All of our sources for today come from a western perspective. Yet insofar as there is such a thing as a national character, we see the Russian one very clearly, especially in Tayler’s article. The demise of the hope spot that briefly appeared after the Soviet Union collapsed seemed to be the final straw for a deep-seated sense of resignation among the Russian populace. While Tayler was optimistic about Russia’s prospects of integrating into the West in the early 90s, his Russian acquaintance Lena said “that Russians were, above all, an unpredictable people, given to wild swings and dangerous extremes, lacking the patience and adherence to principle that democracy demanded” (Tayler). Over the next 2 decades, she seemed to have been proven right, as Yeltsin and his “shock therapy” gave way to the tandem of Putin and Medvedev. Capitalism was not working in Russia because of the way Yeltsin’s policies opened the door to corruption: “It is impossible to operate a business successfully in Russia and also observe all the laws, because… twenty different levies on the books would tax a company as much as 105 percent if they were paid; businesses must evade taxes to at least some extent or go bankrupt” (Tayler). Hence, getting around the law seems legitimate and even appealing: in a country with few opportunities for small business, “mafiyozy became role models for many of the young” (Tayler). Those who were not satisfied by the idea of becoming career criminals and could not or would not leave the country turned to groups like Da!, which “set out to engage an emerging generation of Russians who were too young to have experienced the end of Communism and had come of age in a wealthier, more apathetic time… One key component was the hosting of debates… ‘because there are no free debates and no free media… To our surprise, it was a super-popular project’” (Ioffe, 28).
Putin’s image as a strongman did not seem to carry over into domestic policy the way it has with foreign policy, as the mafiya continued to flourish openly under him. Russians thought of their government and the mafiya in the same terms: “’Those government thieves aren’t getting any of my money!’ summarizes the feelings of Russians toward taxes and their state. When Russians talk of politicians, they frequently speak of “thieves”, “bandits” and “swindlers” – and not hyperbolically” (Tayler). However, this type of thinking is by no means recent: “The hostility that Russians feel toward their government comes not from some innate lack of civic duty but from the terror, violence, and deceit that have since the late Middle Ages characterized the way in which their rulers have treated them” (Tayler).
Tayler summarizes Russia’s transition thusly: “During the Cold War… Russians I came to know spoke of the future of their country as if it would be the fate of humanity, and I agreed with them… within a few decades Russia will concern the rest of the world no more than any Third World country with abundant resources, an impoverished people, and a corrupt government. In short, as a Great Power, Russia is finished.” The Soviet Union may have hovered on the verge of economic collapse for decades, but at least it gave its citizens a sense of worldwide significance. Today, westerners look at Russia with fascination, confusion, pity, and a vague sense of fear, but not as the existential threat to our values and lives that it had been for nearly half a century. So we are back to the question we have been dancing around all semester: should the west give up on Russia, and should Russia give up on itself?