MOSCOW – In 1811, assessing the possibility – or, rather, the impossibility – of Russia ever undergoing a Western-style transformation, the diplomat and counter-Enlightenment philosopher Joseph de Maistre famously wrote, “Every nation has the government it deserves.” Fourteen years later, the Decembrist revolt – a movement of poets and army officers to topple Czar Nicholas I and establish a constitutional monarchy – seemed to refute de Maistre’s claim. Yet the revolt was suppressed, and the Decembrists were executed or exiled. One doomed officer famously declared, “You can’t hang us all.”
Russia’s brutal twentieth century, with its totalitarianism and gulags, nearly proved that officer – and de Maistre – wrong. No one “deserves” to be ruled so monstrously. An estimated 20 million Russians perished under Stalin’s rule, and the rest were paralyzed with terror.