What Was to Be Gained?

When a co-founder of the Russian Anti-Doping Agency died unexpectedly, in February,  a couple of months after the world anti-doping authority accused Russia of widespread state-sponsored cheating and corruption, it didn’t make the news. When his 52-year-old successor died two weeks later, of a heart attack, after cross -country skiing, it did.

When the agency’s former laboratory chief fled Russia for Los Angeles in May, it made the front page of The New York Times.  Grigory Rodchenkov described an elaborate state-run doping program at the Sochi Winter Olympic Games, in which at least fifteen Russian medal-winners participated.  Anti-doping experts and members of a Russian intelligence service worked nights, passing supposedly tamper-proof bottles of urine back and forth through a hand-sized hole in the wall, in order for samples to be ready for testing the next day.

No sensible person doubts that the Russian government has been cheating on its doping tests – or that ultimate responsibility lies with Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko, a Vladimir Putin ally since the early ’90s, and with Putin himself.

What was there to be gained?  Medals, obviously. In the Winter Games in Vancouver, in 2010, Russia won 3 gold medals and 15 altogether. Four years later, as the host in Sochi, Russia dominated the games, winning 13 gold medals and 33 overall. The comeback served to burnish the narrative of turnaround under Putin, at least for domestic consumption

But what about larger question, of Russia going forward as member of the community of nations? What does the doping scandal tell us about what Putin is trying to accomplish? To glimpse the outlines of a satisfying answer to that question, you have to take a longer view – much longer.  You have to start with the Cold War, and with the former Soviet Union.

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Next year will mark the hundredth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution.  Get ready for an avalanche of commemoration. For a concise statement of what that was all about, it’s hard to beat the opening sentences of Jonathan Haslam’s Russia’s Cold War: From the October Revolution to the Fall of the Wall (Yale, 2011):

On the grand scale of history, the Cold War stemmed directly from a thoroughgoing revolt against Western values established since the Enlightenment, a wholesale rejection of an entire way of life and its economic underpinnings increasingly dominant since the seventeenth century, and the substitution of something new and entirely alien in term of culture and experience. That revolt began with the October Revolution in 1917.

A longtime professor of history at Cambridge University, Haslam today is serving a six-year term AS the George F. Kennan Professor at the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton. Russia’s Cold War is utterly absorbing, as helpful as anything I have seen for understanding the course of developments after World War II, thanks to the simple expedient of tracking the course of the Soviet experiment largely through Russian eyes.

For our purposes, let’s fast forward to 1980, when the Summer Olympics were held in Moscow, and the US stayed away, in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.  Barely noticed at the time was China’s return to the Olympics after an absence of twenty-four years, four years after the death of Mao Zedong. The Chinese skipped the Moscow session that year, but sent 24 athletes to the winter games, at Lake Placid.

By 1980, the Soviet Union was already in crisis, Haslam notes. Soviet growth, which averaged 3.4 percent from 1961 to 1975, had slowed to 1.1 percent a year from 1976-1990, even as population was increasing 14 percent.  Oil and gas exports had soared during the 1970s, but the proceeds had been spent on the military-industrial complex, Third World aid and agricultural imports instead invested of new enterprises.  Grain imports had tripled since 1973. Now energy prices had peaked. Real oil prices would fall 90 percent during the decade.

By 1983, Ronald Reagan and European NATO allies, especially France, were turning up the pressure. The Soviets were technologically weak; Reagan proposed the Strategic Defense Initiative, or “Star Wars” defense, as it became known. Arms limitation talks were called off. Espionage became more brutal on both sides. The next four years or so, as described by former Washington Post reporter David Hoffman in The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy (Doubleday, 2009), were genuinely scary.  After the Reykjavik summit, in October 1986, at which Mikhail Gorbachev surprised everyone by proposing a 50 percent cut in strategic weapons in exchange for the West agreeing to not deploy SDI weapons, tensions slowly abated


[W]hether one likes to admit it or not, the Carter-Reagan build-up in counterforce systems, the anticommunist zeal within Reagan’s administration, and the obsession with space-based defense played a key role in the unraveling of Soviet security policy across the board… Thatcher’s endless berating of Gorbachev, untiring pressure from Kohl, and the hard line of the Bush administration when faced with requests for financial aid all played their part in forcing the Soviet leadership to reconsider past policy and move to ever more radical change so as to enable perestroika to advance at home.

