When I was a graduate student at Columbia University's Russian Institute, there was a great debate: Was the communist Soviet Union an organic Russian development or was it largely a cancer imposed on it?
Those who held the organic view argued that the change from czar to commissar was only one of degree. Both were tyrannies, the latter more tyrannical than the former.
I agreed with the second view, that communism was something radically new, not a logical, let alone inevitable, Russian path. The czars were autocrats, not genocidal totalitarians.
I have to admit that in recent years, I have wondered whether the first view was right after all.
First, Vladimir Putin suppresses -- sometimes violently -- virtually all dissent in Russia; and most Russians are apparently entirely comfortable with it. Not just comfortable -- supportive.
Second, there is widespread nostalgia among Russian citizens for Stalin. One has to wonder if there is any other example of a large body of people pining for a leader who murdered tens of millions of their own people.
Third, there is increasingly little difference between the Russian media and the Soviet media. Both were/are saturated with lies. Anne Applebaum, foreign affairs columnist for the Washington Post, reports that: "Russia's state-controlled mass media ... still constantly denigrate Ukraine and its 'Nazi' government. Just in the past week, Russian reporting on Ukraine reached a new pitch of hysteria, with fake stories about the supposed crucifixion of a child and an extraordinary documentary comparing the Ukrainian army's defense of its own country with the Rwandan genocide."
Fourth, to the widespread acclaim of the Russian people, Putin annexed part of Ukraine, and is using Russian Ukrainians to violently annex more. All evidence points to these people -- supplied with Russian arms including the Russian SA-11 antiaircraft missile -- as the murderers who shot down a civilian airliner with 298 people on board.
Again, the Washington Post's Anne Applebaum: "This plane crash is a result of the Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine, an operation deliberately designed to create legal, political and military chaos. Without this chaos, a surface-to-air missile would not have been fired at a passenger plane.
"Into this ambiguous and unstable situation, the Russians cynically funneled a stream of heavy weapons: machine guns and artillery and, eventually, tanks, armed personnel carriers and anti-aircraft missiles. In recent days, the separatist forces were openly using man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS) and boasting of having taken down large Ukrainian transport planes, clearly with Russian specialist assistance. ...
"This is the context within which a surface-to-air missile was aimed at a passenger plane: a lawless environment ... a nihilistic disregard for human life; scorn for international norms, rules or standards."
And most relevant to our assessment of the Russian conscience, Applebaum concludes: "So far there is no sign of shock or shame in Russia."
Of course, today, as in Czarist Russia and in the communist Soviet Union, there are Russians of extraordinary moral courage. I worked with and for Soviet dissidents during the Cold War, and if there was a finer person on earth than Andrei Sakharov, the Soviet scientist who gave up fame and fortune to fight the immorality of the Soviet regime, I don't know who that person was.
But, for reasons outlined above, I now incline toward the dark view of the Russian conscience.
The bigger question is whether Europe has enough of a conscience to act.
If Europe doesn't muster the courage to confront Putin's Russia after hundreds of Europeans are blown out of the sky -- including 192 from the Netherlands alone -- there is truly little left of Europe's moral spine. Economic considerations will have trumped not only morality, but even empathy for one's own.
And is America far behind? Having been influenced for at least two generations by European values much more than by traditional American and Judeo-Christian values, America, too, is being tested. If all we will hear from this president are calls for "impartial investigations" and promises to "bring those responsible to justice," we can conclude that the American conscience -- at least as embodied by this president and his supporters -- is, to say the least, not what it was.
On the other hand, there is a nation whose actions -- protecting itself against genocidal fanatics -- are stirring the much of the world's conscience: Israel. Reassuring, no?