For centuries the West believed Russia had a “dark Slav soul,” a myth
which took a long time to die and, perhaps, is not yet dead. The
scholarly Isaiah Berlin, Russian-born himself, has written that after
the Napoleonic wars, Russia began for the first time to think of itself
as a great European nation and no longer a despised collection of
barbarians teeming behind a Chinese wall, sunk in medieval darkness,
halfheartedly and clumsily imitating foreign models.
A growth of patriotic nationalism in Russia brought with it a feeling
of responsibility for the chaos, squalor, inefficiency, brutality and
appalling disorder in the country. This general moral uneasiness
affected even the least sentimental and perceptive of the country’s
citizens, including the hardest-hearted of the semi-civilized members of
the ruling class. This is Russia’s moral history throughout the 19th
and much of the 20th century.
But do we have a right to call Vladimir Putin, the current leader of
Russia, “semi-civilized?” From what we know of the final hours of the
Kursk, I would say that in these times not a single head of a Western
state would have calmly let the entire crew of a submarine, the pride of
the nation’s navy — at the bottom of the Barents Sea — suffocate.
Furthermore, I have a strong feeling that the Russian people — who from
their behavior both during and after the tragedy seem to have absorbed
Western morality far more than Putin himself — will never let Putin
live this tragedy down. We will see.
Zbigiew Brzezinski, our national security adviser under President
Carter, and whose influence on American foreign and military affairs
continued under later administrations, sees present-day Russia as having
two faces: official Russia (“which the Clinton administration has not
only been hailing as a democracy but propitiating irrespective of its
domestic or foreign misconduct”) and unofficial Russia (“the face of an
awakening people’s Russia, to which not enough attention has been
In his evaluation of present-day Russia, Mr. Brzezinski doesn’t pull
any punches; by now, he says, it should be obvious to almost everyone
that the reactions of the Putin regime to the Kursk disaster have been
“despicable.” The list of the regime’s failings, he says, are numerous
indeed: “mendacity, deception, incompetence, indifference to human
life, preoccupation with national prestige, and paranoia over state
secrecy.” The result of these failings, he says, was to forfeit
whatever chance there might have been of saving human lives — in
Putin’s case, the lives of his own people.
(I confess here a special sensitivity to submarine disaster as, while
on active duty with the U.S. Navy — and for a time in the submarine
service, I had ample opportunity to imagine what it would be like, while
submerged, to have my oxygen supply cut off.)
Shortly after my resignation from the Navy, and having resumed a
civilian position in what I took to be a peaceful world, I heard Mr.
Brzezinski address the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. I
confess, I found him gloomy. I was wrong.
The fact is that Mr. Putin’s coldness and insensitivity should have
really surprised only those who breathlessly hailed him as a great
reformer, “the first democratically elected leader in Russia’s
1,000-year history!” Once the romantic haze had dissipated, anyone who
knows Russia’s past should recognize that Mr. Putin — and everyone in
his government — is a pure product of the Soviet system. Every member
of his administration could be serving the Soviet government today if
there were still a Soviet government. And Mr. Putin himself is not only
an alumnus of the KGB, but the son of a Communist Party secretary at a
Leningrad plant and the grandson of a member of Lenin’s and then
Stalin’s personal secret-police detail. Putin is, in short, not only a
Communist believer but a third-generation Communist believer, with a
virtual bloodline going straight back to Lenin and Stalin.
It is Putin’s Russia, however, which has received billions in Western
financial aid but which, regardless, has pursued murderous policies in
Chechnya, aided Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbia, been most friendly to Iraq
and Libya, threatened the Baltic republics, and vigorously denounced the
United States as a threat to world peace.
Is this a country (or a regime) with which we can sustain a long and
rewarding friendship? Is there much hope for real democracy in Russia?
I shall try to assess the possibilities in my next column.