It’s bad enough that the United States criticizes Russia’s elections, the methods it uses against Islamic extremists in Chechnya, and the peaceful sharing of power between Putin and his successor Medvedev, but now certain voices in the government are implying that there’s something wrong with Russia’s celebration of its victory over Nazi Germany by having a military parade. Consider the context: this was the worst, most bloody war in world history, and the Russians bore the brunt of that bloodshed, losing some 23 million people, including 11 million civilians. Further, even with the various horrors of life under the Soviet Union, the Soviet state was powerful and taken seriously on the world scene until 1989. People held down by Soviet reality could take some pride in the nation’s collective power, particularly as private life improved during the Gorbachev era. In the 1990s, under a decade of weak leadership by President Yeltsin, the Russia military went into a state of disrepair, and the Russian state became a laughing stock–a land of prostitutes, fraudsters, selfish oligarchs, military weakness, disappearing pensions, and poverty.
Today life in Russia is good, the military is strong, the economy is improving, and birth-rates are rising. In other words, life is better after Putin’s rule than before, and the nation–full of patriotic people who have always held the military in high esteem–enjoys seeing the military on display, replete with sophisticated weaponry in a state of good repair, operated by troops in a state of discipline and good order.
Interpreting this as “saber-rattling” is a typical misreading of reality by folks schooled in the high theory of foreign policy structural realism. Structural realism takes little account of a nation’s domestic life. It postulates that all states everywhere are aiming for maximum power; it does not matter if a nation is a democracy or dictatorship, nor does it matter that it has ideological and cultural attachments and predispositions. Labeling oversimplified models with fancy names does not make them any more useful; unfortunately, this kind of “crib sheet” thinking is common among Bush’s neoconservative advisers, who studied under the high priests of foreign policy structural realism at the University of Chicago.
There’s a simple truth that too much education can obscure from observers: people like a good parade, particularly when it honors a nation’s military that defeated the Nazis against great odds and after great losses. Americans, who have many criticisms of their own government, have a similarly positive view of the military as the most effective and least self-interested government institution. To look at a parade as an international affairs provocation is a typical misreading of events, though not a surprising one, considering our government’s misunderstanding of the Iraqi people, the nature of the Kosovo terrorist state, and the likely outcome of democracy in the Palestinian Authority.
The prominent display of Soviet symbols does deserve mention. What does it mean? One thing it does not mean is that Soviet-style communism, aggression, and human rights violations are making a comeback. There is no doubt that Putin and Medvedev have rejected Soviet-style control over the economy and the civil society of the Russian people. Private businesses and religious life are enjoying a renaissance. The Russian solution is not the same balancing act of liberty and order as we enjoy in the United States, but neither is that of France, Germany, and the UK, all of whom routinely prosecute conservatives for trumped up charges of “racist” speech. Putin’s positive display of Soviet symbols is part of a broader attempt at national reconciliation. Putin, to his credit, has embraced the type of solution to national strife employed by de Gaulle after WWII and northern Americans after Reconstruction. That is, he emphasizes those honorable parts of the Soviet past, particularly the strength of its military against the Nazis, while simply setting aside the moral meaning of state control of the economy, the suppression of Russian nationalism, and other evils. This narrative is analogous to the universal recognition of the honor and bravery of the Confederate soldier in America from, say, 1876-1960. In other words, Putin knows that it’s simply too much to ask a man to piss on his father’s grave and for a nation to declare one third or more of its people criminals. Pride, order, patriotism, and normalcy are paramount, even at the expense of historical accuracy. He’s sought to synthesize the symbols of the pre-revolutionary Russian nation, Soviet military power, and the universal desire for peace and prosperity in the public life and symbology of the new Russia.
Much of modern foreign policy concerns itself with criticizing other nations’ internal affairs, even as diplomats and analysts are steeped in a theory that studiously avoids serious understanding of the character of the world’s peoples and their domestic politics.