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Feature: The Quiet Americans Behind the U.S.-Russia Imbroglio

During two decades, on and off, reporting in Russia and the post-Soviet states — in the turbulent ’90s, the wealthy but depressing aughts and finally during the eruption of violence in Ukraine — I occasionally heard people talk about how “the Americans” wanted this or that political outcome. The events in Ukraine demonstrated, or seemed to demonstrate, that behind the visible facade of changing presidents and changing policy statements and changing styles, “the Americans” were actually a small core of officials who not only executed policy but also effectively determined it. The continuing wars in Ukraine and Syria, the apparent Russian campaign of targeted assassinations on foreign soil, the widening gyre of sanctions and countersanctions and the still-festering question of Russian meddling in the 2016 election have made for the worst relations between the two countries since the 1980s. Understanding how to get out of this mess will require understanding how we got into it. There may be no better place to start than with the people inside the American government who have been working on the subject since 1991 — the Russia hands.

The abiding mystery of American policy toward Russia over the past 25 years can be put this way: Each administration has come into office with a stated commitment to improving relations with its former Cold War adversary, and each has failed in remarkably similar ways. The Bill Clinton years ended with a near-catastrophic standoff over Kosovo, the George W. Bush years with the Russian bombing of Georgia and the Obama years with the Russian annexation of Crimea and the hacking operation to influence the American election.

Some Russia observers argue that this pattern of failure is a result of Russian intransigence and revisionism. But others believe that the intransigent and unchanging one in the relationship is the United States — that the country has never gotten past the idea that it “won” the Cold War and therefore needs to spread, at all costs, the American way of life.

Last summer, a few months after the inauguration of President Trump, I began traveling to Washington to speak with Russia hands: those who had worked on Russia inside the State Department, the National Security Council or the Department of Defense. I interviewed hands who served in the government as far back as Jimmy Carter and up to the current administration; some served Republican presidents, others served Democrats, but a vast majority served both parties.

The government, as a rule, discourages specialization: Military officers and diplomats are constantly transferred from one post to another, from one region to the next. Still, specialists do emerge. Many but not all Russia hands have Ph.D.’s — in Russian history or political science or security studies. Others got their graduate education on the job. Nuland worked on the Soviet fishing trawler; Daniel Fried, her eventual close collaborator at the State Department, spent a semester as a live-in babysitter for an American Embassy family in Moscow. “Seeing Communism up close cures you of all your left-liberal illusions that the Cold War is a misunderstanding that can be cured through arms control and détente,” Fried says. “Communism up close is very ugly.” Some Russia hands started out as civil servants or military officers, others as academics pulled into government service after working as advisers on political campaigns.

The Russia hands have clear generational characteristics. Those who came of age at the height of the Cold War worked on Russia because it was America’s most important foreign-policy problem. Many of those who finished graduate school or officer-training school in the late ’80s or early ’90s bear the scars of having studied a subject that became seemingly irrelevant overnight. In 1989, Peter Zwack, now a retired brigadier general, was a young military-intelligence officer stationed in Germany, taking Russian language and politics courses. “I was waiting for them to come through the Fulda Gap,” he says, referring to a section of West Germany through which NATO planners expected the Soviets to push large mechanized formations. “We were outmanned. I thought we were outgunned.” But the Soviets never came, and for the next 20 years Zwack worked in the Balkans, then Afghanistan and South Korea, before finally returning to Russia in 2012 as defense attaché to the American Embassy.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States had to staff 14 new embassies in the post-Soviet republics. Many of the Foreign Service officers who emerged from these postings did so with a somewhat jaundiced view of Russia. “When you start looking at the Russians by the people who have been visited by the Russians,” says Fried, who spent a fair amount of time in Poland during his long career in the Foreign Service, “you tend to see it a different way.”

Finally, there is the younger generation, those 40 and under. These Russia hands are for the moment a rarer species. “If you were an ambitious young Foreign Service officer after 9/11, you wanted to get sent to some reconstruction team in Afghanistan or Iraq,” says Andrew Weiss, who worked on Russia at the National Security Council during the Clinton administration and now runs the Russia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “You wanted to learn Arabic. If you were ambitious, you did not want to go to the embassy in Ukraine.”

