What's the Matter With Russia?

Putin and the Soviet Legacy

Ruling Russia: Authoritarianism From the Revolution to Putin. BY WILLIAM ZIMMERMAN. Princeton University Press, 2014, 344 pp. $29.95.

Revolutionary Russia, 1891–1991: A History. BY ORLANDO FIGES. Metropolitan Books, 2014, 336 pp. $28.00.

On the way back from a recent visit to Ukraine, I found myself flying Aeroflot, Russia’s national airline. I’ve always liked Aeroflot’s international flights: the planes are new, everything’s clean, and maybe because of the airline’s less-than-­stellar reputation, the crew always seems to be trying extra hard to please. Nonetheless, on this particular trip, I had hoped to avoid Aeroflot; an airline half-owned by a government that had turned homophobia into a national project and then invaded Crimea could get its $600 from someone else. But AeroSvit, the flagship Ukrainian airline, had gone bankrupt and ceased operations in 2013, and there is no longer a direct flight from Kiev to New York.

So there I was on Aeroflot Flight 100 from Moscow to New York. As luck would have it, a lot of people on the flight were drunk. Some of the sober passengers didn’t appreciate this, which almost led to a fistfight; the pilot had to come out and convince one of the drunker passengers that if he did not calm down, he’d be spending his first night in the United States in jail. He calmed down.

The man sitting next to me -- Sergei, I’ll call him -- was also drunk, and he decided to engage me in a discussion of geopolitics. He said he was a graduate of MEPhI, an elite technical university in Moscow, and that he had made millions in software design. Sergei was, theoretically, the sort of Russian who might be expected to be critical of Russian President Vladimir Putin, but he was not. He was thrilled that Russia had seized Crimea, if only because in doing so, it had extended a big middle finger to the West. Sure, the United States was stronger than Russia, but it was stretched thin. And Russia was unpredictable, which gave it an advantage.

“Oh, we’ll lose,” Sergei said, “like we always lose. But what a lot of laughs there’ll be along the way!”

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