Russia – Lost in Transition. The Yeltsin and Putin Legacies

In his great novel Dead Souls, Nikolai Gogol imagined Russia as a troika, a carriage pulled by three-abreast horses, speeding through the countryside. Gogol admitted no knowledge of where Russia was going – ‘Russia, where are you flying to? Answer! She gives no answer’ – but Russia’s path was unique and the country was destined for greatness. The very vehicle that he compares Russia to, the troika, is a something that could ‘only have been born among a high-spirited people in a land that does not like doing things by halves,’ and as Russia flies by ‘other nations and states draw aside and make way for her.’ [1] Stirring stuff, but apart from the part about Russia being ‘a land that does not like doing things by halves,’ wrong. Gogol’s Russia was still in the age of the troika as others were building railroads and instead of getting out of its way other states, and their industrial might, stood firmly in Russia’s path. From being a great power at the start of the nineteenth century Russia declined as it lost in war, failed to modernise effectively in its wake and then lost more wars as a result. To modernise and to win wars Russia had to stop being Russia and become something else: the Soviet Union. In the end even that did not work. Russia has had to become Russia again and needs to pursue modernisation once more – which this time means developing a diversified economy that is capable of competing globally and that supports a range of economic interests – to restore national pride and well-being. So, more than a century and a half after Gogol, we once again we have to work out what this process of change means and whether, as Russia regains a sense of itself as an international power, we will get out of its way, stop it or find some way of accommodating its desire for greatness.

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