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Reducing Russia to a Caricature

William Deresiewicz offers a rather bleak interpretation of Russia and its history:

The Russian people appear to be conducting a long-term experiment to see whether brute force constitutes a sufficient basis upon which to organize a society. The results are in: stagnation, abjection, alcoholism, despair; kleptocracy, corruption, environmental depredation; anarchy on the roads and in the streets; a mob that makes the Cosa Nostra look like social workers. This is not the whole story, of course. It seems to be, persistently, the center of the story [bold mine-DL].

I suspect that one reason that it is persistently “the center of the story” is that people outside of Russia focus on these things as the defining traits of the country, and they then choose to make them the “center of the story” regardless of what is happening. Russia still suffers from an illiberal political culture, authoritarian government, corruption, and all the rest, but if there is one constant in most modern Western interpretations of Russia it is that the country is hopeless and seemingly doomed by its history to remain always the same. The trouble with this is that Russia now is remarkably different from the Russia of twenty years ago, but many Westerners write and talk about it as if nothing important had changed, or worse yet they will talk about it as if it had given up the “gains” it made in the disastrous ’90s. The country is much more developed and wealthier than it has been in the past, and even the demographic picture is not as grim as it was just a decade ago. If the first qualities that come to mind when thinking about Russia are “immensity and cruelty,” as Deresiewicz says, perhaps these are the qualities that one expects to find at the expense of ignoring the rest of the story. If one believes that “darkness” is a “permanent condition” only in Russia, that suggests that one’s interpretation of the country’s history is heavily slanted in one direction.

The point here is not that Russia doesn’t suffer from a host of problems, nor am I saying that these problems should be minimized, but when we continually reinforce our worst assumptions about a place and never challenge them we get a very superficial, one-sided, and misleading view of the place and its people.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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