A review of Russia in Search of Itself, by James H. Billington

For Russia, the last century was one bitter cruelty after another—the Tsar, war, revolution, famine, Stalin, war, Communism. Her people lived under totalitarianism for seven decades, longer than anyone else. Something happens to a society under the total state. In time, fear, lies, denunciation, and arrest fray the bonds that hold a healthy society together. In Russia's case, these strains have left it much like an ocean: cold, vast, and swarming with strange creatures.

James Billington's Russia in Search of Itself is a wise reflection on Russia's destiny by a lifelong student. It has a somewhat uneven feel, as if it were written first as a series of essays. But Billington, who has served as the Librarian of Congress since 1987, is an eminent authority, and the insights found in his book transcend its faults.

Billington catalogues Russia's quest for the National Idea. "No nation," he says, "ever poured more intellectual energy into answering the question of national identity than Russia." Nor has the search ever been more urgent; an answer could mean salvation. But Russia's pursuit is schizophrenic. Its lost empires have spread both pious Orthodoxy and militant atheism. Since the Middle Ages, it has been divided into serfs and masters with little in between. And in the 1830s, it was divided again by the contest between Westernizers and Slavophiles—Turgenev looked West, Tolstoy East. The Soviets officially put that question on hold, but if you want to spark a dinner-table debate, ask Russians whether they belong to Asia or Europe.

Throughout her history, Russia's misfortune has been to watch mounting discord reach a breaking point, and then snap violently in one direction or the other. Billington observes that each time Russia has reconstituted itself—in 1861, with Alexander II's abolition of serfdom; in 1917, with the Bolshevik's seizure of the state; and in 1991, with the USSR's dissolution—it has been swift, unexpected, and a self-declared break with the past.

Russia prides herself on a long and celebrated cultural tradition, but some of it is borrowed. Her early art and religion, for example, were appropriated from Byzantium. (In 988 C.E., Prince Vladimir I converted Russia to Orthodoxy; legend says he considered Islam, but it had a fatal shortcoming: no alcohol.) Peter the Great modeled his state on Sweden, his Baltic rival. During the Silver Age, Russia's nobility spoke French, bought Italian art, and, "most fatefully of all," says Billington, thought in German. And when Tsars Alexander III and Nicholas II pushed Russia into the Industrial Revolution, their beau ideal was Germany, with whom they would war twice in the next 60 years.

Finally in 1991, Russia announced that it would adopt the markets and democracy of her Cold War adversary. Unfortunately, it didn't work out as many hoped. Privatization became a giant swindle in which well-positioned bureaucrats divvied up amongst themselves the vast Soviet carcass. Russians would vote, but active and participatory civic associations would never develop. Within a matter of years, power and wealth were once again highly concentrated. Former Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin remarked, in superlative Russian fashion, "We wanted it to go better, but it turned out as always."

Since 1991, failure and uncertainty have opened the floodgates to a number of strange ideologies. Billington focuses on the most influential and dangerous school, the "Eurasianists," who combine nationalism with a foundation myth that places Russia back at the center of history. They intend to raise Russia from its knees so that it can once more face down the West. Billington calls them the "troubadours of autocracy."

A.S. Panarin of the Russian Academy of Sciences, for example, calls for a "United States of Eurasia," in which Orthodox Christianity and Islam would form a popular front against Western secularism and individualism. Activist Alexander Dugin dreams of an anti-Atlantic axis of Berlin, Tokyo, and Tehran, each led by "charismatic theocrats." Politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky threatens to restore Alaska to Russia and spread radioactive waste across Germany. (One of his campaign slogans was "A man for every woman and a cheap bottle of vodka for every man.") This January, he called on the Russian government to ban Jewish organizations, which, he explained, amount to "nothing less than Satanism."

Eurasianism is an eccentric and bigoted movement, but Billington insists on taking it seriously. Most Westerners, however, dismiss the clownish Zhirinovsky. This would be a lot easier if he did not command Russia's third-largest party, which doubled its vote in the December 2003 elections. Dugin, for his part, directs Russia's burgeoning nationalist movement. Eurasianism boasts of disciples in the highest echelons of the Russian military and security services. The question of Russia is really the question of how authoritarian it will become.

Fascism has once again invaded Russia, this time without the aid of an army. It seems inconceivable in the land that lost 20 million of its own to Nazism, yet walls in Moscow are defiled with swastikas. Skinheads carry out hundreds of attacks annually against minorities—one Moscow rights-group estimates skinhead ranks at 50,000—and the number of attacks rises by a third every year. Meanwhile, in Russia's parliament, a thriving Red-Brown alliance unites those nostalgic for departed glory and order. Marxist theory was always an overlay, but nationalism is not. According to Billington, the appeal of the new xenophobia has yet to peak.

