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'The Payback Will Be Ruthless': Scholar's Open Letter To Russia Pulls No Punches

Maksim Frank-Kamenetsky

Maksim Frank-Kamenetsky

After returning to his homeland for a four-month visit, Maksim Frank-Kamenetsky, a Soviet-born biophysicist who lives in Boston, penned the following open letter to Russians. (The letter in the original Russian can be accessed here. Read a more in-depth story about the letter here.)

'I Hold Putin Responsible...'

Just before New Year's Eve I flew home, to Boston. I left Russia for good 21 years ago, but over these years I have often returned for short periods of time, and I spent the whole of last fall in Moscow.

I'm on sabbatical this academic year, so I decided to spend the fall semester in Skoltech, the new university created in Skolkovo with the participation of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

I won't say anything about Skoltech. All I will say is that its very confined environment turned out to be not confined enough to isolate me from the rest of the country. And anyway, I was not seeking isolation.

What do I feel toward my native country as I leave it again after four months spent here? During my stay, an overwhelming feeling of nausea gradually came over me and grew stronger all the time. There has not been such centralization, such concentration of power in this vast country in the hands of one person since Stalin's time. Stalin, however, achieved this by putting up the Iron Curtain, by waging the Great Terror, by destroying everyone and everything, through total surveillance, total denunciation, and the terrifying gulag system.

None of this remains today. The borders are open and the repressive machine, if it still exists, is a very watered-down version. Even so, people in the intelligentsia have started repeating this idiotic mantra, declaring their boundless and unconditional love for Russia, for R-R-Russian culture, for "Russian civilization." They give the impression of being afraid that if they stop frenetically repeating this mantra they will immediately be lined up against a wall. Not to mention the irrational, all-pervasive anti-Americanism. All this, of course, results from a huge inferiority complex, but it can't indefinitely be used as an excuse!

Nobody is interested in geopolitics – that is, how Russia's behavior on the international scene is perceived by the rest of the world. Stop looking at the others, you've seen enough of them, now feast your eyes on us! But in these other countries, decisions, even though they are not always sensible and correct, are taken within the framework of a democratic process and the mistakes of one administration can be fixed by the following administration. In today's Russia, ALL the decisions are taken by one person, who will be replaced only after his natural or violent death.

What most amazed me is that the citizens of this country, at any rate the vast majority of them, do not view this as a threat to them, to their family, and to the world. Of course, quite a few people end up leaving. But they still represent a tiny minority. What do the others expect? This is a mystery to me. I have the strong feeling that people believe authorities when they say that in 2015 oil prices will go up and the ruble will strengthen.

One small observation that drives me crazy. Ahead of my departure, I toured souvenir shops on the Arbat. Almost all the T-shirts you can find there depict Putin is various poses with inscriptions such as "The Best President," "The Most Polite President," etc. And this is not state propaganda. Obviously these items are in demand: People don't only like them, they are ready to buy them!

I'm afraid everyone without exception will end up answering for this, and the payback will be ruthless. Here's also why I think so: You can't with impunity sell disgusting racist images of the president of a great country (in this case, I mean the United States) in souvenir shops. Sooner or later, this will backlash severely.

Taking advantage of my rather unique position as someone who has long lived in the United States but who spent the past four months in Moscow, I want to speak with the utmost frankness.

All this talk about the United States and Saudi Arabia conspiring to bring down oil prices in a bid to rein in the unruly Russian bear is complete nonsense. No one in the world has taken or takes Russia seriously (since the U.S.S.R. bit the dust). Nothing better illustrates the notion of a perfect storm than Russia's current situation. Three processes have independently and simultaneously converged.

1. The emergence of new technologies over the past 15 years (not only shale technology) has resulted in a sharp rise in oil production in the United States and Canada, which effectively form a single economic space. As a result, the United States /Canada stopped importing oil and started exporting it. Oil producers like Nigeria and, to some extent, Saudi Arabia, deprived of their traditional customer, the United States, scrambled to find new clients. This led to much higher supply and, accordingly, to a fight for oil markets, since the United States is the single biggest oil consumer in the world.

