June 25, 2008

A Metaphorical Net Game


Russia this spring won a series of notable victories on the international stage.

Maria Sharapova (see front cover) won the Australian Open, Russia won the UEFA Cup in soccer, and the Russian squad took the World Hockey Championships in Montreal. The women's tennis Fed Cup team also advanced to the finals of that tourney, upstart Dinara Safina came in second in the French Open of tennis, and Bilan won the Eurovision song contest.

The first thing to note is that all but one of these victories took place in sport. Russia has truly regained its prowess as a sports superpower, and it may rise further yet. It will surely be giving the U.S. a run for its money in the overall medals race at the Beijing Olympics in August. This is quite impressive when you consider that Russia has less than half the population of the U.S. and one-tenth that of China (which will likely place third in overall medals).

Second, this rise in sports achievement takes place against the backdrop of a Russia that, without putting too fine a point on it, has bumbled from failure to failure in foreign policy in recent months, from Georgia to the Baltics, to Iran, England, Ukraine, Poland and the U.S. (And don't mention the Hague.) Or at least that is how their moves have been generally perceived by the majority of Western states.

This is curious indeed. Because during the Cold War conventional wisdom had it that, if we could engage the Soviet Union in sports and business and cultural exchanges, we would get to know one another better, we would beat our swords into plowshares, and we would take out our aggressions on the soccer field, rather than in Cuba or the Middle East. Yet it turns out that, as post-Soviet Russia has become less of a military power and more of an economic and sports power, it has been making more enemies, not less, particularly on its borders.

Someone favorably inclined to Russia might think (hope?) that Russia's actions in Georgia, Kosovo or the Baltics are simply being misinterpreted. But that is hard to square with the facts. Too many of the moves (gas cutoffs, diplomatic expulsions, missile base bluster, Slavic chauvinism) have been blatant, heavy-handed and wrong-headed.

In tennis, there is something called a passing shot. Your opponent aggressively charges the net while returning a short, easy shot. This puts them in a forward position, ready to attack your return and slam it down your throat. But this net position, while superficially strong, can also be very weak. If you are a good player, you can use trigonometric advantages to slide a passing shot past your opponent, down the sideline, or lob the ball over the net player's head to score the point.

Russia has been repeatedly charging the net. Yet, rather than whacking back humiliating passing shots, we need to ease our "opponent" back to the baseline. Keeping the rally alive with vigorous baseline volleys is a much better place to be. Sure, it is fun to score quick and decisive points, but some games are less about winning than about ensuring the competition continues peacefully.

{Editor's Letter in the July/August 2008 issue of Russian Life}

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