The Dilemma of Russia

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By George Weigel

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Seeing Russia clearly has never been easy for western Europeans or Americans. There is the sheer size, the raw geographic magnitude, of the place. There are the cultural differences derived from the fact that Russia is the heir of a distinctive form of Orthodox Christianity while the West has been deeply influenced by Latin Christianity; these differences have worked themselves out historically in differing patterns of political development. Russian nationalism, and its expression in imperial thrusts to the south and west, often abutted British and French ambitions and interests in the neighborhood, and once led to the kind of tensions that eventually produced the Crimean War. Then there is the long-running, still unresolved debate between “Westernizers” and “Slavophiles” within Russia itself, a debate that has given that massive land a strange relationship to its western European cousins. And there is, of course, the fact that for three-quarters of a century Russia was the center of a world revolutionary movement that aimed at nothing less than the overthrow of the basic institutions of modem Western politics, economics, and culture.

Thus the West has never been altogether sure where Russia fits into the pan-European scheme of things; and Russians have had their own questions about the place of their transcontinental society in the common European home. All this has led to much trouble in the past and could lead to much more in the future.

That being said, we should also acknowledge our great debt to the Russian reformers who, in August 1991, won the last battle of the Cold War—and in so doing ended the Cold War. They put the final nail into the coffin of Communism as a world-historical force. They helped make possible the rapid and heartening consolidation of basic democratic and market institutions in significant parts of east central Europe. Their victory dramatically lowered the temperature of world politics, created the circumstances in which real disarmament became possible, and revivified the prospects of progress toward a new, cooperative world security system operating through international institutions and agencies. However reluctantly in some cases, the Russian reformers also made it possible for ancient nations that had been forced into the czarist or Leninist/Stalinist empire to regain their sovereignty.

We owe these reformers a lot, both for contributing substantially to our security in recent years and for reminding us jaded Westerners how powerful the idea of the free society is. For reasons of our own continued security, and in order to repay a large moral debt, it is indeed appropriate for the West— and the United States in particular—to do its best to see that democracy and the free economy take hold and prosper in Russia.

This will require a far more concerted Western effort at supporting the infrastructures of democracy and the market economy in that struggling land. For seventy-three years, Russia was deeply and grievously wounded—economically, morally, psychologically, culturally, ecologically—by the madness of Marxism/Leninism. The inability of the United States to stay focused on the multiple problems of post-Communist transition in Russia for more than a few days at a time, and the colossal irresponsibility of western European nations in erecting extreme protectionist barriers against the free flow of goods from eastern Europe, have been shameful, and have made the already gargantuan job of Russian reconstruction even more difficult.

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.