An ambition, inordinate and immense, one of those ambitions which could only possibly spring in the bosoms of the oppressed, and could only find nourishment in the miseries of a whole nation, ferments in the heart of the Russian people. That nation, essentially aggressive, greedy under the influence of privation, expiates beforehand, by a debasing submission, the design of exercising a tyranny over other nations: the glory, the riches which it hopes for, consoles it for the disgrace to which it submits. To purify himself from the foul and impious sacrifice of all public and personal liberty, the slave, upon his knees, dreams of the conquest of the world.
—The Marquis de Custine, Russia in 1839
During the Cold War, Americans by and large forgot [French author] Custine, perhaps the grumpiest tourist and most scathing vilifier of Russia who ever wrote. Locked in conflict with a totalitarian state, we thought that the main reason the Soviet Union made trouble for us, and for the world at large, was that it was not a democracy. Take away Bolshevik ideology, the command economy, and the power of the Politburo, and you’d be a long way toward normalcy. Dissolve the Warsaw Pact, slash military spending, give the non-Russian republics their independence, and it would be hard to see what we might fight about. Adopt a constitution, end censorship, respect religious freedom, hold elections, then hold more elections: Could a country that did all these things really be a threat?
Apparently, yes. Political institutions, we are now told, solve much less than was once imagined. They do not address deep psychic and socio-cultural torments, and legions of new Custines have begun to argue that for Russians no torment is deeper than that of being a fallen superpower—unless perhaps it is that of being a fallen superpower while also undergoing the transition to a market economy. In any case, the pain is excruciating and is said to be relieved only by an increasingly belligerent foreign policy, ideally by re-establishment of the Soviet Empire. . . .
An exceptionally diverse group of analysts and political commentators subscribes to some version of the diagnosis just set forth. It is embraced by those who were the most ardent critics of the Soviet order and those who are trying their best to restore it, by lowly working journalists and eminent former officials. Despite their differences, they agree on this: Russian imperial consciousness is not dead. To the contrary, writes Richard Pipes, perhaps our greatest historian of Russia, the loss of empire “has produced bewilderment and anguish.”
[N]othing so much troubles many Russians today, not even the decline in their living standards or the prevalence of crime, and nothing so lowers in their eyes the prestige of their government, as the precipitous loss of great-power status.
Anatoly Lukyanov . . . (a leader of the revived Russian Communist Party) seconds this view. “We communists,” he has said (this is an admission he would hardly have made in the old days, when good communists despised bourgeois liberties), “always understood perfectly well that the Soviet man, the citizen of Russia, had fewer political rights than a European. But that shortfall was compensated for by the sense of belonging to a great nation, a great state.” [Russian president Boris] Yeltsin undid this formula, thereby making Russian democracy vulnerable to a communist revanche.
He took away that sense of world importance. Any party which takes advantage of this today will be on top. That is why the communists have so many patriotic slogans, slogans of statehood, of nationhood.
The reason that popular government does not mean peace, in short, is that the people don’t necessarily want peace; they want to be on top again. As [former secretary of state] Henry Kissinger has put it, “[W]hat passes for Russian democracy too often encourages an expansionist foreign policy.” Yeltsin can hardly let the Communists be the only ones to tap the people’s mood, so he ends up taking positions that “differ only in degree from those urged by Zyuganov,” his Communist challenger in the June  presidential race. As one measure of how domestic political pressures work, Russia is now inclined “to conduct adventurous policies in Asia for no other purpose than to augment its prestige.”
For Kissinger, this mad preoccupation with “ancient glories” is no mere election-season phenomenon, but something more durable—and more dangerous. “Foreign policy,” he announces, “has emerged as the deus ex machina for Russia’s elite to escape present-day frustrations by evoking visions of a glorious past.” . . .
Toward a Second Opinion
The mere fact that our leading foreign-policy commentators have started to talk like therapists does not, of course, prove that they are wrong. But the mode of analysis is, to say the least, a little unusual—not least because it is so often combined with a vehement insistence that U.S. policy toward Russia must not be, as Henry Kissinger himself put it years ago, “a subdivision of psychiatry.” Let us therefore try to verify the diagnosis.
The geotherapists assert the following four propositions. First, that public opinion creates irresistible pressures, to which Russian leaders have to respond, for an expansionist foreign policy. Second, that the Russian elite retains a strong imperial mindset and, in particular, is determined to regain control of the old Soviet Union. Third, that Russian leaders are dangerously preoccupied with questions of prestige and status, and believe that in the past these were their country’s proudest asset. And fourth, that the indulgent attitude of the West, and above all the United States, toward Russia, even when it defies us, is making all these pathologies worse. (There are, it has to be said, some differences among the various commentators who argue this case. Some feel more strongly about one proposition than another. But we will be in a better position to decide how seriously to take these little nuances once we see whether even one of the propositions stands up.)
Evaluating these four claims should not be hard. A patient in such terrible shape is going to give daily proof of how much is wrong with him. If Russia really were as sick as this, we should find useful evidence everywhere we look—in domestic struggles for political power, in the conduct of foreign policy, in the strategic concepts embraced by officialdom and the intelligentsia. Do we?
The Traumatized Public
The Russian political system lacks legitimacy; it can’t deliver bread, only imperial circuses; expansionism, and expansionism alone, diverts the popular mind from its misery. For symptoms of this problem, we can start with the recent [June 1996] presidential campaign—a political event that in many countries does bring neuroses to the surface. Boris Yeltsin, it should be remembered, ran for reelection on the basis of a dual strategy, and it was often a quite unedifying sight. On those issues where the Communists had him on the defensive, he pandered and dissembled. Hence his promises to pay all back wages and to end the war in Chechnya. At the same time, on those issues where he had them on the defensive, Yeltsin turned up the pressure. Hence his lurid evocations of the Communist past and policy initiatives, like his decree on private land ownership, that were meant to frame the election as a choice between politicians who accept the new order and those who don’t.
Now, where did imperial nostalgia fit into this strategy? Leave aside for the moment the fact that those candidates who put nationalist themes at the center of their campaign lost badly, and that exit polls put the number of voters who were swayed by foreign policy at only 2 percent. If the geotherapists were right about the country’s mental state, we should have seen Yeltsin scrambling to prove that he is part of the revisionist patriotic consensus. Instead, we saw him use foreign policy as a tool to demonstrate the differences between himself and the Communists, and to remind voters of what they don’t want to retrieve from their “glorious” past.
The issue was not simply a matter of rhetoric and mood, but of conflict between the legislature and the executive. On March 15, 1996, the Russian parliament passed two Communist-sponsored resolutions annulling the acts under which the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991. It declared that the agreement to create a Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in place of the USSR “did not and does not have legal force,” and charged that the officials who had “prepared, signed, and ratified” this decision had “flagrantly violated the wish of Russia’s people to preserve the USSR.”
With this bold move, the opposition clearly thought that they had Yeltsin trapped. On the one hand, he could hardly endorse a resolution that personally denounced him. On the other, opposing it would put him on the wrong side of a supposedly supercharged issue. As things turned out, however, the Duma’s action proved to be the moment when Yeltsin’s campaign got on a winning track for good. It gave the president and his allies their first, best opportunity to persuade voters that the Communists really were bent on restoring the old order. Yeltsin called the resolution “scandalous” and, showing that he had no fear of seeming too attentive to foreign opinion, immediately instructed Russian diplomats to tell other governments that the vote would have no effect.
There is a Moscow witticism that goes: Anyone who does not regret the collapse of the Soviet Union has no heart; anyone who wants to restore it has no brain. The Communists bet that people...