Russia — Ten Years After the Fall

It was on Christmas day ten years ago that Kremlin guards hauled down the Soviet flag for the last time and Mikhail Gorbachev calmly resigned as head of a state that had quietly ceased to exist.

Since then, American thinking about Russia has swerved abruptly between three conflicting views: a heady belief that the former U.S.S.R. could quickly be remade in the image of the U.S.A.; gloomy pessimism about turning a former totalitarian enemy into a genuine democratic ally; and a Russophile rejection of a misguided crusade to transform a distinctly different society.

If the post-Cold War period is now over (as Secretary of State Colin Powell declared in October) and the current shaky United States-Russia partnership founded on the war against terrorism is to lead to a more stable relationship, Americans need to move beyond the exaggerated hopes and fears of the last decade by reconsidering several faulty assumptions.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, many influential Americans expected a rapid and sweeping reformation of Russia. The United States, it was widely assumed, represented a shining example of freedom and prosperity that most Russians eagerly wanted to emulate. Now that they had been freed from communist oppression, many supposed, it would not be long before they returned to Christianity, established stable democratic institutions and developed a thriving capitalist economy to boot.

Although many Russians did hope that Russia would magically become like the United States, the euphoric American triumphalism of those years exaggerated the depth of pro-American sentiment and underestimated the resistance to free-market policies that began with painful price increases and led to glaring inequality. In addition, liberal universalists’ presumption that Americanization was the natural and only acceptable outcome of Russian reform contributed to disregard of democratic processes, particularly when U.S. officials encouraged President Boris Yeltsin’s violent confrontation with the Russian parliament in the fall of 1993.

The popular backlash against Western-influenced “shock therapy,” exemplified by the alarming strength of communists and xenophobic nationalists in the December 1993 elections, spurred the emergence of a second school of thought that stressed ingrained Russian resistance to Westernization. In the mid-1990s senior American experts blamed Russia’s disappointing progress primarily on non-Western cultural traditions that supposedly centered on the Eastern Orthodox religion.

This approach unfortunately exaggerated the remaining influence of Orthodoxy after 70 years of atheist persecution. It also wrongly disparaged Russians as incorrigibly authoritarian and irredeemably averse to Western individualism.

After Yeltsin’s Westernizing advisers and oligarchic backers engineered his re-election against a communist opponent in 1996, American investment in Russia surged and Russophobic pessimism ebbed. However, Russia’s financial collapse in August 1998 gave impetus to the ascendance of a third perspective that repudiated the disastrous efforts to guide Russia toward a market economy. Citing the drastic decline in average Russians’ life expectancy and standard of living, prominent scholars argued that U.S. aid had been futile or counterproductive and urged Americans to simply let Russians be Russians.

Focusing their fire on the mistakes of U.S. policymakers and the misconduct of self-enriching foreign economic advisers, the recent critics (like most news correspondents) have neglected the more positive roles of American Peace Corps volunteers, retired business executives, religious missionaries and other nongovernmental groups that have helped Russians improve schools, modernize hospitals or establish publishing facilities. Repeatedly hurling the epithet “missionary” at misconceived policies, critics of the “failed crusade” have not recognized that there are different ways to be missionaries.

While some Christian evangelists (notably Pentecostals) have been crudely ethnocentric and offensive on forays into Russia, others (such as Adventists) have shown greater cultural sensitivity, have attempted to cooperate with Orthodox priests where possible (such as in campaigns against alcoholism) and have committed substantial resources to long-term relationships. The example of an enlightened, restrained and patient missionary offers a useful starting point for thinking about how to transcend the three dominant attitudes of the last decade.

Instead of expecting sudden conversions and judging Russia’s condition against a presumed end result, Americans should focus on providing aid and advice, when requested, to support gradual processes of change, such as judicial reform. Instead of dismissing Russians as hopelessly backward or “Asiatic,” we should recognize that Russia has become more like the United States (for example, in consumerism and inequality) and stop using Russia as a foil for American national identity.

Finally, we should accept the fact that Russia can seek integration with the Western economy and cooperation with its alliance system without wholly abandoning her distinctive cultural traditions, from which we might even be able to learn something.

David S. Foglesong, is an associate professor of history at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., and a writer for the History News Service.