The author’s Slavic study tour group, 1965.

Pictures on the nightly news of Ukrainians suffering from Russian bombardment are horrifying. Even worse are the killing fields – mass graves of civilians that have been discovered. But beyond the brutality and the senseless killing of innocent Ukrainians, the tragedy of Vladimir Putin’s invasion is that he is preventing Russia from becoming a great country, repressing the talents of the Russian people and perverting what Russia stands for.

After the invasion began, I had lunch with a former student who works for National Public Radio in Washington, D.C. In my diplomacy course, Gabriel wrote a paper on Russian soft power – and its unrealized potential. We talked about our shared love of Russian culture and our deep regret that Putin is putting his own people back into a Cold War box.

Putin, of course, doesn’t see it that way. He thinks that he is making Russia great again. But meanwhile, orchestras and opera companies in the United States and Europe have cancelled appearances by Russian composers and opera singers. Flights by the Russian airline Aeroflot to Europe and the United States have been halted and repossession of their Boeing and Airbus planes has begun. Google and Facebook have shut off access to the global internet. Credit card companies like MasterCard and Visa will no longer process Russian accounts.

JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs are unwinding ties, and Citigroup has announced plans to sell its branches. Russian sports teams are no longer welcome in international soccer competition. American universities and think tanks are stopping cooperative ventures and cutting ties with Russian counterparts. More than 300 Western corporations, including auto, energy and high tech companies, retail outlets like Ikea with scores of stores and megamalls, and food companies like McDonald’s and Starbucks are withdrawing from the Russian market.

Putin’s closing off of Russia, shutting down of remaining independent media and jailing of those who oppose the war make me sad for the Russian people. This is a country whose language and literature I’ve studied, whose people I came to know.

Encounters with Russia

I met my first Russians in 1960, at the Winter Olympics in northern California, where I exchanged lapel pins with Russian athletes. Later, in a course on world literature at Culver City High School, I read Russian novels – Dimitri Merejkowsky’s The Romance of Leonardo Da Vinci and Dostoyevsky’s classic Crime and Punishment. But it was the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 that focused my attention on Russia and the Cold War. I was energized to study Russian – and make a contribution toward ending the Cold War. I read George Kennan’s Russia and the West Under Lenin and Stalin and Edmund Wilson’s To The Finland Station.

As a freshman at Yale in 1964, I studied Russian two hours a day five days a week, and I met my future brother-in-law, Strobe Talbott, on the first day of class. I remember the thrill of reading Mikhail Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time and Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago. I read articles in Russian describing how Nikita Khrushchev debated the merits of “degenerate art” with the sculptor Ernst Neizestny – who was later asked by the family to design the iconic black and white marble headstone for Khrushchev’s grave in Novodevichy cemetery in Moscow.

At the end of that year, I went on a summer study tour of the Soviet Union run by the University of Michigan and supported by the National Defense Education Act. After an initial program in Ann Arbor, our group travelled around the USSR, touring Russian cities, visiting factories and universities, and meeting Russian contemporaries. I brought rock ’n’ roll albums to trade, and they were a big hit. Rock music proved a popular and subversive force in the Soviet Union. My reaction to seeing the Soviet Union first-hand was to feel affection for the Russian people while despising the Communist system that repressed them. On our departing Finnair flight from Leningrad, the cabin broke into spontaneous applause when the pilot announced that the plane had left Soviet air space.

During the Cold War, the State Department sent American jazz groups to perform in the USSR and the Russians sent the Bolshoi Ballet to New York. Cultural diplomacy played an important role in reducing Cold War tensions. There was also sports diplomacy, particularly in hockey. I show my students Red Army, directed by Yale graduate Gabe Polsky, which displays Russian skill on the ice and tells the story of the first Russians to play in the National Hockey League. My grandson Viggo, a serious hockey player, reminds me that the best player currently in the NHL is Alex Ovechkin, who is known to be friendly with Putin, himself a self-styled hockey player.

Russia’s fine athletes have had their value undercut by Putin’s support of Olympic doping schemes and now by his invasion of Ukraine. One of Finland’s top hockey teams, Jokerit (the Jokers), has pulled out of the Russian-sponsored Kontinental Hockey League. American women basketball stars are leaving the country, and one player, Women’s National Basketball Association star Britney Griner, was convicted on dubious drug charges and sentenced to nine years in a labour camp.

