In an op-ed published in the Washington Post on March 17, 1995, I argued that Russia was “deprived of pride and self-respect. . . . The public—its pride deflated and its economic needs unmet—craves order at home and respect abroad. The authoritarian temptation is pervasive, and so is the urge to be—and to be seen—as strong once again.”
In her perceptive and very informative analysis published in The American Interest on June 2, 2015, Lilia Shevtsova sheds new light on the Kremlin’s “Weimar syndrome” by showing how President Vladimir Putin and his acolytes blame the West, especially the United States, for Russia’s sense of humiliation. She quotes prominent Russian—and American—apologists for Putin’s politics at home and his aggression abroad; these commentators cite the similarity to the West’s humiliation of Weimar Germany as the explanation for Russian conduct today.
Three brief comments are in order.
First, “Weimar” is not the only historical example for Russia or other humiliated countries to emulate. After World War II, Konrad Adenauer’s Germany pursued another path. True, it took years of soul-searching, but in the end Western Germany and, since the collapse of communism, a reunited Germany chose not to blame the West for its past behavior or subsequent fate. Nor does Germany blame the United States today for its problems and difficulties. On the contrary, Germany has become a mature and responsible member of the international community. Not incidentally, its attitude toward Jews has been exemplary, so much so that Russian Jews are happy to settle in Berlin these days. Why doesn’t Russia emulate Adenauer’s or Willy Brandt’s Germany? Do Russians remember Brandt’s heartfelt plea to Poles to forgive his country for the barbarities Germans committed in World War II? Instead of apologizing for invading their country, as Brandt had done, Putin went to Hungary earlier this year to visit the graves of Russian soldiers who lost their lives in and around Budapest in 1956.
Second, the West has certainly not tried to humiliate Russia. As early as 1991, President George Bush went to Kiev to warn Ukrainians against “suicidal nationalism.” His famous (or notorious) “Chicken Kiev” speech was intended to calm Moscow’s fears that the West would take advantage of Russia’s weakness. Under different Russian Presidents—Boris Yeltsin, Dmitry Medvedev, and Putin—the West paid for economic stabilization and for protecting the country’s nuclear weapons and facilities, and it supported Russia’s admission to the Council of Europe and the World Trade Organization. The West even expanded the G-7 into the G-8. To alleviate Moscow’s concerns, Washington helped found the Russia-NATO Council, leaving the door open even to the eventual, if unlikely, admission of Russia to NATO. Only in the aftermath of the Kremlin’s aggression against Ukraine did the United States decide to deploy military equipment and a small force in Eastern and Central Europe. What else could the West have done? If Russians still feel humiliated, it is because of their leaders’ wish to divert attention from their own corrupt practices and their own incompetence to Western “machinations.”
Third, Putin himself has had personal reasons to identify with, and presumably make up for, Russians’ sense of shame and humiliation. The “macho” image he cultivates responds not only to what his people appreciate as they see themselves in their leader’s image; it also serves to compensate for Putin’s own less than successful experiences as a child and an adult.
Relatively little attention has been paid in the West to Putin’s uncertain and unhappy childhood. Russian historians and investigative reporters maintain, for example, that parts of Putin’s official biography are simply false. Even his mother might well have been someone else; the testimony of a woman who claims to be Putin’s mother, available on video, is quite convincing. Called Uti-Puti in school because of his duck-like walk, Putin resented the teasing (for his small build) that was his fate. His early interest in and attachment to the KGB, according to Yuri Felshtinsky and Vladimir Pribilovsky, among others, stemmed from an almost desperate search for both a family and a means to settle scores with a world that hurt and damaged him. His assignment to Dresden, an unimportant East German outpost where he had little or nothing to do, certainly did not enhance his self-esteem. Hence, coping with humiliation is part and parcel of Putin’s life. It is a source of his easy identification with his elite’s, and more generally the Russian people’s, determination to project strength where there is weakness, and to make others accept blame for the well-deserved failure of the Soviet system itself.
Many countries have managed to overcome self-pity after traumatic experiences. Consider the examples of Great Britain and France and other imperial powers after World War II. Consider the example of China after the Cultural Revolution. Consider the example of the United States after Vietnam. Fully or partially, they have learned to sort out and handle their own crimes and faults. With considerable difficulty, it is true, they have come to behave like adults by accepting their limitations.
Published March 17, 1995, Washington Post
In his astute analysis of Russia’s predicament, Peter Reddaway convincingly shows that President Boris Yeltsin has all but abandoned the course of reform he began in 1991.
The point that needs to be added is that Yeltsin’s about-face is a symptom, not the cause, of Russia’s plight. As the transition from one-party rule and the command economy to today’s chaotic conditions has benefited few and alienated many, public support for reform has yielded to pressure for retrenchment.
In Moscow, members of the small biznis class can afford to rent a dacha for more than $5,000 a month, eat out at a fashionable Swiss restaurant where the main course costs $40, and pay $3.25 for a slice of Viennese torte. By contrast, the vast majority of the Russian people, who earn less than $100 a month if employed, are worse off than they were under communism.
The nostalgia they feel for an improved version of the bad old days of order, however oppressive, and the welfare state, however meager, is as understandable as it is unfortunate. They walk by Moscow’s elegant storefronts that display expensive Western-made goods priced in dollars, not in rubles, wondering what has happened to their lives and to their country. They look for scapegoats at home and abroad.
Showing disturbing similarities to Weimar Germany of the 1920s, Russia is a humiliated country in search of direction without a compass. It is smaller than it has been in three centuries. Both the outer empire in Central and Eastern Europe and the inner empire that was the Soviet Union are gone, and Moscow must now use force to keep even Russia itself together. As its pitiful (and shameful) performance in Chechnya has shown, the military has been reduced to a ragtag army, with presumably unusable nuclear weapons. Four thousand five hundred rubles—worth more than $4,500 only a few years ago—are now gladly exchanged for one dollar. For its very sustenance, Russia is at the mercy of the International Monetary Fund, which can palliate but surely cannot cure the country’s economic ills.
Worse yet, Russia is deprived of pride and self-respect. There was a time, during World War II, when the whole world admired the Soviet military for its extraordinary boldness and bravery. There was a time, in the 1950s, when several ex-colonies of Asia sought to emulate the Soviet model of rapid industrialization and when Soviet science moved ahead of the United States in space research. There was a time, from the 1920s through the 1970s, when many—too many—Western intellectuals and others believed that Soviet-style communism was the wave of the future. And there was a time when then-Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko claimed that no significant issue in world politics could be settled without Moscow’s concurrence.
To appreciate the present mood of letdown and frustration, imagine that our currency became all but worthless; that our stores identified some of their wares in the Cyrillic rather than the Roman alphabet, showing prices in rubles; that our political and economic life were guided by made-in-Moscow standards; and that our leaders were lectured by patronizing foreign commissars about the need to stay the course in order to join their “progressive,” which is to say the communist, world.
In the final analysis, the condition of Weimar Russia is alarming because it is at once a weak democracy and a weak police state, pluralistic and yet intolerant, pro-American in its promise but anti-American in its resentments. The public—its pride deflated and its economic needs unmet—craves order at home and respect abroad. The authoritarian temptation is pervasive, and so is the urge to be—and to be seen—as strong once again.
The West may defer the day of reckoning, but it cannot obviate the Russians’ eventual need to compensate for the humiliation that is their present fate.