Geotherapy: Russia's Neuroses, and Ours

Geotherapy: Russia's Neuroses, and Ours

Mini Teaser: An ambition, inordinate and immense, one of those ambitions whichcould only possibly spring in the bosoms of the oppressed, and couldonly find nourishment in the miseries of a whole nation, ferments inthe heart of the Russian people.

by Author(s): Stephen Sestanovich

An ambition, inordinate and immense, one of those ambitions which
could only possibly spring in the bosoms of the oppressed, and could
only find nourishment in the miseries of a whole nation, ferments in
the heart of the Russian people. That nation, essentially aggressive,
greedy under the influence of privation, expiates beforehand, by a
debasing submission, the design of exercising a tyranny over other
nations: the glory, the riches which it hopes for, consoles it for
the disgrace to which it submits. To purify himself from the foul and
impious sacrifice of all public and personal liberty, the slave, upon
his knees, dreams of the conquest of the world.

--The Marquis de Custine, Russia in 1839

During the Cold War, Americans by and large forgot Custine, perhaps
the grumpiest tourist and most scathing vilifier of Russia who ever
wrote. Locked in conflict with a totalitarian state, we thought that
the main reason the Soviet Union made trouble for us, and for the
world at large, was that it was not a democracy. Take away Bolshevik
ideology, the command economy, and the power of the Politburo, and
you'd be a long way toward normalcy. Dissolve the Warsaw Pact, slash
military spending, give the non-Russian republics their independence,
and it would be hard to see what we might fight about. Adopt a
constitution, end censorship, respect religious freedom, hold
elections, then hold more elections: Could a country that did all
these things really be a threat?

Apparently, yes. Political institutions, we are now told, solve much
less than was once imagined. They do not address deep psychic and
socio-cultural torments, and legions of new Custines have begun to
argue that for Russians no torment is deeper than that of being a
fallen superpower--unless perhaps it is that of being a fallen
superpower while also undergoing the transition to a market economy.
In any case, the pain is excruciating and is said to be relieved only
by an increasingly belligerent foreign policy, ideally by
re-establishment of the Soviet Empire. As for other countries, they
need to understand the deep roots of this affliction, while resisting
any thought that the tools of modern medicine can ameliorate it.
Foreign policy, says one authority, is not a realm of "psychological
engineering." Russia, says another, is not our "patient." (These
authorities, it will be seen, do not always follow their own advice.)

Nations do have neuroses. If an unhappy past is one of the causes,
Russia must have at least its share of them, and probably more. But
for all its pseudo-historical depth, the current psychiatric school
of analyzing Russia's politics and policies tells us very little
about what is going on there. As a result, it cannot be a proper
basis for formulating policies of our own.

The Diagnosis

An exceptionally diverse group of analysts and political commentators
subscribes to some version of the diagnosis just set forth. It is
embraced by those who were the most ardent critics of the Soviet
order and those who are trying their best to restore it, by lowly
working journalists and eminent former officials. Despite their
differences, they agree on this: Russian imperial consciousness is
not dead. To the contrary, writes Richard Pipes, perhaps our greatest
historian of Russia, the loss of empire "has produced bewilderment
and anguish."

"[N]othing so much troubles many Russians today, not even the decline
in their living standards or the prevalence of crime, and nothing so
lowers in their eyes the prestige of their government, as the
precipitous loss of great-power status."

Anatoly Lukyanov (once one of Gorbachev's principal lieutenants, then
one of his principal betrayers, and now a leader of the revived
Russian Communist Party) seconds this view. "We communists", he has
said (this is an admission he would hardly have made in the old days,
when good communists despised bourgeois liberties), "always
understood perfectly well that the Soviet man, the citizen of Russia,
had fewer political rights than a European. But that shortfall was
compensated for by the sense of belonging to a great nation, a great
state." Yeltsin undid this formula, thereby making Russian democracy
vulnerable to a communist revanche.

"He took away that sense of world importance. Any party which takes
advantage of this today will be on top. That is why the communists
have so many patriotic slogans, slogans of statehood, of nationhood."

The reason that popular government does not mean peace, in short, is
that the people don't necessarily want peace; they want to be on top
again. As Henry Kissinger has put it, "[W]hat passes for Russian
democracy too often encourages an expansionist foreign policy."
Yeltsin can hardly let the Communists be the only ones to tap the
people's mood, so he ends up taking positions that "differ only in
degree from those urged by Zyuganov", his Communist challenger in the
June presidential race. As one measure of how domestic political
pressures work, Russia is now inclined "to conduct adventurous
policies in Asia for no other purpose than to augment its prestige."