As in other foreign-policy sectors, the Russia hands divide less along party lines than along foreign-policy philosophies: They are either “realists” or “internationalists.” Realists tend to be cautious about American overseas commitments and deferential toward state sovereignty; internationalists tend to be more inclined to universalist ideals like democracy and human rights, even where these are forced to cross borders. But the two supposed categories are blurred by a thousand factors, not least of which being that realists don’t like being called realists, because it suggests that they have no values, and internationalists don’t like to be called internationalists, as opposed to realists, because it suggests that they have no common sense. In the end, a vast internationalist middle, consisting of neoconservative Republicans and interventionist Democrats, predominates, with tiny slices of hard realists on the right and soft realists, or “neorealists,” on the left. And there are many shades of difference among all these people.

The longtime Russia hand Stephen Sestanovich, a veteran of the Reagan and Clinton administrations, says there are two kinds of Russia hands — those who came to Russia through political science and those who came to it through literature. The literature hands, he suggests, sometimes let their emotions get the best of them, while the political-science hands, like Sestanovich, are more cool and collected. Fried, who served in every administration from Carter to Obama, also thinks there are two kinds of Russia hands, though he draws a different dividing line: There are those, like himself, who “put Russia in context, held up against the light of outside standards and consequences.” These people tend to be tough on Russia. And then there are those “who take Russia on its own terms, attractive and wonderful but subject to romanticization.” These people tend to give Russia what Fried would consider a pass.

Then there are those, like Michael Kofman, a young Kiev-born military analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses in Arlington, Va., who say that there only appear to be two kinds of Russia hands. “There are the nice missionaries who knock on your door and say, ‘Hey, have you heard the good news about democracy, freedom and liberalism?’ And then there are the crusaders who are trying to claim the heathen Eastern European lands for democracy and freedom. But they’re basically the same person; they’re two sides of the same coin.”

There are two kinds of Russia hands, or maybe there are six kinds of Russia hands, or maybe there is an infinite variety of Russia hands. And yet the mystery is this: After all the many different Russia hands who have served in the United States government, the country’s relations with Russia are as they have always been — bad.

The Cold War ended with a bang in the U.S.S.R. — new countries were forged, the ghosts of the past were confronted, a McDonald’s opened in Moscow’s Pushkin Square. In the United States, there was also much hope. A sometime Russia hand named Francis Fukuyama, then deputy director of policy planning at the State Department, even wrote an essay in which he wondered if we were entering a new post-historical era, when the great questions of how to order society had been settled and all would live in a stable, if boring, peace.

The first high-level Russia hand of the post-Cold War era was a man named Nelson Strobridge Talbott III, or Strobe for short. The scion of a prosperous Ohio family (his grandfather, the first Nelson Strobridge Talbott, was captain of the Yale football team in 1914), Talbott followed his forefathers to Yale, where he studied Russian literature and won a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford. There he found himself rooming with a wonky, gregarious Georgetown graduate named Bill Clinton. Talbott remained interested in Russia, writing his master’s thesis on Mayakovsky, translating Nikita Khrushchev’s memoirs and then becoming a foreign correspondent — and eventually a columnist — for Time magazine. He was the first journalist to track down and interview Joseph Brodsky upon his exile to the West in 1972. “Looks like we lucked out,” Brodsky wrote in his diary. “He’s read me.” Talbott’s fundamental view of the U.S.S.R. was that it could be reasoned with; in the pages of Time, he regularly praised the virtues of arms control and détente, and was despised for it by more ardent Cold Warriors. When Clinton was elected president, Talbott came on to advise his old roommate on what Clinton believed to be his most pressing foreign-policy concern: the transformation of Russia into a viable, American-friendly democracy on the eastern edge of Europe.

Things did not turn out that way, and most of the reasons were internal to Russia. But the United States was not without its share of blame. The economic advice dispensed by the gurus of what was known as the Washington Consensus weakened an already vulnerable Russian state. Average Russian citizens saw their living standards and life expectancies drop. It was Talbott who offered one of the pithier critiques of the doctrine known as “shock therapy”: What the Russian people wanted, Talbott said, “was less shock and more therapy.” The remark led to one of the stormiest passages of his political career.

