Russia: What Path to Follow?

How does a nation rebuild after seventy years of Communism? Are there examples of other nations that endured traumatic periods of authoritarian rule and emerged able to form democratic governments? These are the questions and challenges that policymakers have faced since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Many policymakers feel that the transformation that took place in Germany and Japan following World War Two serves as a model. Both nations were run by authoritarian, militaristic elites with fascist ideologies, and yet today they are both democracies. If this can happen with Germany and Japan, they posit, why not Russia?

There are fundamental differences, however, between the experiences of Germany and Japan and that of Russia following the disintegration of the Soviet Empire. Unlike Germany and Japan, Russia was neither occupied nor subjected to large-scale social reconstruction by victors who went in and directly organized democratic postwar governmental structures. Nor was Russia defeated in war and left with a country in ruins. For most Russians, the collapse of Communism was ambiguous and confusing. Most did not feel a sense of defeat, but a sense that they had been deceived, and many Russians were not receptive to Western advice on how to reorganize their country.

The Example of Turkey

One of the most insightful commentaries I have read on this topic was written by Zbigniew Brzezinski, former National Security Advisor to President Carter. Brzezinski offers an alternative model for Russia’s transition: the model of Turkey. He compares the Russian Empire to that of the Ottoman Empire – both empires were territorially contiguous, both drew imperial elites from members of their subject nationalities, both had boundaries that were not precise or clearly demarcated, and both empires were not remote realities overseas but seamless extensions of the homeland itself. As a result, the sudden loss of empire was more intense and disruptive for these two nations than the loss of empire experienced, for example, by Great Britain and France.

During the long, slow decline of the Ottoman Empire, a significant minority of dissident intellectuals and young military officers determined to model Turkey along the lines of Western European nation-states. These “Young Turks” slowly gained political influence, especially after the military defeats suffered by Ottoman rulers. The next generation of reformist leaders, notably Kemal Pasha – later known as Ataturk – embraced the concept of a modernized, post-imperial state, patterned on the West. They adopted the Swiss civil code, the Italian penal code, and the German commercial code, and, most importantly, they renounced all imperial claims over lands once ruled by the Ottoman Empire.

Brzezenski argues that there are important lessons in the experience of Turkey, lessons that can help Russia. The first is that Turkey is currently a part of the Western European alliance of democratic nations because the bold reforms of Ataturk and the “Young Turks” were eventually supported by a critical mass of people who were able to break with the past. Second, the West encouraged this transition and did not reject the reform efforts by these young leaders. And finally, the process of historical self-definition was a prolonged one, not measured in years, but in decades, with many setbacks along the way.

In Brzezinski’s judgment, President Putin is no Russian Ataturk – his mindset reflects the thinking of the last Soviet generation. Yet Brzezinski is optimistic that a new outlook is being nurtured beneath the existing political surface and that the next generation of Russian leaders are not likely to be products of the KGB or the networks of former party elites.

Training the Next Generation of Russian Leaders

The example of the “Young Turks” captured my imagination, because this historic parallel is instructive and relevant to the Russian context. Although Russians feel that they are “exceptions” and other models are not applicable to them – an attitude that many Americans share – I found Brzezinski’s insights reaffirming.

My eleven years of work in Russia have convinced me that there is a critical mass emerging among young and middle-aged people that desires to break with Russia’s past and that does not believe Russia’s global status is an entitlement. They long to be citizens of a “normal nation,” not an imperial power, and to be a part of the West. They want a lifestyle at least equivalent to that of Central Europe and free access to Western European markets.

The example of Turkey’s modernization suggests that Russia’s rebuilding process will be a prolonged one, with many setbacks along the way, but patience and encouragement from the West is important and investing in the education of young Russians is of strategic significance for Russia’s long-term development.


Reference: Zbigniew Brzezinski, “Living with Russia,” The National Interest (Fall 2000).