Books in Review: A Russian Liberal’s Lament

Issue Date January 2011
Volume 22
Issue 1
Page Numbers 167-173
file Print
arrow-down-thin Download from Project MUSE
external View Citation

Lonely Power: Why Russia Has Failed to Become the West and the West Is Weary of Russia. By Lilia Shevtsova. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2010. 361 pp.

The year 2011 marks the twentieth anniversary of the Soviet Union’s collapse. Just as the fall of communism came as a surprise to most of the world, the two decades of political tumult that followed have been similarly unpredictable. For many observers of Russia, not to mention post-Soviet citizens, these last twenty years have also been bitterly disappointing. Russia has gone from being a messy, unconsolidated democracy in the 1990s under its first elected president, Boris Yeltsin, to its current incarnation as an increasingly autocratic regime under his successor, Vladimir Putin, and the latter’s protégé, Russia’s current president, Dmitri Medvedev. The country’s economy has also known dramatic peaks and valleys, with the latter including a complete crash of the ruble in 1998 and a precipitous drop in GDP brought on by global economic crisis a decade later. Post-Soviet Russia’s relations with Europe and the United States have been correspondingly turbulent.

Few Russian scholars have attempted to make sense of all of these changes, and Lilia Shevtsova’s latest book is a welcome effort to do so. A senior associate at the Carnegie Moscow Center and an associate fellow at Chatham House (the Royal Institute of International Affairs), Shevtsova is a well-known and highly respected analyst of her country’s political institutions and foreign policy. Her writings include books on both Yeltsin’s uneven rule and the regime under Putin. Her special talent lies in dissecting the interplay between the maneuverings [End Page 167] of political elites and the many unanticipated outcomes of Russian domestic politics.

About the Author

Kathryn Stoner-Weiss is a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law at Stanford University. Her books include Resisting the State: Reform and Retrenchment in Post-Soviet Russia (2006).

View all work by Kathryn Stoner-Weiss

Ostensibly, Shevtsova’s latest work concerns Russia’s relations with the West, meaning Europe and the United States, with a far greater emphasis on the latter. The story she tells of Russia’s development (or regression) since the Soviet Union collapsed in December 1991 is a tale of tremendous disappointment. In an opening “Letter to the Reader,” Shevtsova explains that the seemingly unpredictable nature of Russian foreign policy is a result of its “genetic code: personalized power” (p. xii). The book—which she herself calls a set of polemical and often emotional essays rather than a dispassionate analysis—is really about Shevtsova’s own disillusionment with her country and its leadership.

At times, she is similarly frustrated with the United States and its foreign-policy leadership regarding Russia over the last twenty years. By Shevtsova’s account, the period has been marked by all manner of ill-conceived and ill-fated policy blunders by Russians as well as by Americans and Europeans, and is replete with missed opportunities to direct Russia onto a sustainable path toward liberal-democratic rule. As a result, she says early in the book that “Russia and the West are further apart today than they have been at any time since Gorbachev’s perestroika” (p. 2)—a surprising claim given the “reset” in Russian-U.S. relations under President Barack Obama.

The rest of the book is an attempt to explain how this has happened, and who is responsible. She places most of the blame on the Russian side, but there is a lot of blame to go around. European and U.S. decision makers and analysts certainly do not escape indictment. Shevtsova clearly abhors Putin and Medvedev (and has little good to say about Yeltsin, either). They and the cronies with whom they share control of Russia are moved by greed and opportunities for personal gain, not an honest concern for the public interest. Their insatiable appetites for money and power have left the Russian public and liberal intellectuals like Shevtsova by the wayside as the country runs to ruin. For Shevtsova, Russia’s leaders have had no shortage of accomplices, however, and few analysts (whether Russian or foreign) or Russian political actors over the age of 45 escape her scathing pen. In Shevtsova’s view, the rest of them have either been coopted by Putin’s media machine or have honestly but foolishly strayed into an overly simple view of Russian politics. The present volume is her attempt to set the record straight. [End Page 168]

The book is slightly frustrating to read because, beyond the first six or so chapters that cover the collapse of the Soviet Union and the relationship between Boris Yeltsin and Bill Clinton in the early to mid-1990s, there is no clear organization to what follows. Many chapters are only three or four pages long, and they read more like op-ed pieces than sections of a single book with a coherent set of arguments to make. There are few notes and little in the way of empirical data that might back up some of Shevtsova’s often strong (and strongly negative) claims. Her tone throughout is skeptical and cynical.

