Experiments in Strategic Wisdom, Profiles in Stupidity – A Last Look at Russia

Read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 of the Russia essays.

I am a contrarian by nature. When I hear anyone espouse an idea or a belief, my mind immediately floats to the opposite. “Perhaps what you are saying is in fact not true at all. I could see it from the opposite side, and so I will try it out.” I don’t know where this trait comes from; it is my form of mental warfare. I do it with my own ideas as well. Its value lies in making me test out opinions and never accept what others say is true. Better to think it through on your own. It is my personal counterweight to stupidity.

Before leaving for Russia I devoured articles on its political situation, particularly bios on President Putin. The prevailing opinion in the West is the following: Putin was a KGB apparatchik who had risen through the ranks. Consequently he is secretive and anti-democratic. He and his cronies are monopolizing political and economic power in Russia. The Russian people are tired of all the turmoil from the Yeltsin years and have been bought off by oil money flooding the country; they have been brainwashed, have fallen under the spell of yet another iron-fist ruler. Russia is now exercising its muscle on the world stage, turning into a bully in Eastern Europe. We have much to fear from an ascendant and anti-democratic Russia.

With some analysis of my own, and some reading between the lines, I was able to create the opposite viewpoint in my mind: Russia is an almost impossible country to govern. It is vast, comprising more ethnicities within its borders than any other state in the world. It has just emerged from one of the most radical changes in government in modern times. In the late 90s it was on the verge of chaos. Putin saved Russia from something far worse than a centralized government. He is struggling to reconstruct the country, working on his knowledge of Russian psychology and what the people need. His goal is to reestablish Russian prestige, and create the groundwork for a period of stability, some 20 years in which Russia could become an economic power.

Armed with this strategic viewpoint, I landed in Russia. My first interviews were with various newspapers. To my surprise, these journalists were quite critical of the government, and were rather taken aback by my moderate defense of Putin. This allowed for a lively exchange, since we were both caught off-guard. I was later to learn that many of the newspapers in Russia are what we would consider liberal. They do not like many of the maneuvers of President Putin, particularly his curtailing of press freedoms and government control of the main television stations.

Several days later I was on one of the most famous Russian radio programs, Radio Echo of Moscow, hosted by the head of the station, Alexei Venediktov. Alexei is quite a celebrity in the country. In the days of the fall of the Communist government, when almost everything was shut down, he continued to broadcast his show and provide a voice of reason. Alexei has long gray hair that sprouts in many directions. He reminded me of me of the March Hare in Alice in Wonderland.

Alexei is a staunch liberal. He was amused by my analysis of what was happening in Russia, particularly my critique of the Bush administration, and how it was playing into the hands of the Russian hardliners. I went through my ideas of what motivated Putin, the real reason for his various maneuvers. I said that it is easy at this point to look back and criticize, but if a strong hand had not intervened in 2000, Russia could very well be a lot worse off than now. Alexei treated much of what I had to say with great irony, since his audience already knew his own opinions. At the end of the interview he said that since I seemed so interested in Putin, perhaps I could take him back with me to the States and keep him there. I would do that, I replied, if he would return the favor by bringing Bush to Russia.

I was to encounter these “liberals” everywhere on my trip. They could be found in the strangest places. The official government liaison who lead me through the Duma for my meeting with Zhirinovsky (see last blog) managed to take me to the side and tell me she heard me on Radio Echo. She was surprised to hear my defense of Putin. She disliked him. His government had engaged in criminal activities. I was startled by the strength of her critique.

I was later told that these liberals can be found throughout the media, and are in the upper echelons of many of the television stations. They looked back fondly on the 90s when the press had incredible freedom. They are biding their time, and when a thaw comes in the relationship between the government and the media, perhaps when there is a new president, they will come out of the woodwork and express their opinions. Russians are used to waiting and to playing such double games.

