But granting both the magnitude of that reformist task and the grudging minimalism of the Western response to it, one still has to ask, in the cold light of dawn: What is Russia up to these days, anyway?
It is, of course, up to many things. Russia is trying to stabilize a democratic polity: which means doing things that no living Russian has any direct experience of, like writing and ratifying a democratic constitution, adopting a real legal code, forming political parties, conducting free and fair elections, and securing the independence of the judiciary. Russia has also made fitful attempts at a rapid, then not so rapid, then again rapid transition to the free market. While these efforts have produced some successful privatization, on-again/off-again “shock therapy” has been accompanied by high rates of inflation, a crumbling currency, a vast black market, and the collapse of the value of fixed incomes (for pensioners and the like). Moreover, Russia today is being buffeted by the gale-force winds let loose in any country’s public life by a free press; it is trying to decide what to do with its vastly outsized military; it is trying to adjust to the realities of the loss of empire; and it is trying to determine how a historically Orthodox culture will affirm, and sustain, religious freedom.
Furthermore, Russia is doing all this, not, as happened in the West, over the period of a leisurely century or two, but all at once. Russia essentially missed the nineteenth century—the period when the basic institutions of democracy, capitalism, and pluralism were consolidated in Britain, France, and the United States. Now it is trying to accomplish similar tasks in the space of a few years. And it is operating from a far less advantageous baseline, for everything that happens in Russia today has to happen on top of the vast ruins left by Communism.
Those sympathetic to the cause of a free and prosperous Russia are obliged by these immensely complicated circumstances to do something that is difficult for Americans: to think not in months or even years but in decades. The most optimistic projections suggest that, despite massive infusions of aid from the old Bundesrepublik, it will take the states of the former East Germany (the most economically advanced country in the old Warsaw Pact) at least fifteen years to catch up with the states of the former West Germany in economic development. Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary—the east central European countries that have made the greatest progress in securing democratic and market transitions since the Revolution of 1989—may, with luck, have caught up to western European living standards in twenty years.
In light of all this, it is ludicrous to think that a country far more damaged by Communism than any, of its central European neighbors, and with less of a cultural foundation for democracy and the market than several of its former satellites, can become a stable and prosperous democratic-capitalist country like France, Britain, or Spain anytime in the next ten years. Thinking about Russia means thinking long-term. Yet we must also keep in mind the ever-present (if, for the moment, latent) dangers posed by the fact that this cauldron of unprecedented and disorienting change retains a massive arsenal of nuclear weapons and a formidable conventional military capability. And while the latter may not be sufficient, in the country’s present disarray, to pose a direct threat to the West, it is more than enough to do a lot of damage within the old Soviet Union, or to the nations of the former Warsaw Pact.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.