The Book Club

Lesser of Two Semi-Capitalisms

Dear Strobe,

I am going to cheat and try to get in one last word, even though I got the first one too, taking advantage of the fact that you are flying to Europe today and are therefore almost certainly too busy to respond.

Put simply, I think the difference between our points of view is not quite as you describe it. I don’t dispute the world historical importance of Russia’s abandonment of Soviet communism and its transformation toward whatever it is now. I dispute whether the choice, in the 1990s, was really between Yeltsin on the one hand and chaos/anarchy/back to the USSR on the other. I see it differently: The choice was between one sort of corrupt semi-capitalism—Yeltsin’s oligarchic capitalism—and another sort of corrupt semi-capitalism, call it that of the “red managers” if you want to. Although the United States probably didn’t have much control over Russia’s choice, we acted as if we did, trying to dictate internal policy and throwing enormous amounts of money and political capital into the Yeltsin camp. In your extraordinary last paragraph, you concede that we might even have helped Yeltsin kill the Chechen leader, Dzhokar Dudayev, in the run-up to the 1996 election campaign. At the time, many thought it did indeed look like somebody was trying to give a boost to Yeltsin’s presidential campaign—for as far as I know, the Russians did not have that sort of technology at the time.

This policy did not do much for Russian democracy. It may have helped shape Russian foreign policy—but maybe not. The concessions the Russians made in international matters might have been made anyway: Certainly Putin is making concessions left, right, and center, without nearly the same level of political backing. At the same time, the policy did have more drawbacks than you concede, creating resentment on the part of the Russians we bullied, cynicism on the part of the bureaucrats we dealt with, and anti-Americanism in the general populace. In only one, extremely cynical sense can the 1990s be perceived as a great “success” for U.S. policy: Russia has become so much weaker over the past decade that it no longer poses a conventional military threat to us or anyone else.

For that matter, they can’t even pay to keep their nuclear arsenal in shape, which is part of why Putin is rushing to dismantle it. This is an extremely good thing—but let’s agree that it isn’t the same thing as “making progress toward democracy.”