The Editors at n+1:
What role has the American intellectual community played in this saga, if any? Certainly we failed to prevent it. But there is more. For the past two years, since Putin re-assigned himself to the Russian presidency, we have indulged ourselves in a bacchanalia of anti-Putinism, shading over into anti-Russianism. We turned Pussy Riot into mass media stars. We wrote endless articles (and books) about how Putin was a mystery man, a terrible man, a KGB ghoul who lived under your bed. It got to the point where, arriving in Sochi for Putin’s overpriced Olympics, Western journalists were greeted like heroes for tweeting about how the curtains in their hotel rooms were falling down. It was funny, but it was also not funny. Should Putin, the president of a country with inadequate hospitals, schools, and housing for its 150-million population, have spent $50 billion on hosting the Olympics? Absolutely not—especially when a third of the money was apparently expropriated by various officials. But the gleeful complaints about Olympic conditions seemed mostly bent on humiliating Russia in toto.
It’s hard to know how much of what gets written in various places leads to American policies in actual fact. Does it matter what’s in the Nation? What about the New York Review of Books? The New Yorker? It’s impossible to say. And the media or publishing game has its own rules, irrespective of politics. Evil Putin is just going to get more airtime than Complicated Putin or Putin Who is Running a Country in a Complex Geopolitical Situation.
Perhaps the way to put it is that an intellectual mistake was turned into a political mistake. The intellectual mistake was to fixate on Putin as the bad man who came along and suddenly undid the good work of Boris Yeltsin. (Bill Clinton’s Russia hand Strobe Talbott the other day tweeted an inadvertent reductio ad absurdum of this position, “Putin has for years been systematically reversing reforms of Yeltsin, Gorbachev & Khrushchev, whose gift of Crimea to Ukraine he’s nullified.”) But as the Russian left has been telling us for years, Putin has not gone back on the Yeltsin-era reforms. In most spheres of Russian life, he has continued them—undoing the Soviet safety net, and replacing it with nothing. That he has become an authoritarian ruler while doing so is a result of the fact that these reforms are cruel and unpopular.