But he weathered it. During his tenure, the United States made one of the most momentous foreign-policy choices of the post-1991 era: the decision to expand NATO eastward, first into the former countries of the Warsaw Pact, then into the former republics of the Soviet Union itself. Talbott at first was opposed, or at least, as he now puts it, “deeply riven.” On one hand, the Eastern European countries, some of which were now led by heroic former dissidents, wanted very much to join the military alliance; on the other, the Russians warned Talbott — “with a mirthless smile,” as he later recalled — that NATO was to them a “four-letter word.” If the Cold War was really over, as the Americans kept saying it was, why expand a Cold War military alliance set up expressly to deter and contain the Soviet Union? But as much as Talbott loved Russia, there were clear advantages to securing the West’s gains. “If the leadership of a country has any view but the following,” Talbott told me last summer, “it’s not going to be the leadership of that county for very long. And that is: We do what we can in our own interest.” But the NATO question, Talbott admitted, was complicated. “Should we have had a higher, wiser concept of our real interests that would require us to hold back on what many people would say is our own current interest?”

At the time the debate was taking place — 1993 and 1994 — much of the State Department and the Pentagon took the anti-expansion view, arguing that it would needlessly antagonize Russia at a difficult moment in its post-Communist journey and that the alliance was unwieldy enough without incorporating three fledgling Eastern European democracies (not to mention, eventually, Romania). But there were some who disagreed. A small working group at RAND produced a report arguing for NATO expansion as key to the future of Eastern Europe. “We talked to the Poles, and they said: ‘If you don’t let us into NATO, we’re getting nuclear weapons. We don’t trust the Russians,’ ” one of the report’s authors, a former Air Force officer and Pentagon strategist named Richard L. Kugler, told me. “Then we talked to the Germans. They said: ‘The line of contact with the Russians now runs through Warsaw. If you don’t defend it, we will.’ We had a vision of a nuclear-armed Poland being fortified by German troops facing off with the Russians — I don’t think anyone wanted that!” The report was laughed at and rejected in some quarters — a State Department official supposedly threw it in the trash in front of one of its authors — but Fried, then at the National Security Council, started using it to lobby inside the administration for a more robust approach to expansion. Talbott initially resisted, but he and Clinton soon came around.

The decision on NATO was essentially made by early 1994, but it would take some years before the first countries joined the alliance, and in the meantime, relations between Russia and the United States steadily declined: Russia was angered by the NATO bombing of Bosnian Serb positions in 1995, by the American insistence that the Russians stop the sale of nuclear technology to Iran and especially by the 1999 NATO bombing — just a few weeks after the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland finally joined the alliance — of Belgrade. That conflict almost expanded when a small contingent of Russian troops seized the Pristina airport in Kosovo. If a British officer named James Blunt had not refused to act on an order from Gen. Wesley Clark to clear the airport, things might have turned out a lot worse. Blunt went on to fame as a rock musician with the hit song “You’re Beautiful,” but the Russia-United States relationship remained precarious.

The damage, in any case, was done. “We were so excited about the spread of democracy and the collapse of Communism,” says Olga Oliker, director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “There were all these countries saying, ‘Yes, please, take us into NATO with weapons that you’ll give us to defend ourselves from the Russians, who are going to be coming like they always do.’ And we said, ‘Well, the Russians aren’t coming, but yes, please, join us in democracy.’

“But the Russians took it as a sign that we were still against them. It was really hard to walk back from. From there on out, we were doing things that we kept saying, ‘We’re not doing this to hurt you,’ and that the Russians felt hurt them. We didn’t do it because we wanted to hurt them. We did it because we didn’t care if it hurt them.”

In the case of the centrist, Democratic Clinton administration, you might say that it was always going to be torn between hard internationalists like Fried and soft internationalists like Talbott. But what about the George W. Bush administration, which staffed itself with self-described realists? The answer turned out to be: more of the same. The main Russia hand in the Bush White House was Thomas Graham, a quiet, intense, scholarly former State Department official who was described by a colleague as “the smartest Russia hand ever produced by the Foreign Service.” Graham was known for his prickly independence. As a political officer at the United States Embassy in Moscow in the 1990s, he became so frustrated with the White House’s approach to Russia that he published a repudiation of it in a Russian newspaper, under his own name. But on Graham’s watch, the relationship soured even more. The United States invaded Iraq despite Russian objections; vocally supported the popular uprisings in Georgia and Ukraine, known as the Rose and Orange Revolutions; and then, in Georgia, gave moral and material support to the flamboyantly anti-Russian administration of Mikheil Saakashvili, who in turn sent troops to the NATO mission in Afghanistan and the coalition in Iraq.

