January/February 1998
Vol. 54, No. 1


Turn back now

By Suzanne Massie & Priscilla McMillan


The Clinton administration's insistence on making NATO expansion the cornerstone of its policy in Europe is only the latest symptom of a much deeper problem­­ the absence of a real American policy toward Russia. This worries many of us in the field of Russian affairs who, while we represent varying points of view within the field, are nevertheless united by anxiety over the long-term consequences of the current policy vacuum.

Before the United States can fashion a policy toward the new Russia, Americans must first appreciate the pain and extent of Russia's post-imperial collapse. During 75 years of Soviet rule, Russia lost a third of its population and suffered unspeakable deformation. In an encompassing effort to control every corner of society, the regime demolished the social fabric to the point where Russians are left without a single strong institution. The government is feeble. A nation that has been environmentally ravished and degraded no longer even knows where its borders are. The people, the national spirit itself, have been humiliated.

Yet we in the West refuse to grasp this. We pay lip service to Russia's suffering and lament the lack of a "civil society" as though that lack amounted to a collective moral deficiency. We expect Russians to pick up where they left off in 1917 as if Soviet rule had never happened. We give no sign of appreciating the human toll that the habits of suspicion, deception, and mutual betrayal­­all of them requisites of survival during those years­­exacted in destruction of civic pride and individual moral responsibility.

Instead, we have turned a blind eye and a deaf ear, attempting to thrust upon Russians the solutions we believe have worked for us, economic solutions, and our sense of time­­hurry. We preach "marketization" as if it were a cure-all, ignoring the reality that Russia's most deep-seated problems lie outside the realm of economics. Patriarch Aleksei II of the Russian Orthodox Church pointed to what is perhaps Russia's most serious ailment six years ago when he warned: "This is the first time in history that an entrepreneurial system has come to a country without moral values."

Russians today are sorting through the rubble of their past, trying to rediscover values they once cherished. These are, above all, values of the spirit: belief in community over the individual, faith that man does not live by bread alone. These may not be the values we have chosen, but they are values Russians have traditionally held­­and in which their salvation may ultimately lie. In this search they need our understanding, yet by trumpeting our values as the only path to enlightenment and acting as if Russia's past and its traditions were unworthy, we undermine their chance of finding their own way to healthy and democratic institutions.

Our failure to treat Russia's spiritual odyssey with respect is a manifestation of another failure closer to home: deep down, we have not come to terms with our victory in the Cold War. So momentous are the changes of the past six years for all of us that we, too, have not yet made up our minds about what kind of world we want. Ambivalent about the role we wish to play, we are likewise ambivalent about the kind of Russia we are hoping for. Is it a strong, healthy partner we want­­or a humiliated, stricken Russia, one we can treat as a vanquished nation?

The danger is that lack of policy is itself a policy. More and more, the U.S. posture looks to Russians like an indifference amounting to hostility. Americans say they fear that Russia will become anti-Western, yet the United States behaves as if it were trying to bring this about. It has treated Russia like a conquered nation, but failed to extend to it the generosity it offered to the nations it defeated during World War II. In the United States there is less interest in Russian studies than at any time in recent memory. The United States has sent experts to introduce marketization and to tinker with the economy at the higher levels, but it has ignored the harsh and humiliating conditions to which most of the people have been reduced. Nor do Americans seem to care. Since this is now clear to many Russians, the United States ought not to be surprised by the consequences.

Any viable policy toward post-Soviet Russia must recognize these facts:

Russians are dying. The disastrous environmental situation and the dramatic decline since 1991 in the birth rate, women's health, and male life expectancy are well known in the West. Is anything being done to alleviate these conditions? For much less than the cost of expanding NATO, the United States could help by underwriting significant development in the fields of health and the environment.

n The United States is alienating its friends. U.S. inaction and lack of sympathy have wrought what generations of Soviet propaganda failed to accomplish. The once pro-Western population of Russia is turning against us. This is a tragedy­­one of the great lost opportunities of the twentieth century.

Take, for example, the plight of the scientific community: Once known for its democratic yearnings and its enormous sympathy with Western values, this community has suffered disproportionately since the collapse and is beginning to fracture. Why doesn't the United States provide grants to help scientists and scholars mobilize their training in support of better health and a better environment?

n Russia is the pivot of Eurasia. Helping Russia is not charity. Americans cannot afford to rebuff Russians in their basic friendliness toward the West, nor should the United States allow Russia to melt away as a power in the world. Yet the United States has gloated over the dissolution of the Soviet Union and tried to take advantage of it, sending former Defense Secretary William Perry, for example, on repeated missions to Uzbekistan and the Ukraine.

But the breakup has not necessarily been salutary for the former Soviet republics, many of which were economically and culturally tied to Russia and to one another and are now unable to prosper without those ties. Rather than encourage separatism as a means of keeping Russia off balance, the United States should instead look for ways to encourage conciliation between Moscow and, say, the Uzbeks, with a view to their building relationships with each other that will be helpful to them­­and to the United States­­in the long run.

Preoccupied by a perceived vacuum of power in Europe, the United States runs the risk of helping to create another, more dangerous vacuum where the Soviet Union used to be. And the United States has failed to attune itself to something that Russians are all too aware of­­the ominous rumblings from the huge land mass to their south and east.

Finally, the United States should stop arguing that the expansion of NATO is not directed against Russia. Virtually all Russians see it that way, and they are right. NATO expansion may not pose a military threat, but it is a threat to the development of Russia in directions that we, and most Russians, would like to see. At the very least there should be a proper­­and public­­balance sheet of its supposed benefits and real costs. Specialists on Russia and nearly all thoughtful American journalists consider NATO expansion a grave mistake.

Russians have a proverb that applies: "No matter how far you have gone on the wrong road, turn back."

Suzanne Massie and Priscilla McMillan are associates at the Davis Center for Russian Studies at Harvard University.