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Russia's Grand Inquisitor

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Thursday, July 2, 2009

MOSCOW -- As Barack Obama packs for his trip to Russia next week, he should bring along a copy of "The Brothers Karamazov." For the modern Russia of Vladimir Putin is still struggling with the same political riddles that Fyodor Dostoyevsky described 130 years ago.

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Human beings would happily trade their freedom for food and security, Dostoyevsky wrote in the novel's famous chapter, "The Grand Inquisitor." In place of this anarchic freedom, the Inquisitor offered the people "miracle, mystery and authority. And mankind rejoiced that they were once more led like sheep, and that at last such a terrible gift, which had brought them so much suffering, had been taken from their hearts."

There's a palpable sense here that Putin has brought "miracle, mystery and authority" to a Russia that was severely traumatized by the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. The country is certainly less free than it was under Boris Yeltsin, but Putin is immensely popular -- and nobody wants to return to the crazy, freewheeling time of transition.

The Russia that Obama will encounter is proud and prickly. The country's leaders aren't sure what they want from America, other than to be respected and taken seriously. U.S. analysts talk about a new strategic partnership, but Russian officials are mistrustful of large American designs. They think the United States took advantage of them during their years of weakness, and they're still licking their wounds. Their empire collapsed partly because of a misconceived war in Afghanistan, and they think America's should, too.

These mental snapshots are culled from a conference here this week titled "What Does Russia Think?" It was co-sponsored by the Russian Institute, a Moscow-based think tank, a Bulgarian group called the Centre for Liberal Strategies and several other organizations. (Full disclosure: I am a trustee of the German Marshall Fund, one of the sponsoring groups.) Again and again, Russian speakers described a country that is happy with what one called the "soft authoritarianism" of the Putin era -- where anti-Americanism is part of the political bedrock.

President Dmitry Medvedev was barely mentioned in the first two days of the meeting, while Prime Minister Putin's "consensus" was the subject of an entire session. Obama will meet with both Russian leaders, and some U.S. officials hope he can strike a special bond with Medvedev, who, like Obama, was trained as a lawyer. But it's clearly Putin who matters most.

"Putin is the leader. There is no disagreement about that. Putin came to power and life improved," argued a member of the Russian Duma. He described Putin's political intuition in the way that 19th-century Russians spoke about the czar: "Putin knows what the society needs better than the society does."

Putin is the tough guy who put a wounded country back together after the fall of communism. "Russia emerged from the chaos of 1991 with disproportionately large political and socio-psychological scars," explained Alexey Chesnakov, a former Putin adviser who is director of the Center for Current Policy. When Putin became president in 1999, he brought "authoritarianism by consensus," said the head of another Russian think tank.

Modern Russia is still anxious, even though it's more orderly. Russians worry about the jumble of nationalities within their borders and assertive neighbors such as Georgia and Ukraine. It's an "overheated, overloaded society," said a prominent anthropologist who, like some of his colleagues, was speaking on background. Nervous Russians are "running away from their freedom," offered a leading sociologist. With the loss of its empire, Russia is "like an amputated body," ventured Vyacheslav Glazychev, an urban planning professor who heads several institutes. It has a "horror vacui, a fear of empty spaces," he added.

"We want equality. We want our interests recognized -- to have them considered as significant," said one Russian panelist. But when Americans attending the meeting asked for specifics, another Russian who is a prominent politician suggested: "The real problem is that we don't understand what we want."

A succinct summary of the Putin formula came in a paper presented by a former Kremlin adviser named Modest Kolerov: "Without Russia (i.e., a secure and united government), no freedom could ever be possible."

That had me thinking again about the Grand Inquisitor's paradox. So I was pleased when yet another Putin adviser, a publisher who helped organize the conference, reassured the group that these problems go back more than a century: "This is a Russian conversation you can see since Dostoyevsky's time."

The writer is co-host of PostGlobal, an online discussion of international issues. His e-mail address is davidignatius@washpost.com.

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