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To Russia . . . With Realism?

One of my favorite magazines, the Virginia Quarterly Review, has beefed up its presence online, which is a good thing, since it means I can link to this piece about Russia by Stepehn Boykewich. Boykewich's article is ostensibly a (withering) review of Steve LeVine's book, Putin's Labyrinth: Spies, Murder, and the Dark Heart of the New Russia, but it's more a realist manifesto for how the U.S. should deal with Putin and Russia--and thus serves as an interesting counterpoint to most of what I've read on the topic. One representative bit:

It comes as no surprise that LeVine ignores opportunities to explain the Putin era—or even as limited a phenomenon as Putin’s domestic poll ratings—in terms of the struggles and preoccupations of ordinary Russians. A country in the grip of “devilish forces” can be only condemned or mocked, and in this case LeVine chooses mockery: “After eight years of paralysis under Yeltsin’s rule, Putin’s display of testosterone—dutifully reported on state-controlled television—sent his popularity rating over seventy percent.”

A more generous author might note that as a result of Yeltsin-era “paralysis,” the number of Russians living on less than four dollars a day rose from two million (in 1989) to seventy-four million (in 1996), while the collective national wealth was funneled offshore at a rate of $2 billion a month. He might also note that in addition to “testosterone,” the Putin era brought a doubling of real incomes, a 50 percent drop in poverty, a 70 percent rise in GDP, and accumulation of $157 billion in a national Stabilization Fund.

Putin's obviously no saint--a fact Boykewich learned firsthand during his time as a Moscow correspondent (which abruptly came to an end after a run in with the FSB). But Boykewich offers an interesting alternative view to the typical Western media portrayals of Putin's Russia. Whether Boykewich is right, I can't really say. But I think it's an important view to consider--especially in light of Obama's recent appointment of Stanford's Michael McFaul (who's something of a hardliner) as the National Security Council's top Russia hand. Definitely worth a read.

P.S. Along those same lines, here's Paul Starobin's counterintuitive take on Putin in The Atlantic from 2005.

--Jason Zengerle