Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Pessimistic? An Ambassador Sets New Tone

In the week that William Jefferson Clinton was sworn in as the new president, Vladimir Lukin, Russia's ambassador in Washington, did something unprecedented.

He threw open his embassy to a conference, organized jointly with the prestigious Kennan Institute, which brought together a critical mass of those Americans who are now grappling with the biggest foreign policy problem of them all: What shape is Russia in, and what should America do about it?

Bankers, diplomats, policy-makers and academics thronged into the gilded chamber.

The context is important. The consensus of most American Russia-watchers about the prospects for Boris Yeltsin and Russian democracy is very grim. The latest issue of the New York Review of Books, house journal of the American intelligentsia, set the tone with a 'Russia On The Brink' cover story last week.

So to change the hearts and minds of President Clinton's new Washington, Lukin's conference offered a robustly different view. But he began with a warning, of that "traditional self-humiliating perception of Russia as a bastard of history. The prospect of failure leads to despair, to the search for vengeance or suicide".

Lukin had brought over two of the new breed of successful Russian businessmen, Oleg Lobov of the St. Petersburg bank, and the breezy Ilya Baskin of the Garant corporation.

They were not looking for handouts. Baskin said that he had learned the new financial Iron Curtain was far more impenetrable than the old border, and Russia would have to help itself.

Then Fred Starr, the amiable jazz buff who launched the Kennan Institute and now runs Oberlin College, gave the most optimistic survey of the Russian economy that any Western audience has heard for years.

"Credit is due to the government, but far more must go to the millions of ordinary Russians who have participated in what might be called spontaneous marketization. Capitalism is being built more through the initiative and entrepreneurship of ordinary Russian citizens than through government action", Starr said, as his audience nodded sagely.

Lobov the banker agreed: "There is a capitalist energy and achievement at the micro level which is neither being reflected nor understood at the government level".

In the week when a new administration takes over the White House, this heady mood of optimism is having a tangible effect. The gloom about Russia which infected the last year of the Bush administration has been challenged. At leasts it has bought some time. Bill Clinton is enjoying his honeymoon, and now Russia is having one too.