Winston Churchill described Russia in a 1939 radio broadcast with a famous formula that is still quoted today:
"I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest."
That was true for the dictatorship of Stalin. It was true for the false springtime of Khrushchev, for the botched reforms of Gorbachev and the chaos of Yeltsin. And it is just as true for the transitional Russia of Putin and Medvedev.
Russia is a country of contradictions. The double eagle of the tsars looked both East and West. Communist Russia promised power to the people but kept it in the Kremlin. Post-communist Russia adopted the trappings of democracy without the substance. And today, Russia is too weak to be a first-rate power but too big to overlook.
If you listen to the western Sovietologists, who are enjoying a sudden resurrection in foreign policy circles, you might think the world is spiralling into a new Cold War. And if you don't give much weight to their pronouncements, listen to Vladimir Putin himself. He bangs the table like Khrushchev and threatens all sorts of dire things if the United States puts missiles and radars in the former East European Soviet satellites.
But wait a minute. That's not the Russia ordinary Russian citizens tell you about these days. They talk of a new middle class, of rising living standards, and a new sense of order in a country that seemed like the Wild West when I lived there in the 1990s. I remember the shootouts then in the garage near my Moscow apartment, the bombs that went off in the night, and the mafia-type businessmen who were riding high and never went anywhere without very heavy protection. A shady oligarchy ripped off the country, pocketed its best assets and became filthy rich, while poor pensioners sold trinkets in the metro to keep from starving. Life is better now for most Russians, and keeps improving. No wonder they give their outgoing president approval ratings that western politicians rarely earn. Compare Putin's 70 percent with Bush's 30 percent. I am surprised the Kremlin even bothered to rig the election of Dmitri Medvedev, the hand-picked successor. It wasn't necessary.
Sure, the Kremlin controls the television and the vast majority of the press, and crusading journalists have been assassinated, but when Russians compare their lives now to the anything-goes 1990s, they must think more in their pockets and less in their news media is a fair trade-off. Besides, most Russians don't read newspapers. And if they really want to know what is happening at home and abroad, they can go to the internet, which is largely unfettered. Their political freedoms are limited, but they have freedom of religion, freedom to travel, and even freedom to complain, though not in large organized demonstrations.
To go back to Churchill's pointer, what are Russia's national interests today? First of all, it wants to be respected. Russians complain that Western powers, and especially the United States, no longer seem to listen to them now that their armed forces are second rate. Their nuclear weapons no longer count for much in international relations. Putin has tried to use Russia's oil and gas reserves as a substitute weapon, but they don't carry the same weight.
Russia would also like a little breathing space in what it calls â€œthe near abroad.â€ The Kremlin feels squeezed, now that NATO and the European Union are signing up one after the other of the former Soviet republics and satellites that used to be the buffer between East and West. How would Americans feel if Texas dropped out of the union and said it wanted to join a rival alliance? That's how the loss of Ukraine felt in Russia.
To sum it all up, the Russia that is electing a new president is not a new version of the old enemy, nor is it the bright new democracy that the West embraced with unrealistically high hopes after the collapse of communism. It is best described in terms of grey rather than black and white - a nation that is slowly recovering from a long history of bad leaders and mismanagement, and now has a government that is more popular at home than abroad. It is, as former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once said of President Gorbachev, a country that the West â€œcan do business with.â€