How did our relations with Russia go so far wrong so quickly? The Obama administration hoped to have a “reset” of our bilateral ties by wiping the slate clean. In giving the Russians a reset, we were showing a willingness to let bygones be bygones. Or, in their case, let Putin’s 2008 invasion of neighboring Republic of Georgia be forgotten. It was exactly the wrong thing to do.
But the trouble with our Russian relations goes further back. After the collapse of Communism and the largely peaceful dissolution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in 1991, it seemed we were headed for a new era of liberal democracy in Russia. Boris Yeltsin was the brave, bluff, buoyant President of the Russian Federation who had boldly stood atop a tank in Moscow when the Communist Party made its last-ditch effort to seize power and depose the feckless Mikhail Gorbachev. Yeltsin was courageous, to be sure. He might easily have been killed.
Still, he represented the fresh winds of change in Russia. Perhaps, after a thousand years of despotism, the long-suffering Russian people would at last know real freedom. And the fact that the long-suppressed Russian Orthodox Church was free to worship was seen as a harbinger of a new dawn for Mother Russia.
So it seemed at the time. When jubilant crowds surged through Moscow, they tore down the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the dreaded CHeKa, the Soviet Secret Police (which morphed into the KGB). “Iron Felix” was the symbol of all that was wrong with the USSR, with Communism, with Russian despotism. Surely, many of us felt, this was the end of the evil empire.
Our focus of attention soon shifted elsewhere, however. In the 1990s, America took what columnist Charles Krauthammer has sagely called “a holiday from history.” Some Americans continued to report from Russia, but few here were interested. Larry Uzzell was one intrepid reporter who wrote from Moscow. Uzzell, a former Heritage Foundation scholar and, too briefly, a Reagan administration official, was fluent in Russian and was himself a convert to Orthodox Christianity. Perhaps because of that, he was especially interested in religious freedom in Russia.
In 1993, Larry Uzzell warned that the new Russian constitution was not a good protector of freedom. It centralized too much power in the hands of the Russian Federation President and it failed to provide strong guarantees for religious freedom.