Reading Russia Right

I had been planning to write a post today about the latest report on Russia by the British House of Commons, but something came my way which is so out of the ordinary that it has to take precedence. The item in question is an article by University of Rhode Island professor Nicolai Petro entitled ‘Are We Reading Russia Right?’ and published in The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs. I urge you all to read the full text online here, and to spread it as far and wide as you can. But in case some of you only have time for a condensed version, below is a summary of what Nicolai has to say.

The article starts out by describing the extremely negative image of Russia painted by most Western commentators. This image, Petro says, is incomplete. There are indeed many shortcomings in Russia, but under Putin there has also been enormous progress. Focusing entirely on the former without mentioning the latter produces a thoroughly distorted picture.

Petro then sets about listing the various ways in Russia differs from the image painted of it in the West. These include the following:

More than ten million Russians are involved in some form [of] organized volunteer activity, roughly ten percent of the adult population … sustained by multiple funding sources. …

Several of Russia’s largest daily newspapers, like Vedomosti, Kommersant, and Nezavisimaia Gazeta, are staunchly anti-Putin and reach tens of millions of readers. Novaya Gazeta’s web site alone garners more than twenty million views a month. … only three percent of Russia’s hundred thousand media outlets are state owned … Russia’s media ecology is thus far more complex than is commonly assumed.

… it was Vladimir Putin who introduced key elements of modern criminal justice to Russia. These include habeas corpus, a juvenile justice system, trial by jury, bailiffs, and justices of the peace … courts struck down compensation limits for government negligence, strengthened the rights of defendants to exculpatory evidence, provided clearer guidelines on secrecy … Closed judicial proceedings and pretrial detention centers have been all but eliminated, privacy protections for individuals expanded, and 24,000 free legal aid centers created. … Since 2014, the number of suits brought on behalf of foreign companies has tripled, while judgments in their favor have risen from fifty-nine to eighty-three percent of the total. … the number of persons incarcerated in Russia has fallen by almost forty percent since 2001, and the number of minors in prison has fallen from 19,000 to just 1,000.

… Pensions have risen tenfold since 2000 … average life expectancy has increased by more than six years to 72.6. … the government plans to raise the minimum wage to the living wage.

Western journalists are unable to see these things, says Petro, because they suffer from ‘paradigm blindness’, which is similar to the psychological trait known as ‘availability bias.’ Wishing to interpret events in Russia, they simply take the closest available paradigm which they already know – that Russia is incapable of democracy – and view everything in light of that. ‘Americans,’ says Petro, ‘cannot talk about Russia as a democracy because there is no frame of reference for Russian democracy in their minds.’ In reality, Petro writes,

Putin’s power base lies not with the oligarchs, but with the Russian people. Any approach to Russia that overlooks this is simply out of touch with reality.

Towards the end of his article, Petro includes a number of quite shockingly Russophobic comments by American writers and officials. He quotes Robert Kaplan, for instance, as saying that, all those who love Russia eventually wind up ‘realizing the utter impossibility of any good ever coming out of Russia … and throw up their hands at the beastly unchangeableness of Russia.’ Sadly, this attitude has become the norm.

No doubt those who share Kaplan’s point of view will complain that Nicolai Petro’s article is horribly one-sided, listing all Russia’s achievements while ignoring all its shortcomings. But given how many people do the opposite, some form of rebalancing is much needed. ‘To sum up,’ concludes Petro, ‘a radical re-conceptualization of relations with Russia is long overdue.’ I cannot agree more.

11 thoughts on “Reading Russia Right”

  1. I couldn’t agree more, Paul. When I saw this piece by Dr. Petro this morning, it immediately became obvious that this is a seminal essay. To read this as apologetics or ‘sugar coating’ (as will inevitably happen) is to miss the point entirely. Petro knows perfectly well Russia and its leadership have many faults and grave problems. His whole point is to return a sense of BALANCE to the relationship, which means acknowledging Russia’s reality — its reality as a mixture of good and bad, just like most places at most times, and like the U.S. itself. (How a sober assessment of the U.S.’s actions — as opposed to its pious declarations — over the past, oh, 20, or 40, years, yields a position of towering moral superiority has long baffled me.)

    I read this piece almost as a last chance (there’s only so many times you can shoot yourself in the foot before doing irreparable harm) for America to re-learn how to do diplomacy. The four broad policy guidelines Petro proposes get it exactly right, imho:

    ” … Highlight the danger of abandoning dialogue in the pursuit of short-term advantages

    – Challenge those who peremptorily declare an end to debate about Russia;

    – Avoid moralism, so that the search for compromise is not automatically equated with treason

    … Humanize our adversaries, so that meaningful dialogue … becomes possible.”

    In other words, Nicolai Petro calls on the US to return to the practice of diplomacy; to get back in touch with reality; and to be at least minimally honest. It’s not that damn hard. You would think.


  2. Here’s another thought I have on this. At present we have a dominant discourse about Russia which is overwhelmingly negative. Nicolai Petro has sought to rebalance it towards a more positive discourse. It is entirely possible that in doing so he has swung too far. The result is that people then come in with criticisms of his thesis. This is a good thing. It provokes a discussion of which parts of Nicolai’s thesis are right and wrong, and why, and forces people to dig up actual facts to support their view. And the result is a sort of dialectical process which hopefully ends up somewhere closer to the truth. But without Nicolai saying what he’s said in the first place, we can never start along this process. That is why, in my view, it’s such an important piece.


