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Aug 6, 2022

What’s wrong with Russians?

That is the question I get from some of my friends, in one form or another. Why would a country reject opportunities for a democratic, peaceful development and chose totalitarianism twice within a century, and both times with disastrous consequences for themselves and for their neighbors? It would be easier to say “yes,” and produce some esoteric stuff about the mentality, culture, or deficiencies of the mysterious Russian soul. I can give you ten of these theories right off the top of my head. BS is too easy.

The uncomfortable truth is that there is nothing special about Russians. In other world, all their failings are common to all other peoples. People who now singing praises to Putin’s war are not very different from people who stormed the Capitol building on January 6, 2021. An attentive observer will notice the same breed of paranoia, the same toxic mythology, and the same xenophobia. Similarly, the urban educated and liberal class looks the same in Moscow or in Sacramento. Russians had demonstrated their ability to create a robust civil society, and grassroot democracy, and a modern economy, just like everyone else, before it was wiped out in the last 15 years or so. The only difference is a fragile framework of institutions and traditions that the US has, and Russia does not.

Instead of speculating, let us look at two very similar neighbors, Russia, and Ukraine. The history of both nations is very similar, and so is their respective culture, demographics, and the economics. Both countries came out of the Soviet slumber with a very similar set of challenges and assets. Both struggled with building democratic institutions and confronting massive corruption, while trying to modernize. Both countries inherited powerful secret services and weak court systems. The only difference is oil and natural gas. The natural resources put enormous money to the disposal of one small group of Russian corrupt officials. In political science, this is a classic example of the rentier state. In Ukraine, none of the oligarchic group was rich and powerful enough to monopolize power. While such groups fought with each other, there was enough room for a relatively free press, a civil society, and some democratic institutions to survive. Ukrainians are rightfully proud of two anti-corruption revolutions they staged to defend their fledgling democracy. With all due respect, they had not been dealing with an oppression apparatus as rich and as powerful as the Russian Federation. Belarus is an outlier, for it did not have many natural resources. However, its dictatorship emerged almost immediately from the Soviet system, and can be considered a simple continuation of it. In this sense, it is closer to Central Asian states that to Russia and Ukraine.

One policy lesson for the global democratic coalition is this: do not help enrich dictators. The resource-fueled wealth is going to be used against their own people, and in many cases, against neighbors. Putin’s Russia is an unintended consequence of the global trade. So was Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and ayatollahs’ Iran. Examples from the Middle East and Africa abound. The West made China powerful through unlimited trade and technology exchange, and we still do not know the consequences of this approach. The pattern is the same: a dictator needs to use the resources to stay in power forever. Staying in power often needs a small victorious war to whip up the patriotic frenzy. Poor dictators oppress their own people. Rich dictators go to war with others.

The other lesson is that the institutions need protection. They cannot be taken for granted. The fact that a demagogue like Donald Trump had been elected president and attempted a coup d’état is a warning bell. The fact that George Bush started an unnecessary Iraq war on false pretenses is another warning bell we failed to do anything about. The presidential power to wage war must be legally limited. The weaponization of social media must be contained. Let’s not look too deep; the lessons are specific, and pragmatic solutions must be found. There is nothing wrong with us. 


  1. Anonymous10:12 PM

    While the general argument may sound pretty compelling, there is still the matter of incredible brutality, pathological lies, and absolute lack of respect for life that Russians display. These are the things that people most likely wonder about when they pose the Russian question. This is of course not to say that all Russians are like that, but the cruelty exhibited by the invaders has been beyond belief. And unfortunately, this has been the pattern over many centuries.

    1. That is true. Unfortunately other invaders show similar patterns over the centuries.

    2. Anonymous4:57 PM

      To argue that other invaders or other societies are somehow similar to Russians reduces chances of a meaningful and lasting change to impossibility. Change has to be internal, and if Russian intellectuals continue to justify their countrys' atrocities by such arguments as "others did it too" and that the responsibility lies with other countries' political or economical choices to support Russia in hopes that it will move closer towards a peaceful and democratic society, then there is no chance that we will see the true transformation that is needed. Let's not shuffle around responsibility and hope that this juggling of arguments will make us feel somehow better.

    3. Dear Anonymous. you have missed the point entirely. "Whose fault is this?" is a very abstract question. The answer depends on your pragmatic intentions. If you want to avoid another instance of a dictatorship hurting its neighbors, you should read my blog. If you would like to assign blame, it is not written for that purpose. The West West is not to blame for war; Russia bears the entire ethical responsibility. However, if the World would not have made Putin rich, this war may have never happened. TO be righteous and to be effective policymaker are two different things.

  2. Anonymous7:50 PM

    I would absolutely have to disagree. I did not miss the point of the original post. Actually, I graciously accepted it as a possible argument when looking at the contributing factors that created the current situation. I should have stated upfront, however, that your post did not answer the real question as stated in the title of your post: "What's wrong with Russians?" The post avoided the direct response to the question. And just to be clear, the question was not: "What should have the west done differently? What should not be done again?". Your post instead of answering the question, offered a comparison with the problems within this country, drew parallels with the extremism in the US and at the end concluded: "There is nothing wrong with us."
    When I attempted to bring back the true question, again, the answer was: "Others did it too."
    This was yet another response that avoided the issue of responsibility that is needed for the question to be addressed as it deserves. By the way, there is a vast difference between "blame" and "responsibility", and I never used the term "blame". I am not interested in blaming anyone. I am interested in looking at the real reasons for the historical pattern that the Russian nation has been exhibiting over the centuries. I was hoping that your posts would address them with the insight that one would expect from somebody who is very familiar with the Russian question. I was hoping for an honest attempt to look at that. That did not happen. I will keep looking elsewhere. Thank you for your responses.

    1. The question of historical patterns is very interesting, although I am not sure I have anything new to contribute to it. Many nations keep repeatedly rejecting democratic and liberal values and reverting to archaic nationalistic and oppressive forms of government. However, only four of such nations still have imperial histories and illusions of grandeur: Russia, Iran, Turkey and China. That makes all four of them dangerous to the entire world order. But I live in the West, and want to help figure out what to do about them. I am less interested in the diagnostics. Pragmatically, "the why" matters less than how to deal with their respective problems. The West should also be concerned about preventing other large nations from slipping into the imperial dreams: India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Nigeria, Brazil, etc. Thinking of Russians as a unique exception is self-delusional. It makes us complacent.