In his successful bid to topple President Gerald Ford in 1976, Gov. Jimmy Carter made very effective use of the “misery index.” This index is simply the sum of the unemployment and inflation rates, and was an effective device by which Carter could contrast and compare the results of the Nixon/Ford administrations with those of their predecessors.
In 2008, as the world again recoils at the sight of Russian tanks brutally crushing the hopes and aspirations of a small neighboring country, it seems a good time to pause and reflect on the concept of an “international misery index”—the sum of devastation caused by a country to both its neighbors and own citizens. For many international observers, the single obvious champion of such an index would be Russia. For the past several centuries that country has won so many gold medals consistently in both categories that its national anthem seems to be on a continuous loop as the Russian bear once again steps onto the victory stand.
In considering the category of “The Most Misery Caused Internationally,” let it be said that since the dawn of man the world’s been a tough place. First tribes battled tribes and then kingdoms battled kingdoms until the 18th and 19th centuries, when the consolidation of European nation states and their empires established and defined, for better or worse, the international stage we see today.
In terms of the positive and negative social and economic effects and results of their rule, one could argue there wasn’t much difference between, for example, Queen Victoria’s empire and that of her royal Russian cousins. Though it is striking to contrast the enthusiasm with which Her Highness’ former subjects, upon attaining independence, re-established both warm and official relations through the British Commonwealth against the driving desire of states arising from both the royal and communist Russian empires to quickly distance themselves culturally, economically, and politically as far as possible from Moscow.
Since the collapse of the USSR, every country of the former Warsaw Pact and the Baltic States has joined NATO perceived by both Russia’s hierarchy and a majority of its citizenry as a great Satan. In short, it is not illogical to surmise that the Russian occupation of much of Europe in the 20th century was especially brutal and worthy of many medals for “international misery.”
As regards current events in Georgia, the key point of divergence between modern European and Russian mentalities relates to the self-identification of average citizens—i.e., what does it mean to be a “proud Frenchman” or “proud German”? Before 1945, it was the pounding of Teutonic boots on the streets of Amsterdam and Brussels that gave Germans pride. The French took pride in their African and Asian colonies. The British saluted a flag upon which the sun never set.
But by the 1950s and 1960s, modern western European states came to realize that national pride comes not from foreign occupation but by building dynamic, successful, and generous societies benefiting as many citizens as possible within their own national borders. One can argue that some social programs (French vacations, German labor laws, or Swedish public health) went too far. No one can argue that the vast majorities of people in these countries aren’t content, and have no desire to invade their neighbors in the name of “national pride.”
This then is the first part of Russia’s “Russia problem.” In the 21st century Russian national pride continues to base itself on brutal domination of its neighbors. It can come in the form of Russians goose-stepping across the Georgian countryside. Or it can be more subtle, such as the use of energy policy against Ukraine when it flirts too openly with the West.
Perhaps, and most dangerously, it can take the form of cyber-warfare, as was Russia’s response to Estonia’s decision last year to respectfully move the Soviet Bronze Soldier monument from downtown Tallinn to a military cemetery. In this case it wasn’t the Russian military, but an army of Putin-jugend who turned their cyber talents against Estonian-based internet servers. Consider the spam that comes to your computer, and then multiply it by 10,000. That was Russia’s tactic.
This attack on the Web sites of the Estonian parliament, banks, ministries, newspapers, and broadcasters was so devastating that NATO (Estonia is a member) began a substantial review of its entire military doctrine. If the Russians could shut down Estonia, why couldn’t they do the same to France, Norway, or even the United States?
In contrast to the sophisticated strategies and technologies of the international part of Russia’s misery index rating, the domestic side—the misery Russians exact on each other—is based on crudeness and indifference.
Starting at least with Ivan the Terrible in the 16th century, the Russians people consistently acquiesce to rulers with national sadomasochistic tendencies. This pattern culminated with the reign of Josef Stalin in the 20th century. Stalin is remembered primarily for his purges and ethnic cleansings, which sent untold millions of Soviet citizens to their graves at the hands of their own military and security personnel.
But that’s just the tip of Russia’s domestic misery index. In contrast to the flourishing capitalist societies in the West, life throughout the vast majority of the largest country in the world was and continues to be miserable. The simplest and most basic health and sanitation needs go unmet for the average Russian. As poor as West Virginia or Pennsylvania coal miners might have been, they never had to make availability of plain soap a strike demand, as their Russian counterparts did in the 1990s.
Today Russia spends billions of dollars invading tiny neighbors, training its Olympic teams, and hiring American image consultants—while alcoholism, drug abuse, prostitution, STDs, tuberculosis and untold environmental horrors devastate her citizens. At the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington, Murray Feshbach, America’s leading expert on Russian demographics, predicts that, due to these maladies and low birth rates (especially of healthy babies), “by 2050 Russia’s current population of 144 million could fall to 101 million or as low as 77 million if factoring in the AIDS epidemic.”
In short, the second part of Russia’s “Russia problem” is that they don’t value their own lives. In 2008, if the Russians really cared about themselves, they wouldn’t invest in foreign invasions and international intrigue, but would tend to their own social, political, health and cultural ailments first, for those are many and multiplying rapidly.
Former President and current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is given great credit for stabilizing Russia’s domestic politics and economy. In reality, he has only been riding a wave of success solely dependent on rising global oil and gas prices, these natural resources being in great supply in his country.
The Russian “middle class” you might see in Moscow or St. Petersburg is simply a tiny fraction of lucky suckers sipping the cream from the Russian energy cow, for the country manufactures nothing—save for Kalashnikovs and nuclear power plants—for global consumption. Go a few kilometers beyond the grand boulevards of Russia’s finest cities and you return to almost medieval conditions.
Unfortunately, for decades to come Russia’s “Russia problem” will be America’s and the world’s problem.
Upon first meeting Putin in 2001, President George W. Bush explained that he looked into the former KGB officer’s eyes and “was able to get a sense of his soul.” Let’s hope that come January, Barack Obama or John McCain takes a deeper look.
(This article originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, a daily newspaper in Virginia, and is republished here with permission.)
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. (Photo courtesy Presidential Press and Information Office of Russia)
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