On April 2, President Obama will travel to London for his first Group of 20 summit as the country’s leader. Among items on his agenda is what the White House is calling a “reset” of US relations with Russia. Antagonisms have gone too far, his foreign affairs lieutenants say, and it’s time for the two countries to concentrate on areas of mutual interest, and not those that divide them. The initiative has been welcomed by Moscow, and it seems probable that the agenda—a revival of arms-control agreements; a go-slow approach toward missile defense in Europe; and cooperation on Iran, Afghanistan and the financial crisis—will take down the temperature.
Yet Russia will not regain a full embrace from much of the outside until its leaders act to change a chief underlying cause of foreign suspicion of the country—its record of impunity toward killers, and indifference toward the deaths of innocents.
My latest book on the region, Putin’s Labyrinth, plumbs this dimension as a lens into today’s Russia. Through profiles, the book sets out to bring to life six individuals who are known primarily because of the way they died. The profiles do not seek to deify them, but to present them as they were—real people, with their own complexities, who in the end are killed either because of their own actions, or events not of their own making. Contextually, the backdrop is a comparison of Russia with its fellow members of the club of nations to which it seeks continued rightful membership—the Group of 8, comprised of Canada, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Japan, Russia and the United States. I argue that the drumbeat of unsolved, sensational murders and slaughter—such as the Nord-Ost theater gassing that killed 129 hostages; and the murder of Alexander Litvinenko with the nuclear isotope polonium—sets Russia apart from the other G-8 countries.
The theme is provocative: that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin deserves credit for much, but undermines his international credibility once one considers the question of murder. I write:
If you are a citizen of Russia, you are more likely than a person in any other G-8 nation to die a premature death, and to do so in a bizarre or cruel way. When I say premature death, I’m not thinking disease, stillbirth, or an automobile accident—although Russians die at a far higher rate in all these categories than citizens of the other seven countries. I mean the kind of death experienced by Anna Politkovskaya or Alexander Litvinenko or the theater hostages—all deaths that were countenanced or at least tolerated by the Russian state.
A particular subset of writers and other observers are angry about the nasty turn in US-Russia relations. While perturbed with the histrionics of the relationship, this group focuses much of its chagrin on “the prevailing media slant [against] all things Russian,” as one of their members told me in a recent email exchange.
This frame of mind is on display in Stephen Boykewich’s recent review of Labyrinth. In his view, I am part of “a chorus of shame,” an army of wrong-headed, Russia-bashing westerners who are going along robotically with a tired rendering of a much more nuanced and less-menacing Russia. I fail both to appropriately appreciate the West’s peccadilloes, and Mr. Putin’s favorable aspects, including his poll ratings, he complains.