Foreign Affairs

Foreign Affairs

May/June 2004


Low Self-Esteem
By Golfo Alexopoulos


To the Editor:

Andrei Shleifer and Daniel Treisman ask an important question at the end of their compelling article ("A Normal Country," March/April 2004): "So why the dark, at times almost paranoid, view" of postcommunist Russia among Western observers? But an important factor missing from their list of explanations is the overwhelmingly dim outlook of Russians concerning the state of their own country.

During my frequent visits to Russia in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, I consistently encountered Russians — from cab drivers to businessmen to scientists — who energetically challenged my optimism about their country's future. They spoke of rampant corruption, dark political conspiracies, and the likelihood of a civil war or fascist takeover. No wonder these cataclysmic views made their way into American newspapers and academic journals. Russia watchers in the West frequently base their judgments on Russian sources and often adopt the viewpoint of their Russian friends and colleagues.

Moreover, one legacy of the Cold War is that Russians themselves compare their country to the United States, rather than to other middle-income countries. Russians would not be encouraged by the fact that their country compares well with Brazil or Argentina — indeed, they would find the comparison insulting. Rather, they like to say that postcommunist Russia is "just like Chicago in the 1930s." In the minds of our Russian friends, the world remains bipolar long after the Cold War.

Golfo Alexopoulos

Associate Professor of Russia/Soviet History, University of South Florida