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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia’s Nightmare Century

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This year’s accidents and terrorist attacks confirm what has by now become a cliche: August is indeed Russia’s cruelest month. But its original August disaster dates back almost a century. Aug. 1 marked the 95th anniversary since Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany declared war on Russia, officially starting World War I.

The Great War was a calamity for the entire continent. It destroyed trust in national governments and military leaders, devalued life and cast doubt on human reason. Science and technology betrayed their early promise to bring happiness to humankind, producing instead monstrous instruments of mass murder. Before, the worst toll in a single military campaign had been the U.S. Civil War, in which 700,000 perished. In 1914-18, military and civilian victims numbered 17 million, inuring the world to huge casualties during the remainder of the 20th century.

The war undermined the belief in civilization. It plunged well-educated, bourgeois and working class European boys into the depths of barbarity not seen since the Middle Ages.

The Western territories of the Russian Empire — Poland, Ukraine and Belarus — have paid the heaviest toll for the upheavals of the past 95 years. But Russia also suffered tremendously, not only in its two wars with Germany, but also in the Civil War and domestic terror campaigns. Relentless killing lasted until Josef Stalin’s death in 1952, but the social crisis that afflicted Russia under communism and endures to this day has also been a killer. The number of Russians who died under communism is a subject of an ideologically tinged debate, which in itself is a sign of deep moral malaise in the country. But merely taking population growth in France as a very rough guide, there are 50 million fewer Russians today than should have been based on 1900 figures.

In Europe, the disastrous consequences of World War I have been largely eliminated. By mid-century, the destruction of war had sobered up Western Europe. It rejected militarism, stopped mulling over historic injustices and adopted a democratic governing system. The result has been reconciliation, peace and prosperity for the six founders of what would become the European Union but also the spread of democracy and prosperity to two dozen additional members, including some of the poorest and contentious nations on the fringes of the continent.

There are many unresolved problems within the EU, but the project has been a major success. It will probably be a matter of years before remaining laggards join, including Ukraine and Turkey.

This will leave Russia entirely on its own. Russia seems to have drawn the wrong conclusions from its own history and Europe’s experience. The collapse of communism and the Soviet Union have not put an end to Russia’s nightmare century and pushed it toward further isolation.

Russia not only remains outside united Europe but often stands in opposition to it. It has rejected the liberal democratic model, opting for its own “sovereign democracy.” This has come to mean lack of transparency, an integrated political system without meaningful division of power and the worst form of state capitalism, marked by inefficiency and massive corruption. Russia is willfully drifting further away from Europe’s mainstream. Unless its rulers change their course, by the time we mark the centennial of the start of World War I, Russia may be the only country on the continent still suffering from that war’s legacy. The already-steep price the Russian people have paid in lives and well-being will continue to add up.

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