The liberal position as I could understand it is more like the traditional use of the term in 19th century England–the government should only have a loose hand in social and economic affairs. In reality, however, they seemed to really only coalesce around their dislike for Putin and his heavy-handed approach to politics. They wanted the freedom to openly dissent and affect political life. In general, I did not find a single one among them who could really articulate a positive vision for Russia, or how they would have handled differently the many crises afflicting the country at the turn of millennium.

In truth, liberalism is a kind of repository for feelings of frustration, a safe place from which to criticize what is going on. The liberals seem oddly detached and naïve about power. (In many ways, they resemble liberals in America.) They are in the minority, but there are more of them in Russia than one might imagine, or that is reported in the Western press.

Accompanying me almost everywhere I went was my interpreter Andrey Isserov. Already at the age of 28 Andrey is a professor of History at a prestigious university, his specialty being early nineteenth century United States. His knowledge of Russian history is equally formidable–he could explain the story behind almost every important piece of Moscow architecture that we passed on our many drives through the city. He was not a pedant; his ideas on literature and culture were quite stimulating.


And Andrey was a staunch supporter of Putin. He liked the strength that he projected; he liked how the president had used imagery of Russia’s imperial past. He was what the country needed. If I prodded Andrey from the opposite side, now espousing the liberal critiques of Putin that I had been hearing lately, he did not get emotional or take it personally. He was not what you would call a rabid right-winger, if Putin could even be placed on the right. As if to give some weight to his arguments, he reminded me that Putin has the support of people such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the greatest living Russian writer.

I met these admirers of Putin in all walks of life–the college student who operated as a guerrilla taxi driver; the woman who worked for a real estate company; the producer of an English-language television show broadcast in Russia. The ones I encountered tended to be young and well-educated. Their support for Putin seemed partly instinctual. They sensed the great dangers that Russia is currently facing, the chaos that is nipping at its heels.

This chaos is in the form of nationalist (quasi-Fascist) movements splintering the country, great discrepancies in wealth, nasty wars on the border regions, a delicate economy resting on top of oil reserves, a very precarious infrastructure, on and on. This chaos is not something that is read about in the papers. It is seen and felt, from events in the recent past, to signs of it returning now. These Putinites are full of unspoken anxiety and they want a strong ruler. This is not because Russians are inherently authoritarian. This is a cliché that explains nothing.

As part of the book tour, I was to give presentations at three of the largest bookstores in Moscow. I had recently seen the movie “Magnolia” and for some reason I kept picturing myself as the Tom Cruise character. “Seduce and Destroy, Seduce and Destroy.” I would be sitting in an office, waiting to make my appearance at the podiums set up in these stores. The crowds would be rather large, packed into a tight space. I would come in to much applause. A man behind me would be giving a kind of spiel about my books in Russian. He was part carnival barker, part emcee warming up the crowd.

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With my interpreter flanked at my side, I would give a little talk about my book. Then I would answer some questions from the crowd, all the while the “emcee” would continue pimping my books when there was a moment of silence. Afterwards, those who were fans of the books would wait on line to get their copies autographed, along with a photo of myself addressing the same crowd, a photo that had been manufactured on the spot.

The fans of the books would be of many stripes–a young hippie-looking girl, a toothless man who revealed himself to be an old-school communist, various business people and professors of Management in Moscow universities, etc. They would wait patiently in line, as each person would ask me more questions one-on-one. And then at the end, I was presented with all kinds of gifts from the bookstore, most notably large bouquets of flowers that made me feel as if I had just won a beauty pageant.

It was somewhere in the middle of the first such event that I was struck by some strange emotions. I looked out at a rather diverse crowd of Russians, of many different ethnicities and social classes. I imagined that these were the same people who were portrayed in the Dostoyevsky and Gogol novels I had loved as a young man. I pictured their grandparents as the ones who had carried the Russian Revolution on their backs. So much suffering and insecurity could be read in their faces. They very much wanted to connect with an American who was not looking down on them. They wanted to feel validated about their country, through the eyes of a foreigner. And I felt an emotional connection with the average Russian that would not leave me throughout the trip.

