What’s Rong with Wrussia?

Everything, according to some. Many things, according to others. Nothing, according to many Russians.

Back in 2004, two US academics, Andrei Shleifer and Daniel Treisman, wrote a controversial piece for Foreign Affairs in which they argued that statistics proved that Russia was a “normal country.” Since they focused on mostly economic parameters, such as GDP, income distribution, and the like, they had a point.

What Shleifer and Treisman overlooked was the politics. Do “normal” countries normally invade their neighbors, lop off bits and pieces of foreign territory, support unconstitutionally elected, power-obsessed strongman leaders, distrust the world and continually whine about their lost glory, take the crudest Goebbelsian government propaganda at face value, export terrorism, call democrats fascists and fascists democrats, and approve of profoundly corrupt, deeply inefficient, hyper-chauvinist, and blatantly imperialist fascist states?

In a word, what’s rong with Wrussia is not that it’s backward, but that it’s got so many important things backwards.

The depth of one’s pessimism about Russia is largely a function of which part of that long-suffering country strikes you as irredeemably wrong.

If you think Vladimir Putin is the problem, you’re actually an optimist. After all, if all that’s rong with Wrussia is Putin, then his departure—which even his acolytes must agree is inevitable—will solve Wrussia’s problems. Naturally, if, like Patrick Buchanan, Stephen F. Cohen, Gerhard Schröder, Aleksandr Dugin, and Marine Le Pen, you think Vlad is the cat’s pajamas, then nothing’s wrong with the place and we can all sleep soundly.  

If you believe the system Putin built—or, possibly, the system that spawned Putin—is the problem, then you’re well on the way to being a pessimist, though not yet of a hopeless kind. I call that system fascist, because, while possessing all the features of run-of-the-mill authoritarian regimes, it also has a charismatic, hyper-masculine strongman leader who employs chauvinism, supremacism, and imperialism as means of reaching out to the public and underpinning his own legitimacy. If the term, fascist, bothers you, fine: call it something else. Call Russia a Putinist authoritarian dictatorship. Call it democratic populist authoritarian. Call it a hyper-managed hybrid post-democratic democracy. Go to town with the modifiers that make you feel better. Just remember that, whatever you call it, it walks and talks like the systems built by Mussolini in Italy and Hitler in Germany.

If the system is what’s rong with Wrussia, then Putin’s inevitable departure, whether from life or from politics, may not change it—or, possibly, it may only transform it into a run-of-the-mill authoritarian regime. Would such a Russia be less inclined to act like a bully internally and externally? Probably not, at least in the short run. Will such a regime outlive Putin? Quite possibly yes.

It’s at this point of any analysis that the depth of one’s pessimism about Russia is tested. If you think that the real problem with Russia is neither Putin nor the house he built, but the Russian people—or, more precisely, their political culture, which, as many Russians and non-Russians argue, is authoritarian and, thus, can countenance only dictatorial rule—then your pessimism is pretty much hopeless. Can Russian political culture change? Sure. But it’s in the nature of culture to change slowly—which means that Russians have the fascist system and the fascist ruler they “deserve.” Even if the ruler goes and the system collapses, both will likely be succeeded by stable authoritarian variants.

Many Russians, along with Putin, Buchanan, Cohen, Schröder, Dugin, and Le Pen, disagree with this diagnosis. That is to say, they don’t disagree that the ruler, regime, and culture are, er, not quite democratic. They just happen to believe that’s a good thing. To them, all I can say is: If you want to destroy democracy, undermine liberalism, and adopt a paranoid foreign policy that has turned Russia into a rogue state, go right ahead. Just keep your proclivities to yourself and don’t export your ruler, regime, and culture to countries that reject fascism.

Which, obviously, brings me to Ukraine and its neighbors in the “near abroad” (a term that only a Russian imperialist pining for the good ol’ days of empire could love). Like everyone else, they don’t know how Russia will or will not change in the next few years. Unlike everyone else, they have to live next door to this hulking, sulking Cyclops of a country.

What do you do if the guy next door is a loud, rude, vulgar, aggressive, violent, thuggish, and heavy-drinking drug dealer and you can’t move out? You reinforce your wall, install several locks, put metal sheeting on your door, lift weights, practice karate, ignore him—and hang out with those neighbors who don’t have awful habits.

That’s why Ukraine’s signing the Association Agreement with the European Union on June 27th was arguably the most important thing to have happened to the country since independence. It means that Ukraine and Ukrainians may finally be able to live in peace—not immediately, as their neighbor turns up his boorishness in response, but eventually and permanently, once he collapses in a drunken stupor. (Unfortunately, many western Europeans are so hooked on Russian oil that they are willing to sell their ideals for a fix.)

When Wrussia becomes Russia—note the “when”: I believe that Putin and his regime will soon alight the ash heap of history—Ukraine and its neighbors should extend the long-suffering Russian people a helping hand. Until then, they have no choice but to avoid Wrussia and its rongs like the plague.

As former President Leonid Kravchuk put it: “We must learn to live with a country that will permanently engage in provocations…. We can’t change Russia, but we can learn to live together against Russia. There’s no alternative.”

Or as a Russian-speaking Donetsk native recently said about the Russians: “My relatives and I, along with millions of Russian-speaking and Russian people in Ukraine, will never again call you our brothers…. we want to protect ourselves from you with a three-meter-thick wall…”

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