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Russia After Kursk

Posted By Richard Grenier On 09/05/2000 @ 1:00 am In Commentary | Comments Disabled

Russia is in a state of moral turmoil not seen since the 1917
Revolution. The Czech uprising against Soviet rule in 1968 called forth
an invasion of a quarter of a million Russian troops, with tanks and
armored personnel carriers, but the invasion was a response to a
(nominative) seizure of power by Czech reactionaries. But after a few
weeks of impassioned summits everything returned — with a bit of
loosening here and there — to pretty much the Soviet system. I lived in
Prague while this was going on (and was arrested by Red Army soldiers
for my trouble). But at the end not much had changed.

But another Russia was brewing, which came to the surface only 32
years later, with a chorus of criticism of the Kursk affair. And
criticism is an understatement. The Russian people, who had been
promised eternal independence, were in a rage, not hesitating for a
second to denounce openly — and to the Western media — the heartless
and brutal behavior of their government. The Russian media, reformed at
last on the model of the free radio broadcasts that Radio Liberty and
Radio Free Europe had been beaming into their empire for so many
decades, spared no detail in exposing the government’s lies and the
callous behavior of its leader, Vladimir Putin. The frolicking of Putin
at the resort of Soichi on the Black Sea, while his sailors suffocated
on the disabled submarine Kursk in the far north, will be remembered a
long time.

Russia has cultivated in recent years an appreciation of the rules of
accountability, which citizens of democratic societies have come to
expect from their governments. It is new in Russia. As put most
succinctly by Zbigniew Brzezinski, National Security adviser under
President Jimmy Carter, more Russians now sense that Vladimir Putin is
not so much the breath of the future as the last gasp of the Soviet
past. Unfortunately this rather gross distinction was lost on many of
the most prominent Western leaders, almost all of whom have positively
heaped undeserved praise on the new Russian president. Bill Clinton,
British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and German Chancellor Gerhard
Schroeder — the heart of the West — have without exception behaved as
if Russia now gave the orders.

In the United States, neither Republican nor Democratic party
electoral platforms reflect a strategic understanding of the need to
create conditions that will help Russian society free itself from the
reactionary elements of the Soviet past. Indeed the Democratic
platform’s call to continue “engagement” conveys little more than a
cowardly courtship of Russian officialdom.

A sharper awareness of Mr. Brzezinski’s distinction between
“official” Russia and Russian society in general would help prevent, in
the East, the formation of a policy that doesn’t deserve (and steals a
good deal of) the money it actually receives. United States aid, should
go primarily towards institutions that promote non-governmental
initiatives, as well as toward wider exchanges with the younger Russian
generations, and toward efforts to spread the rule of law.

Teaching younger Russians the values of democracy should be given
absolute priority. In 1999 the Library of Congress launched an exchange
program whose goal was to educate some 2,000 young Russian local
officials about the complexities of American democracy. That program –
which will remind Germany and Japan of the thousands of young Germans
and Japanese who studied in the United States after World War II –
deserves to be enlarged, perhaps tenfold.

Furthermore, it should be complemented by similar initiatives for
young leaders of Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan — all with
cultures quite independent of Russia, and in some cases far older.
Georgia, for example, had its own form of writing 1,000 years before
literacy came to Russia. And schoolchildren still learn ancient Georgian
today — as their first language. When they learn a “foreign” language,
like Russian, it is from Georgian textbooks. As much as possible, all
these “minor” countries formerly under Soviet rule, should be granted a
similar education in Western democracy.

This might seem the height of vanity for an American. Why should
foreign countries, when conquered or subjugated by an American-led
alliance, adopt our ways? Well, we defeated them in war — never a minor
consideration. But, perhaps more important, our form of self-government
is more attractive to these foreign countries than their own. Mexico,
with whom we fought a war long ago, was dirt poor, and the last
hold-out. “God is so far away,” Mexicans used to lament, “and the United
States so close.”

But now, after the Mexican elections, the United States is closer
than ever. And, miraculously, God also seems closer.

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