How many Americans distinctly remember the night the wall fell in #Berlin? I remember it well. I was in law school. My mother was staying with my sister and her husband in their home near Nuremberg that had its own Stasi agent who vanished that night. My mother and I spoke on the phone as the wall was coming down with a shared sense of hope and excitement for the future of not just the Germans but the whole world. The future of our planet seemed bright. I had idealistic hopes for some form of assistance to the East and the states emerging from Soviet domination. The Marshall Plan the east never got. I believed it was a way to use our wealth to build democratic institutions and prepare the people to live under the rule of law rather than Soviet brutality, corruption and coercion. Like so many of my bright ideas it went nowhere. The Germans were just relieved to not have to pay for an army and believed that a capitalist system would eventually iron out the disparity between the lives of the people in the West and the newly freed East. In some sense it did work in Germany.
The strong basis of the existing free liberal democratic society was a foundation upon which the East could grow as the changes came. For other nations it would take longer but eventually the desire to be free of the Soviet empire motivated the civil societies of the new democracies to build the foundation of the free republics we now see rally to try to save one of the last victims of the failed Soviet empire. Our mistake was to not use Western capital to foster a free society in Russia. That doomed the Russians and the states on the immediate periphery of Russia to be drawn back into a Russian empire but this time the people who rose to power were not the long-term party Apparatchik with some sense of order but rather the most dangerous criminals who lived in Russia and had learned how to cheat, kill and steal better than anyone to rise to power.
Vladimir Putin rose to become the top predator who manipulated the frail and corrupt Boris Yeltsin to steal the Russian people’s future and cast them back into a system of brutality, cronyism and theft. Appendages of this growing monster reached into every western society including the US and continue to conduct criminal enterprises so intertwined with US society to seem almost impervious to our laws. In the mean time the lives of many Russians got a little better. The people in the cities had lives that were less desperate than the lives during the collapsing Soviet empire but still the compromise was political expression and a system that treated people based on laws and not cronyism and extortion. For the majority of Russians in the vast nation, life remained hard. Few have indoor plumbing and little hope of a prosperous future for themselves and their children. The reports of the pillaging Russian soldiers in Ukraine are testament to the harshness of life for them in Russia. Desperation mixed with envy to breed cruelty. The result is an incompetent army that an only murder and rape defenseless civilians and loot their belongings shocked that an average person in Ukraine might own a laptop. This did not have to be. So what now?
I don’t see any hope that the Russia crime state will voluntarily change. Its culture of corruption and brutality is in total control and won’t voluntarily relinquish its grip. How could the Russian people not know how much better life is in a free society? It’s because they are fed only a diet of lies in well orchestrated state propaganda that like the Soviet times blames the west for all their woes. They survive in a nation in the stark vastness that is not seeking democracy but only to be able to climb a little higher on the economic ladder than the next guy unaware what a liberal democracy would bring to all members of society not just the lucky ones in the cities and the ones who do the bidding of their Oligarch masters. They adopt the mentality of serfs who accept their lot to serve the Oligarchy.
Ukraine posed no security threat to Russia but it was an existential threat to the corrupt Russian state. The thriving, prosperous, free democratic liberal society in Ukraine with a capital center of art, music and human kindness contrasted so starkly with the cruelty and inequality of Russian society and the Russian state monster that it could not long survive living in its shadow. The Russians would want more and the criminals who stole their economy and their futures would be exposed for the monsters they are.
The Marshall Plan that we never funded can now be employed to bring Russia back from the collapsed economy that will exist soon. For Russians to be able to travel, bank and enjoy much of the life of the free world, it has to become free. And the work ahead once Russia is defeated in Ukraine and its economy is destroyed has to include fixing the mistake we made by not demanding freedom and democracy for every Russian as the price of Russia’s acceptance as a partner in the free world.
From this tragedy a new Russia can grow where a free society like Ukraine is not a threat. Fail to do that, and this tragedy will simply be repeated and the monster will return.