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I’m no expert on Russian literature, Russian culture, or anything Russian. But I did take the language for two years at the high school level, and studied the Soviet system and its foreign policy in some college courses. Moreover, as part of my continual self-improvement program, I just finished Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment (which somehow I was never assigned back in the day). So a new post on FOREIGN POLICY magazine’s website on “What Russian Literature Tells Us About Vladimir Putin’s World” couldn’t help but catch my eye.

Although I’m not someone who thinks that Eastern Europe’s fate is a vital U.S. national security interest (much less Ukraine’s), Washington did push strongly and successfully to bring many of the former Warsaw Pact countries into NATO, and Moscow is increasingly active military off the coasts and in the skies over the region (as well as sometimes on the ground through hired agitators). So the risk of accidental confrontation at the least has grown uncomfortably high, and brings urgency to the task of figuring out Russia’s leadership.

According to James Stavridis, a former four-star U.S. Navy admiral, to understand the Russians best, “Get rid of that CIA report full of dusty Cold War tropes. Forget the NSA intercepts or spy satellite imagery. And drop the jargon-filled scholarly analysis from those political science journals. Instead, get back to the richest literary gold mine in the Western world: Russian novels and poetry.”

The author’s interpretations of all the Russian authors he deals with strike me as worth reading. Especially notable seemed to be his discussion of Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Of the former, Stavridis writes, that he “shows us how the Russians think about their ability to fight, and illuminates the deep patriotism that fuels today’s nationalist tendencies. Tolstoy makes clear the largest landmass under national sovereignty in the world is literally unconquerable, even by the brilliance of Napoleon. Moscow might burn, but the Russian military will never give up.”

My only quibbles. First, when the Russian army believed it fought for a cruel monarchy, in 1917, it collapsed. Second, the Red Army’s fighting spirit was clearly sapped in Afghanistan in the 1980s. So I agree that no one should doubt the Russian soldier’s determination to defend Mother Russia. But their willingness to wage war for exploitative autocrats is open to real doubt, and its potency seems to wane the farther away from the homeland (which is being defined expansively lately) it gets.

Stavridis’ takeaway from Solzhenitsyn’s 1962 tale of life in a Soviet prison camp strikes me as more convincingly relevant to current challenges: “Think the Russians will crack under sanctions? Try reading [Denisovich, whose] protagonist, a convict in a Siberian gulag, finds a hundred ways to scrape through the day, dealing with the petty corruption, laughing at the predicaments, occasionally reveling in the harsh conditions of his imprisonment, and powerfully exhibiting the ability to overcome adversity. Like Denisovich, Russians will find an ironic pleasure in overcoming the pain of sanctions, and we should not put too much faith in our ability to break their will through imposing economic hardships.”

But I haven’t read either work. As for Stavridis’ treatment of Crime and Punishment, I’ve got mixed feelings. It seems a stretch to compare Dostoyevkey’s psychologically tormented main character, Raskolnikov, to oligarch-turned-opposition leader Mikhail Khordokovsky. Yes, the former is redeemed after committing a terrible crime, and the latter has become a voice for democracy after cashing in hugely during the initial post-Soviet “Wild, Wild East” period, and then serving prison time. But Khordokovsky’s devotion to Western ideals like rule of law and transparency in business and politics when they don’t serve his immediate interests can still legitimately be questioned – as Stavridis seems to recognize.

In fact, Crime and Punishment contains few explicit descriptions and comments on Russia’s culture or the Russian character, but facets of both come through loud and clear throughout the novel. It’s impossible to read without being struck by traits such as an obsession with social status (especially if it’s been lost), a ridiculously fragile pride, and a deep ambivalence towards the West nonetheless dominated by an unmistakable inferiority complex. And it’s equally impossible to read passages depicting these qualities without thinking of today’s headlines.

But I’d urge you to read Stavridis’ post for insights from other great Russian works. And if U.S.-Russian relations genuinely grab you, read some of these works themselves if you haven’t already.

One final note: When I was helping to edit FOREIGN POLICY in the mid-1980s, we ran an eye-opening (at least to me!) article on Russian cultural and social traditions and how they continued to shape the Soviet system and its behavior. It was written by a veteran Foreign Service Officer named John Michael Joyce, it was titled “The Old Russian Legacy,” it came out in the magazine’s Summer, 1984 issue, and it’s out of circulation now. But it’s well worth tracking down if you have access to a good public or college library.