The Dangers of Russian Unexceptionalism
Russian President Vladimir Putin recently took to the pages of The New York Times to remind the Americans of the inherent peril of intervening in Syria. However, he didn't stop there. Being Mr. Putin, he was unable to resist poking the United States in the eye by further warning against the dangers of American exceptionalism.
Mr. Putin is correct that belief in exceptionalism can be dangerous. It can cause a country to engage in reckless behavior on the international stage, a concept with which Mr. Putin -- as an ex-KGB agent for the Soviet Union -- is likely intimately familiar.
But there is a flip side to his argument: Far worse than exceptionalism is unexceptionalism, and Mr. Putin is certainly an unexceptional leader.
I am a third-generation Russian-American. My grandfather was born and raised in the major Black Sea port city of Rostov-na-Donu. In 1941, the Nazis invaded the city and took him as a prisoner back to Germany, where he was forced to work in a labor camp.
During the war, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin had issued the infamous "Order 270," which declared that any Soviet soldier who was taken prisoner by the Nazis was considered a traitor. Though my grandfather was merely a civilian, he didn't want to go back to Russia to find out exactly what Stalin had meant. So he, along with my Ukrainian grandmother, pretended to be Polish.
After the war, they came to the United States, which has been our home ever since. In other words, given their first opportunity, my grandparents fled the Soviet Union for a better life -- and they never regretted it. In fact, they never taught anyone in our family to speak Russian because they so despised the government of their homeland.
Today, Russia is a better place than it was under totalitarian communism. But it is, however, a nation in sad decline, and Mr. Putin is at least partly to blame.
Arguably the worst social problem in the nation is alcoholism. It is not unusual for children who are merely 10 years old to begin drinking. Nearly half a million Russians die annually from alcohol-related incidents, including 23,000 who die from alcohol poisoning.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Russia's life expectancy is relatively low. The average Russian can expect to live about 69 years, which is below the global life expectancy of around 70 years.
Partially as a result of this, Russia is facing an enormous demographic crisis. By the year 2050, some analysts fear that Russia will lose 25 million people, about 18 percent of its population. To reverse this trend, one Russian region has turned to such desperate measures as giving people a day off of work to procreate and giving away cash and prizes to mothers who bear children. (In recent years, Russia's fertility rate has increased, but it will probably not stay high for long.)
Russia also has an internationally renowned problem with orphans. The country has four to five times as many orphans as Europe or the United States. After a recent political squabble with Washington, Mr. Putin bizarrely decided to punish orphans by blocking their adoption by American parents.
Of course, we should not forget the heavy-handed tactics that Mr. Putin regularly employs to keep Russia firmly in his grip. A statistical analysis showed rampant electoral fraud in recent Russian elections -- even though Mr. Putin probably would have won anyway without stuffing ballot boxes. (Still, it's better to be safe than sorry.)
And journalists who are critical of the Kremlin, such as Anna Politkovskaya and Alexander Litvinenko, have a habit of turning up dead.
So, I think I speak on behalf of all Americans when I say, "Spare us the moral lecture."
While Mr. Putin decries the dangers of exceptionalism, the truth is that every nation should strive toward it. Hopefully, one day in the very near future, Russians will get the truly exceptional leader that they have always deserved.