The Return of Russia: Energy's Superpower or Potemkin Village?

Date of Award

Summer 8-2008

Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)


Political Science & Geography


Graduate Program in International studies

Committee Director

Simon Serfaty

Committee Member

Steve Yetiv

Committee Member

Austin Jersild

Call Number for Print

Special Collections LD4331.I45 B39 2008


George Kennan's prediction of the Soviet Union's downfall may have, in retrospect, jinxed Russia on the one aspect that had historically worked in its favor: time. The confluence of time and space--brought about by an emphasis on territorial expansion-had greatly aided Russia when difficulties had rendered the variable of time indispensable. When confronted by the likes of Napoleon and Hitler, for example, Russia had at its disposal the luxury of always trading space for time. Although deprived of its empire, the issue of space is not an overarching concern for a Russia that today still spans from Vladivostok to St. Petersburg. So, why does time no longer work in Russia's favor? Russia, historically, had always moved to counteract internal inadequacies by means of territorial expansion. The Soviet Union had discovered, painfully, that no amount of expansion or foreign adventurism could offset the increasing internal weaknesses that Kennan had predicted for it. For the same reasons that time was not on the side of the Soviet Union, so too it can be said of Russia today.

Given this, how is it that Russia today is thriving? Riding a wave of sustained economic growth and vitality, Russia has apparently overcome the stagnation and decline that marked its so-called "triple transition" from command to market economy, dictatorship to democracy, and empire to nation-state throughout the 1990's. The answer: instead of trading space for time, today's Russia has opted for the trading of its energy-of which it has ample supplies-for the time required to get its economic and domestic house in order.

Will it work? The answer in the short-term has been a resounding yes: Russia has experienced nine straight years of GDP growth and now sports the tenth largest economy in the world. Energy has very well restored Russia's power and prominence. In the long-term, however, Russia must still address several economic inadequacies-weak financial institutions, low investment rates, market diversification-as well as many pending demographic issues-declining population, alcoholism, HIV/ AIDS-that only reinforces the notion that time is not on its side.


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