Factors external to Russia played a role here: The Sept. 11 attacks refocused American foreign policy around counterterrorism. “We had a long period of inattention because of the war on terror,” Weiss says. “It was a long period where anyone who banged his fist on the table and said: ‘Mr. President! Mr. President! Drop everything you’re doing killing bin Laden’s inner circle! We need to talk to you because Vladimir Putin is mad about blah blah blah!’ You can imagine how that did not rate.”

But it wasn’t just the fight against terrorism. The Soviet Union’s collapse and Russia’s subsequent weakness reconfigured the entire process of American decision-making. When I asked Graham about the decline in relations on his watch, he delivered a soliloquy about bureaucracy.

“The way the N.S.C. is structured,” he began, “the way the State Department is structured, is through a series of regional and functional bureaus. The question is always, Who takes the lead?” In Soviet times, when the entire foreign policy of the United States was oriented around countering the Soviet threat, the Russia hands frequently took the lead. In the post-Soviet era, with an increasingly irrelevant Russia, the reverse was true. “Russia was unique in that it’s a country that was a factor in almost all the major things the U.S. government did, but it wasn’t in any place the most important factor. So you’re working on missile defense: Russia is clearly an important player in missile defense. But that process is not led by the person who’s responsible for Russia policy; it’s led by the person who’s responsible for nonproliferation policy. If you come to energy, Russia is obviously an important player in global energy markets, but Russia is not the most important player in global energy markets. That’s the Saudis and OPEC. So when you come to an energy issue, the people who are in charge of energy run that.”

The same was true of the states of the former Soviet Union, which were now independent and the province of different regional desks at the State Department and the N.S.C. The most damaging episode in United States-Russia relations during Graham’s time at the N.S.C. was American cheerleading for the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in late 2004 and early 2005. Graham argued that the Russians saw the “color revolutions,” as the Rose and Orange Revolutions were known, as an outgrowth of American policy and feared that regime change would be coming to Russia next. But freedom was on the march, Graham was told: “ ‘All we’re doing is promoting democracy.’ ”

“But you’re the Russia expert,” I said.

“But Ukraine is not a Russia issue,” he said. “It’s a Ukrainian issue. There’s a bureau for European affairs that overseas Ukrainian issues.”

During the Orange Revolution, the Europe desk at the N.S.C. was run by Fried.

“My main contribution,” Graham summed up, “was preventing things from being worse than they could have been.”

Photo

Credit Photo illustration by John Gall. Source photos from Getty Images.

Graham left government in 2007. Fried, his sometime nemesis, had become assistant secretary of state for Europe and Eurasia and continued to push vocal American support of Western-leaning governments in former Soviet states, Georgia in particular. Nuland was the American ambassador to NATO. In April 2008, at a NATO summit meeting in Bucharest, the alliance announced over strong Russian objections that it intended to eventually admit Georgia and Ukraine. Four months later, deteriorating security conditions in South Ossetia, Georgia, provoked an emboldened Saakashvili into an attack on the breakaway region. Russian forces intervened, crushing the Georgian Army in less than a week.

The Georgian debacle — in which a non-NATO American ally was defeated by Russia and the United States was left with no plausible response — represented a low point. But the relationship was about to get much worse.

The next president, Barack Obama, was the rare American politician with a sense of the fallibility of American power. He opposed the Iraq war and spoke honestly about the crimes of the American empire. Yet he was also divided in his mind. A realist in most of his foreign-policy leanings, Obama chose as his chief Russia hand a Stanford political-science professor named Michael McFaul.

