Navigating Russia is a newly launched newsletter that takes a deeper look at Russia’s past for insights into its present and what the future might hold. My current interests center around Russia’s political economy, its long, complex relations with the Atlantic world, and Russian civil society’s 200 year struggle for a more liberal political order.
That’s a broad horizon, but it gains some focus through my current book project—a history of the Russian oil industry from the 1850s to the present and its impact on Russian civil society. The oil industry is a red thread that weaves through the last 170 years of Russian history binding all these themes together. Once an incubator for global technological innovation and liberal politics, it has been since the 1960s a tragic case study in the resource curse—one still being written today. So expect to see a lot about genius engineers, civic-minded geologists and rent-hoarding rulers.
A bit about me. I first spent time in Russia some 40 years ago as a language exchange student while an undergrad at Harvard. I returned to the U.S. intent on becoming a Russian historian and spent the rest of the 1980s in Oxford, Istanbul, Tashkent, Moscow and back at Harvard again studying Slavic and Turkic languages, working in archives, teaching to pay the bills and grinding out a PhD dissertation. Along the way, I was fortunate to have a number of generous and inspiring teachers.
In the early 1990s, I found myself back in Moscow as the post-Soviet order was emerging and decided to take some time out from teaching history so I could witness it unfolding first hand. This led me on a 25 year detour into international finance, with hundreds of journeys to remote parts of Russia and other destinations across Asia, Africa, Europe and the Middle East. It was a fascinating and sobering education about the various ways of power and capital in the world.
With that detour well behind me, I’ve resumed the useful work of a cultivator of our collective memory. As we struggle to preserve, let alone improve, our own fragile liberal order, we would do well to understand how it came about in the first place. But equally instructive is to learn how other societies—ones not so dissimilar to our own—have failed time and again, to enter the “narrow corridor” of good governance, remaining burdened with repressive rule instead. And for such a cautionary tale, we need look no further than Russia.
I hope you’ll join me in taking a deeper look.