Who lost Russia?

If a Russian leader asked “Who lost Eastern Europe & the Baltics?” in the aftermath of the Warsaw Pact & the Soviet Union collapsing, would there be a single Western observer (other than John Mearsheimer) who wouldn’t shout out the “obvious” answer that it was the East Europeans themselves? After too many decades–in some cases, centuries–of Russian oversight, the locals wanted out. At the first chance, they fled westward, into the arms of the EU and NATO. That is, the westbound populations are given agency to play a role in their own history.

But the very question “Who lost Russia?,” like “Who lost China?” from seventy years ago, assumes it was ours to lose in the first place. That is a very different view of history. In his New Yorker book review, Keith Gessen properly notes that “the development of Russia in the post-Cold War period was not the result of a Western plot…. Russian officials chose, within a narrow range of options, …. and they could have chosen differently.” But the books reviewed in his essay are overwhelmingly about…. how we lost Russia. Western powers, policy, & politicians clearly played a role. The question is one of relative importance.

Russia is ultimately responsible for its outcomes. Who lost Russia? The gods who put it in a very tough Eurasian neighborhood centuries ago. Who lost Russia to the Renaissance-Reformation-Enlightenment-Liberal West? The gods who kept it distant from those formative experiences. Who lost Russia? The environments that prevented it from being “found” other than briefly in the 1860s, 1900s, 1920s, and the 1990s.

Is Russia even lost at all given that its political culture has shown remarkable continuity through the Tsarist, Soviet, and post-Soviet Russia periods?

The Russia & the West debate is now centuries old, and remains especially active in Western ivory towers, thinktanks, and salons. But it’s not always about us.

Even The New Yorker’s famed editors seem uncertain. The subtitle in the print version of the article is the classic “Who lost Russia?” variant, while the on-line version is titled “How Russia Went from Ally to Adversary.”