Cut the Russians some slack

Sen. Pat Toomey talks to CBS3's Jessica Dean

As upsetting as Russia's interference in the 2016 election is, Americans should understand Russian history a little more before demonizing the country and its people.

Modern Russian history has roots that are hundreds of years old, going back to a time when most Russians lived as peasants oppressed by tsars and the Russian nobility. That fact, plus the fact that Russia was attacked by European countries several times — namely Sweden, France, and Nazi Germany — over the centuries is etched in the Russian psyche. I suspect many young Americans today don't know that as many as 20 million Russian soldiers and civilians died in World War II — far more than the 400,000 Americans who died. Millions more Russians died from Stalin's political purges and famines. As one observer put it: "It's no surprise that Russian literature has frequently reflected themes of misery, suffering, sadness and torment because Russia, and its Soviet Union incarnation, has been racked by turmoil generation after generation."


When the Soviet Union collapsed, Boris Yeltsin introduced dramatic economic and political reforms. The "shock therapy" recommended by the United States and the IMF resulted in an economic crisis for Russia — a 50 percent decline in both the GDP and industrial output between 1990 and 1995. According to Wikipedia: "The depression of the economy led to the collapse of social services; the birth rate plummeted while the death rate skyrocketed. Millions plunged into poverty… 39 to 49 [percent] by mid-1993. The 1990s saw extreme corruption and lawlessness, the rise of criminal gangs and violent crime."

Then came Vladimir Putin. During his first presidency, the Russian economy grew for eight years in a row. Despite his being an authoritarian who jailed and possibly murdered some opponents, most Russians see Mr. Putin as a champion who rescued them from catastrophe and restored national pride. They see him as a hero; a Renaissance man who is well-educated, physically fit and speaks three languages; the man who rescued their country after the collapse of the Soviet Union — a man who won't be intimidated by what appears to Russians as Western hegemony.

Like citizens of any country, the Russians want their country to be respected as a sovereign world power — at least in their part of the world. Considering their history, it's understandable that they see America and an American-led NATO as a threatening western force. (Amazingly enough, Mr. Putin once considered joining NATO.)

Despite relative improvement in the lives of many Russians under Mr. Putin, their country's future seems far from secure. Russia has an immense land mass with a great diversity of people and a still weak economy that is not helped by the West's economic sanctions. There is great inequality of income in the country, with just 111 billionaires controlling nearly a fifth of the country's wealth, according to a 2014 Credit Suisse analysis. The average life expectancy in Russia is 66 for men and 77 for women, compared with America's 76 and 84 respectively. The country also has dozens of ethnic groups within it, speaking different languages and following different cultural traditions, complicating the national identity.

When Americans criticize the Russians for going into the Ukraine and Syria and building up forces near the Balkans, Mr. Putin counters that Americans are being hypocritical. The accusation seems justifiable considering how America has long exerted its own power all over the world, far from its own borders, usually leaving our own trail of death and destruction. Maybe Mr. Trump is right about Russia, unlikely as that may seem; maybe we should try harder to improve relations with the Russians. (Even a broken clock is right twice a day, as they say.)

Of course, we can't just sit back and let Russia interfere with U.S. elections. But maybe we should cut the Russians some slack in other areas considering the hardships they've gone through over the last couple of hundred years, not to mention to avoid the danger of the world's two greatest nuclear powers entering a second Cold War. Older folks remember the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the world came terrifyingly close to a nuclear holocaust. Intelligent leaders and cooler heads prevailed back then. America clearly doesn't have that kind of leadership today; it's up to the people to set the tone.

Paul Totaro is a retired teacher; his email is