In a vain attempt to revive Russia’s imperial mission, Vladimir Putin has sacrificed tens of thousands of young Russians on the battlefield, lost many more who have fled his autocracy, and undermined his country’s economic future. How could this happen?

In this section, we contribute to an understanding of how Russia reached this point, and whether it was inevitable. When it comes to reporting on the latest Russian horrors in Ukraine, a twice-yearly publication like Inroads is not in a position to compete with cable news, the daily press or instantaneous online reporting. But sometimes we can track down ongoing developments that others miss. What lessons does the failing Russian invasion of Ukraine provide for our understanding of post-Soviet Russia?

Ronald Beiner traces the link between the Russian rationale for the invasion of Ukraine and the writings of far-right ideologue Aleksandr Dugin, the apparent target of a recent assassination attempt in which his daughter was killed, in Fascist International.

In Russia and the Rogue Intellectuals, Filip Kostelska takes on the interpretation of the invasion by the “realist” school of international relations. Realists argue that the world’s most powerful countries are naturally sensitive to any threats to their security and will remove those threats if they can. Against some of its leaders’ better judgement, NATO opened the door to membership to Ukraine in 2008. So, when in a position to do so, Russia has only naturally acted to defend its interests in Ukraine. According to John Mearsheimer, Professor of International Relations at the University of Chicago and the best-known exponent of the realist position, what the West should have done was promote a balance of power in Europe, with Ukraine “neutral.”

I attended Mearshimer’s much-contested presentation at the convention of American political scientists in Montreal in September. A few months earlier, he addressed the Robert Schuman Centre of the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, where Filip is a visiting professor. That lecture has been viewed more than two million times on YouTube, and has been shared by Russian authorities on social media. Filip, who is Czech, lays bare what such “realism” means for countries formerly under Russia’s thumb.

Derek Shearer, Director of the McKinnon Center for Global Affairs at Occidental College in Los Angeles, reviews his lifetime of encounters with Russia and the Soviet Union, going back to the 1960s. I met Derek when he served as Bill Clinton’s ambassador to Finland in the 1990s, a period when hopes were high of Russia moving toward liberal democracy. He asks, among other things, whether Putin was inevitable and to what extent, if any, Western actions in the 1990s contributed to recent developments in Is There Hope For Russia?

Economic turmoil and wishful thinking

In a sense, history is repeating itself. As became the case with the USSR, in Russia today the emperor has no clothes, save nuclear weapons, gas and oil. Without “clothes,” the USSR began to unravel under Gorbachev and Yeltsin. This was a time of profound economic turmoil. As revealed in Russia’s muted reaction to his recent death, the majority of Russians have not forgiven Gorbachev, despite his opening their country to free expression.

But the story goes back before Gorbachev and Yeltsin. As Paul Krugman noted in the New York Times, by the late 1970s, when we in the West were still mesmerized by the Soviet menace, “the Soviet growth story fell apart, and by some measures technological progress came to a standstill.” Krugman pointed out that with the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, real GDP per capita fell more than 40 per cent – worse than America’s decline during the Great Depression. Moreover, Russia also “suffered from extreme inflation and a plunge in life expectancy.” Krugman offered this explanation for Russia’s performing far worse after liberalization than other “transition” economies:

At first, Russia only moved partially to a market economy, and the partial privatization wasn’t systematic … The worst of both worlds. Where it did privatize, Russia did so without the institutions – things like security regulation, rules against predatory behavior and general rule of law – a market economy needs to function. Haphazard privatization created a proliferation of monopolies, whose efforts to extract as much as possible from everyone else turned them into the modern equivalent of robber barons … creating a class of oligarchs, men with vast, unearned wealth … And the power of the oligarchs surely distorted economic policy.

Once the former Soviet republics became independent countries, the status of Russians in these countries outside Russia deteriorated. They were no longer members of the dominant majority but of a minority. In Ukraine, with its ambivalent relationship with Russia, young people especially came to see that their future lay elsewhere, with an expanding European Union.

Demonstrations in Kyiv early in 2014 ousted pro-Russia Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych. In response, Russia incorporated Crimea. Ukrainians thus found themselves having to make a choice: Russia or Ukraine. Even among the Russian-speaking minority, most chose Ukraine. This was inconceivable to their cousins in Russia, explicable only by a conspiracy of Nazi sympathizers, and hence it was the duty of Russia to liberate Ukrainians. To the apparent astonishment of the Kremlin, they did not wish to be liberated.