One evening, I had dinner with Viktor Erofeev, a famous novelist (Russian Beauty among other titles) and one of Russia’s most fascinating intellectuals. He gave me his most recent novel (more of a memoir in fact) called The Good Stalin, yet to be translated into English. (I read the French version.) It is an incredible book and I hope it is soon available in the States. It concerns the relationship with his father, who happened to be at one point Stalin’s French interpreter, and went on to become a leading Soviet diplomat. Viktor became a dissident in the late 70s, publishing an anthology of short stories that was widely condemned by the Soviets as Western and decadent. He was thrown out of the Soviet Academy of Writers, and his father’s career was ruined. More than anything, the book is an epic tale of life in the Soviet Union in the 50s through to the present.

Over far too many shots of Vodka, we discussed power and politics. Among other things, he gave me his opinion that Dmitry Medvedev would be the next president of Russia. This issue of the succession to Putin is critical–it will determine the real direction Russia will take, either back to the more open days of the beginning of Putin’s term, or towards more centralization. Medvedev is generally considered as the more liberal of the potential successors. He is young and close to Putin. He is trained as a lawyer and is valued for his loyalty. He would serve the same role as Putin did for Yeltsin–a safe choice to succeed him in power.

In the media, they are doing everything they can to tout and favor Medvedev’s candidacy. He would be the one to liberalize government control over television. He might open things up in general. He is a compelling choice. But in truth, said Viktor, even if he came to power he may have little effect over policies that matter. The president is not necessarily the one in control of things.

This comment intrigued me, since it went against our perception of the strong man who traditionally is in control of Russian politics. Viktor explained that he had met President Putin several months back in France. The impression he got was that Putin is a figurehead, and is not as intimidating as one might imagine.

Based on this encounter and his own knowledge of the inner workings of the Kremlin, he came to this conclusion: Around and under Putin is a vast bureaucracy, mostly inherited from the Soviet days. This bureaucracy is riddled with enclaves and competing power bases. You have those in the security apparatus, who tend to be more reactionary. You have the ultra-nationalists, now in the ascendant. You have pockets of liberals, encamped in the economic departments. You have those who are using their positions in the government to amass wealth. Putin must manage all of this and it ends up more that they are managing him.

For instance, it is entirely possible that the Litvinenko poisoning case in London was the work of rogue elements in the security branches who wanted to create a foreign policy rift with the West, who want to force Putin’s hand in that area. Putin’s recent hardline policies in relation to the United States and NATO might very well be the result of internal forces that are ultra-nationalist, on the rise and not happy with Putin’s earlier attempts to be more moderate.

It is hard for us in the West to see things through their eyes, but in the brief period of the post-Communist phase, the Russians have seen their country shrink substantially in size, including the loss of the Ukraine, which has traditionally been a part of Russia. They see NATO encroaching on the West, with the Bush administration determined to put missiles in Poland and Czechoslovakia. They see the US trying to make inroads on their southern borders, in places like Turkmenistan. They feel threatened by China and the thought of Japan remilitarizing. Many in the government see this as a slow but certain attempt on the West to encircle Russia and keep it dependent. They are more hardline than Putin and they are helping to push his policy.

He is not an autocrat by nature. He came to power with some decent ideas. His hand has been forced and he is more the prisoner of his own government. This brought to mind my own theories on the subject. One form of stupidity is to always focus on leaders, on the most visible displays of power in any structure, when in fact the real power usually lies underneath or to the side. Take President Bush for instance. He is not a particularly strong leader either. He sits atop a massive bureaucracy with all kinds of competing interests. His executive style is to delegate and reside over this like a monarch. Many of his policy decisions are forced upon him by these divisive interests. Our eyes focus on the ruler and assume he is guiding things. In fact, he is a captive of those forces around and below him.

The real center of gravity in Russia is not Putin and his associates, but the vast bureaucracy he inherited, and the Russian people. Everything Putin does is with an eye on these twin forces.

