An Impoverished, Benighted Quagmire

Is Russia a child, a barbarian, or a fossil? It seems a purely academic question, because no matter what the answer, the consequences are the same: Doom. But still, since this is my 100th column for the American Thinker, on this occasion it is perhaps appropriate to take a philosophical view of Russia and try to see the big picture as accurately as possible.

As the Winter Games opened in Sochi, Russia, last week, an event that was supposed to burnish Russia's image turned out to tarnish it even more. The water was brown or yellow (visitors were warned it was too dangerous even to use on your face, much less to drink), feral dogs roamed streets and hotel rooms (which few could get, even when reserved, including CNN), and the bathrooms were a comic nightmare unto themselves (visitors were told they could not flush used toilet paper but had to throw it in the trash can). Putin's whole point in staging these games was to prove to the world that Russia could avoid exactly this kind of Soviet-style fiasco. He proved instead that everything old is new again in his country.

Then the opening ceremony commenced. Russia reminded the world that not only is it still ruled by the KGB as Putin sat on high glowering, but that its national anthem has retained the melody of the anthem of the USSR, written to glorify Stalin. Russia's own prime minister, as well as Princess Anne of the U.K., were bored to tears, and caught respectively dozing and reading. Russians tried to teach the world a new alphabet, a litany of Russian heroes, and among them they listed filmmaker Eisenstein, composer Tchaikovsky, and dancer Diaghilev, all homosexual, even as it flouted a nationwide crackdown on homosexuals. Then it put forth a pop music performance by a female duo, Tatu, who pretend to be gay.

The bear mascot turned out to be kind of scary, and one of five snowflakes that was supposed to transform into an Olympic rings simply didn't (the outside world gaped in horror, but Russian viewers didn't know anything was wrong because the neo-Soviet Kremlin used stock footage of it opening to help them believe it had). After that the bathrooms got even worse, turning into traps that athletes had to physically break out of. And Russia's Olympic slogan "Hot. Cool. Yours."? Well, it speaks for itself.

While Russia has languished in stasis, still being ruled by a proud KGB spy despite the downfall of the USSR, and with the Communist Party still a powerful force in parliament, America has gone from a backwater where blacks were enslaved to the world's only superpower, with a black president.

Why can't Russia learn, grow and change for the better?

In 1905, at the age of forty-two, the Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana published his masterpiece, The Life of Reason. In Chapter XII, "Flux and Constancy in Human Nature," he wrote a paragraph which might serve well as a conservative manifesto, providing deep insights on the nature of Russia:

Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. In the first stage of life the mind is frivolous and easily distracted; it misses progress by failing in consecutiveness and persistence. This is the condition of children and barbarians, in whom instinct has learned nothing from experience. In a second stage men are docile to events, plastic to new habits and suggestions, yet able to graft them on original instincts, which they thus bring to fuller satisfaction. This is the plane of manhood and true progress. Last comes a stage when retentiveness is exhausted and all that happens is at once forgotten; a vain, because unpractical, repetition of the past takes the place of plasticity and fertile readaptation. In a moving world readaptation is the price of longevity. The hard shell, far from protecting the vital principle, condemns it to die down slowly and be gradually chilled; immortality in such a case must have been secured earlier, by giving birth to a generation plastic to the contemporary world and able to retain its lessons. Thus old age is as forgetful as youth, and more incorrigible; it displays the same inattentiveness to conditions; its memory becomes self-repeating and degenerates into an instinctive reaction, like a bird's chirp.

These classifications apply as much to nation states as to individuals and Russia, more than any other nation, is a place that cannot seem to stop repeating the mistakes of the past. Russia is governed essentially the same way now as it has been for centuries, with repression of dissent and information and with dictatorship. Its ruler, Vladimir Putin is a relic of the failed Soviet past who is rehabilitating and rationalizing rather than rejecting the Soviet errors. This form of government has always led Russia to ruinous failure and national collapse. Yet Russians repeat it over and over and over again. Both Tsarist Russia and the USSR collapsed into absolute rubble, yet Russians learned nothing from their experiences except how to repeat them.

The best example of Russian recidivism is financial. Credit Suisse recently revealed that 0.7% of the world's population (about 32 million people) controls 41% of its wealth. If you apply this formula to Russia, you should get about 980,000 Russians controlling that big chunk of Russian cash. But you don't. Where Russia is concerned, Credit Suisse's findings are vastly more lopsided. In Russia, a mere 110 people control 35% of the country's wealth. That's a jaw-dropping 0.00007%.

In other words, what Russia has now is what it had when the Bolshevik revolution took place nearly a century ago: A tiny sliver of elite society eating from silver spoon while the vast majority of the population starved. Essentially, a monarchy. In a hundred years, Russia has learned nothing and progressed nowhere.

But there are lots and lots of other examples. Remember the famous story about the Potemkin Village created to impress the Empress Catherine? The exact same thing happened recently in the City of Suzdal just before a visit from Putin; paintings of pretty, well-kept houses were hung in front of hovels so Putin, whisking past in his limo, would think the city was doing well. Such sham events are quite common in Putin's Russia. In fact, however, in many such places the average wage lags behind the national average by two-thirds or more and the denizens live in grinding poverty. Rather than try to reform or complain, local officials find it more prudent to simply hide this failure from Putin's eyes.

