MOSCOW -- I've been a regular visitor to Vladimir Putin's Russia, and, when I was describing what troubled me most about the place to a wise foreign policy friend, he urged me to read the play "Three Sisters" by Chekhov. It's the tale of the aspiring Prozorov family, whose three cultured and educated sisters -- Olga, Masha and Irina -- grew up in Moscow but for 11 years found themselves marooned in the countryside. The sisters are always waxing poetic about their plans to go back to Moscow (the Emerald City), but they never make it and their dream fades.
Putin brings out the Three Sisters in me. Every time I come here, I expect to find that, this time, Russia is really pivoting from being a petro-state, with a heavy authoritarian gloss -- and a president who relies on anti-Western rhetoric to maintain his political base -- to a country that has decided to invest in education, innovation and its human capital and is ready to be a partner with the West. But it never materializes, and lately it has started to go backward.
I wonder if Putin realizes how open the U.S. would be to partnering with Russia today to bring order to the Middle East or to serve as a counterweight to China -- especially when the European Union is so weak and America is so inwardly focused.
Russia would be so much more influential as America's partner than it would be as Iran's or Syria's patron. And its economy would be so much more resilient if Putin tapped his people and unlocked their creativity rather than just his oil and gas wells. But doing the latter would require a much freer political atmosphere.
The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development just completed a study of the Russian economy, reported by Bloomberg News. The article said that "Russia, the world's largest energy exporter, is becoming increasingly dependent on commodities and failing to prepare for falling oil output in 20 years. ... Corruption, poor education, immigration barriers and state dominance in the economy, which curbs private innovation, all hinder diversification. ... The economy's dependence on energy is greater today than in the mid-1990s, when it represented less than half of exports. ... Russia's investment in promoting high-tech industries -- with public money accounting for 75 percent of research and development funding -- has yielded only limited results, the EBRD said." The reasons are obvious. Small businesses, startups and nonresource companies require strong intellectual property-rights protection, independent courts and trusted financial markets, and those require solid political institutions with regular rotations in power -- all things Putin's rule works against.
I am wrong to be so pessimistic, says Vladislav Y. Surkov, the deputy prime minister for modernization. I was in Surkov's office in the Russian White House here a few days ago. As I was interviewing him, it was impossible to ignore the two posters on his wall. One showed the Google co-founder Sergey Brin and the other Vladimir Zworykin, who served as director of the RCA Laboratories in Princeton in the 1950s and helped to pioneer television. "OK," I asked Surkov, "why are those two on your wall?"
"I want to send the message to the visitors to this office that Russia gave the world such geniuses," said Surkov. "Their inventions have entered every household in the world, and the fact that these people, of our kin and our blood, managed to give such gifts to the world should fill our hearts with faith that Russian has a future as an innovative power."
Surkov, once described as Putin's Machiavelli, is impressive, and his plans to stimulate innovation in Russia sounded real to me. But I couldn't resist noting that innovative cultures don't do things like throw a female punk band into prison for two years for performing a "punk prayer" in a cathedral. That sends a bad signal to all freethinkers. Surkov, who also keeps a picture of the American rapper Tupac Shakur behind his desk, pushes back.
"Tupac Shakur is a genius, and the fact that he was in prison did not interrupt either his creative juices or the innovative development of the United States."
This punk band is no Tupac Shakur, he added. "Being orthodox myself, I feel really sorry for the girls ... but (their situation) has no implications for the innovative developments of Russia."
This band probably is no Tupac, but the band members were iconoclasts who broke the mold, albeit in an offensive and obnoxious manner. Isn't that what critics said about Steve Jobs?
Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times.