Russia past and prologue

What lies ahead for Russia, now that Vladimir Putin has decided to return as president? For answers, go no further than Dmitri Trenin and his new book, Post-Imperium, published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Trenin looks over the cliff 20 years ago — at the precarious, unknown abyss after the Soviet collapse — ...

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549159_postimperium_pic2.jpg

What lies ahead for Russia, now that Vladimir Putin has decided to return as president? For answers, go no further than Dmitri Trenin and his new book, Post-Imperium, published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Trenin looks over the cliff 20 years ago -- at the precarious, unknown abyss after the Soviet collapse -- and discovers why Russia did not become the nightmare scenario that many predicted. He helps explain the mindset, circumstances, and outlook of Russia over the last two decades, providing an excellent vantage point to see where Russia is going.

Trenin is director of the Carnegie Moscow Center. He is clear-eyed and non-ideological. Almost every page carries an insight or fascinating revelation about these troubled years.

What lies ahead for Russia, now that Vladimir Putin has decided to return as president? For answers, go no further than Dmitri Trenin and his new book, Post-Imperium, published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Trenin looks over the cliff 20 years ago — at the precarious, unknown abyss after the Soviet collapse — and discovers why Russia did not become the nightmare scenario that many predicted. He helps explain the mindset, circumstances, and outlook of Russia over the last two decades, providing an excellent vantage point to see where Russia is going.

Trenin is director of the Carnegie Moscow Center. He is clear-eyed and non-ideological. Almost every page carries an insight or fascinating revelation about these troubled years.

Trenin finds Russia has gone through a four-dimensional crisis since the 1980s:

  • Letting go of communism.
  • Abandoning central planning.
  • Walking away from the Cold War confrontation.
  • Giving up the imperial state.

What is remarkable about this period is what didn’t happen:

  • There was not a nuclear conflagration.
  • Russia did not attempt to restore the empire.
  • There is not a failed state among the former Soviet republics.
  • Russia itself is a unitary state and a country if not yet a nation, in Trenin’s analysis.

Trenin forces us to think about a central tension in Russia today and in the years to come. Russia is shrunken from the Soviet empire, but it still has big ambitions. How does a weakened state go about realizing such ambitions, or accepting that it cannot? What are the dangers and internal tensions? What does it mean for the rest of the world?

Trenin connects these questions about Russia’s external ambitions with the reality of its internal situation. In two brilliant paragraphs, he sums things up:

Significantly, there is no imagined community of fate in today’s Russia. The end of the Soviet Union was the end of the big macro-community. People used to be bound, almost physically, hand and foot, by tradition in tsarist times; by the official ideology, the police state, and impregnable borders in Soviet times. In present-day Russia, atomized society is not really bound by any barriers, official or conventional. The more successful the people are, the wider the distance between them and the rest of the population. The elite rise, but they do not lead, and do not care to. The private definitely trumps the public. Seen from virtually any level of society, the state is too corrupt to inspire national consciousness.

Having gone through the trauma of the sudden collapse of the state with all its systems–political, economic, societal, and ideological–Russian people have learned to prioritize their private lives and not to worry too much about such things as the color of the national flag, the delineation of the borders, or the composition of the government. What have survived are family ties, local and personal connections. Once communal in spirit and fiercely patriotic, Russia has definitely gone private. On the contrary, the public space, once all-embracing, is being decidedly neglected. Like in a typical big-city apartment block, the apartments are usually refurbished and generally well-kept; by contrast, the staircase is dirty and the elevator creaky, and no one seems to care.

 

David E. Hoffman covered foreign affairs, national politics, economics, and served as an editor at the Washington Post for 27 years.

He was a White House correspondent during the Reagan years and the presidency of George H. W. Bush, and covered the State Department when James A. Baker III was secretary. He was bureau chief in Jerusalem at the time of the 1993 Oslo peace accords, and served six years as Moscow bureau chief, covering the tumultuous Yeltsin era. On returning to Washington in 2001, he became foreign editor and then, in 2005, assistant managing editor for foreign news. Twitter: @thedeadhandbook

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