When I returned to the States after the trip, I felt profoundly confused and overwhelmed by the experience. I kept thinking back on something I had read in the Memoirs of Cardinal Retz, one of the main intriguers in the Fronde, the French aristocratic group that went to war against the King in the mid-seventeenth century. Retz wrote that you can really only trust accounts of events by those who have witnessed them firsthand. Everything else is fables and fairy tales. Beware of people who only get their ideas from secondhand sources.

Nothing that I had read prior to leaving for Russia or since returning had any feel for the realities of life there, or any sense of connection to the Russian people and their place in history. It is all fables and fairy tales. This was confirmed a few weeks after I got back when I watched one of those depressing question and answer photo-ops, also known as presidential debates. Senator John Edwards made a rather strong pronouncement about Russia and the need to be forceful and tough with its leaders. This is in the tradition of the Jimmy Carter-style of moralizing when it comes to foreign policy–lecture this government and that about their own sins. In Edwards’ opinion, we must do much more to force Russia to democratize, and isolate it if it does not. A militarized and undemocratic Russia will pose a great threat to our future, according to Mr. Trial Lawyer.

Such thinking to me is delusional. It is completely in line with the Bush form of foreign policy: create the very problems you had imagined in the first place. Iraq is the center of the war on terror? It wasn’t before but now it is. Stupidity comes in many forms.

Spending a few weeks in Russia I could understand something simple, yet profound about their people and their leaders. The country is tied together by something loose and fragile–a sense of belonging to a greater Russia, with its history, its culture and the prestige once represented by its empire. Traumatized by recent events–economic chaos, loss of vast parts of the former Russia, wars on their borders–the people are feeling massively insecure and anxious. Their yearning for a strong leader and stability is understandable. They are profoundly suspicious of the West.

An American policy based on pressuring the Russian government to reform, on being presented with fait accomplis such as missiles in Poland, that lectures and browbeats them about domestic policy is merely encouraging these grave feelings of insecurity. Such a policy plays into the hands of the Russian hardliners, gives the nationalists and nascent fascists something real to react against. We think we are acting as a moral beacon, while the Russians only see our moves on the world chessboard, how far we are advancing and encroaching. It is as if we are unconsciously trying to recreate the Cold War.

An opposite American policy could be mapped out, with much different consequences. It would be based on mutual self-interest. Russia would be an invaluable ally in future conflicts we face in the Middle East or in Asia. It would serve as a great economic counterweight to the European Common Market.

By doing what we can to allay their fears about our infringement on their territory, by taking a more hands-off approach on their domestic policy, in the future we would have much greater power to affect them on domestic affairs. We could exert a more subtle influence. More important, we would help Russia establish that 10-to-20 year period of stability in which a true democratic institutions could take root. This would require patience and long-term vision, not political grandstanding and moralizing.

On my initial flight to Russia, as the airplane approached the runway at the Moscow airport, I looked out the window to see miles of wooden, ramshackle houses, a zone of impoverishment that seemed unchanged for decades, maybe centuries. I mused to myself that this is probably the Russia I will never get to see on the ground. I was right–except for the last night in Moscow, when some friends of mine, after much drinking, decided they had to show me a real Russian brothel.

I was only half-conscious as we drove for what seemed like hours to the outskirts of the city. Buildings that were half-finished and seemingly abandoned. Badly-lit streets with cramped concrete structures. Who lives here? What are their lives like? It was three in the morning and I never got to answer these questions. But it made me realize that if what matters is seeing things with your own eyes, then what I have written about here is based on only a small fraction of what is really going on in Russia and this represents a mere modest attempt to paint the few things I was fortunate to see and experience.


Will Russia be an empire once more?? Discuss Robert’s post, find more info on Robert’s trip, and analyze the topic through the lens of the 48 Laws of Power. Visit the Power, Seduction and War Room to hear from others and more from Robert Greene…

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