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The Trouble With Contrarianism

In 2004, Daniel Treisman co-authored articles in Foreign Affairs and elsewhere in which he declared that Russia is a “normal country” that almost everyone was getting wrong. Russia was not a “uniquely menacing” petro-state mischievously cozying up to rogue regimes, punishing domestic critics, and ramming through fixed election outcomes. It was instead a “typical middle-income, capitalist democracy.” Like Brazil, Croatia, or Malaysia, Russia has relatively clean elections, a rising level of consumer purchasing power, and reasonable crime statistics. Naturally, much subsequent ink was spilled from disapproving peers who suggested that Treisman, a political science professor at UCLA, had been snookered, or worse.

Six years have not changed Treisman’s mind. In his new book, he expands his contrarianism into a briskly written, full-scale corrective on what he regards as a fundamentally distorted image of a quarter of a century of Russian history. Doubling down on his disapproval of the conventional wisdom, Treisman argues that, instead of the grief ladled out regularly by country experts and writers, Russia deserves hearty congratulations for its achievements since the Soviet collapse. Are we really to believe that Russia truly is just another Malaysia? Treisman argues methodically in this hefty volume that, as jarring as that might seem, in fact we should.

In a couple of places in the book, Treisman suggests that in fact he grasps why his theory of Russian normalness might be disputable. In a footnote, he defines what would make a country or person “abnormal”—“if their scores on one dimension are so far from those of others as to render them fundamentally different.” In his narrative he cites what that dimension might be: Russia’s unique possession within its middle-income country peer group of “nuclear arms or its pivotal role in international affairs.” Treisman suggests that these are not crucial distinctions. But aren’t they? Russia is an outlier from Treisman’s group because none of the other countries on his list feels entitled to tell the rest of the world who is and who is not dangerous as an ally. None has provided technology, weapons, and diplomatic comfort to Iran on nuclear weapons development, and none has abetted ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia by standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Serbia. Russia belongs in, and deserves to be compared with, an entirely different grouping—the great powers that presume to affect the conduct of other nations. And within that latter crowd, it is abnormal indeed.

Treisman’s strength is a lean style and a writerly distance—he flips over the stones, gazes underneath, and pokes at the earth to see what lies within. We certainly need someone to make sense of this country and its leaders, about whom we mostly hear unflattering things. Treisman is at his best in a chapter called “The Logic of Politics,” in which he rigorously scrutinizes the ups and downs of Russian leaders from Gorbachev to Dmitri Medvedev, crunching reams of polls and other available data, and—typically—emerging with a rejection of the prevailing wisdom. Russian presidents, Treisman argues, do not rule as modern-day czars, and they are not immune to the glare of public opinion—Yeltsin, Putin, and now Medvedev relied heavily on polls in determining their room for political maneuver. That, Treisman asserts, “implies a certain accountability,” contrary to the broadly held perception abroad that Putin, for example, rules by fiat. Wikileaked cables suggest the same: American envoys reported that Putin’s word appeared not to always be fulfilled in the hinterlands.

In addition, concludes Treisman, the decisive factor in Russian power is not the iron fist—the projection of Putin’s masculinity, or brute force in places like Chechnya—but public perceptions of the current or future economy. Only when such perceptions have been positive has contemporary Russia been subject to the intellectual whims of its president—Gorbachev’s philosophy of glasnost at his apex from 1987 to 1989; Yeltsin’s iconoclasm during his late-Soviet popularity, from 1989 to 1991; and Putin’s tough retrenchment on civil rights from 1999 on. Moreover, Treisman argues that the latitude enjoyed by each of the presidents at these junctures meant history could have turned out much differently. “Had Russia in 2000 had a president with deep democratic convictions, he might have used the economic revival and the associated surge in support for the incumbent to entrench liberal institutions,” Treisman writes. It is an interesting reconsideration of the arc of the last two decades of events.

Treisman turns euphemistic when he shifts to civil and human rights. Russia is known for the dangerous conditions under which journalists work, but Treisman contends that few of the most infamous murders are actually attributable to the writing of the victims. On the contrary, he writes, Russian journalists have sufficient freedom; Russians themselves have adequate access to diverse voices; and the Kremlin has not steered elections through manipulation of the media. This cuts less against conventional wisdom than against common sense.

Treisman is similarly unconvincing when writing about cases of Russian military policy, such as the violence in Chechnya. As with the rest of the book, he is determined to tear down what he regards as a flawed conventional account of history, but he is never effective. Veering away from events in the two-decade era of the book’s theme, Treisman delivers long, showy sections on the romance of the Caucasus, on Lermontov and Tolstoy, and on far-flung Russian regions, along with observations about the Komi people. When he does get back to his subject, his lack of on-the-ground knowledge shows. Treisman sides with the Big Man theory—that Chechen leader Dzokar Dudayev was responsible from the Chechen side, leading his people over the precipice, Treisman writes, because while “he knew how to manage a fleet of bombers, [he] had no idea how to negotiate political agreements or run a government.” Treisman dismisses the belief that Chechnya’s hard-bitten history, inculcated into many Chechen youth, made the “conflict inevitable,” citing another researcher’s account of Chechens who lamented the war’s effective expulsion of other nationalities such as Armenians and Russians.

Many reporters who were present in Chechnya to cover the war, including myself, can agree that many Chechens would have preferred their neighbors not to have fled. But we also found scores of ordinary Chechen men who, as soon as Russia presented them with war, were fully prepared to fight without anyone having to order them to do so—automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades came out of hiding places in homes across the plain, and were put into service against the invading Russian army. Dudayev’s leadership was important, but not pivotal.

There are only two reasons to bother with a big study of a subject already covered voluminously elsewhere: that the author has unearthed a trove of previously unseen material, such as a diary, letters, or diplomatic cables obtained through the Freedom of Information Act; or that there is no such trove, but the author has read everything out there in various languages, and meticulously interviewed or re-interviewed many of the main and secondary actors in order to produce an original or definitive volume. In the best histories, one gets both the trove and the interviews. Treisman delivers neither. In a hundred pages of footnotes, fully one-fourth of the book, there is no surprising or original material, and by my count a grand total of nine interviews. One gets the sense that Treisman’s contrarian book was written solely for the sake of contrarianism.

Steve LeVine is a contributing editor at Foreign Policy, an adjunct professor at Georgetown Universitys School of Foreign Service, and the author of Putin’s Labyrinth.