- A Russian Liberal’s Lament
The year 2011 marks the twentieth anniversary of the Soviet Union’s collapse. Just as the fall of communism came as a surprise to most of the world, the two decades of political tumult that followed have been similarly unpredictable. For many observers of Russia, not to mention post-Soviet citizens, these last twenty years have also been bitterly disappointing. Russia has gone from being a messy, unconsolidated democracy in the 1990s under its first elected president, Boris Yeltsin, to its current incarnation as an increasingly autocratic regime under his successor, Vladimir Putin, and the latter’s protégé, Russia’s current president, Dmitri Medvedev. The country’s economy has also known dramatic peaks and valleys, with the latter including a complete crash of the ruble in 1998 and a precipitous drop in GDP brought on by global economic crisis a decade later. Post-Soviet Russia’s relations with Europe and the United States have been correspondingly turbulent.
Few Russian scholars have attempted to make sense of all of these changes, and Lilia Shevtsova’s latest book is a welcome effort to do so. A senior associate at the Carnegie Moscow Center and an associate fellow at Chatham House (the Royal Institute of International Affairs), Shevtsova is a well-known and highly respected analyst of her country’s political institutions and foreign policy. Her writings include books on both Yeltsin’s uneven rule and the regime under Putin. Her special talent lies in dissecting the interplay between the maneuverings [End Page 167] of political elites and the many unanticipated outcomes of Russian domestic politics.
Ostensibly, Shevtsova’s latest work concerns Russia’s relations with the West, meaning Europe and the United States, with a far greater emphasis on the latter. The story she tells of Russia’s development (or regression) since the Soviet Union collapsed in December 1991 is a tale of tremendous disappointment. In an opening “Letter to the Reader,” Shevtsova explains that the seemingly unpredictable nature of Russian foreign policy is a result of its “genetic code: personalized power” (p. xii). The book—which she herself calls a set of polemical and often emotional essays rather than a dispassionate analysis—is really about Shevtsova’s own disillusionment with her country and its leadership.
At times, she is similarly frustrated with the United States and its foreign-policy leadership regarding Russia over the last twenty years. By Shevtsova’s account, the period has been marked by all manner of ill-conceived and ill-fated policy blunders by Russians as well as by Americans and Europeans, and is replete with missed opportunities to direct Russia onto a sustainable path toward liberal-democratic rule. As a result, she says early in the book that “Russia and the West are further apart today than they have been at any time since Gorbachev’s perestroika” (p. 2)—a surprising claim given the “reset” in Russian-U.S. relations under President Barack Obama.
The rest of the book is an attempt to explain how this has happened, and who is responsible. She places most of the blame on the Russian side, but there is a lot of blame to go around. European and U.S. decision makers and analysts certainly do not escape indictment. Shevtsova clearly abhors Putin and Medvedev (and has little good to say about Yeltsin, either). They and the cronies with whom they share control of Russia are moved by greed and opportunities for personal gain, not an honest concern for the public interest. Their insatiable appetites for money and power have left the Russian public and liberal intellectuals like Shevtsova by the wayside as the country runs to ruin. For Shevtsova, Russia’s leaders have had no shortage of accomplices, however, and few analysts (whether Russian or foreign) or Russian political actors over the age of 45 escape her scathing pen. In Shevtsova’s view, the rest of them have either been coopted by Putin’s media machine or have honestly but foolishly...