“Russia is like a phoenix: it repeatedly turns to ashes only to be reborn in some new guise”. In itself, this quote from Dmitri Trenin’s recent book encapsulates why we need to continually learn more about the history of this country, which is, whether we like it or not, one of the great powers jockeying for influence in today’s world.
There has been a tendency, after the dismantling of the USSR in the early 1990s, to assume that the Soviet régime has been a failure and that its architects had failed, automatically sending their statecraft experiment to the dustbin of history. Dmitri Trenin gives plenty of material to those who do not subscribe to that school of thought.
I will always be amazed at how Lenin succeeded in carrying the day in the Fall of 1917, with only a handful of followers. But one of the main characteristics of the first Soviet leader, according to the author, who is also Director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, was that “Lenin’s political genius lay in his uncanny ability to adapt to fast-changing circumstances.” In a nutshell, he was a pragmatist who knew how to fill the void of leadership at a crucial time. The same could be said about his successor, Stalin, who “[…] reversed his stance on the Russian Orthodox Church” during the Great Patriotic War, when he realized that religion was a glue that could mobilize the people behind the war effort.
As a fan of Mikhail Gorbachev since my youth, I therefore found it hard to read Dmitri Trenin’s assessment of the last leader of the USSR. Between the lines, one can understand that the chief proponent of Perestroika was not a pragmatist and a student of Realpolitik because the country “[…] was by no means doomed, but it required a leader who could act decisively, albeit thoughtfully, professionally, and very carefully. What it got instead was a dreamer.” Ouch.
In the darkest hours of its history, Russia needs “strong leadership and discipline [to keep] the country together.”