Russians once ruled half the world, and now their decrepit military watches as its nuclear submarines sink and its helicopters crash. Former "brotherly nations" like Poland and Lithuania are isolating Russia by joining the E.U. President Bush promises Ukraine entry into NATO should it stay on the democratic course, a prospect which appears to Russians the way Russia's stationing troops in Canada would appear to us. It's hardly just nationalists who are frustrated by a West that classifies them as a "developing" nation alongside former client states, and that allows Mongolia into the World Trade Organization, but not them.

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In a 1996 poll of political attitudes commissioned by Boris Yeltsin, three categories ended in a tie: democrats, Communist revanchists, and apoliticals. But one category beat them all: nihilists. Historically, Russia is the only country in which nihilism became an actual popular movement, and now, 150 years later, it has returned: Russian ballots feature the option "Against all." In a March presidential poll, it placed second.

Russia in Search of Itself argues that most Russians understand success as the product of either good luck or immorality. Eighty-four percent believe themselves unable to influence decision-making. Consider that the term parliament comes from the Old French parlez, to talk. The word for Russia's legislative body, on the other hand, the Duma, comes from dumat, to think: The politician's job is to think for the people, and the people's job is to accept it.

Billington worries that demagoguery will advance, not because of popular support, but because of popular indifference. Could a worrying New York Times headline, "Mounting Discontent in Russia Spills Into the Streets," thus represent progress? Perhaps the spirit that moved hundreds of thousands of orange-clad Ukrainians to contest their December elections will make its way to Russia. Street protests might be the closest thing Russia has to an opposition.

For centuries, a Kremlin oligarchy, whether comprising Muscovite and Kievan princes, the Romanov court, or the General-Secretary's Politburo, has governed Russia. But this seems to have finally given way to a rough and imperfect liberty. This does not mean, of course, that thousand-year-old traditions disappear overnight, or for that matter, over a decade of nights. The tiny parasitic elite is back, this time in the form of the superrich "new Russians," and the siloviki, the super-bureaucrats. These groups, as Billington notes, are the chief obstacles to democratic change.

If you wish to understand the nature of arbitrary power in Russia, look no further than a little flashing blue light, the migalka. Available to elites with cash and connections, it confers on its owner the right to disregard any and all traffic laws. I've seen migalka-equipped Mercedes 600s and Land Rovers drive on sidewalks and fly through red lights at busy intersections.

During the Yeltsin era, a handful of "oligarchs" built financial-industrial clans that came to control nearly half the Russian GDP. Such a concentration of wealth, especially in the absence of reliable legal and financial institutions, distorts the growth of markets. Some estimate that this thievery has created a gap between rich and poor wider than the one that preceded the Revolution. By most indicators, Russia is now a Third World country, yet it is second only to the U.S. in its number of billionaires.

With the end of the Cold War, Russia lost half its industrial output. Each year, Russia's population declines by a stunning one million people. At this rate, by 2050 its population will have shrunk by a third. Male life expectancy is 58 and falling (it's 75 in the U.S.). One cause, according to a parliamentary report, is "stress generated by people's lack of confidence in their futures and those of their children." Another is alcoholism. The suicide rate between 1995 and 2000 was quadruple that of Europe. A sodden, depressed Russia can only be further eclipsed on the international stage.

President Vladimir Putin is working to reverse this. In his mind, a good number of Russia's problems—poverty, terrorism, mafiosi, Chechnya—are the result of a weak and semi-dismantled state, and so he has set about rebuilding it. His soft authoritarianism, coupled with various tax, legal, and benefit reforms, has contributed to economic growth averaging 6.5% per year since 1998—though Russia's economy is still only slightly larger than that of Los Angeles County. Putin has also taught the country's most powerful men that they are nothing compared to his state. But if Russia is to democratize, the state cannot always win.

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Everyone knows that the historic Iraqi elections in January were a breakthrough. Fewer know that the first constitutional transfer of power in Russian history took place only in 2000, when Putin succeeded Yeltsin. Though Russia's democracy is in its adolescence, with all the immaturity and hesitancy typical of that difficult age, we often judge it by European standards. Russia is again trying to import institutions without the traditions that uphold them.

Remarkably, Russians see America as a country much like their own—large and multiethnic, unfurled across a continent. They also see the society—creative, open, tolerant, rich, and free—they wish for themselves. This gives Billington hope. But a fair prediction is that Russia's fate is unpredictable. In the course of the last century, Russia made an unlikely metamorphosis from the bastion of reactionary monarchism, to the exporter of world revolution, to a struggling, dysfunctional democracy.

But one thing is certain. Russia possesses one-third of the world's natural gas, 7% of its oil, one-fifth of its precious metals, endless forest and farmland, ports on seven seas, the world's second-largest nuclear stockpile, and 140 million patient and educated citizens—all spread across eleven time zones. This means that no matter how stormy its progress, Russia will matter. Like the ocean, the strength of a nation is a matter of ebb and flow.