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In Search of a Russian Atatürk

Russia has found a great way to be complacent about its deficiencies. No matter how extraordinary or hair-raising events are in Russia, parallels can be found with events and trends in the West.

If election fraud is alleged, the recount in Florida during the 2000 presidential vote is mentioned in response. The war in Chechnya can be compared to the invasion of Iraq, while the recent attack on the Nevsky Express fits in with international terrorism.

In the West, these examples represent isolated defects of functioning societies. In Russia, however, they paint a picture of national decay.

Take demographics. While Italy and Spain have a low birth rate, in Russia it goes hand-in-hand with high mortality and low life expectancy. Despite an influx of immigrants, the Russian population is falling rapidly, and the countryside is dotted with ghost villages.

Corruption is also a breed apart. Even in the most corrupt Western countries, officials still work for the state. In Russia, the state seems to exist for the benefit of bureaucrats, and most laws passed by the State Duma make it easier to take bribes, pillage government funds and stifle economic and social development.

Between 1914 and 1953, Russia and the Soviet Union suffered bloodletting on an unprecedented scale. World War I, the Civil War, relentless state terror and World War II, in which Stalin and Hitler combined their efforts to murder tens of millions of Russians, damaged the social fabric, destroyed the best and the brightest, and turned survivors into a quivering herd. It might have been too much for any people to bear. We may now be witnessing the death throes of a once-great nation.

Indeed, Russia’s recent history looks like a steady downtrend. The 1979 invasion of Afghanistan marked the peak of its geographic expansion, after which the Soviet empire began to crumble. First came the loss of Eastern Europe and, soon thereafter, the dissolution of the old Russian Empire. Then it was the superpower status and global influence that disappeared. Now, Chinese migrants are encroaching on depopulated Eastern Siberia, while Beijing wins concessions to explore Russian natural resources that Moscow can’t do on its own. What commodities Russia is still able to produce independently are wasted. While record oil prices brought wealth to oligarchs and state officials, for the average Russian they meant only high inflation. Moreover, the police, the military, health care, education and social services have become degraded.

The Ottoman Empire, which Tsar Nicholas I once called “the sick man of Europe,” decayed in a similar fashion in the 19th century. Wars erupted across Europe as a result, but Turkey was saved from a national catastrophe by liberal reforms enacted by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, a military officer and an admirer of the Enlightenment.

Unfortunately, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin didn’t become such a modernizer. He rose to power suddenly and had to rely on his former siloviki colleagues. Russia’s decay only accelerated on his watch. Yet, he can still become a Russian Atatürk. Putin is still Russia’s most powerful man. He is both admired and feared. Although Medvedev is a political lightweight and relies on Putin’s protection, he has started to make tough decisions like firing incompetent bureaucrats.

Whether Putin planned it this way or it happened by accident, Russia’s ruling tandem may yet bring about a national revival. But they will have to ram it down the throat of the boggy system over which they preside.

Alexei Bayer, a native Muscovite, is a New York-based economist.

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