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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Political Reality Gap

Talking to Russians these days about the current state of their federation summons up torrents of righteous indignation. There are denunciations of dictatorship and incompetence, corruption and nefarious plotting, ethnic strife and social decay. There are fears of hyperinflation, mass unemployment, and the ominous social explosion.

And yet, the real depth of the country's troubles emerges in far more subtle ways during these conversations, when bright and influential Russians reveal yawning gaps in their understanding of the world. They are far from stupid, just, sometimes, shockingly naive.

Consider the following conversations during a recent week in Moscow:

A foreign policy adviser to a senior government official suggests that the costs of Russia's demilitarization be borne by the international community, since it is, after all, the people of the whole world who benefit from dismantling nuclear missiles. That the people of the world might expect the builder of the missiles to bear this responsibility does not seem to occur to him.

A scholar tells an audience of nodding journalists that forging ahead with weapons sales overseas now will give Russian military industrialists the experience they need to sell civilian goods abroad later. No one wonders whether such sales might not involve entirely different skills or strategies.

A senior Russian general argues for the construction of a whole new generation of sophisticated weaponry of the type the United States used so effectively in the Gulf War. The fact that the Soviet military-industrial complex now lies in ruins seems to be of secondary importance to him, as well as to the other senior military officials who openly endorse his thinking.

A senior official in the Supreme Soviet argues with an utterly straight face that his country's most fundamental problems can be addressed above all by the establishment of an "International Center for Spiritual Cooperation" that might one day take on the shape of a political party. Questions like "How? " or "Why? " are left unanswered.

One Russian after another roundly denounces the "bazaar" that has mushroomed on Moscow's streets, in which "dishonest" merchants make 100 or 200 percent markups like their Western counterparts. Suggestions that profits depend more on the pressures of competition than on the conscience of the merchant are quickly dismissed.

Again, these are certainly not illiterate, uneducated or unsophisticated people. These are people still suffering from the lingering legacy of Communist rule. Isolation from the West did part of the job; the party's ideology did the rest. Marxism-Leninism was not necessarily widely believed in any literal sense, but it managed nevertheless to distort significantly the average Russian's perception of the world.

Fundamental political principles, like international responsibility, are easily asserted without reference to past practice or current likelihood. Basic economic or business understanding is vague and incomplete. As the West struggles to help Russia complete this historic turn successfully, some important suggestions emerge.

Programs that help teach Russians about international economics and politics can prove very helpful. These can be in the form of sophisticated training programs that bring Russians to the West, or exchanges that also send Westerners -- especially business students and retired executives -- into Russia.

Skilled consultants on legislative and judicial matters can make important contributions to the reforms already underway. Outsiders cannot write Russia's laws, but they may be able to help avoid fundamental mistakes.

The stakes involved become evident whenever the talk of Russia's current troubles turns to visions of Russia's future prospects. The torrent of anger subsides, the wilder proposals trail off, and there invariably follows a deep sigh, a slow shrug and a bewildered stare.

On top of it all, Russia is in the throes of a massive identity crisis. The current political leaders have still not worked out the very foundations of their society: capitalist or socialist, Western or insular, democratic or authoritarian, secular or Orthodox Christian, liberal or imperial.

This might prompt a serious and healthy debate of first governing principles were it not for some of these stunning gaps of understanding. It is the social and political equivalent of navigating a stormy Cape of Good Hope without either compasses, sextants or the sketchiest map.

Western policy makers do not have much leverage over a country struggling so fiercely to find a new historical shape and role for itself. At the very least, however, they can provide some of the tools to help Russians grapple with the challenge.

Christopher Smart is a research fellow in the Washington, D. C. office of the Hudson Institute.