I’ve been a regular visitor to Vladimir Putin’s Russia, and, when I was describing what troubled me most about the place to a wise foreign policy friend, he urged me to read the play “Three Sisters” by Chekhov. It’s the tale of the aspiring Prozorov family, whose three cultured and educated sisters—Olga, Masha and Irina—grew up in Moscow but for 11 years found themselves marooned in the countryside. The sisters are always waxing poetic about their plans to go back to Moscow (the Emerald City), but they never make it and their dream fades.
Putin brings out the Three Sisters in me. Every time I come here, I expect to find that, this time, Russia is really pivoting from being a petro-state, with a heavy authoritarian gloss—and a president who relies on anti-Western rhetoric to maintain his political base—to a country that has decided to invest in education, innovation and its human capital, and is ready to be a partner with the West. But it never materializes, and lately it has started to go backward.
I wonder if Putin realizes how open the U.S. would be to partnering with Russia to bring order to the Middle East or to serve as a counterweight to China—especially when the European Union is so weak and America is so inwardly focused.
Yes, the NATO expansion was a huge mistake, and it got America and Putin off on the wrong foot. But that’s over. This time it is Putin who has locked himself, for his own cynical politics, in Cold War mode.
Unlocked his nation’s creativity rather than just his oil and gas wells would require a much freer political atmosphere. Putin needs to be careful. The good news for Russians today is that they can leave. The bad news for Russia is that they will.
The reasons are obvious. Small businesses, startups and non-resource companies require strong intellectual property-rights protection, independent courts and trusted financial markets, and those require solid political institutions with regular rotations in power—all things Putin’s rule works against.
I am wrong to be so pessimistic, says Vladislav Y. Surkov, the deputy prime minister for modernization. As I was in Surkov’s office in the Russian White House interviewing him, it was impossible to ignore the two posters on his wall. One showed Google co-founder Sergey Brin and the other Vladimir Zworykin, who served as director of RCA Laboratories in Princeton in the 1950s and helped to pioneer television.
“I want to send the message to the visitors to this office that Russia gave the world such geniuses,” said Surkov.
Surkov, once described as Putin’s Machiavelli, is impressive, and his plans to stimulate innovation in Russia sounded real to me. But I couldn’t resist noting that innovative cultures don’t do things like throw the punk band Pussy Riot into prison for two years for performing a “punk prayer” in a cathedral. That sends a bad signal to all freethinkers.
Surkov, who also keeps a picture of the American rapper Tupac Shakur behind his desk, pushes back.
“Tupac Shakur is a genius, and the fact that he was in prison did not interrupt either his creative juices or the innovative development of the United States.”
Pussy Riot probably is no Tupac, but the band members were iconoclasts who broke the mold, albeit in an offensive and obnoxious manner.
Isn’t that what critics said about Steve Jobs?•
Friedman is a New York Times columnist. Send comments on this column to [email protected].