Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, journalists, academics, and policymakers have sought to make sense of post-Soviet Russia. Is Russia an emerging or retrograde democracy? A free-market or crony capitalism? Adopting Western values or forever steeped in Asiatic mores? Is Russia in transition, and if so, transition to what? Usually the answers to these questions are rooted in Russophilia or Russophobia, colored by teleological assumptions and crude stereotypes. As if to reaffirm Churchill’s quip that “Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma,” too many find the nature of today’s Russia remains elusive.
The first lines of Daniel Treisman‘s new book The Return: Russia’s Journey from Gorbachev to Medvedev (Free Press, 2011) signifies a change of tone. Whatever Russia is, Treisman asserts, one indisputable fact is clear: “Russia has returned. Not to the West, of which it was never truly a part. But to the world.” Tresiman’s text is a refreshing, unbiased, and erudite exploration of the journey Russia has taken over the last twenty years. The Return begins with Gorbachev’s attempts to save the moribund Soviet system and ends with a sober evaluation of its achievements and problems. In between are discussions of Gorbachev, Yeltsin, Putin, and Medvedev as political personalities, the collapse of the USSR, the economic turmoil of the 1990s, the war in Chechnya, and US-Russian relations. With each step the reader is urged to rethink, speculate, and reevaluate many of myths about Russia’s past, present, and future. For these challenges, Treisman has done a great service.