In the summer of 1968, I travelled to Bulgaria to report on an international youth peace conference, supported by the USSR. Czech students I met there invited me to see first-hand the Prague Spring where their country’s leader, Alexander Dubček, was trying to reform socialism. I offered words of solidarity from American students at a rally in Wenceslas Square in support of Dubček, who was negotiating with the Russians in Bratislava. A week later, Russian tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia to crush the movement.

Strobe Talbott wrote an honours thesis on the Russian poet Fyodor Tyutchev, went on to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar and became the translator of Khrushchev Remembers – a bestselling memoir based on taped interviews with the deposed Soviet leader. I stored copies of the transcripts in my apartment. Strobe became the diplomatic correspondent for Time, and when Bill Clinton was elected president we both joined the administration. Clinton relied on Strobe for managing relations with Russia, a story recounted in Strobe’s book The Russia Hand and in recently declassified State Department papers. I became ambassador to Finland. From there I made trips to St. Petersburg, seeking to reach out to Russians and to Russian businesses and offer assistance where we could, such as to the Russian navy when nuclear subs in Murmansk sprang radiation leaks.

During the Gorbachev period in the late 1980s, I had worked informally with the Soviet Institute for the Study of the USA and Canada, a think tank that advised Gorbachev. Its director, Georgy Arbatov, was a key player advocating for glasnost and perestroika – openness and reform. I accompanied consumer advocate Ralph Nader to Russia. At a meeting at the institute, he explained to leading Russian economists that a market economy works well for the people only if it is accompanied by the rule of law and strong civic institutions. On that trip, Nader and I had a meal with Anatoli Sobchak, the Mayor of St. Petersburg, whose aide in charge of working with Western business was a former KGB agent named Vladimir Putin.

Russia had begun to welcome the arrival of Western business. I took my young son for ice cream at the first Baskin-Robbins in Moscow – and I took a Russian friend and his son for a meal when McDonald’s opened its first store in Pushkin Square. The father, a brilliant man who advised the Syrian army on how to use Soviet-supplied weapons, analyzed the experience, saying “The restaurant is bright and well lit. It is warm. The staff smiles. The bathrooms are clean. Everything on the menu is available to order. The Big Mac bun is soft and the burger is warm. Otlichno – excellent.”

I interviewed Russian economists who were seeking to import the Nordic model of social democracy, but it was clear that Russia did not possess the civic institutions – labour unions, democratic political parties, a free press, a fair judicial system and rule of law – that made social democracy work. Instead, within a few years the USSR no longer existed, and many of my Russian friends from the 1990s moved abroad. Gorbachev ended the Cold War peacefully, but he was deeply unpopular at home. I had a casual lunch with him in 2000. He was unapologetic about how his efforts to reform the country had ended in a chaotic dissolution of the USSR: he’d done the right thing by letting eastern Europe and the Baltics become free. He didn’t seem to understand, however, how stunted Russian society had become under Communist rule and how difficult the task of creating a normal European country would be.

The Russia we know

Could the West have done more to encourage a democratic Russia beyond selling Pepsi-Cola, opening McDonald’s and advocating free-market economic policies? I posed the question to Archie Brown, Oxford’s leading expert on Gorbachev and the end of the Cold War:

There was an abject failure to build on the enthusiasm for democracy that existed in the last three years of the Soviet Union – in Russia as well as in most of the other republics … Too little attention was paid to Yeltsin’s lack of interest in democratic institutions, and he got less criticism for the shelling of the Russian parliament building and reducing Grozny to rubble with many thousands of deaths than Gorbachev got for fourteen people being killed one night in Vilnius in 1991 which he put a stop to the next day … Western financial institutions happily benefited from the development of oligarchical capitalism in Russia. But simultaneously, legitimate Russian concerns about the expansion of NATO, ever closer to their borders, were disregarded by U.S. presidents.

When the Cold War ended, many of us tried to support democratic developments in Russia, but history was against us. Most of President Clinton’s advisers strongly advocated the expansion of NATO. So did Republicans and the leaders of Poland and Czechoslovakia, Lech Wałęsa and Václav Havel. Bill Clinton denies that his policies had anything to do with the course Russia has taken. As he told me in an interview at Brown University, “In the eight years that I served, I met with Boris Yeltsin 18 times and Vladimir Putin five times. The idea that we were trying to jam Russia or isolate them was just not true.” But what is true is that we in the Clinton administration, including the President, did not understand how unpopular Boris Yeltsin was, how traumatized the Russian people were by the abrupt end of the state-run system that had governed their lives, and how corrupt the rapid transition to a market economy became.

