Lessons from Russia


A  film about a German film maker Werner Herzog meeting former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, has brought back to public attention some basic lessons from Russia. As the largest of the countries that used to make up the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, Russia was the economic and military mainstay of the Soviet bloc, with garrisons in a dozen different nations – Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Poland, Hungary, Romania and Albania. But when it collapsed a series of blunders by the west that continued for nearly a decade and contributed to the current stand off we find ourselves in today with a revived Russian bear, hollowed out whatever ideological victory the west might have had.

I believe one of the biggest mistakes made since the Cold War ended was the abject failure to rehabilitate Russia and the other former U.S.S.R. members. The period from the end of 1991 when the U.S.S.R. formally dissolved after voting itself out of existence on Christmas Day that year to when Vladimir Putin, a former K.G.B. agent became President in 2000 was a time of ethnic, social and economic instability. Few in the west seemed aware of the changes – even less probably cared.

No effort was ever made to help Russia or its fellow former Soviet Republics with a transition to an economic system not reliant on 5 Year Plans that here almost always excessively ambitious. Subsequently massive job losses were announced across the board. Wages plummeted. An American volcanologist writing about colleagues around the world said that one of his Russian colleagues was reduced to $35 a month in income. The concepts introduced by the last Premier Mikhail Gorbachev were perestroika (openness) and glasnost (reforms)meant well and were absolutely necessary, but thanks in large part to the west rolling around in the victory over its eastern rival, they failed.

Nor was any effort made to address the fact that these countries, having just spent the better part of a human life under a totalitarian regime directed from Moscow and upheld by local puppets, did not understand democracy. No effort was spent on helping them build new institutions, removing the corruption that came with the Communist command-economy and teaching those that were trusted with the transformation of the institutions how to go about their jobs.

After the Cold War ended former Soviet Republics found themselves with abandoned military hardware and infrastructure that Russia could not afford to maintain. Literally rusting in ports in Archangel, Odessa, Sevastopol, Murmansk and others were Soviet warships whose crews were weeks or even months behind in being paid. Many of them had nuclear propulsion and some had nuclear weapons or the means to store nuclear weapons on board. The poor state of repair no doubt contributed to the Kursk submarine disaster in August 2000.

But perhaps the greatest cost to the west was political. Having failed to help with Russia’s rehabilitation it was now consigned to watching the rise of Mr Putin, whose vision of Russian greatness has only been matched by his cunning. Using divide and conquer tactics he has partially annexed the strategically important Crimea. He managed to build up Russia influence in Iran and Syria, prolonging the civil war in the latter and tacitly endorsing the anti-American sentiments of the former.

Now, the west wonder why Russia went down hill following the Cold War and why Mr Gorbachev, who is now 88 is issuing an old but familiar warning once more: demilitarize politics between the U.S. and Russia or else. The warning signs have been there all along, but in racing to think that Francis Fukuyama’s “End of history” thesis was somehow the future, we forgot the past.