2. Independently of this, there has been a slowdown in the world economy, particularly in Europe and China. The Japanese economy has long stopped growing. As a result, demand for oil has fallen. The combination of these two factors, the supply increase and the drop in demand, was bound to bring oil prices down. As soon as early 2013, any sensible person already understood that this scenario was inevitable. I, for instance, traveled to Moscow in May 2013 for this reason and told all those who wished to hear (and those who didn't, too) that I had come to "see my home country before the collapse."

These two factors alone are sufficient to cause a perfect storm, which would have broken out anyway last fall. But apparently, some people thought this was not enough: One more factor was artificially added, one that directly hit Russia and its residents:

3. KRYMNASH! (Crimea Is Ours!)

Russian still cannot understand that annexing another country's territory, even without a single shot being fired, is not like the national football team winning the World Cup. Such an annexation sets a very dangerous precedent, particularly in Europe, the main theater of fighting in both world wars.

Yes, Russians are convinced that Crimea is Russian land and that it rightly should be part of Russia. They have every right to think so, right? What about the so-called Kaliningrad region, i.e. Koenigsberg and East Prussia? Is this also Russian land? Or is it German? Germans, after all, also have every right to think so, right? What if next time Russia is on its knees (which is not an improbable prospect, right?) Germany reclaims East Prussia and kicks all the Russians the hell out of there, just like Russians once kicked out all the Germans?

So what now, should we once again, for the third time in the past 100 years, redraw the map of Europe "fairly" with the help of annexations, guns, and tanks? Has Putin discussed his plans to annex Crimea with anyone, with any world leader, let alone with the UN or NATO, before putting them into action? Even Hitler held negotiations with France and Great Britain in Munich before seizing Czechoslovakia.

Putin obviously thinks possessing nuclear weapons makes him invincible. Has he already forgotten about the "biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century"?! As I said, no one is afraid of Russia -- it is too weak in all respects -- although we still had to straightjacket the madman with harsh sanctions.

Russians are furious that Americans care about Crimea. It's a world away from them and a year ago no one in the United States had -- and still has -- the faintest idea where it's located. Russians don't understand this is not what it's all about. Americans don't give a damn about Crimea and they don't care a straw about Ukraine either (or about Russia, for that matter). But they do give a damn about stability in Europe. Americans are not good at geography, but they a have a good memory and they remember that twice in the 20th century thousands of American boys died in Europe because Europe was incapable of solving its own problems. They don't want this to happen again, especially since this time the bad guy is brandishing nuclear weapons.

Unfortunately for Russians, very effective means of imposing sanctions were developed and thoroughly tested over the past few years due to the fight against terrorism and Iran. Particularly with Iran, banks and businesses worldwide learned how much it can hurt to violate the sanctions declared by America. America is not to be trifled with, I have to say.

What I've said above shows that I don't blame Putin, either directly or indirectly, for plummeting oil prices. But I blame him for usurping all the powers in such a vast country, I hold him responsible for making Russia much more vulnerable with his insane actions in Ukraine instead of doing his best to soften the blow of the approaching perfect storm.

What do I wish people back here for the New Year? That their dreams come true, and that, like in a fairy tale, Western sanctions and Putin's counter-sanctions are lifted, that shops start selling good cheese again, that oil costs $250 like Gazprom chief Miller once promised, and that Ukraine comes crawling on its knees and begs to be part of Russia.

If none of this happens and a full-blown crisis breaks out, there will be two options: a horrible end (for the regime) or endless horror (for Russians). I think there is no need to say what I would wish for, especially since this wish could fall under some article of the Russian Federation's criminal code, which is so briskly expanding with new offenses being added on an almost daily basis.

So all I will say is: Happy New Year!