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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Persisting Sense of Isolationism

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In 1992, I witnessed an extraordinary street scene in Dresden. Although Germany had already been reunified for a while, Russian troops were still lingering on in the east -- mainly because they had nowhere else to go.

A Russian Army truck was driving in busy downtown traffic. Suddenly, it pulled up to the curb and a soldier got out. He walked over to the line of trees planted between the roadway and the sidewalk and began to urinate -- but not before looking up and down the street to make sure the coast was clear.

The street was far from empty. It was crowded with shoppers, parents with their children and elderly people, but their presence didn't seem to register. The soldier was watching out for a Russian officer, of course. Amazingly, the Germans ignored him, too. They looked through him as though he wasn't there.

I am reminded of this episode whenever debate about Russian relations with the West flares up. Not just in the context of President Vladimir Putin's criticism of U.S. foreign policy at a security conference in Munich on Feb. 10, but even in less weighty matters, like the arrest of a prominent Russian businessman in France or Western criticism of Moscow's policies toward its former satellites. This debate is invariably framed in terms of "us against them." Worse, it seems at times as if Russians think they inhabit a separate, parallel universe.

Russia has always been distinct from the West. It only became European two centuries ago, during the reign of Peter the Great. To this day, you can hear complaints about Peter's Westernizing reforms, which supposedly compromised Russia's unique identity and contaminated its pure soul. In the 19th century, even as Russia became increasingly drawn into European affairs, it yearned to teach the West something -- or at least teach those snobby Westerners a lesson.

This yearning was fulfilled when the Bolsheviks transplanted a Western ideology, Marxism, onto Russian soil. Suddenly, Russia leapfrogged the West on the path of progress, becoming the carrier of universal truth and a trailblazer for the misguided world. It retreated behind the Iron Curtain and "us against them" became a world-historical struggle.

In much of communist Eastern Europe, the dissidents' struggle was to rejoin the West. In Russia, even anti-communists insisted on Russia's separate path and its role as a kind of beacon for the rest of humanity. Russia, they predicted, would emerge from its Soviet ordeal purified by suffering to show the way to spiritual revival for the decadent, materialistic West.

It could not have turned out more differently. The lasting legacy of communism in Russia seems to be widespread coveting of imported material possessions. In the Soviet Union, the vidak, the video cassette recorder, was an abiding status symbol. What has changed today is that the toys have become more expensive. While Russia has neither Orthodox piety nor the secular communist religion -- nor for that matter any other, however tenuous, claim to moral authority -- its president still can't resist the urge to preach to foreigners.

Nor do Russian elites feel that their country is part of the international community, even though Russia is rich because the rest of the world puts a high price on its raw materials. The elites themselves are more sophisticated than the Communist Party apparatchiks of old because they have unhampered access to luxury goods and services produced by the world economy. Under Putin, nevertheless, Russia has repudiated earlier, tentative attempts to rejoin the rest of the world and retrogressed once more into self-imposed isolation.

And therein lies Putin's problem. There are large numbers of people in Europe and the United States who share his negative assessment of current U.S. international policy. According to recent polls, two-thirds of Germans agree with the points Putin made. The thing is that they aren't interested in hearing them from him.

Alexei Bayer, a native Muscovite, is a New York-based economist.