In the fall of 1983, while in Moscow, I went to the synagogue on Arkhipova Street - the only functioning synagogue in the Soviet capital. Plenty of people used to always hang out in front of the building: consultants on emigration to Israel, marriage organizers, Hebrew teachers, all kinds of brokers, foreign tourists and random onlookers. Foreigners were a novelty, and everyone tried to strike up a small talk, share opinions and impressions.
It was shortly after the shooting down of a South Korean passenger jet by a Soviet fighter plane near Sakhalin. It was the time when U.S. President Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union an "Evil Empire." So here we were, standing near the synagogue trying to speak with the American tourist, demonstrating the level of English language teaching in Soviet schools and universities. Suddenly, in the midst of the conversation, some nerdy looking young man came up to us and sharply threw a phrase in English with strong Russian accent: "Reagan is right. Soviet Union is the Evil Empire." People hissed at him while the American tourist just went for an awkward smile, and we moved on with our chitchat...
Eight years later, the Soviet Union collapsed, and Russia has become its legal successor Russia. Today, this Russia is rightly considered an Evil Empire. It has repeatedly proven to be such - both within its borders and beyond, being a successor of “glorious” Soviet traditions. Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Afghanistan, Transnistria, Chechnya, Abkhazia, Georgia, Ukraine… These are the Moscow’s steps on its sad path. You can also add a variety of civilizational quirks – ranging from radical “Orthodoxation” of people's minds to incinerating food, ideologically alien to Russians.
KGB lieutenant colonel Vladimir Putin and his clique have done their best so that the Russian government and the Russian people (which is much sadder) have confirmed in recent years that the old man Reagan was indeed right. So were the theses of the anti-Communist propaganda from early 20th century, as well as “slander” of Russophobes. Russia really is an Evil Empire: without honor and conscience, without memory and dignity, full of ambition and inflamed complexes, hatred and envy. It’s no wonder that sometimes we come across a conspiracy theory suggesting Putin has long been an agent of some Western intelligence service carrying out a task to contribute to Russia’s collapse. The outcome of Putin’s three cadences actually speaks in favor of such exotic assumptions. However, I have long believed that human vices, first of all greed, stupidity and ignorance, are bear a lot more threats than the most ingenious plots and sophisticated special operations. Both Putin’s activities and perception of Russian president by an overwhelming majority of the Russian people (both formal and sincere) remind me of an aphorism mentioned in the perestroika years in the context of the analysis of the Stalin phenomenon: "The Lion cannot be the king of the rats, the king of the rats could only be a rat." A ruler that fits his people.
Russia’s present model of behavior in the international arena makes me reminisce of another thing from my childhood. I remember how some boys in the hood were discussing how a school bully responded to the first signs of a coming brawl with inmates in a facility for young criminal delinquents. As the group approached him with certain intentions, he grabbed a stool played mental, threatening to kill anyone who steps closer. Today, Putin essentially acts as such a bully, but instead of stools he has nuclear weapons. And he is the one who got himself in such an uncomfortable position.