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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia's Last Best Chance

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A recent comment in the Sydney newspaper The Australian by Mark Steyn, "Russia Is Dying and Islamists Will Grab Parts of the Carcass," caused a bit of a stir as it ricocheted around the echo chamber of the media, from the suddenly ubiquitous news magazine The Week to Johnson's Russia List online.

Steyn sees Russia's population falling from a high of 148 million in 1992 to 50 million to 60 million by the end of this century. "Most of the big international problems operate within certain geographic constraints: Africa has AIDS, the Middle East has Islamists, North Korea has nukes. But Russia's got the lot: an African-level AIDS crisis and an Islamist separatist movement sitting on top of the biggest pile of nukes on the planet."

Russia's demise has been a topic of conversation since 1836, when philosopher Pyotr Chaadaev posited that because Eurasian Russia had followed Byzantine Christianity, it had missed all the great stages of Western civilization -- Renaissance, Reformation, Counter-reformation, Enlightenment -– but had never really connected to Asia either. Russia was thus fated "to teach the world some great lesson" (for example, communism doesn't work) and then vanish from history.

Chaadaev was promptly declared insane and placed under house arrest (the Soviet use of psychiatry to punish dissenters was nothing new, an elaboration rather than an invention).

It is certainly true that in the last 100 years Russia has shown an alarming tendency to collapse. As historians have noted, the Bolsheviks did not so much seize power in 1917 as pick up the pieces of a tsarist Russia already shattered by the disasters of World War I and the abdication of the tsar. And Russia collapsed again in 1991, with surprisingly little bloodshed or effort involved.

Now, however, despite all its grave problems, Russia has a reasonable chance of finally doing what it's never been able to accomplish before: creating a real society of real citizens with a stake in its future. What Russia has going for it right now is freedom from a costly arms race, relative peace, a hefty income from oil and gas, and a well-educated populace in an era of knowledge-based economies. If Russia is ever going to become a country that is "normal" and "civilized" (to use the words Russians themselves frequently use), that time is now. This is Russia's last, best chance.

"Last Best Chance" is also the name of a 45-minute fiction film about nuclear terrorism made for DVD and cable by the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a nonprofit run by former Georgia Senator Sam Nunn and supported by Warren Buffet and Ted Turner. Nuclear material is stolen from Russia, eludes detection, reaches the United States, and the long-feared "American Hiroshima" is about to occur as the film ends. Did the broadcast on HBO reach any Americans, cause anything more than a quarrel over the remote or a couple of bad dreams? Unclear.

U.S. officials worry publicly about nuclear terrorism whereas the Russians sometimes treat securing their own nuclear material almost as a favor for which they must be paid generously. Though New York may be the preferred target for nuclear jihadists, Moscow has a better chance of being hit first for three reasons. First, the nuclear material doesn't have to travel any great distances or pass through security checks at any seaport. Second, there is precedent. In November 1996, Chechen rebel leader Shamil Basayev had a container of cesium 137 buried in Izmailovsky Park in Moscow, then alerted the media as to its whereabouts. Third, it was the same Basayev who claimed responsibility for taking the schoolchildren hostage in Beslan, thereby proving he was capable of anything.

The Chaadaev scenario can still come true -- Russia may yet exit history, either with a demographic whimper or a nuclear bang.

Richard Lourie is the author of "The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin" and "Sakharov: A Biography."