We believe that David Ignatius’s article in the Washington Post is very well worth reading today, as he discusses some of the dominant themes that came up during a recent conference sponsored by the Russian Institute entitled “What Does Russia Think?” (oddly, I unknowingly gave yesterday’s video interview a similar title). The result is a presentation of a bouquet of modern myths about Russia – such as Putin’s authoritarianism being mistaken with economic success (instead of coincidence with high oil prices), the strongman legend, the distrust and antagonism toward the outside world, and the other “heaps of memes” (as Michael Idov would describe them) that contribute to our common understanding of Russian politics. Ignatius is aware of these shortcuts of logic and rationalism, so the argument he presents over the Grand Inquisitor paradox takes the longitudinal view that the problems Russia is experiencing are the same from 100 years ago. Interesting stuff.
“Putin is the leader. There is no disagreement about that. Putin came to power and life improved,” argued a member of the Russian Duma. He described Putin’s political intuition in the way that 19th-century Russians spoke about the czar: “Putin knows what the society needs better than the society does.”
Putin is the tough guy who put a wounded country back together afterthe fall of communism. “Russia emerged from the chaos of 1991 withdisproportionately large political and socio-psychological scars,”explained Alexey Chesnakov, a former Putin adviser who is director ofthe Center for Current Policy. When Putin became president in 1999, hebrought “authoritarianism by consensus,” said the head of anotherRussian think tank.
Modern Russia is still anxious, even though it’s more orderly.Russians worry about the jumble of nationalities within their bordersand assertive neighbors such as Georgia and Ukraine. It’s an”overheated, overloaded society,” said a prominent anthropologist who,like some of his colleagues, was speaking on background. NervousRussians are “running away from their freedom,” offered a leadingsociologist. With the loss of its empire, Russia is “like an amputatedbody,” ventured Vyacheslav Glazychev, an urban planning professor whoheads several institutes. It has a “horror vacui, a fear of empty spaces,” he added.
“We want equality. We want our interests recognized — to have themconsidered as significant,” said one Russian panelist. But whenAmericans attending the meeting asked for specifics, another Russianwho is a prominent politician suggested: “The real problem is that wedon’t understand what we want.”