fill the streets of Moscow with blood. Ordinary Russians continued to eat rotten vegetables to survive while the oligarchs rode around in their limousines with their mistresses; Moscow rent soared to the most expensive in the world.
It is in this context that Russians adore Vladimir Putin. There are outspoken voices to be sure; the socially inconvenient consciences that warn of a darkness ahead. We should listen to these voices, especially those informed critics such as Anna Politkovskaya, an opponent of both the war in Chechnya and Putin himself, who was gunned down in 2006. We should not content ourselves with carrying the mantel of those protestors, however, without knowing the whole story. Why are they so unpopular in their own society, and how does this reflect the difference in between the way we perceive Russia and they way its citizens see themselves?
To analyze all of Putin’s successes and crimes would take more than a single blog. For here, we should at least acknowledge the primary reasons that he retains such an overwhelming support, even in light of election irregularities and other controversies. Quite simply: He’s made the people happy by getting the nation back on track. He’s reigned in the oligarchs. Jobs have returned. Upward mobility and social expectations have risen. Crime is down. The economy is awash in petrodollars. Most importantly: after yet another wasted generation of suffering, Russians have regained their pride.
Returning to the US presidential debate, the posturing by both candidates implies that they plan to act under the assumption that it is still 1992 and the US is still triumphant. In fact, the geopolitical reality in 2008 is as different as night and day from the end of the Cold War nearly two decades ago. For the next president of the US to start announcing that we are going to somehow keep Russia in its place is patently ridiculous, especially with our military stretched so thin as it is and with the EU already desperately engaged in talks to restore their relationship with Moscow.
Just like all major states on the planet, such as China and our own, Russia has ambitions befitting its stature and capabilities. Certainly, we should not turn a blind eye to its excess, and we should not ignore the plight of those crushed beneath its wheels. However, what is needed is not the broken record of Russia-bashing, but a multi-faceted policy designed to meet the challenges of working with such a behemoth of a nation. This is the real world, and in the real world, you must deal with nations that you dislike or with which you disagree ideologically.
Times are too critical to create another enemy out of Moscow; sadly, neither candidate has either the awareness or the courage to admit this.