Let’s skip over the decline of Gorbachev and the rise of Boris Yeltsin, fascinating though that story is, described in Autopsy on an Empire: The American Ambassador’s Account of the Collapse of the Soviet Union (Random House, 1995), by Jack Matlock.  Let’s skip over, too, the wild and wooly ’90s, which are well-covered in Yeltsin: A Life (Basic Books, 2008), by Timothy Colton.  This is a Sunday morning column, after all. And as for China’s explosive growth after 1978, let’s simply mention Ezra Vogel’s Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China (Harvard, 2011), with its matter-of-fact account of Deng’s suppression of student demonstrations in the “Beijing Spring” of 1989. Thus we arrive at 1999, when, for reasons that are made clear in The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin (Knopf, 2015), by Steven Lee Myers, Yeltsin, having maneuvered Putin into office as prime minister, resigned abruptly in his favor on the last day of 1999. Myers has written a remarkably good book. I am going to skip over most of that, too.

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On the eve of taking over, Putin produced a blueprint to accompany his 2000 campaign for the presidency. In fact, Russia at the Turn of the Millennium had been prepared by German Gref, another member of the circle that had launched his career back when St. Petersburg was still known as Leningrad, but Putin had carefully read and annotated the document and it was fundamentally his. Posted on the government website on December 28, it was a new kind of campaign document, at least for Russia.

The dramatic turn in global development of the previous twenty or thirty years had caught the Soviet Union mostly unaware, Putin wrote.  The Russian empire had been powerful, but it hadn’t been rich. Its GDP had halved in the ’90s; its GNP was a tenth of that of the US and a fifth of China.  For the first time in centuries, Russia was in danger of slipping into the second or even third rank of nations.

The reason why was not in question.  Putin:

For three-quarters of the twentieth century Russia was dominated by the attempt to implement communist doctrine. It would be a mistake not to recognize, and even more to deny the unquestionable achievements of those times.  But it would be an even bigger mistake not to realize the outrageous price our country and its people had to pay for the social experiment…. The experience of the 1990s vividly demonstrates that our country’s genuine renewal without excessive costs cannot be achieved by merely experimenting with abstract models and schemes taken from foreign textbooks. The mechanical copying of other nations’ experience will not guarantee success either.


Russia is completing the first, transition stage of economic and political reforms. Despites problems and mistakes, we have entered the main highway of human development. World experience convincingly shows that only this path offers the possibility of dynamic economic growth and higher living standards.  There is no alternative.…


Russia was and will remain a great power…. It will not happen soon, if ever, that Russia will become the second edition of, say, the US or Britain in which liberal values have deep historic roots.  Our state and its institutions and structures have always played an exceptionally important role in the life of the country and its people.  For Russians a strong state is not an anomaly to be discarded.  Quite the contrary, they see it as the source and guarantee of order, and the initiator and main driving force of change. (The document wasn’t originally posted in English; this is from a translation by Richard Sakwa, of University of Kent.)

Myers divides the saga of Putin’s life into five parts:  his youth and service as a young officer in the KGB, perhaps the least corrupt and best-informed agency in the dying empire; his rise to power in the ’90s as a member of the circle that gathered around reform Leningrad mayor Anatoly Sobchak, a law professor, and Putin’s subsequent move to Moscow as a mid-level appointee in the second Yeltsin administration; his first eight years as Russian president, 2000-2008; Putin’s service as “prime minister” under President Dimitri Medvedev when law prevented him from running for re-election; and his return to the top job in 2012. Medvedev and Putin announced a few weeks before the election that they would again switch places. Not everyone was surprised:  a few months earlier after Medvedev had created a storm in Russian government circles when he failed to order a veto of a UN resolution that preceded the US-led NATO bombing that overthrew the Qaddafi regime.

