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We Cling to Dogma as a Nation Collapses

Russia: America is closing its heart to the suffering of the majority of the Russian people.

September 27, 1998|STEPHEN F. COHEN | Stephen F. Cohen is the author of "Rethinking Russia," due next year from Oxford University Press. A version of this article appears currently in the Nation

Ever since the U.S. government launched an inherently doomed crusade seven years ago to transform post-Communist Russia into a replica of the American system, it has been only a matter of time before that missionary arrogance led to disaster and clamorous shouts of "Who lost Russia?"

Fifty years ago, American politicians and media asked the same question about China, with malignant consequences. The immediate result was virulent McCarthyism, the enduring consequence a political "mainstream" as narrow and barren as a dry creek.

The question about Russia must therefore be answered before it too becomes cancerous. The collapse of Yeltsinism--those U.S.-backed, shock-therapy, monetarist policies that have helped bring about the worst economic and social devastation ever suffered by a modern country in peacetime, indeed its virtual demodernization--is also the collapse of the Clinton administration's Russia policy.

But this does not mean that President Clinton, his advisors or the United States lost Russia. If by that is meant squandering prospects for democracy, prosperity and social well being, it was President Boris Yeltsin and his "radical reformers" who lost Russia. Nothing and no one forced them to impose America's ill-conceived prescriptions on their nation.

But America is in danger of losing something equally important in Russia--its moral reputation. In the name of Yelt-sin's purported "reforms" since 1991, the U.S. government has closed its eyes and heart to the suffering of the great majority of Russian families, the same ones whose fate it so lamented when they were the Soviet people. The Clinton administration is now compounding the sin by protesting the new Russian government's desperate attempt to change economic policy in order to prevent a still greater human catastrophe. (The International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent has warned that as winter rapidly approaches, millions of Russian lives are endangered by shortages of food, medicine and heating, and has called for a humanitarian aid campaign.) Yeltsin may have lost Russia, but we are losing our soul there.

And even our vaunted "national security." For the first time in history, a country laden with nuclear weapons and reactors is on the verge of complete collapse, its economic, social, political and military institutions nearly in tatters. Almost every week brings new reports of the disintegration of Russia's nuclear safeguards. If it continues, as now seems likely, we will be confronted with an unprecedented peril, certainly one larger than any we faced during the Cold War.

And yet, our president, who swore to uphold both our values and national security, can no longer do either, only cling to discredited dogmas about "staying the course" in Russia and at home. Alternately absorbed with the salvation of his own soul and imagining that he is being persecuted like a victim of Stalin's purge trials, he has left the nation leaderless at this grave moment.

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