Smith’s cure for the Russian Anxiety is authentic, not fake, history, especially comparative history, which reveals Russia to be a state that conducts itself no better or worse than any other big power. Russian history is many layered, Smith argues, and the deeper we dig the more apparent it becomes that the tropes of Russophobic history bear little or no relation to reality. Smith’s narrative is much enlivened by the inclusion of biographical sketches depicting those who have created, resisted and lived with the Russia Anxiety. As a Russian history specialist, he deploys his deep knowledge of the country’s culture, society and peoples to capture with verve and imagination the grand sweep of its history, and combines this with an astute commentary on contemporary politics.
Smith makes an important fundamental point: we must talk to the Russians and live alongside them. We cannot send them to stand in the corner. But most of us absolutely reject a moral and political equivalence between Russia and the West, because Putin’s nation places so low a value upon personal rights and freedoms.
The author is correct that we overdo the Russia Anxiety, but not for the reason he gives, that the Russians are much like us. In truth, it is because their country is weak and failing. Its global mayhem-making is rooted in consciousness of its inability to build an electric toaster that any foreigner, save a Cuban or Venezuelan, would buy.
Giles’s book is concise, lucidly argued and minutely researched. It would serve as an excellent primer on East-West security if the publisher had not decided to price it like a textbook (ie stonkingly). It would be interesting to see him debate Smith. It would be even more interesting if Trenin were there too: he might chide Giles for relentless pessimism about the future, but would scarcely dispute his realism about the present.