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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Big Losses Send Stronger Messages

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In "The Gulag Archipelago," Alexander Solzhenitsyn notes that Peter the Great's victory over Sweden in 1721 brought the Russia people three centuries of misery and hardship while ushering in an era of peace, freedom and prosperity for the Swedes.

"It is a simple truth, yet it is only absorbed through pain: It is not victory that is precious but defeat. Victories are good for governments, whereas defeats are good for the people. After a victory, new victories are sought, while after a defeat one longs for freedom, and usually attains it. Nations need defeats just as individuals need suffering and misfortunes, which deepen the inner life and elevate the spirit."

Russia suffered a beneficial defeat in 1905, at the hands of the Japanese, which pushed the huge empire toward economic and political reforms. When I walk around Moscow, I never cease to wonder at the number of elegant, high-quality apartment buildings built before 1914 for Russia's rapidly expanding urban middle class.

Solzhenitsyn's historical observation needs to be qualified to include only incomplete defeats, those that leave the machinery of state intact and do not cost the country its independence. For example, Germany lost World War II, but the post-war impact on its two halves was different. The defeat benefited West Germany, but it was disastrous for the East, which fell under Soviet rule. Even now, nearly two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the former German Democratic Republic has not resolved its many intractable problems.

Incomplete defeats are associated with the modern era and the emergence of the nation-state. When Rome crushed Carthage, for example, the vanquished city was razed to the ground and its inhabitants put to the sword or enslaved. Ancient Carthageans had no reason to consider their defeat a blessing.

On the other hand, an incomplete defeat bears a dangerous seed of ambiguity. Its lessons can easily be misunderstood or distorted. Most famously, the German surrender in World War I created a variety of pernicious myths which the Nazis then skillfully exploited. The Kaiser's exhausted army, facing an overwhelming force bolstered by freshly arrived U.S. troops, chose to sue for peace rather than fight on home soil and be annihilated. Later, however, democratic politicians were branded "November traitors" and accused of stabbing Germany's fighting men in the back.

The United States lost a war in Vietnam, but the nature of the defeat began to be reinterpreted almost immediately. By the early 1980s, the county was re-fighting the war -- at least in Hollywood. More deviously, the rightwing neocon press has managed to cast U.S. democratic institutions, notably Congress, as the villains of that war. Not surprisingly, Washington now finds itself in another mess, trying to avert a far more consequential disaster in the Middle East.

In Russia, too, the Cold War defeat has become shrouded in myths. The circumstances leading to the collapse of the Soviet empire have been expunged from the national memory. It is now hard to recall the disgust and shame that marked the final years of perestroika, as public debate on the communist regime became progressively more open. Nor can the sense of contrition that compelled Russia to seek Western-style democracy and attempt to rejoin the community of nations now be recaptured.

Under President Vladimir Putin, Russia has chosen stability over democracy. Having experienced an oil boom, it has seen the return of xenophobia and isolationism. The Soviet defeat is now habitually described as betrayal or sellout, while the Soviet Union and its leaders are being reassessed in a much more favorable light.

In the early 1990s, Russia's incomplete defeat was often compared to Germany's in 1918. Since then, Russian history has followed the German scenario very closely. This not in actual events or the personalities of its leaders, of course, but in what the Germans call Zeitgeist --the spirit of the time.

Alexei Bayer, a native Muscovite, is a Moscow-based economist.