SOFIA, Bulgaria — There is something mystifying about the American obsession with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The Kremlin’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula, its military involvement in Syria and its meddling in elections abroad may help explain some of America’s sense of alarm. But they fail to explain why liberals in the United States are so much more vexed by Russia than they are by, say, the growing economic power and geopolitical ambitions of China, or the global ideological challenge of radical Islam or the sheer craziness of a nuclear-armed North Korea.
Russia suffers from demographic decline and arrested modernization. Its economy is overdependent on exporting natural resources. Its population has one of the highest percentages of university-educated people but the lowest labor productivity in the industrialized world. And although Mr. Putin is a strong and ruthless leader who enjoys popular support at home and celebrity status abroad, Russia’s institutions are corrupt and dysfunctional: Russian bureaucrats spend much of their energy fighting one another over money and power and have no time to cooperate. And Russia’s future after Mr. Putin — whenever that may come — is anybody’s guess.
Was it not just two years ago that President Barack Obama called Russia a “regional power”? And is it not true that even today most experts concur that while Moscow is an aggressive military power interested in counterbalancing America’s influence in the world, it is no traditional “rising power”? As the eminent American historian Stephen Kotkin wrote last year in Foreign Affairs, “For half a millennium Russian foreign policy has been characterized by soaring ambitions that have exceeded the country’s capabilities.” It is no different today.
And yet despite all of this, Americans are mesmerized and terrified by Russia. Is it simply that for liberal America, “Russia” is a code name for “Donald Trump”?
As for many of the great questions of our times, an explanation can be found in Russian classical literature. In this case, Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novella “The Double.” It is the story of a government clerk who winds up in the madhouse after meeting his doppelgänger — a man who looks like him and speaks like him, but who displays all the charm and self-confidence that the tortured protagonist lacks. The doppelgänger in Dostoyevsky’s story does not drive the protagonist insane just because they look alike but because he makes the protagonist realize what it is he doesn’t like about himself. And such it is with the United States and Russia today.
The Soviet Union terrorized the West for most of the 20th century in part because it was so radically different. There was ostensibly no God, no private property and no political pluralism. America could be Sovietized only by losing the war against Communism. Mr. Putin’s Russia, by contrast, frightens Americans because they know that the United States and Russia should be very different, but many of the pathologies present in Russia can also be found in the United States. What disturbs liberal America is not that Russia will run the world — far from it. Rather, the fear, whether liberals fully recognize it or not, is that the United States has started to resemble Russia.
It was the Kremlin that for the past two decades tried to explain away its problems and failures by blaming foreign meddling. Now America is doing the same. Everything that liberal Americans dislike — Mr. Trump’s electoral victory, the reverse of the process of democratization in the world and the decline of American power — are viewed as the results of Mr. Putin’s plottings.
For liberal Americans, Russia is — rightfully — a frightening example of how authoritarian rule can function within the institutional framework of a democracy. Russia’s “managed democracy” provides a vivid illustration of how institutions and practices that originally emancipated citizens from the whim of unaccountable rulers can be refashioned to effectively disenfranchise citizens (even while allowing them to vote).
Russia also embodies what politics can look like when the elites are completely divorced from the people. It is not only a highly unequal society but also one in which rising inequality is normal, and a handful of very rich and politically unaccountable rulers have managed to stay on top without having to use much violence. The privileged few do not need to dominate or control their fellow citizens; they can simply ignore them like an irrelevant nuisance.
It may take a while before working-class Americans start to realize that while the American economy is dramatically different from that of Russia, the technological revolution led by Silicon Valley could in time tilt Western societies toward authoritarian politics in the same way that an abundance of natural resources has made Mr. Putin’s regime possible. Robots — not unlike post-Soviet citizens — are not that interested in democracy.
For many years, Americans were able to look at Russia and its social and political problems and see a country stuck in the past, perhaps someday to develop into a modern country like the United States. But that’s no longer the prevailing attitude. Now, whether they realize it or not, many Americans fear that when they look at Russia they are looking at the future. What is most disturbing is that it could be their future, too.
Ivan Krastev is the chairman of the Center for Liberal Strategies, a permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna, a contributing opinion writer and the author, most recently, of “After Europe.”