The invasion of Ukraine has confirmed the fears of the peoples of eastern Europe, not long out from under Russia’s thumb: once Russia was stabilized, it would try to undo the abandonment of the empire that had taken place under Gorbachev and Yeltsin. They sought – and were granted – the protection of NATO. As he consolidated his power, Putin chose to portray these choices, in stark Cold War terms, as NATO aggression against the Russian people.

Was this inevitable? Several books have given Putin the benefit of the doubt. Given that his coming to power coincided with the stabilization of the Russian economy and improved living conditions for many, observers were willing to downplay the corruption around him and his circle, his lies and military incursions. Engaging with Putin’s Russia in the hope that it would evolve into a democracy has turned out to be wishful thinking, reminiscent of the wishful thinking that led many Western progressives in the 1930s and 1940s to turn a blind eye to Stalin’s horrors (see Arthur Milner’s column in this issue).

After Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin in 1956, Western academics were again willing to give the Soviet Union the benefit of the doubt. Among the first international scholarly associations to break through the Iron Curtain was the International Political Science Association (IPSA). At the height of the Cold War, a divided IPSA executive decided to hold a congress in the USSR, knowing that the Russians who took part had to follow the party line.

I learned this bit of history when I was on the IPSA executive in the 1990s, as the USSR was falling apart. We became especially critical of the United States pushing its weight around as the only superpower, and were little inclined to see the deep-rooted obstacles to Russian democratization. We reached out to Russian social scientists and I met a number of them; they were excited at the possibility of collaborating with Western colleagues in their research. But that period was short-lived. Now for such collaboration they need to leave Russia, which a great many have done.

I do not claim any expert knowledge of Russia, though I can claim to be among those in the New Left who, early on, harboured no illusions about Soviet-style Communism. On one occasion, when I was in graduate school in the early 1970s, I received a grant to go to Varna on Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast to attend an international sociology conference. Early each morning we were handed a newsletter announcing that day’s great accomplishments on the local state farms. When a friend, a rotund professor from Montreal, tried to buy a bathing suit, he could find only size small. There were no other sizes, he learned. That was the only way the local factory could meet its quota.

A visit in December 1985, early in the Gorbachev period, confirmed the nakedness of the feared emperor. My wife Frances and I took a Russian boat from Stockholm to what was then Leningrad. In the city, we saw long lines outside the food stores and visited department stores with nothing of any interest on the shelves. On the boat, as in the hotel restaurant, food was minimal, though wonderful Russian music was plentiful. By the time of our second visit a few years later, we were rich with rubles bought with hard currency on the black market. People were still queuing up. This time – guides could now speak frankly – local citizens were queuing for whatever was on sale, in the hope of later trading for something useful.

During the Yeltsin years, a friend organized a visit to Moscow, where we stayed with his cousins, both doctors who were seeking some hard currency. (They now live in New Jersey.) For two weeks they put us up in their apartment; they provided meals and served as tour guides. Moscow, we could see, was undergoing rapid and apparently ramshackle changes.

One revealing incident during the Yeltsin period occurred in Umeå in northern Sweden, where I had come to give an intensive “summer university” course for visiting Russian civics teachers from northern oblasts. As they taught it, they told me, civics was a hodgepodge of whatever history, social science and philosophy they themselves knew. “Do you teach them about the actual functioning of democracy?” I asked. “Why would we want to talk about that?” they replied in unison. “Russian politics is nothing but corruption.”

As was the custom, at the closing dinner the Russians and Swedes took turns singing songs. I suggested the “Internationale” (“Arise ye prisoners of starvation …”) in their own words. For the Swedes, used to hearing it on May 1, it was a song they all knew. Then these post-Communist Russians (all but one were women) stood up straight and loudly sang the stirring anthem with dignified pride – though when it ended they showed distinct signs of discomfort.

It was not quite so evident at the time, but the incident illustrated that we in the West were engaged in wishful thinking in seeing in the intellectuals around Gorbachev and Yeltsin the vanguard of Russia’s becoming a liberal democracy. I doubt that today these teachers have any problem with Putin’s clamping down on democratic expression, and I suspct that they readily support his “special military operation” in Ukraine – as long as their sons are not drafted.