[T]here was another way in which the world seemed to revolve backward during the Valdai, which was if anything even more disturbing. During two lunches over the course of the conference, the president and prime minister of Russia spoke with us for a total of almost seven hours, answering unscripted questions without the help of aides. The foreign minister, deputy prime minister and deputy chief of the general staff spoke with us for several more hours. The chances of this happening in George Bush’s Washington, or indeed most other Western capitals, are zero.
On the other hand, I was told, several U.S. experts who had been invited refused to come because they were afraid that to be seen to talk with Russian leaders would hurt their chances of being selected for jobs in the next U.S. administration, or even their candidate’s chances of being elected president. In particular, they were afraid of attending a conference including meetings with the presidents of Abkhazia and South Ossetia—even though they had the option of not attending them. The idea that it was their duty as analysts to find out what these people are thinking evidently did not occur to them.
In the course of the discussions, we heard a great deal from Russian participants about Russian national interests, and about international peace, stability and cooperation against global threats; but not one word of ideology. The tone was sometimes harsh, but entirely pragmatic. On the other hand, from the U.S. administration and presidential candidates we’ve heard a flood of ideological clichés from the cold war about defending democracy and spreading freedom—platitudes with absolutely no relevance to the reasons for or the circumstances surrounding the war over South Ossetia.
Of course, taken as a whole, U.S. society is much more open and democratic than Russian society; but this is no longer necessarily true of American politicians or Washington elites when it comes to key issues of foreign policy. As for most of the U.S. media, its response to the war over South Ossetia demonstrated that it can on occasion be every bit as hysterically one-sided and willfully inaccurate as the Russian one. Indeed, in this case it was parts of the U.S. media which told by far the biggest single lie—namely the outrageous suggestion, in the face of all the known facts, that it was Russia and not Georgia that started this latest war.
Over the course of our lunch in Sochi, Vladimir Putin congratulated the U.S. media ironically on this performance—they acted “as if they had been given an order.” This raises the interesting question of what is in fact better: authoritarian control from above or mass hysteria from below. The way things are going, we will get plenty of opportunities to study this question in the years to come.
Guest: Edyta Bojanowska on A World of Empires: The Russian Voyage of the Frigate Pallada published by Harvard University Press.