McFaul had spent years visiting Russia and writing about it. He was a Russophile, an advocate of more cooperative relations and a critic of the Bush administration’s unilateralism: in all this, a good fit for Obama. But he was also an avid internationalist and democracy promoter, who had speculated in a widely circulated 2005 essay on the seven “factors for success” required for color revolution — the implication being that more such revolutions were necessary and desirable. In 2008, McFaul proposed a “reset” in relations between the two countries. This became the administration’s policy, and for a while it worked. A new arms-control agreement was negotiated. Dmitri Medvedev, who succeeded Putin as president in early 2008, toured Silicon Valley. Russia joined the World Trade Organization. And a sprawling supply chain, called the Northern Distribution Network, was established to move supplies through Russia to NATO troops in Afghanistan. The existence of an alternate route gave the United States some leeway in its dealings with Pakistan. When Pakistan cut off the supply route in Afghanistan not long after the assassination of Osama bin Laden, NATO simply sent more through Russia.

But relations with Russia soon soured. The more liberal Medvedev years created an expectation on the part of some Russians that the country would open up; when Medvedev announced in 2011 that he was stepping aside, that Putin would be returning to the presidency and that this is what they had planned all along, there was a feeling of grievous disappointment. Three months later, spurred by a number of blatant falsifications in the national Duma elections, this disappointment erupted into the largest protests of the post-Soviet period. Hillary Clinton, then the secretary of state, voiced approval for the protests and expressed “serious concerns” about the voting irregularities. Her comments fed the Kremlin’s fears that the United States was somehow behind the demonstrations. McFaul, who arrived as ambassador to Russia in the midst of the protest wave, inflamed the situation further by taking a meeting with opposition leaders. He was never forgiven by the Russian authorities, who proceeded to harass him and his family and denounce him whenever possible as a foreign spy.

From there, the relationship grew increasingly strained. In the words of Paul Stronski, a Russia hand who joined the N.S.C. in 2012: “I was brought in to do reset, Part 2. Instead, I got Magnitsky, Snowden and Ukraine.” Magnitsky was the Magnitsky Act, which imposes sanctions on individuals engaged in human rights violations and corruption and was inspired by the death in prison of a Russian tax attorney, Sergei Magnitsky, who was arrested after uncovering a huge corruption scheme. Snowden was Edward Snowden, who turned up in Moscow after orchestrating perhaps the most significant leak of American government documents since the Pentagon Papers. And Ukraine was, of course, Ukraine.

Ukraine was a catastrophe two decades in the making. Its government was as corrupt and ineffectual as any in the post-Soviet space; it produced neither oil nor gas to serve as a financial cushion, and it was divided between a Russian-leaning east and a Europe-leaning west. To make matters worse, it was also the host, at Sevastopol, of the Russian Black Sea fleet, whose long-term lease, during times of tension, tended to become a political football.

In the summer of 2013, with the shock of Snowden’s turning up in Moscow still fresh, Russian officials started making noise about an “association agreement” that Ukraine was about to sign with the European Union. To the Russians, the proposed agreement was a rejection of their own cherished customs’ union, the Eurasian Economic Union, as well as a concrete step toward European integration for a country with which it had profound, centuries-old connections. And European integration, the Russians believed, would eventually mean NATO membership: hostile troops on the Russian border and an end to the lease for the Russian fleet.

McFaul, still in Moscow, was one of the people to whom the Russians took these complaints. By his own account, he was dismissive of their concerns. First of all, he said, it wasn’t Russia’s business what Ukraine signed or didn’t sign. And second, he didn’t think the Russians should get all worked up. “We’re talking about an association agreement,” he told me. “That’s expansion of the E.U. maybe in the year 2040, 2050? Ask the Turks about their association agreement.” (Turkey signed a similar agreement with the E.U. in 1963 and still has not become a member.) It was just a piece of paper. But the Russians didn’t seem to think so. And neither, it would turn out, did the Ukrainians. When Viktor Yanukovych, the president of Ukraine, under intense Russian pressure, pulled out of the accord with the Europeans, people took to the streets.

Ukraine was a Ukraine issue, not a Russia issue, and so the burden of dealing with the expanding crisis there fell in the laps of a newly appointed ambassador, Geoffrey Pyatt, and the newly appointed assistant secretary of state for Europe and Eurasia, the old Russia hand Victoria Nuland.