In the past century, the institution of Tsarism collapsed. Then the would-be quasi-democratic Kerensky government that replaced it collapsed. Then the Soviet dictatorship that ousted Kerensky collapsed. Then the would-be democratic Yeltsin government that replaced it collapsed, after bombing Russia's parliament into submission. Now Russia has Putin, who will be no more durable. In the past century alone Russia has had five different forms of government and it has not made any of them work well enough to avoid disaster.

According to Santayana, all this could be explained because Russia as a nation is a child, a barbarian or a fossil. The child thesis would be the most optimistic, because it would imply that Russia can "grow up" and grow out of its pattern of making the same mistake over and over. The barbarian thesis would be less so, since evolution rather than mere growth would be required. And the fossil thesis would be a sentence of doom, implying Russia is soon to pass away just as did the USSR.

It's impossible to view Russia as being a child. Russia's history is far longer than that of the United States -- it is a very old country. It has had centuries to grow up, and it has shunned the opportunity time and again. Even under Boris Yeltsin, who was supposedly working on bringing democracy to Russia, the parliament was illegally disbanded and then, when it refused to disperse, bombed into oblivion by the Kremlin.

So is Russia a barbarian or a fossil? This is an academic, meaningless question because Russia does not have the time to evolve from the barbarian state to something better before it faces national collapse. But it is still important to understand Russia's true nature, as it is important to understand the nature of the universe.

To be a fossil, Russia would have to have had a period in its past when it was progressive, but it never has had one. There have been periods on Russian history where the nation's performance has been less disastrous, but it has never been positive. All during the Soviet period, for example, when Russia's military establishment became very potent, the rest of Russian society was being bled white to accomplish it. Soon, this brought down the edifice of the nation.

Not once in Russia's entire history -- not once! -- has national power been transferred between rivals through the means of an election. Russian rulers simply cling to power until it is wrenched from their hands in some form or other of calamity.

If you look at Russian society, Russia's barbarism becomes plain. To see this barbarism for yourself, just take a little tour (if you have the stomach for it) of Russian hospital toilets. Or consider the fact that Russia is a world leader in fatalities by fire, road accidents, smoking, drinking, and spousal homicide. Look at the way Russia continues, century after century, to jail and murder honest critics, from Pushkin to Navalny. Or look at the way it just shut down the last significant independent television broadcaster. Or search "Sochi toilet" on Twitter.

The Russian newspaper Izvestia recently published the news that life expectancy among Russians (albeit never close to being in the top 100 nations of the world) has suddenly and unexpectedly stopped rising. Previously, the United Nations had predicted that Russia's birth rate, which had also been rising, would shortly return to free fall as well. For some time now Putin's apologists had been giving him credit for halting Russia's demographic crisis. Now, those same people will have no choice but to blame him as it recommences with increased ferocity.

The news that Russia has demographic problems cannot surprise anyone who has seen Russia up close. It is a country where few people have a reason to bring forth new life or to wish for a long life for themselves. It is dirty, it is dangerous, it is cold and gloomy. It is very unhappy land.

If I have proved that Russia is a barbaric state doomed to repeat its own history until the final end arrives, what have I to say about what to do about it? Are we to hasten the end? Stand aside and gape slack-jawed? Or are we to administer some form of hospice treatment?

To answer this question, think about what we did when we saw the USSR begin to falter. We did nothing. We simply allowed it to collapse of its own accord, and look at the result. Unlike Japan and Germany, which were decisively defeated, Russia turned at the first opportunity to the task of rebuilding its America-hating empire. Where Japan and Germany are steadfast, prosperous allies, Russia is an impoverished, benighted quagmire full of desire to destroy us, juiced by a nearly fanatical desire for revenge. In the view of the Russians any entity, from Hugo Chavez to Hizb'allah to China, that attacks America is Russia's friend. Any ally of America is Russia's foe.

Can't we just sit and wait for the Russians to destroy themselves? No. This is the tactic that was tried with the Bolsheviks. Nobody thought they could become so powerful, last so long or cause so much trouble, but they did.

So we must act. We must act as Reagan acted. We must do this because our destiny leaves us no alternative. We must confront and defeat the evil regime of Vladimir Putin because it is seeking to confront and defeat us. We must force Russians to see, as we forced Japan and Germany to see, that we can be a precious ally that can assist Russia to reach its destined glory if only Russia will work as hard as we will to achieve that task. And we must force Russians to see that in the alternative we can be the most terrifying enemy the world has ever known.

This does not mean using military force. It means using what Gandhi called "truth force" to oust Putin as was done to unwanted leaders in places like Egypt, Libya and Ukraine. It means forcing Putin to see that he has no future if he continues to clutch power as if he were Brezhnev. In means inspiring those within Russia who want to fight for progress and American values, rather than ignoring them and allowing them to wither and disappear.

Russians can no more throw off their malignant overlords all by themselves than could the people of Japan or Germany. In fact, if you know anything about Russian and her people, you know they are far less capable of such an act than Germans or Japanese. If we do not make it happen, it will not be done, and we will bequeath to our children, as our parents bequeathed to us, another generation of struggle with a malignant, America-hating, neo-Soviet Russia.

Follow Kim Zigfeld on Twitter @larussophobe.