The tragedy of Russia
On the one hand, events in Russia this past weekend were stunning — the leader of a mercenary group declaring against the country’s military leadership and, for 24 hours, marching on Moscow.
On the other, they were about what you’d expect in a Russia that, across the long centuries of its existence, has never managed to achieve Western standards of self-government.
Everything we need to know about Russia was made clear by its brutish, cynical and incompetent invasion of Ukraine. But the blowback from the invasion in the form of Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin’s brief armed revolt fills out the picture.
Revolutions, attempted rebellions, assassinations and coups dot the Russian historical landscape. This isn’t unusual in old nations. What makes Russia different is that it is dealing with them to this day.
England had a no-kidding war between the king and parliament … more than 350 years ago. Boris Yeltsin had a battle with the parliament that resulted in the parliamentary building getting shelled by tanks … in 1993.
If Prigozhin hadn’t turned back, Russian tanks might have been battling in the streets of Moscow once again.
“Getting to Denmark” is the phrase social scientists use for achieving the modern standard of government.
“For people in developing countries,” Francis Fukuyama has written, “‘Denmark’ is a mythical place that is known to have good political and economic institutions: It is stable, democratic, peaceful, prosperous, inclusive, and has extremely low levels of political corruption. Everyone would like to figure out how to transform Somalia, Haiti, Nigeria, Iraq or Afghanistan into ‘Denmark’.”
Russia has never gotten to Denmark, either, although if it ever succeeded in taking back the Baltics by force, at least it’d be geographically closer.
Russia’s distance from the Western standard is why a country that is a member of the U.N. security council and the G20 and considers itself a great power could have a crisis with a distinct Third World flavor. An ambitious military leader who has a personal following making a bid for power is what we expect in places like Paraguay, Ecuador and Honduras. Except none of them have nuclear warheads; Russia has 6,000 of them.
Establishing a norm of the peaceful transfer of power is one of the most valuable achievements of the modern West. Otherwise, history tells us, rival contenders for power will kill one another and cut paths of destruction through their societies. The most extreme example is the Western Roman Empire that dissipated enormous resources on constant internal battles for power, setting the predicate for its fall.
Opacity, conspiracy, double-dealing, and lies are endemic to human nature, and all politics. But the West manages to circumscribe them somewhat through accountable government, the rule of law, and norms around transparency. In Russia, it’s different. It may be a very long time before we know everything that was going on with Prigozhin’s revolt, if ever.
In a speech last year, Vladimir Putin railed against the West’s “undivided dominance over world affairs” and blamed it for holding down what it regards as “second-class civilizations.”
The sense of bristling defensiveness in that statement is understandable. A couple millennia after Athens and a couple hundred years after the modern democratic revolution, Russia still has a de facto tsar. Whereas we read about poisonings in history books telling the story of medieval Europe, they still happen in Russia. If he’s going to maintain his sense of dominance, Putin isn’t ultimately going to defeat Prigozhin in an election or simply fire or reprimand him; he’s going to have to kill him.
The West may be naive, feckless, foolhardy or self-destructive, but its model of stable, accountable, democratic government is a great advance in human welfare. Without it, you get a Vladimir Putin reportedly fleeing his capital in fear and a Yevgeny Prigozhin likely to experience an unfortunate fall out of a window sometime soon.
Russia has only ever been able “to get to Russia,” and it shows.
Rich Lowry is editor of the National Review.
(c) 2023 by King Features Synd., Inc.