“We are exceptional people; we are among those nations that . . .
exist only to give the world some terrible lesson.”
Chaadayev’s words came to mind in the aftermath of a blizzard in Vladivostok, snowy peaks ringing the port city, the sky still obscured by thick clouds. It was November 1992. The Soviet Union had collapsed under the weight of the communist legacy, a surge of nationalism, and the fall of the price of oil in the 80’s, depriving the party gerontocracy of the cash that had kept it on a kind of life support for years.
The failed August 1991 coup had accelerated the moving collapse that had started during the hopeful years of perestroika and glasnost, and the hope had been lost, swept away by popular disappointment with the results. I had watched the first—and last—Soviet president on TV after the wretched coup leaders were arrested, half amused and half appalled, pitying the man. He just didn’t get it: The Soviet Union was over and done with. What followed was the chaos one would expect from such a collapse, though it could have been much worse. Travelers were stranded across Russia because of fuel shortages and equipment breakdowns, factories were closing or operating on short hours, pay arrears were mounting, the people were losing...