In memory of Boris Nemtsov, a hero not only of his country but of what I would call the Democratic International, I would like to offer a few broad conclusions that I have drawn from the horror of his fate. These are all sobering conclusions; but our times are schooling us in a new sobriety about history. We are learning, too, to be more sober about ourselves, about our own role in shaping history in the direction of our professed ideals—but the sobriety that I have in mind about the American role, and the Western role, in the campaign (such as it is) against contemporary tyranny and savagery is really more akin to disgust.
The first conclusion is this. Freedom is not to be confused with democracy. Democracy is only one of the things that can be done with freedom. When a dictatorship crumbles, a society is emancipated outwardly but not yet inwardly. Or to put it differently, when you emancipate a society you mean emancipate the actually existing people who comprise that society, their demons as well as their angels. Evil has as much use for freedom’s energies, for the opportunities of liberty, as good. We have seen this confirmed in many countries in recent years; but the most repercussive instance of this harsh truth may be Russia in the years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The exhilaration of that once unimaginable liberation has been crushed by the ascendancy of Russia’s demons. Where communism once was, there fascism now is, and imperialism; and there is also, once again, a minority of valiant souls who endeavor to combat the new repression and keep the truth alive.
The second conclusion is this. There is moral and historical progress, but it is never linear, never direct, never final, and there is nothing inevitable about the emergence of democracy from the ruins of dictatorship. The push forward brings the pull backward—brings the bullets in Boris Nemtsov’s back. The much-discussed arc of history bends this way and that, cruelly and benevolently and cruelly again, inconsistently, contradictorily, fitfully, and provides no grounds for confidence that its ultimate end is justice. If we wish it to bend in a certain direction, we must do the bending. There are always interests and ideas that are ruthlessly dedicated to thwarting the emergence of a liberal order, or to its reversal. Historically speaking, liberalism may be essentially contested, and therefore always in need of support and assistance. And the fragility of liberalism imposes an obligation upon all the citizens of all the liberal orders to come to its defense. The cause is one cause. For us, the recognition of our kinship with democrats and dissenters in other countries—a kinship of values, which is infinitely more admirable than a kinship of blood—should be a matter of honor, and our failure to recognize these affinities, and the duties that they demand of us, should be a matter of disgrace.
The third conclusion is this. Outrage without action is just a sanctimonious cynicism. There was outrage in the aftermath of Nemtsov’s assassination, just as there was outrage when Putin’s wild clients in Ukraine shot a civilian airliner out of the sky. But there were no consequences commensurate with the outrage. The American government now specializes in inconsequential outrage. Our anger impedes no crime, and makes no criminal think twice. This was the case also in Syria and elsewhere. Our president gives evidence of his ethical exquisiteness and then lets the atrocities be. The really striking thing about the sanctions against Putin is that the damage they cause economically does not inhibit him strategically. The billions add up and the Russian weapons and troops pour across the border. Indeed, we, the United States, are the ones with the inhibitions. As in other regions of the world, this is a struggle of inhibited good against uninhibited evil—which is to say, it is hardly a struggle at all. Why wouldn’t Putin take Mariupol?
Our confusion brings to mind John Stuart Mill’s warning that “the profession of [the doctrine of non-intervention only] by free countries comes to this miserable issue, that the wrong side may help the wrong but the right must not help the right”. He proceeded to comment on a foreign policy crisis of his own time, and his words of 1859 read uncannily as a parable about 2015: “It might not have been right for England (even apart from the question of prudence) to have taken part with Hungary in its noble struggle against Austria… But when, the Hungarians having shown themselves likely to prevail in this struggle, the Russian despot interposed, and joining his force to that of Austria, delivered back the Hungarians, bound hand and foot, to their exasperated oppressors, it would have been an honorable and virtuous act on the part of England to have declared that this should not be, and that if Russia gave assistance to the wrong side, England would aid the right. It might not have been consistent with the regard which every nation is bound to pay for its own safety, for England to have taken up this position single-handed, but England and France together could have done it; and if they had, the Russian armed intervention would never have taken place, or would have been disastrous to Russia alone; while all that the Powers gained by not doing it, was that they had to fight Russia five years afterwards, under more difficult circumstances… The first nation which, being powerful enough to make its voice effectual, has the spirit and courage to say that not a gun shall be fired in Europe by the soldiers of one power against the revolted subjects of another, will be the idol of the friends of freedom throughout Europe. The nation which gives the word will soon find itself at the head of an alliance of free peoples, so strong as to defy the efforts of any number of confederated despots to bring it down. The prize is too glorious not to be snatched sooner or later by some free country; and the time may not be distant when England, if she does not take this heroic part because of its heroism, will be compelled to take it from consideration for her own safety.” The parable is inexact, obviously; but still it is chilling.
The fourth conclusion is this. The twentieth century is not without lessons for the twenty-first. The cold war remains pertinent to the predicament in which we now find ourselves. This is, these days, a deeply heretical proposition. Obama denies it, because he regards the cold war as a tragic confrontation in which we, the United States, often behaved badly and from which we emerged with a lamentable sense of triumphalism. Putin denies it because he regards the cold war as an epic humiliation for Russia that must be reversed, as if the primary beneficiaries of the collapse of the Soviet Union were not the Soviet peoples themselves. The discontinuities of the current situation with the cold war are of course considerable; but there are continuities too, and when we banish the acknowledgment of those continuities from the discussion we deprive ourselves of moral and strategic wisdom.
It is not merely that there are features of Putin’s Russia that perpetuate some of the features of Soviet Russia—the regional aggressions, the restoration of propaganda as the central instrument for the shaping of an entire population’s picture of the world, the imprisonment and murder of political opponents, the geopolitical paranoia, the obsessive (and utterly mendacious) characterization of its adversaries and its victims as fascists, and so on. (In the essay that she was writing at the time of her murder in 2006, Anna Politkovskaya wrote these mordant and macabre words: “I am an incorrigible enemy, not amenable to reeducation. I’m not joking. Some time ago Vladislav Surkov, Putin’s deputy chief of staff, explained that there were people who were enemies but you could talk sense into, and there were incorrigible enemies to whom you couldn’t and who simply needed to be ‘cleansed’ from the political arena.”) The mixed history of American policy during the cold war ultimately demonstrated the necessity, and the nobility, of taking upon ourselves the burden of a confrontation and rising to the responsibilities of a conflict with which, against our will and our weariness, we have been presented. It demonstrated also the long-term strategic sagacity of siding unequivocally with an oppressed population against an oppressing regime, and of standing ringingly with the liberal opposition, not only to give heart to good people but also because they are the people who may one day come to power and attempt to re-purpose it in conformity with principles that we share. If, as the administration believes, we were correct in attempting a policy of engagement, surely we are also correct also in admitting that our policy of engagement failed.
Do we wish to honor the memory of Boris Nemtsov? Then let us be honest about the grimness of the situation in which we find ourselves. Do we wish to honor the memory of Boris Nemtsov? Then let us show our contempt for the dictator and the dictatorship that is responsible for his murder. Do we wish to honor the memory of Boris Nemtsov? Then let us stop searching for an “off-ramp” for Putin and find an on-ramp for ourselves. Do we wish to honor the memory of Boris Nemtsov? Then let us send dollars and weapons to our friends and comrades in Ukraine.