It might be relevant that Ioffe, as some who take umbrage at her barbs are apt to sneer, is Jewish (which in certain Russian nationalistic circles can be taken to mean decidedly not Russian). Masha Gessen, too, is Jewish, and there is plenty in the Russian experience—the word “pogrom” is of Russian origin—for any Jewish person to despise and fear. (I’m Jewish myself, with ancestors from Russian lands.) Gessen also is a lesbian. But while not being an ethnic Russian may help to dispose one toward criticism of Putin’s Russia—and being a lesbian all the more so—such things don’t quite account for the passion displayed in reprimands of the country. The active ingredient in such chastisements seems to have, as much as anything else, an aesthetic component. Russia, it is clear, is not to everyone’s taste.
BUT A NATION is not a piece of art that one can choose simply not to hang on the wall, never to have to look at. The reason that the “Russia Is Doomed” strain of criticism matters is that this perspective is grounded in unreality. Russia isn’t going anywhere. Critics tend to exaggerate its ailments or fail to place them in proper context. Consider corruption. Systematic corruption, from the bottom to the top of society, is indeed pervasive in Russia—and this has been a condition of post-Soviet Russia going back to the corrupt deals struck in the 1990s between the Kremlin and a rising generation of oligarchs. But corruption also is endemic in nepotistic (and yet fast-growing) one-party China, and in democratic India. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, in the Gilded Age of the “robber barons,” America, too, was a swamp of malfeasance, as the rich and powerful bent government to their will. There is no reason to think corruption will harm Russia more than it does other societies.
As for Russia being little more than a “gas station,” in McCain’s words, the country’s vast oil and gas resources are without question current-day Russia’s prize economic asset. Russia is the world’s top natural-gas exporter and possesses the planet’s largest proven gas reserves. But energy is much more to Russia than just a source of cash: the Kremlin is adeptly using its fossil-fuel treasure to accomplish geopolitical objectives, as in the recent megadeal to ship natural gas by pipeline to China. Beijing and Moscow may never be close friends, but energy gives them a practical reason to work together. Meanwhile, the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, a persistent critic of Putin’s Russia, has pleaded for the United States to use its own energy reserves as a “strategic asset” to help Europe reduce its current reliance on Russian gas. Such an appeal underscores the reality that Russia’s petroprowess is apt to endure well into the twenty-first century.
What about Russia’s grim demographic profile? The analyst Nicholas Eberstadt at the American Enterprise Institute labeled Russia “The Dying Bear” in a 2011 essay in Foreign Affairs. “The country’s population has been shrinking, its mortality levels are nothing short of catastrophic, and its human resources appear to be dangerously eroding,” he wrote. Critics of that piece pointed out that Russia in 2010 actually had a lower mortality rate than in 2000. And this progress has continued. In a Wall Street Journal piece earlier this year, Eberstadt conceded:
Russia’s post-Soviet population decline has halted. Thanks to immigration chiefly from the “near abroad” of former Soviet states, a rebound in births from their 1999 nadir and a drift downward of the death rate, Russia’s total population today is officially estimated to be nearly a million higher than five years ago. For the first time in the post-Soviet era, Russia saw more births than deaths last year.
It seems the ursine creature is not, after all, dying.
In any case, our taste for a country—favorable or unfavorable—shouldn’t dictate our foreign policy, which is properly shaped by a cool calculation of our national interest. On these terms, America is right to resist Russia if Putin seems truly bent on bullying his way to a redrawn map of Europe, but also right to try to keep working with Russia on matters of mutual concern such as Islamic militancy. And that same calculation will hold when Putin, as must happen eventually, exits the Kremlin, willingly or unwillingly, whether replaced by a new autocrat or a more democratic figure. Today’s heightened tension between the United States and Russia, conceivably the first chapter of a new cold war, with Europe as ambivalent as ever about its role, underscores that Russia is likely to remain one of America’s most vexing and formidable diplomatic challenges for a long time to come.
So the future of the presentation of Russia as a hodgepodge of unflattering stereotypes seems bright. The naive liberal notion that the world has a teleological disposition toward a progressive end—if only holdouts like Russia would get with the program—is deeply entrenched. Headlines datelined in Russia—on corrupt oligarchs, or on control-freak KGB-generation political operators—will continue to nourish sweeping criticism of Russians, from their leaders on down, as primitive and psychologically ill. Probably no other nation is so easy (or so safe) to caricature.
And the “Russia Is Doomed” syndrome is bound to survive because Russia, alas, still matters. The object of such concentrated anxiety over the centuries, far from heading down a path to obscurity, remains a global force and impossible to ignore. So the worries will live on, too, as will the sublimated wish to efface Russia. But perhaps the good news for the critics is precisely that Russia is not about to go away. They will have plenty of grist for their mill for decades to come.
Paul Starobin is a former Moscow bureau chief of Business Week and the author of After America: Narratives for the Next Global Age (Viking, 2009).
Images: Flickr/Sara Lafleur-Vetter. CC BY 2.0.