  3. I basically agree with your point, Paul, and would fully support it, if the ones doing this dialectic were all like you, in the sense of actually being curious about what happens to be the case. But in the hands of the ‘usual practitioners’ in the US (the ones Keith Gessen was talking about, and their media enablers), this ‘dialectic’ will never veer away from moralism, with its attendant hysteria, always with the goal of proving at all costs sufficient U.S. moral superiority as to justify ‘staying on course’. But what is needed is to get away from moralism, and its fascination with diagnosing the other side’s dirt, which is really just an excuse for avoiding dealing with countries in a normal, diplomatic fashion.


  4. ‘Americans,’ says Petro, ‘cannot talk about Russia as a democracy because there is no frame of reference for Russian democracy in their minds.’

    You know, sometimes when you about to fall asleep and your brain start to race developing some thought and conception mega-fast, so several seconds later you are like “Hey! That’s pretty kewl idea, I should totally write it down next thing in the mor… zzzzzzzzzz”

    This happened to me 2 days ago, when I tried to imagine how is it the mainstream neolibs of the West feel about Russia. It happened after reading several articles on the topic of “Who lost Russia?” mentioned in already quoted in this blog article by Konstantin Alexandrovich Gessen, brother of the pyatisemite Maria (“Masha”) Alexandrovna Gessen. You know this quote from his interview of Michael Koffman:

    “There are the nice missionaries who knock on your door and say, ‘Hey, have you heard the good news about democracy, freedom and liberalism?’ And then there are the crusaders who are trying to claim the heathen Eastern European lands for democracy and freedom. But they’re basically the same person; they’re two sides of the same coin.”

    The thought that I had was the following – liberals ruling over the West possess religious worldview. Yes, the West is secularized, but still religious. The religion is Liberalism now. They see Russia like this:

    Image a bunch of beardy mujahedeen strapped with shahid belts, wielding blood soaked machetes, coming to Vatican. Only these mujahedeen chant “Dawkinsu akbar!” and sign nasheed “F=mg”. They burst into Papa Frank’s nice cozy palace and make a list of demands:

    1) Catholic Church stops it missionary activity across the globe. No attempts whatsoever to “poach” or “fish for” wayward souls.
    2) Catholic Church will demand from both their priests and congregations worldwide to respect local temporal authorities more, than the Church itself.
    3) Official rehabilitation of Satan (“freedom-fighter”), Cain (“innovative agriculturalist”) and Judas (“shy and conscientious intelligent, victim of bullying”)
    4) [Provided that Papa Frank is not dying from a stroke upon hearing pp. 1-3] Go now to your fancy balcony and address the faithful saying: “You know, folks – Catholic Church is not the only True One out here. We are not the Only Way. Hell, God might be not real, for all I know. Have a nice day!”

    That’s how they see us – Russians, because we are, and I quote, “undermining the very foundations of the liberal democracy” (c). Pure animal, existential fear and lots and lots of projection. Yeah, sure, Liberalism as a faith has more in common with the Catharism, rather than with the mainstream Christianity, but – still the analogy stands.

    There could be no peace between us. Russia is NOT in the “state of Grace”. In their misguided urge to “bring salvation”, the torchbearers of the Western ruling ideology are willing to kill us all, while denying the mere thought that someone might be accepted for who they are.

    I was quite please with that nice analogy, and then yesterday…


    Way to ruin my analogy, Frank!


  5. It’s gone too far now. For America’s part, it has deliberately hyped a stereotype of stubborn resisters to freedom and democracy, untrustworthy, dishonest and pathologically unable to own up to their mistakes and join the great march to freedom. Every once in awhile it throws in a gratuitous suggestion that Russians might like to be more like westerners, but are crushed beneath the callused thumb of a dictator and cannot. Once the American public internalizes a stupid stereotype, it can be very difficult and the work of a decade or so to reverse it. At present there is no political will to even try.

    For Russia’s part, Putin would be a fool to attempt to downplay who is at the bottom of this extraordinary effort to demonize an entire country and its people, and it probably would not work if he were to try it – Russians are well aware who has it in for them. And America’s vassals should not be spared here – they do not even have the cover of self-interest, and are merely too afraid of losing their trade deals with the American market to resist its disgusting proselytizing. Canada should come in for a healthy dose of contempt there, as it continues to let the Canadian Foreign Minister for Ukraine, Chrystia Freeland, be its voice on policy where Russia is concerned.

    Here’s a good example of Uncle Sam’s nobility of spirit in action – laws to prevent, through the sanctions it has grown to love, any international institution from assisting Syria with rebuilding and replacing war damages which the west gleefully helped inflict.

    Until, that is, there is a ‘political transition’ in which Bashar al-Assad rides into the sunset of exile and the west gets to pick his successor. Washington, to be more precise, because Uncle Sam would never trust anyone else to pander sufficiently to American interests. That’s the sort of unstable pariah the United States has become, and it dares to flaunt naked self-interest at the expense of the rest of the world because nobody has the courage to contradict it. It is a law unto itself because the world permits it.


  6. Thanks for bringing this article to our attention.

    BTW: Please use an indented paragraph for extensive quotations, not a lighter font color. I’m not getting any younger.


  7. Thanks for bringing this interesting piece to our attention. Just a small note, though, about political diversity and mass media. Petro claims outlets like Vedomosti, Kommersant etc reach “tens of millions of readers”. Are you sure Mr Petro isn’t confusing hits with readers? If Novaya Gazeta gets 20m views per month, that could be 70,000 people visiting once per day. Kommersant state they have a “loyal readership” of 87,000. I would be surprised if tens of millions of Russians are reading those newspapers or their websites regularly. Perhaps some hundreds of thousands. TV news is still the leading source.


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