In the end, I have come to agree with Stalin biographer Stephen Kotkin. The problem, he said, lies with the assumption that

had NATO not expanded, Russia wouldn’t be the same or very likely close to what it is today. What we have in Russia is … not some kind of deviation from a historical pattern … Way before NATO existed – in the nineteenth century – Russia looked like this: it had an autocrat. It had repression. It had militarism. It had suspicion of foreigners and the West. This is the Russia we know, and it’s not a Russia that arrived yesterday or in the nineteen-nineties. It’s not a response to the actions of the West.

The absence of civic values and democratic institutions in Russia after decades of Stalinist rule made it difficult if not impossible for it to become a normal European nation. But fate played its part. One instance was an ailing Yeltsin’s selection of a former KGB agent, Vladimir Putin, as his successor. Another was the election of my Yale classmate George W. Bush as president in 2000. Putin reached out to the United States immediately after 9/11 offering support, but all he got was the abrogation of the Anti–Ballistic Missile Treaty and an attitude of disdain from the Bush administration (although Bush did famously say after meeting Putin that he saw his soul and could do business with him). And then came the war in Afghanistan and Bush’s invasion of Iraq – models of “realist” international behaviour for Putin to emulate.

And what if Al Gore had become president? In the Clinton administration, Gore cochaired a Russian-American commission with Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, working on joint projects that included space exploration, defence conversion, energy, and trade and business. Gore knew in detail the complexities of cooperation with Russia. I believe that Gore would not have sidelined Russia – and as a member of his campaign foreign policy team, I am confident that he would not have invaded Iraq or pursued an endless War on Terror. He would have focused global attention on climate change two decades ago, reducing global dependence on Russian oil and gas. We will never know if that would have ultimately made a difference.

Another piece of the story is the West’s naive belief that the invisible hand of globalization inevitably leads to world peace. Western economic and political elites meeting at Davos spread the creed of democratization through globalization. Concretely, as my colleague at Occidental, diplomacy professor Igor Logvinenko, points out, financial integration with the West provided Putin’s enablers, the Russian oligarchic class, with access to liquidity and legitimacy of property ownership. Western financial institutions and major corporations helped bring Russian money into the pool of global capital, making large profits. Deals by Western energy companies helped link Europe and the United States to Russian oil and gas. Western law firms and consulting companies helped oligarchs purchase superyachts, private jets and property in New York, London, Malibu and the Côte d’Azur.

Businesspeople who supported Putin were well rewarded while those who criticized him, including Westerners, were punished harshly. The classic case is Bill Browder, who set up one of the first and most successful companies investing in Russia. I remember Bill’s grandfather, Earl Browder, from my youth; he was the perennial candidate for president on the ticket of the American Communist Party. When Bill began to raise questions about transparency and corporate accountability, he was denied entry into Russia, his company offices were raided and his lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, was sent to prison, where he died of maltreatment.

To punish Putin’s henchmen, Bill won strong bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress for the Global Magnitsky Act, which authorizes the U.S. government to sanction foreign officials who are designated as human rights abusers by freezing their assets and denying them entry into the country. President Obama signed the act in December 2012, but he did so reluctantly and was slow to impose sanctions in response to Putin’s seizure of Crimea, interference in American elections and poisoning of opposition figures. Then came Donald Trump, effectively a Putin enabler and apologist. It’s no wonder that Putin thought that the invasion of Ukraine would go unpunished.

Putin badly misjudged President Biden and the European Union and underestimated the resolve of President Zelensky and the Ukrainian people – the same mistake Stalin made when he invaded Finland in 1939. Similarly, rather than divide and weaken NATO, Putin drove Finland and Sweden to apply for NATO membership, ending decades of military neutrality.

The invasion has not gone smoothly for Putin and he is losing the global public relations battle. Russia’s marriage of autocracy and capitalism is being challenged by the deepening economic sanctions led by the Biden administration and reinforced by institutions, companies and individuals across the democratic world. It is possible that Putin has initiated the demise of his own rule, but in the fog of war it’s difficult to see the endgame.

