Getting Russia Right; Russia-Lost in Transition: The Yeltsin and Putin Legacies

In This Review

Getting Russia Right

By Dmitri V. Trenin
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2007
129 pp. $19.95

Russia-Lost in Transition: The Yeltsin and Putin Legacies

By Lilia Shevtsova
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2007
368 pp. $49.95

Rarely have Westerners been more in need of help in understanding Russia than now, and one could ask for no better guides than Trenin and Shevtsova. Both combine extraordinary intellectual sophistication and an ability to think outside their national skins with hardheaded realism -- analytic skills applied equally well to Western policies toward their country. Trenin is the more patient and confident when judging Russia's recent past and likely future; Shevtsova, the more frustrated and anxious. Each believes that Russia has fallen off the democratic path, but Shevtsova argues that the system (which she calls "electoral monarchy" with "bureaucratic capitalism") is in deep stagnation, which is likely to end in either crisis or efforts by the proto-authoritarians of today to install a bona fide dictatorship -- or, worse yet, in a degree of decay from which the country cannot recover. Trenin is more inclined to see Russia as being on a natural historical path, regrettable in many of its features but comprehensible in terms of what the country has been through, what leaps it can be expected to make, and what its traditions encourage.

Shevtsova has scarcely given up hope that Russia will yet resume a slow march on a more liberal path -- but not soon, and not so long as the system President Boris Yeltsin bequeathed to Vladimir Putin and that Putin then perfected retains its hold. Both authors, however, recognize that at a basic level, Russians and Russian society are changing fundamentally. In Shevtsova, this stirs hope; in Trenin, the confidence that Russia will eventually (his date is 2025) become more modern, more demanding of good governance, and even more liberal, if not yet democratic. Each then explores at length how the United States and Europe should deal with a recidivist and now far more assertive Russia. Their recipes pinpoint the errors of the past and argue for a subtle engagement rather than the simple-minded proposals currently percolating in Western discourse.

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