The Magazine

Don't Cry for Russia

The world's unlikeliest "victim."

Sep 1, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 47 • By CATHY YOUNG
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As Russian tanks rumble through Georgia, and Western pundits talk of the "new Cold War," one trope keeps reappearing in their discourse. Russia's newly aggressive stance, we are told, is partly our fault: After the fall of Communism, the West went out of its way to humiliate and trample Russia instead of treating it as a partner--and now, an oil-powered Russia is striking back.

"Russia's litany of indignities dates to the early 1990s when the Soviet empire collapsed," Samantha Power, a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and former Barack Obama adviser, wrote in Time. "A bipolar universe gave way to a world in which the 'sole superpower' boasted about how it had 'won' the Cold War. Russia was forced to swallow the news that NATO would grant membership to former client states in Eastern Europe, along with former Soviet republics." This theme, particularly NATO expansion as an affront to Russia, has been echoed by many others, from Tom Friedman in the New York Times to Pat Buchanan in his syndicated column.

By contrast, few of the Russians who lament their country's slide into belligerent authoritarianism under Vladimir Putin blame it on "humiliation" by the West. "Russia humiliated itself," says human rights grande dame Elena Bonner, widow of the dissident and scientist Andrei Sakharov. "It spent 70-plus years building Communism, and reaped the results."

Victor Davidoff, an independent Moscow journalist and former Soviet political prisoner who became a U.S. citizen but returned to Russia in 1992, told me in an email exchange that he was "nauseated" by talk of Russia's humiliation. "How did the West humiliate Russia? Gave it money--much of which was pilfered? Sent humanitarian aid? Paid for the dismantling of missiles? Invested in Russian businesses? The Germans don't consider the Marshall Plan a humiliation; why is aid to Russia humiliating?"

Davidoff's mention of the Marshall Plan is fitting, since Samantha Power explicitly contrasts the West's treatment of post-Cold War Russia with that of post-World War II Germany: "On occasion, Western countries have consciously avoided humiliating militant powers.  .  .  . Having neutered Germany following World War I, the Allies showed West Germany respect after World War II, investing heavily in its economy and absorbing the country into NATO."

This is a breathtaking inversion of reality. If ever a defeated power was "humiliated," it was postwar Germany--forced to endure several years of occupation, de-Nazification, a massive education campaign promoting the idea of collective German guilt for Nazi crimes, reparations to countries affected by the war, and loss of territories accompanied by the expulsion of millions of Germans. There was also the small matter of the country being split in half.

The contrast with the West's treatment of post-Communist Russia is stark indeed. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the United States and Europe eagerly embraced Russia's young democracy. Western economic aid to Russia totaled $55 billion from 1992 to 1997 (not counting private charity). While some aid was conditioned on the continuation of market-oriented economic reforms, none of it was tied to political demands for a formal condemnation of the Soviet legacy. Russia was not required to dump the Lenin mummy from the mausoleum in Moscow, to put former party apparatchiks or KGB goons on trial, or to restrict their ability to hold government posts and run for public office. Nor was it forced to pay reparations to victims of Soviet aggression, or surrender territories such as the Kuril Islands, seized from Japan after World War II.

What about the much-maligned NATO expansion? Friedman asserts that it was particularly galling to Russians since Russia itself was disinvited from joining NATO, sending a message that it was still seen as an adversary. Ira Straus, founder of the Committee on Eastern Europe and Russia in NATO, tells a more complex story in a paper for a 1997 George Washington University conference on Russia and NATO.