At Cambridge University, legal experts at the Peace Settlement Project are writing working papers on diplomatic protocols that might be adopted should serious negotiations take place, perhaps fostered by President Erdoğan of Turkey or Prime Minister Modi of India or even President Macron of France. But there is no sign of that yet.

Seeking a new Russian story

In my final year at Yale, I took a seminar on Soviet politics taught by Wolfgang Leonhard, a former German revolutionary who had been educated at the Comintern school in Moscow. After having served in the East German government, Leonhard defected, writing a fascinating memoir, Child of the Revolution. Class frequently met at Leonhard’s off-campus apartment where he served us dark German beer and explained how the Soviet Union was governed during the Cold War.

The Politburo of the Communist Party’s Central Committee served as a check on the leader. In the 1960s the Politburo forced Khrushchev, who had exposed the crimes of Stalin in a famous speech to a party congress, to retire when his leadership got too reckless. Two decades later it selected Gorbachev to reform the Soviet Union, although without understanding where this would lead. Rene Nyberg, former Finnish ambassador to Russia, told me that he never would have imagined that he would miss the Politburo, but now there is nothing comparable that could hold Putin accountable.

This leaves only the ideology of right-wing Russian nationalism through which Putin fans grievances over false narratives about NATO and Nazis in Ukraine. Putin’s inner circle, the silovki or “men of force,” share a background in the world of Soviet security services. It is hard to see a palace coup coming from them. Because he brought stability and economic progress to Russia, Putin remains popular in the hinterland.

Outside of the West, the picture is mixed. China’s Xi Jinping stood with Putin at the Beijing Winter Olympics in early 2022 as John Lennon’s iconic song “Imagine” was played. Content that Putin waited until the Olympics ended to begin the invasion, Xi and his government information machine echo Russia’s propaganda. Though China won’t do much to prop up the Russian economy, it continues to purchase Russian oil. Xi is uncomfortable with how Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is destabilizing the global economy. India continues to do business with Russia, though Modi has told Putin publicly to stop the war and negotiate a settlement.

As winter comes, the resolve of EU countries to oppose the invasion will be tested as energy prices rise. In September, with right-wing nationalists and militarists calling for a more aggressive war, Putin called up 300,000 men. This led to protests in numerous cities, with many thousands fleeing to neighbouring Georgia, Kazakhstan and Finland, and professionals snapping up scarce airline tickets to European destinations.

As these events have progressed, I have been frequently queried on the media as to what we should expect. I have found it hard to be positive. We know there will more death and destruction in Ukraine before there is a diplomatic solution – if there is such a solution. That may result in the end of Putin’s regime. But the more profound question is whether it could signal a new Russia. I fear that the historian Orlando Figes is right:

As Russia’s story shows, the autocratic state has many times survived long periods of discontent. Society has been weak, too divided and too disorganized to sustain an opposition movement, let alone a revolution, for long enough to bring about a change in the character of state power. Today the failure of democracy is rooted in the weakness of the public sphere. Thirty years after the collapse of the Communist dictatorship, Russia remains weak in all those institutions – genuine political parties, professional bodies, trade unions, consumer organizations, civic groups and residents’ associations – whose freedom of activity is the underpinning of democracy.

Can there be a new Russian story, a narrative of a country proud of its culture but honest about its history – a country that dwells not on the grievances of the past but on the prospects for the future, that finally realizes the democratic potential of its citizens?

I hope so, but I doubt that I will see it in my lifetime.

Further reading

There are many good books on Russia and the West. These are my favourites – insightful, deeply researched, well written narratives:

  • Archie Brown, The Human Factor: Gorbachev, Reagan, and Thatcher, and the End of the Cold War (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2020)
  • Orlando Figes, The Story of Russia (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2022)
  • Anne Garrels, Putin Country: A Journey into the Real Russia (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016)
  • Stephen Kotkin, Stalin, Volume 1: Paradoxes of Power, 1878–1928 (New York: Penguin, 2014)
  • Stephen Kotkin, Stalin, Volume 2: Waiting for Hitler, 1929–1941 (New York: Penguin, 2017)
  • Stephen Kotkin, Armageddon Averted: The Soviet Collapse 1970–2000 (Updated Edition; Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2009)
  • Steven Lee Myers, The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin (New York: Vintage, 2016)
  • M.E. Sarotte, Not One Inch: America, Russia, and the Making of Post–Cold War Stalemate (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2021)
  • William Taubman, Gorbachev: His Life and Times (New York: W.W. Norton, 2017)