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Book Review: The Return by Daniel Treisman

America’s relations with former nemesis Russia are as important as they have ever been, yet to many in the West the view of Russia is often clouded with misperceptions and a quick to demonize attitude. China’s rise, global terrorism, two wars in Central Asia, nuclear containment – these are all issues that the U.S. is dealing with and will need the cooperation of Russia to succeed going forward. However, it will be difficult to engage Russia without having a clearer idea of their history and interests. Daniel Treisman authors an extensive work on Russia from Gorbachev to Medvedev which tears down some prevailing beliefs of the West and illustrates the factors and personalities which led Russia to its present day status as a returning power.

Treisman uses an odd format for presenting his book, ignoring a conventional linear layout and instead uses the first four chapters to highlight each of the four Russian leaders since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The first four chapters briefly touch on the issues of 1990-2010 with the emphasis being more on the leader. He then returns to specific periods with more depth in the following chapters. At times this layout can be confusing and redundant, yet the first four chapters highlight what may be one of the most determinant factors in modern Russian history, the personalities and characters of the leaders.

The ninth chapter, “Falling Apart”, is where the book shines and is most compelling because it strictly relates the foreign policy between the U.S. and Russia. Treisman separates the chapter into the “View from Moscow” and the “View from Washington” giving each side a balanced perspective and reasoning for making the foreign policy choices it has.  Russia’s perspective, according to Treisman, is that:

  • The U.S. failed to provide economic aid to Russia after the breakup of the Union equivalent of other nations. More damaging was the refusal to forgive the loans that Russia alone was burdened with from the Soviet Union. The West did little to aid Russia’s transformation into a democracy.
  • NATO quickly expanded right up to Russian borders which was a clear betrayal of former promises. In addition to the betrayal it was seen as a threat and not as an action of a country that wanted to support the transition to democracy. Also, by expanding NATO so quickly into the Russian sphere it enhanced the chance of a war between the two powers. The issue with Georgia is along the same lines, with Russia upset at perceived American hypocrisy.
  • The leaders of the U.S. were strangely condescending towards Russia, a nation that still remained a global power.

The US perspective, according to Treisman, is that:

  • Economic Aid was not politically possible. Congress would not grant the aid, especially towards former Soviet soldier’s housing, when their own citizens and soldiers were living in subpar accommodations.
  • Including Russia in NATO was an impossibility because Russia would never agree to play 2nd fiddle to the Americans. Therefore, enlarging NATO to serve the U.S. interests was the rational and necessary choice.
  • Russia appears to often act in defiance of the U.S. for no other reason than to be difficult. This difficulty works against Russia’s interests in the West by redefining their identity to many as a state unwilling to cooperate, or worse an enemy.

Going forward it’s in both nations interests to have a working relationship and according to Treisman, Obama is beginning to open doors that were shut during the Bush administration.

The Return: Russia’s Journey from Gorbachev to Medvedev is an excellent narrative of modern day Russian history; in fact the chapter dedicated to the Chechen Wars is alone worth the price of the book. However, more than constructing a narrative, Treisman tries to shed some of the Western notions about Russia as an autocratic nation on par with the Arab states. He illustrates that when it comes to liberties, democracy, and economics, Russia is more similar to other emerging nations such as Brazil rather than Yemen as many would have you believe. Treisman’s writing style may be wanting for a little more color at times, but the depth and extensive material on Russia for the last twenty years is not at all lacking. Anybody interested in how Russia came to its present day status and its role in modern day global affairs would be well advised to check out The Return: Russia’s Journey from Gorbachev to Medvedev.