To be fair, however, Shevtsova explains at the outset that the book is far more polemical than analytical, and she anticipates that some Western analysts who read it will be put off by this. She is angry with her countrymen for ruining Russia’s opportunity to modernize and democratize since 1991. She is annoyed with the West’s simplistic understanding of Russia, and she is frustrated that Europe and the United States have not done more to turn the tide toward democracy, especially in the last seven years or so.

Shevtsova focuses almost exclusively on elite politics. Since she knows far more about Russian political decision makers than about their counterparts in Europe or the United States, the former understandably come in for most of her fire. Yet she never defines what she means by “the elite” in Russia. One can intimate from her repeated use of the term that she is using it to describe those who hold political power in Russia, but it is unclear if one must occupy formal office to be included. Intellectuals and people not working for Putin or Medvedev seem not to be part of “the elite,” but it would be good to know for sure rather than having to guess.

Strikingly, society is largely left out of her story. There are a few passing references to surveys by the Levada Center indicating that average Russians would like more democracy, but Shevtsova’s focus is so sharply on the very top echelon of Russian politicians that one could get the impression that only about five or six people actually matter, and that the 141 million other people who live in Russia are merely held hostage to the whims of this handful. There is some irony to this, since she chastises U.S. commentators and policy makers for failing to take into account Russian domestic politics and society when dealing with her country. At the same time, she fails to take into account U.S. domestic politics in analyzing why the United States behaved as it did at certain key moments over the last twenty years. Why, she wonders, did the United States continue to support Boris Yeltsin under presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton? Yet she suggests no alternative course that Washington might have taken. Yeltsin was Russia’s duly elected chief executive, after all. Could U.S. leaders have legitimately refused to deal with him and tried to select a different leader for Russia? What else could have been done? Shevtsova gives us no answer.

Moreover, as frustrated as she is with her country’s leadership during [End Page 169] the last two decades, she is almost equally upset by U.S. and European policies toward Russia. Western leaders, including both Bushes, Clinton, Germany’s Helmut Kohl and Angela Merkel, and now Obama, have in her view either been too hard on Russia (not giving enough aid; not considering that bombing Serbia or recognizing Kosovo would dismay Moscow) or too soft (handing out G-8 membership too quickly; making loans too easily available); too hands-off (distracted by Iraq and Afghanistan; too slow to criticize Putin and Medvedev) or too hands-on (propping up Yeltsin; dispensing overbearing advice in the early 1990s).

To be sure, although these arguments might seem contradictory, there is a great deal of merit in them. Shevtsova is correct, for instance, that U.S. and European policy makers did not grasp how dimly Russian elites would view any expansion of NATO that included not only former Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe, but perhaps Georgia and Ukraine as well. She is also justified in her criticism that the United States and Europe have too often relied on “realism” in determining their policy toward Russia, rather than leaning harder on the values of liberal democracy.

Shevtsova is also critical of many analysts of Russia—including a number of U.S. and European scholars—who have attended the annual “Valdai” meetings that the Russian government hosts, with Putin and members of his government usually starring in intimate settings. She fears that foreign attendees fall victim to Putin’s spin, and then extend its influence beyond Russia’s borders. To a certain degree, she may be right here as well.

In the end, however, Shevtsova offers little constructive advice on what should be done with Russia. She admits that the United States and Europe, despite their blunders, did not really “lose” Russia. Russia, rather, was “lost” by Russians—and specifically, by Russian elites. She does, however, want Europe and the United States to step up and rein in Russia’s current leaders. She is mute, though, on precisely what leverage they currently have over Russia. She also understates the latent political power of Russian civil society—the source from which real change in Russia is ultimately most likely to come.

As a highly empirical and practical handbook for policy options in dealing with Russia, this book falls short. But as a well-informed cry from the heart by a leading Russian proponent of liberal democracy who knows her country’s promise, this book serves admirably. Russia’s democratic hopes may have been extinguished over the last two decades, but if one day they are resurrected, then writers and thinkers like Lilia Shevtsova may help to furnish the spark that relights the fires of change. [End Page 170]