The time has arrived for some moderation and clarity in thinking about contemporary Russia and its relationship to the Western world. Ronald Reagan was not wrong in the 1980s to call the Soviet Union an “evil empire.” Its death in 1991 was a welcome victory for liberty, peace, and political civilization. But post-communist Russia is not the Soviet Union and it cannot reasonably be called an “evil empire.” The continuity between the two political orders is woefully exaggerated in the West, with some on the left hating contemporary Russia, a half-authoritarian autocracy, more than they ever opposed communist totalitarianism. On the right, hatred of Russia also runs deep, and little or no distinction is made in most quarters between things Russian and Soviet. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a Russian patriot and the anti-communist par excellence, told an interviewer in 2006, that is very disappointing, indeed. Why such blindness and rigidity across the political and media class in the Western world, and in the United States in particular?
On foreign policy questions, a frenetic moralism dominates all discussions about Russia and its relations with the West. For reasons known to all, it has only gotten worse since the 2016 election. Few understand how provocative it is for serious voices in the United States to propose NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia. As famous historian of Russia Richard Pipes said to me at a Hillsdale College conference in the fall of 2008, NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia is the equivalent of having Russian troops in Mexico and Canada. It provokes and does little to guarantee security.
We also need to examine our role in the deterioration of East-West relations. We know the Russians have made many mistakes and are perhaps unduly suspicious of Western intentions. That said, the United States massively intervened in the 1996 Russian presidential elections to support Boris Yeltsin, who was presiding over a kleptocracy that betrayed the promise of post-communist reform and was shamelessly impoverishing tens of millions of ordinary Russian citizens. As Michael Brendan Dougherty has recently written at National Review, this made us complicit, to some real extent, in the crimes of a regime that was neither truly democratic nor market-oriented, as many in the West naively, even perversely, insisted at the time. This far surpassed anything the Russians did to intervene in our elections in 2016. Russian support of our efforts in Afghanistan after 9/11 was not reciprocated and Western elites showed little sympathy with Russia’s ongoing struggle against radical Islam in Dagestan, Chechnya, and other parts of the north Caucasus. Few realize that however unsavory, the democratically elected government of Ukraine that was overthrown in February 2014 should not have been assaulted by mobs with the express support of the U.S. government. That makes a mockery of democracy promotion.
Ukraine is culturally a 50/50 country. The needs of that part of the population that identifies with Russia culturally deserve respect in any meaningful Ukrainian democracy. Russian intervention in the Donbass, in the east of Ukraine, has been heavy-handed and ill-advised. But the Crimea will not be returned to a nationalist government in Kiev since the region is historically Russian (at least since 1780), was handed over unilaterally to Ukraine by Khrushchev in 1954 (in a Soviet Union where borders didn’t really matter), and contains a major naval base, Sevastopol, which is necessary for Russia’s security. Added to all this, Russia is economically weak in any comparative sense and is faced by demographic trends that suggest a precipitous decline in its power status in global politics. To be sure, Putin has played his limited cards very well and with a strong dose of Machiavellianism.
But Russia lacks the strength to rebuild the Soviet empire, and there is no consensus in support of such regressive, immoral, and self-defeating behavior. Those in the Red/Brown coalition in Russia—ultra nationalists, aggressive imperialists, neo-fascists, anti-Christian pagans, unreconstructed Stalinists—do not have the support or ear of Putin’s government, at least of its dominant elements. A word to the wise: Any alternative to Putin in Russia at the present time is likely to be more illiberal and less committed to the values of liberal and Christian civilization than the present political order. Contrary to legend, Putin’s is not a neo-Bolshevik regime and Putin is in no way sympathetic to or nostalgic for communist totalitarianism. Too much is made of his stint in the KGB (he did not work in the gulag or engage in domestic repression). His is an autocracy of the right, moderately authoritarian and not totalitarian. It is silly and pernicious to speak about his essentially non-ideological regime as in any way restoring Stalinism.
It is also a misleading euphemism to refer to contemporary Russia as a “managed democracy,” to cite the locution of Vladislav Surkov, the longtime ideas man for Putin’s inner circle. Putin’s regime is an autocracy where some public liberties are curtailed. But there is no mass violence and there are few political prisoners. Significantly, books are published from every political, ideological, philosophical, and religious point of view. There are some opposition newspapers and radio stations. Sadly, books are published in honor of Stalin, but this has no support from Putin as the president of the Russian Federation. He could do more to speak out against such nefarious historical revisionism, but it should be noted that Russia barely commemorated the centennial of the Bolshevik Revolution in the fall of 2017. Putin knows that communism weakened Russia, destroyed the flower of the nation, and left her spiritually prostrate. He has supported the teaching of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s “The Gulag Archipelago” in the public schools, where it has been required reading since 2009. This means that every young Russian of high school age is exposed, at least in principle, to the most powerful indictment of totalitarianism ever written.
The Orthodox Church, for its part, pays regular homage to the “new martyrs” killed by the communists. On October 30, 2017, a new monument dedicated to the victims of political repression in the Soviet Union, one designed by the sculptor Georgy Frangulyan, was unveiled in Moscow. It was the product of a partnership between the Solzhenitsyn Foundation, directed by Solzhenitsyn’s widow, Natalia, and the Memorial Organization founded by the heroic Andrei Sakharov, among others. Putin spoke at the event and quoted the wise and eloquent words of Natalia Solzhenitsyn: “To Know, To Remember, to Condemn and then Only to Forgive.” If only more Russians took to heart these words about the need for an uncompromising attitude toward the Soviet past. Let us hope Putin takes his own words to heart. Is any of this truly known in the West?
As for Natalia Solzhenitsyn, she told Le Figaro in the spring of 2018 that she takes a “centrist line” toward Putin and his government. Russia needs more political liberty and more truth and clarity about the evils of the totalitarian past. There are still too many lies and too much corruption in post-communist Russia. But Russia is no longer an ideological despotism, a totalitarian state, and one can dialogue with an imperfect but not nefarious regime. Such moderation of judgment is required if we are not to confuse an authoritarian Russia with a truly monstrous Soviet Union. And we must ask: What good has revolution ever brought the people of Russia? And why should we promote one now, hoping against hope in new “color revolutions"? That is the path of folly. Let us hope that Putin has the wisdom to step down at the appropriate time and to allow self-government -- beginning with active local liberty and greater glasnost and openness -- to flourish in Russia. We should neither idolize nor demonize Russia, but rather, as Timothy Colton of Harvard University has put it, hope that it can become a better version of itself. One does not advance that movement with condescension and unrelieved hostility toward Russia. Russia may not be our friend at the present moment, but it need not be our eternal enemy, as so many in the American political class have come to believe. It is time to say goodbye to illusions.