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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Tricky Passage

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A helpful friend once asked me in 2003, "Would you like to meet a Russian gangster?" The conversation proved comfortable, intelligent and wide-ranging. I was especially interested in his thoughts on power and relations between states, of which he took a very Darwinian view: to the victor -- the spoils; to the loser -- bitter humiliation. Speaking of the Cold War, he said: "You won and we lost. We have to bow down to you. You have the right to teach us how to live."

It was that last phrase (which I translated literally) that I found particularly striking. The winner not only gets to tell the loser what to do and how to act, but it has the right to instruct the other on how to live life itself.

I was intrigued to see that same expression pop up again in a spring 2007 interview with Valentina Matviyenko, the governor of St. Petersburg. "For so many years we felt injured, people taught us how to live, where to go." But she was quick to point out that's all changed. "Today Russia's self-respect has returned. It's important that it be consolidated in people's minds."

That last line would, however, seem to indicate that this newly recovered self-respect is not as solid as might be hoped. In any case, the point is that for the near future much of Russia's actions at home and in the international arena will be conditioned both by the exhilaration of new-found strength and by lingering doubts about its enduring solidity.

Under the Soviets, the Kremlin's behavior was largely conditioned by ideology and self-interest, although the psychological element was also always present. For example, the Soviets were ideologically obliged to aid Cuba, but ultimately self-interest motivated them to withdraw their weaponry during the missile crisis. But it was the psychological component -- namely, the sense of national humiliation -- that led to Khrushchev's downfall and the return of the hard-liners.

The current Kremlin has no ideology to guide or inhibit its actions. Russia has yet to rediscover its sense of national myth and purpose. Therefore, its actions are currently shaped only by self-interest and collective psychology.

Recent actions like the submarine expedition beneath the North Pole, the resumption of bomber patrols, the veiled threats to stay out of the neighborhood that emanated from the Shanghai Cooperation Organization war games in the Urals and President Vladimir Putin's beef-cake photos are all part of this pattern.

But there are two other elements at play in the process at present. Of course, Putin is well aware that he has little more than half a year left in office. Unlike U.S. President George W. Bush, who is both a lame duck and a cornered rat, Putin can go out in grand style. Some of what happens between now and March must be seen as Putin's attempt to fix his place in the long line of those who have ruled the country. It's also the fireworks, the finale.

More substantively, Putin is also preparing a framework of trajectories and faits accomplis for the next leader to operate in. The political elite and the people both want continuity. Putin will have everything in place, up and running, for his successor. In principle at least, it will be a turnkey presidency.

This could go awry if Putin's successor feels the need to make his own mark by being much more the reformer or tyrant than his predecessor ever was.

Either way, the tricky period is going to be between the election of the Russian president in March 2008 and the inauguration of the U.S. president in January 2009. It will be a subtle task to distinguish among acts of Moscow's genuine self-interest, its continued healing of psychological wounds and the new tone and tenor that the next president will establish.

If we get through that transition, we will have a shot at better relations.

Richard Lourie is the author of "The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin" and "A Hatred For Tulips," a new novel about Anne Frank's betrayal.