Daniel Treisman, The Return: Russia’s Journey from Gorbachev to Medvedev
(New York: Free Press, 2011) 523 pp.
A Book Review by Andrej Kreutz, Ph.D.
Treisman’s book is a lengthy and relatively well-researched description and analysis of the last 25 years of Russia’s history and its relations with the West. The work is not chronological, but presents discussions of a number of topics chosen by the author, such as: the role of Mikhail Gorbachev (the Captain) in Russian history, the collapse of the USSR, the social and economic transformations, the Mountains (the Caucasus’ problems), falling apart of Russian-American relations, and “the Russia that has returned”. In the special and rather short chapter which is placed in the middle of the book, “The Logic of Politics”, Treisman presents his theory about the mechanisms of changes of Russian politics, which he, perhaps one-sidedly, explains mainly by the variations of the natural gas and oil prices.
In his historical sections, the author follows Western and Russian neoliberal narrative, defending Yeltsin’s reforms, including the Belovezhkaya Pushsha agreement of December 1991, and the use of military force against the Russian Parliament in February 1993. As he argues, economic “shock therapy” was not too radical, but rather too mild, and the catastrophic fall in living standards, if it did really happen, resulted rather from Gorbachev’s reluctance to introduce earlier pro-market reforms. Treisman regrets that Yeltsin made Putin, a former KGB colonel, his successor. In his view, in 1999 the future rise of gas and oil prices might also have secured the legitimacy and popularity to a more democratic and pro-American candidate such as Boris Nemtsov or Chubais.
Treisman’s analysis of present-day Russia seems more original and interesting. He is by no means Russophobic, as many other American commentators are. He writes that most Russians appreciate democracy as such, but they also long for a state that will be honest, effective and capable of regulating the cutthroat competition that they see around them (384). He admits that most Russians are preoccupied with the new realities, both inside and outside, of their country, and feel threatened by the US with its sense of global mission, its push to expand NATO, its support for revolutions in the former USSR, and its sometimes intimidating rhetoric. As the author writes, “Russians do not want Western presidents telling them which of their leaders they should like. They are tired of being patronized and feeling bullied. They would like to be taken seriously again” (386). In his view, in many ways Russians have been converging to global norms, and the new Russia will find its place in the world (389). Its relations with the US and Western interests would require not only its own, but also Western accommodations and “painstaking attention to the facts as they are rather than as we have imagined them” (389). Because of that, Treisman does not think it to be rational to assume “some of Moscow’s unproven imperial agenda, to exaggerate the authoritarian features of its current regime, to demonize those in the Kremlin and romanticize its liberal opponents, to identify progress toward democracy with revolution . . . and to publicly patronize the leaders whose help we need in world affairs” (389).
His suggestion seems to be partly, though hesitantly, followed by President Obama’s policy, and one can hope that the book, which was published in January 2011, reflects a new and more positive American attitude towards their former Cold War antagonist.