In this transcript, journalist Arkady Ostrovsky discusses his recent book, The Invention of Russia: From Gorbachev’s Freedom to Putin’s War, which recently won the 2016 Orwell Prize for political writing.
As has been said, in December of 1991—you may remember that day, the Christmas Day of December 1991—Mikhail Gorbachevaddressed the Soviet people on television, 5:00 to 7:00 in the evening, and said the following:
Destiny so determined that when I found myself at the helm of this state, it was already clear that something was wrong in this country. We had a lot of everything—land, oil and gas, other natural resources, and intellect and talent in abundance—but we were living much worse off than people in other industrialized countries, suffocating in the shackles of the bureaucratic command system. All the half-hearted reforms fell through, one after another. This country was going nowhere and we couldn’t possibly go on living the way we did. We had to change everything, radically.
LUSTICK: The basic point is pretty obvious. If a person is too thin, gaining weight is a good thing, but not if the weight gain is all in the stomach. To take a more extreme example: If a person is overweight, losing pounds is a good thing, but not if it is achieved by decapitation or sawing off one’s right arm. “Right-sizing” a state is the idea that—although it is dangerous and usually wrong to change a country’s borders when those borders have been settled and have taken on a sense of stability and naturalness—there are circumstances when it can be entirely appropriate to alter the size and shape of a state for the state’s own good and for the welfare of the nation, people, or population that identifies with it.
MOTYL: If the theory makes so much sense—and I agree that it does—why isn’t it practiced more often? What are the main obstacles to right-sizing?
LUSTICK: States commonly seek to get bigger, but more often than not they “wrong-size” themselves by doing so. Except for perhaps a temporary boost to the popularity of the leadership that promises that expansion will yield a bigger pie to divide among their followers, the costs of maintaining rule over far-flung territories and exploited and unhappy indigenous peoples usually vastly outweighs the benefits that can be sustained over a long period of time. That means, however, that many states are bigger than they “should be,” raising the question you have asked: why don’t more states shrink strategically? The reason is that getting smaller is almost always perceived as shrinking the size of the available pie and diminishing the prestige of those who identify with the state. So it is always more difficult to contract rather than expand, even if, strategically, it is likely to be very advantageous to do so. As you can imagine, it is far easier to label a leader who favors withdrawing from a territory a coward or a traitor to the national (or imperial) cause, than it is to challenge the patriotism of a leader embarking on a “glorious” campaign of expansion—one that would typically be characterized as being demanded by the historical (or divine) rights of the nation or its security requirements.
Mediation Perspectives is a periodic blog entry provided by the CSS’ Mediation Support Teamand occasional guest authors. Each entry is designed to highlight the utility of mediation approaches in dealing with violent political conflicts.
“In the absence of vision
The earth starts to vomit skeletons long buried,
Once swallowed by time,
As politics become a means to amass wealth,
You can buy a vote at thirty pieces of silver …”
Daniel Bowling and David Hoffman argue that mediators go through three stages in their training. They first learn skills and techniques, then they learn to
intellectually understand how mediation processes work, and finally they take the most challenging step – i.e., they develop “self-awareness, presence, authenticity, congruence, and integration,” which are qualities that “can be learned but . . . cannot be taught.” 
One way of learning such qualities is letting oneself be inspired by other people – mediators and non-mediators alike – who have such presence. The late Freedom Nyamubaya (1957–2015) was such a person, as I would now like to discuss in this partial commemoration and partial reflection on how to mediate well.
Freedom Nyamubaya was a freedom-fighter in Zimbabwe’s war of liberation. She joined the struggle at age fifteen and later advanced to the rank of Female Field Operation Commander. After the war she was active as a farmer, development worker and poet. In recent years she also became involved in peace and security issues as a Trustee for the Zimbabwe Peace and Security Programme. While she would not have called herself a mediator, she did work tirelessly to build bridges across conflict divides and was a powerful source of inspiration to many people within and outside of Zimbabwe.
Venezuela is a country of almost 900,000 square kilometres with over 30 million inhabitants. But a few, run-down city blocks in the west of the capital, Caracas, carry a significance far beyond their size and population. Known as “el centro”, this part of Libertador municipality holds the presidential Miraflores palace, many ministry buildings, the Supreme Court (Tribunal Supremo de Justicia, or TSJ) and the headquarters of the electoral authority (Consejo Nacional Electoral, or CNE). In the past few days “el centro” has been the scene of a variety of events that speak volumes about the depth of the combined political, economic, social and humanitarian conflict that seems finally to have caught the attention of the wider world. And about the difficulty of resolving it through dialogue.
Crisis Group has for years warned that authoritarian governance, economic mismanagement, violent crime and lawlessness in Venezuela would eventually prove a toxic combination. The crisis spiralled out of control following the untimely death from cancer of the country’s charismatic leader Hugo Chávez in 2013 and the near simultaneous plunge in the price of oil, on which the economy is almost wholly dependent. Acute shortages of food, triple-digit inflation, one of the world’s highest homicide rates and the collapse of public services, including health care, are signs of deeper dysfunction. This is a country on the verge of implosion.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the global political and economic architecture has been undergirded largely by one superpower, which set the stage for an unprecedented period of globalisation managed through multilateral institutions and actors. Now that unipolar moment is giving way to an era of diffused powers, with countries like the US, China and Russia each bearing considerable disruptive capacities, and each struggling to stitch together new norms and rules for these rapidly changing times.
This phase, the beginning of which was marked by the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 and characterised by America’s two bruising wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, has seen a vacuum emerge. Many are seeking to fill it, most determinedly China, but with a push back from countries such as Japan and India. Separately, ISIS and radical energies in the Middle East also seek to grab new space. Russia has chosen this very moment to signal its ability to muddy the Eurasian fields and intervene in the Middle East. The fact is, there is not enough room to accommodate all of these ambitions.
A median will have to be arrived at, but who will sacrifice what?