A lot of ink is spilled over this question in Western – especially American and British – media outlets and think tanks. The meme is so pervasive that it is nearly impossible to discuss Russia without at least one reference to some negative trend, characteristic, or anecdote that not only qualifies but even trumps any further discussion (e.g., “well, they’re population will disappear in 50 years,” “everyone has HIV/heroin addition/alcoholism/chronic disease”). Throw in emotionally charged and factually detached arguments on human rights and democracy, and you virtually preclude substantive, open discussion on Russia. Rather, we excel at imposing a number of crudely preconceived ideas of Russia’s Platonic ideal – drunk, weak, backwards, stupid – onto a country that has historically defied trends and prediction. Anatoly Karlin of Sublime Oblivion covered this broken discourse – he terms it the “Kremlinologist Catechism” – in a recent article for Russian Life and I will not try to improve upon his efforts.
Just to summarize – the negative Russia meme generally consists of several major assertions, some mutually exclusive (e.g., Russia’s military is on the brink of underfunded, dedovshchina-fueled collapse AND is a source of strength for bullying neighbors and reviving the Cold War). A good, sophisticated example of this school of thought is the 2006 CFR report Russia’s Wrong Direction, co-authored by famous philanderer John Edwards (who was actually just starting to cheat on his wife while the report was written and published). More recently, I recommend looking at the Russia Nation’s in Transit report from Freedom House (clearly a Bush-era name). Freedom House asserts that out of 29 countries it evaluates in Central and Eastern Europe and Eurasia, Russia has fallen farther than any other country toward authoritarianism. The Freedom Housers even outlandishly claim to know what percentage of Russians live under authoritarian conditions (80%). The 2010 Nations in Transit report discusses journalist deaths since 2000 – fair enough, the review period is the past decade. But it is interesting to note that deaths of journalists have gone down since Putin took power, more due to the improved, general level of stability than any love of journalism. To be sure – not even one dead journalist is acceptable and Russia ought to be ashamed of its brutish record. I just don’t think it should trump the discussion.
Ironically, the area in which Russia most desperately needs help and is comparatively open to outside guidance is in the economic sphere – on issues like investment, innovation, governance, etc. Indeed, barring accidental nuclear war Russia is not headed for some final, catastrophic collapse. Instead, Russia is slowly dying, rotting from within on both an institutional and infrastructural level. Given its present course, Russia will gradually fade into an unfortunate, yet novel, position – the poor former Great Power. Fortunately Russia still has enough natural wealth, human capital, and remnants or shells of functional institutions that in theory the path to modernization and economic competitiveness should be manageable. In the next few posts I will identify and summarize these real problems and what Russia needs to do about them.