Myers sees “no clear purpose” in Putin’s return in 2012, other than “the exercise of power for its own sake.”  The Russian president had restored neither the Soviet Union nor the tsarist empire over the course of a dozen years, Myers writes.  Instead Putin had created “a new Russia, with the characteristics and instincts of both. Brief and fragile in the ’90s, democracy has vanished.  Putin had made himself the indispensable leader. He would not encounter much opposition if he chose to run for re-election in 2018.  He would be only 72 years old after leaving office in 2024.

I am more inclined to take Putin at his word. The expansion of NATO membership that began with Bill Clinton over Yeltsin’s objections, and which continued under George W. Bush and Barack Obama, seems to me one of the central themes in understanding the course of events in Russia since 1992.  Putin gave a clear account of Russian objections in a speech in Munich in February 2007, and warned against further expansion. In August 2008 Medvedev waged and won a short war with neighboring Georgia after the would-be NATO member sought to annex South Ossetia. Then came the events in Ukraine in 2014, when Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine after a change of government in Kiev. Putin defended his right to do so in a vigorous speech, “The Spring Snaps Back.” Sanctions followed; the Russian economy has since tumbled into recession. The events in Ukraine represented a “fundamental break,” Myers writes. Putin no longer cared how the West would respond.

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So where does Olympic cheating fit in?  I don’t know the Russian psyche well enough to expound with any conviction on the intricate system of relevancies surrounding the issue. Why Russians Like Vladimir Putin, by state-funded Russia Today television commentator Peter Lavelle, is probably representative of what many ordinary Russians say to themselves. What ordinary Russians think about the deaths of anti-doping officials – or runaway oligarchs, journalists, and turncoat spies – is not part of his story.

I do know that, like all the rest of us — all other thinking citizens, not just those of us in the West – Putin has been pondering the outcomes of a series of epic natural experiments performed over the last hundred years. The attempt to radically transform human nature under communism failed.  Markets work, and the combination of international trade and technical change make most people richer, though inevitably some are made worse off. During the ’80s, US and NATO spending contributed to the Soviet collapse.  China after 1978 retained its apparatus of political control and boomed; Russia after 1989 abandoned its apparatus of control and fared much less well.

Finally, as columnist Michael Powell reminded us yesterday in The New York Times, Putin knows that the US had a considerable Olympic doping scandal of its own during its strenuous contest for supremacy with the Soviet Union, especially after the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics amid Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” re-election campaign.  Under a headline that began, “Lest We Forget …,” Powell wrote:

For much of the 1980s and 1990s, the United States had a pervasive doping problem in Olympic Sports that was enable by the USOC. Test results disappeared, doped-up athletes ran and jumped and swam their way to medals, and complicit coaches prospered. Our Olympic leaders and corporate sponsors and many of us in the news media placed hands over eyes and blocked ears at talk of American doping.

  1. So the doping scandal probably doesn’t tell us very much about Putin’s larger designs and ambition.  It may gain him something domestically; internationally, IT probably doesn’t cost him very much.  The Western press doesn’t like him very much, anyway. See David Remnick, Trump and Putin: A Love Story, if you doubt it.  Remnick is a distinguished journalist, author of Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire (Random House 1993) and Resurrection: The Struggle for a New Russia (Random House 1997). Since 1998, he has edited The New Yorker. But, having been a correspondent in Moscow for four years, he is also a charter member of what I have called “the Generation of ’91” – idealists in government and policy circles caught up in the fervent hope that Russia would become more like the US.  It already has.  It may become yet more so.

Perhaps that is the moral of the doping scandal. Both nations cheated in hopes whipping up patriotism, in the throes of risky attempts to improve their positions.  In the US, the government never was directly involved, and no one was killed, though guilty officials were promoted to senior positions. In Russia not everyone wasi nvolved: 271 athletes were cleared to compete, 118 fewer than had been entered. Unattractive as the Russian approach may have been over the decades to American values, in general the Russians have increasingly, slowly, come to play by shared rules.

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