For Kissinger, this mad preoccupation with "ancient glories" is no
mere election-season phenomenon, but something more durable--and more
dangerous. "Foreign policy", he announces, "has emerged as the deus
ex machina for Russia's elite to escape present-day frustrations by
evoking visions of a glorious past."

A deus ex machina, of course, always transforms the story of which it
is a part, and Russia will be no exception. Chrystia Freeland, who
writes from Moscow for the Financial Times, worries that what she
calls Yeltsin's "shift to the nationalist camp" will prove to be "a
dangerous watershed in Russian history." It means nothing less than
that he has "abandoned the effort to forge a new post-communist and
post-imperial identity." Instead of endlessly pretending that their
past was so great, she feels, Russians should "undergo a process of
national repentance." This self-examination is the only way back to
political health: "[B]efore they can construct a new, democratic
national myth, Russians must confront their murderous communist past."

For Zbigniew Brzezinski, Russia's need to take "a hard look in the
mirror" is more than a mere scholarly conclusion. It should be the
core of U.S. policy. After all, "democracy and modernization begin
with self-education." Unfortunately, what he sees in Russia today,
even among its democratic leaders, is a "self-deluding obsession with
power and status." Getting the Russians to listen won't be easy, he
acknowledges, but we have an obligation to tell them--"calmly,
frankly, and firmly"--the truth about what ails them and about what
it will take to recover.

Toward a Second Opinion

It is difficult to think of a time when so much distinguished
pundit-power has been devoted to putting an entire country on the
couch. Consider the psychiatric vocabulary that runs through the
discussion. There is "anguish", "loss of status", "identity" and a
"sense of belonging", "repentance", and "self-deluding obsession."
Russia, once a country that needed a revolution, now seems to need
something even more profound: professional help. It's not enough to
be free, you also have to be cured.

The mere fact that our leading foreign-policy commentators have
started to talk like therapists does not, of course, prove that they
are wrong. But the mode of analysis is, to say the least, a little
unusual--not least because it is so often combined with a vehement
insistence that U.S. policy toward Russia must not be, as Henry
Kissinger himself put it years ago, "a subdivision of psychiatry."
Let us therefore try to verify the diagnosis.

The geotherapists assert the following four propositions. First, that
public opinion creates irresistible pressures, to which Russian
leaders have to respond, for an expansionist foreign policy. Second,
that the Russian elite retains a strong imperial mindset and, in
particular, is determined to regain control of the old Soviet Union.
Third, that Russian leaders are dangerously preoccupied with
questions of prestige and status, and believe that in the past these
were their country's proudest asset. And fourth, that the indulgent
attitude of the West, and above all the United States, toward Russia,
even when it defies us, is making all these pathologies worse. (There
are, it has to be said, some differences among the various
commentators who argue this case. Some feel more strongly about one
proposition than another. But we will be in a better position to
decide how seriously to take these little nuances once we see whether
even one of the propositions stands up.)

Evaluating these four claims should not be hard. A patient in such
terrible shape is going to give daily proof of how much is wrong with
him. If Russia really were as sick as this, we should find useful
evidence everywhere we look--in domestic struggles for political
power, in the conduct of foreign policy, in the strategic concepts
embraced by officialdom and the intelligentsia. Do we?

The Traumatized Public

The Russian political system lacks legitimacy; it can't deliver
bread, only imperial circuses; expansionism, and expansionism alone,
diverts the popular mind from its misery. For symptoms of this
problem, we can start with the recent presidential campaign--a
political event that in many countries does bring neuroses to the
surface. Boris Yeltsin, it should be remembered, ran for re-election
on the basis of a dual strategy, and it was often a quite unedifying
sight. On those issues where the Communists had him on the defensive,
he pandered and dissembled. Hence his promises to pay all back wages
and to end the war in Chechnya. At the same time, on those issues
where he had them on the defensive, Yeltsin turned up the pressure.
Hence his lurid evocations of the Communist past and policy
initiatives, like his decree on private land ownership, that were
meant to frame the election as a choice between politicians who
accept the new order and those who don't.

Essay Types: Essay