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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Enough Bitter Milk

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Patriotism has its pleasures and dangers. As an American, I am proud when one of us wins the Nobel Prize or Olympic gold, or when we pull off a swift, just and successful invasion, as that of Afghanistan seemed to be. But pride can turn to shame in an instant. All it takes is a war without cause or a great city callously lost to flooding.

Russia, of course, has had its share of shame, beginning with the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the early 1990s, Russian parents watched with mixed emotions as their children drank milk shipped from the United States. Charity is only sweet to the giver. For the mothers and fathers, that was bitter milk.

Not only did the Kremlin's power shrink greatly after 1991, but also lands that it used to rule became part of NATO and the EU, with more now hoping to follow suit. The United States is currently considering deploying anti-missile installations in Poland or the Czech Republic to counter Iran's potential nuclear threat, and not Russia's ability to project nuclear power. Still, no one likes it when a former enemy builds major military sites in their backyard, especially when they are a reminder of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty that the United States scrapped unilaterally.

Suddenly, Russia finds itself surrounded by countries now loyal to its former enemy. That former enemy keeps reassuring Russia that it has nothing to fear because democratic states do not attack one another. Except that, ominously, that former enemy has now begun to grumble that maybe Russia isn't so democratic after all.

The problem with U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney's recent speech criticizing Russian policies was not only its content, but also its context. Power has clearly become more centralized under President Vladimir Putin, and the independence of the media and judiciary, as well as political opposition, have all been curtailed. But delivering that speech in Russophobic Lithuania while on the way to discuss gas and oil in Kazakhstan, hardly the Athens of Central Asia, looked hypocritical at best.

The problem with American policy toward Russia is that it sees only what it wants to see. It exhibits no sense of what Russia's real problems are or of progress of the sort that rarely makes the news, state-controlled or otherwise, being made in Russia.

Russia's population is falling by something like 700,000 people a year, a Boston or a San Francisco gone every 12 months. It's not only because Russians are dying so quickly, but also because people are not having enough children, something Putin is attempting to remedy with cash incentives. But people also need some sense of a future that is solid and reasonably hopeful. If your country has just collapsed around you, you want assurances the same thing won't happen to your children. Some people support a third term for Putin simply because it would provide the comfort of continuity.

On some level there has to be a feeling of "us-ness." The Nashi youth organization, though of dubious authenticity, does deliver something of that feeling. In a recent conference with Putin in Sochi, some good ideas were broached -- anti-xenophobia "friendship lessons" in schools and in the training and support groups for young men entering the army, where they could be subject to brutal hazing.

Recently there have been glimplses of some hopeful trends. The ad hoc actions of the middle class, now said to account for something like 20 percent of the population, are incrementally creating a civil society that will cement the country together and give Russia something to be proud of. A new book by Dmitry Trenin, called "Integration and Identity: Russia as the 'New West,'" argues that the forces of growing wealth and openness to the outside world are transforming Russia into a successful version of a Western nation.

I am perfectly happy to take these more confident and optimistic voices into account. I would be even happier if I saw some sign that my own government was doing so as well.

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