Russia in fear of itself

Churchill's famous line about Russia being "a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma" is rarely quoted in full. Here's the rest: " ... but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest."

As a new U.S. administration begins to define its own relation to Russia, it is timely to ask just what Russia's national interest is now.

Russia's interest is, first and foremost, its survival. The country has collapsed twice in less than a century — tsarist Russia in 1917 and Soviet Russia in 1991. It is now also in a demographic crisis, losing the equivalent of one San Francisco a year.

Though freighted with centuries of history, the new Russia is less than 20 years old. It is a slapdash affair — a witch's brew of tsarist extravagance, Soviet bureaucracy and robber-baron capitalism that would have given Marx agita. The society has yet to coalesce into a new entity with a definite identity, which is why it has no adjective of its own and is referred to as "post-Soviet" or "new."

This is both good and bad. Bad because it could indicate that the new combination is even flimsier than it appears. Good because it may mean that there is still some wiggle room for the country to evolve and change direction. George Kennan, former ambassador to Moscow and author of the containment theory, predicted in 1950 — one of the darkest hours of Stalinism — that Russia would one day find its own road to democracy, but neither that road nor Russian democracy itself would fit Western notions. He may yet be proved right. But that's far in the future, if anywhere. The current generation of Russian leaders, especially Prime Minster Vladimir Putin, is haunted by the specter and spectacle of the Soviet Union's demise.

Russia's recent move to reclaim a sphere of influence and project power may be viewed as adolescent, old-fashioned or perfectly normal. The humiliations of the '90s still rankle; as Thomas Friedman nicely put it, "Humiliation ... is the single most underrated force in international relations." Former President Boris Yeltsin cried that Russia wasn't "Haiti." His foreign minister retorted when forced by the United States to acquiesce in the bombing of Serbia, "Don't add insult to injury by also telling us that it's in our interests to obey your orders."

Russia's newfound assertiveness is part of this complex, but its border problems are still trickier than that. It is only natural for countries that suffered under Soviet — and in some cases tsarist — oppression to seek shelter and protection in NATO. But how can Russia feel secure ringed by nations that fear and loathe it and have joined the alliance that was for nearly 50 years the Kremlin's principal adversary?

Internally, Russia has now developed a sizeable middle class, which is the basis for a stable and potentially democratic society. But it's not enough for that class simply to exist; it also has to be cut in. Their interests have to be defended. That is not what happens when protesting auto dealers in the Far East are roughed up by riot police shipped in from Moscow.

Russia's real interest now is in building a society that is politically diversified enough to resist its ingrained tendency to overly centralize power. It also has to become economically diversified enough to withstand the 21st century's swift changes and sudden shocks.

The truth is that for one of the few times in its long and agonized history, Russia does not have an enemy. Russia has nothing to fear but Russia itself.

Richard Lourie is the author of "The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin" and "Sakharov: A Biography."

This article was first published in The Moscow Times

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