Maxim Shemetov / Reuters

From Rome to Russia

Moscow's Byzantine Myth

On January 19, Russia’s Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev summed up his eight-year experience with the United States under outgoing president, Barack Obama. “The Obama administration,” he wrote on Facebook, “was completely short-sighted on such an important and complex issue as relations with Russia.” The Americans, according to Medvedev, had forgotten that “Russia is not a banana republic.”

Medvedev is only the latest in a long list of post–Cold War Russians to express such anxieties. When the Soviet Union dissolved in late 1991, the Russian economy was left in shambles. Today, a quarter-century later, things are more stable, but grim nonetheless. The Russian economy is still the sixth-largest in the world in terms of purchasing power parity, but it continues to be based on raw materials. Large swathes of the economy are defined as “strategically sensitive,” which in practice means that they cannot be overhauled. In recent years, Western sanctions have crippled the Russian economy by making those sectors off limits to structural reform. And if not exactly a banana republic, in economic terms, Russia is definitely not great. There is a reason why Medvedev, in the aforementioned Facebook post, tries to stay off economic topics altogether. His gripe is with politics, and how the United States refuses to treat Russia as a power on par with itself, as it did the Soviet Union. Somehow, from a Russian perspective, the vast economic differences between the two powers, or between Russia and China for that matter, should not be considered relevant. They should not detract from Russia’s claim to being a great power. 

For despite, or even because of, their country’s troubles, Russians are obsessed with the idea of being a great power, and will support a leader who can fulfill their ambitions. When asked in a poll last year whether their country needs a “strong hand” to rule it, more than 60 percent of Russians, including the young, answered “Yes.” Putin’s approval ratings are thus consistently high, and his 2014 Crimean promotion of nationalist ideas, which have enjoyed a resurgence over the last two decades. 

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