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Not Bad, Just Sad

In response to:

Chechnya: How Russia Lost from the September 24, 1998 issue

To the Editors:

I am grateful to Robert Cottrell for his generally positive review of my book, Chechnya: Tombstone of Russian Power [“Chechnya: How Russia Lost,” NYR, September 24, 1998]. However, I am afraid that he has either misunderstood or ignored several of my key arguments, in a way which is unfortunately all too characteristic of the narrowness and rigidity of much Western analysis of Russia over the past decade.

Mr. Cottrell’s most serious mistake concerns my bleak vision of Yeltsin’s Russia, a vision which I feel has been comprehensively vindicated by the developments which have taken place since the book was published in May. Mr. Cottrell attributes my views to a sort of unconfessed Russophobia, which is usually taken to mean an obsession with alleged particular and ancient faults in the Russian national tradition.

In fact, at the center of my book, in Chapter 4 and the Conclusion, is an attempt to place the horribly flawed nature of the liberal capitalist revolution in Russia in the 1990s in the context not just of Russian history but of the history of such revolutions across the world in the last two hundred years. I point out that again and again—most notably in the liberal states of southern Europe and Latin America in the nineteenth century—an ideology preaching universal and standard political and economic solutions to mankind’s problems, including a ruthless free-market approach, has produced disastrous results in countries with weak states, legal orders, and civil societies, and with deeply corrupt elites with no feeling of responsibility for their fellow citizens or indeed their nations. As a result, democratic institutions and economic reforms (in the past, “land reform”; today, “privatization”) have proved façades behind which these elites have plundered their countries, oppressed their peoples, and set up some version or other of “crony capitalism.” Sometimes, of course, the end result has been economic progress; but just as often, as with the great new bourgeois landowners of southern Italy in the nineteenth century or the “oligarchs” of Yeltsin’s Russia, the result has been to help entrench backwardness. In other words, it is not just that doctrinaire free-market journals like Mr. Cottrell’s employer The Economist have made a mistake about the meaning of Russian developments in the 1990s—it is that they have repeated a very old mistake.

Russia and some other former Soviet republics have indeed suffered especially badly because of the legacy of political atomization and moral cynicism left over from Communist rule, but that does not make their case unique. As far as ordinary Russians are concerned—ones without the nomenklatura or criminal connections which provided the basis for the new elite—my book was written in a spirit not of Russophobia but of the deepest sympathy for their present sufferings, for some at least of their historical achievements, and for the way in which they have been repeatedly betrayed by their own rulers. In my book I was also careful to place the Russian war in Chechnya in the context not just of Russian and Caucasian history, but also in that of brutal colonial and post-colonial conflicts waged by Western states over the past hundred years.

Anatol Lieven
International Institute for Strategic Studies
London, England

Robert Cottrell replies:

It seems to me that “countries with weak states, legal orders, and civil societies, and with deeply corrupt elites with no feeling of responsibility for their fellow citizens or indeed their nations,” to quote from Anatol Lieven’s letter, would be in for a pretty rough time whatever policies were attempted there. I enjoyed and admired all of Mr. Lieven’s book. I was under the impression I had communicated as much. However, since Mr. Lieven feels that I fell short of a full appreciation of his argument, I will admit to having found his analogies with “revolutions across the world in the last two hundred years” the least necessary part of it. I incline to think of Russia as a place where Russian history repeats itself with such frequency and ingenuity that historical echoes from more far-flung places become of secondary interest.

I can see this business about “Russophobia” is liable to turn nasty, so I will attempt not to prolong the exchange unduly. I said in my review that Mr. Lieven dissociated himself from, and criticized, what he called the “Russophobe” school. If Mr. Lieven thinks, nonetheless, that I attribute his views “to a sort of unconfessed Russophobia,” then I can only protest that I do not. But perhaps Iam missing something.

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