The daughter of Sherwin Nuland, the surgeon and Yale bioethicist, she fell in love with Russian culture after seeing a performance of Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” when she was 12; she studied Russian history and politics at Brown, worked at a Soviet children’s camp and after that for an embassy family in Moscow. Then, eager for adventure and contact with real-live Russians, she did her tour on the Soviet fishing vessel (for seven months, not one). That experience taught her something about the planned economy: After 25 days of drinking and card-playing, the crew did five days of hard work to meet their monthly targets. She also says she learned “how to drink 10 shots of vodka and still get back to my cabin and put a chair under the doorknob. Things could get a little hairy when the boys were drunk.”

She entered the Foreign Service in 1984. Over a long and eventful career, she witnessed the defense of the Russian White House during the attempted hard-line coup against Mikhail Gorbachev; served as Talbott’s chief of staff during the chaotic ’90s; worked as Dick Cheney’s deputy national security adviser in the years after Sept. 11 but “before Cheney became Cheney,” as she put it; and served as the State Department spokeswoman under Hillary Clinton. She was known inside successive administrations as a Russia hawk, but when asked if she hated the country, she drew a distinction between “Russian culture and the Russian people,” which she loves, and the Soviet strain she sees in Putin’s Russia, which she does not. “I deplore the way successive governments in Moscow — Soviet and Russian — have abused their own people, ripped them off, constrained their choices and made us the enemy to mask their own failings,” Nuland says. Hearing her speak with such conviction about governments that, in at least one case, no longer existed, you could understand how she had been over the years a very effective advocate inside several American administrations for her point of view.

In December 2013, with the protests in the center of Kiev just a few weeks old, Nuland traveled to Moscow and then to Kiev to try to defuse the crisis that had engulfed the Yanukovych government. She made little progress with the Kremlin, which was of the opinion that Yanukovych should simply clear the protesters from the streets. On her first night in Kiev, she was woken by members of her staff. The riot police brought out to contain the protests had formed a ring around them and were closing in. The demonstrators were desperately singing patriotic songs to keep up their spirits, but they were in mortal danger. Nuland got on the phone with Washington and worked to release a statement in Secretary of State John Kerry’s name, expressing “disgust” at the move on peaceful protesters. “After that,” Nuland says, “the singing grew louder”; the demonstrators on the square, she told me, were holding their phones in the air, “displaying the Kerry statement in Ukrainian and Russian.” The riot troops backed off.

The next morning, Nuland was to meet with Yanukovych. But first she wanted to visit the protest encampment, which, two weeks into its existence, had grown in both scope and moral authority. “In accordance with Slavic tradition, I wanted to bring something,” Nuland says. She took a large plastic bag filled with treats. Alongside Pyatt, she handed them out to the protesters, and thus was born one of the iconic images of the Ukraine crisis, immediately and widely circulated by the Kremlin’s media apparatuses — a powerful official, not a famous politician like Senator John McCain or Secretary of State John Kerry but a representative of the supposedly more neutral American policymaking bureaucracy, succoring revolutionaries in the center of Kiev. (Nuland points out that they also gave food to the riot police.) Two months later, as the Yanukovych government entered its terminal phase, Nuland’s “[Expletive] the E.U.” comment leaked out. For many Russians and Europeans, the line became emblematic of American arrogance.

A few weeks later, Yanukovych fled the country, and Russian troops annexed Crimea. In tandem with Fried, who had taken the newly established position of sanctions coordinator at the State Department, Nuland began drafting harsh sanctions against Putin’s inner circle, individuals involved in the invasion of Ukraine and eventually large Russian companies and banks. Fried told me that one senior State Department official thought this was pretty funny. He said to Fried, “Do the Russians realize that the two hardest-line people in the entire U.S. government are now in a position to go after them?”

The Russians may have realized this perfectly well. According to American intelligence agencies, two years after the sanctions went into effect, the Russians started feeding emails stolen from the servers of the Democratic National Committee to WikiLeaks and helping with their distribution.

Michael Kimmage is a soft-spoken professor of American intellectual history with a focus on the Cold War and an interest in Russia. In 2014, seized by what he says his wife still calls a midlife crisis, he left academia for a two-year fellowship on the policy-planning staff at the State Department. “I imagined showing up there and writing a memo that would change the course of history,” Kimmage recalls. “Then when I got there, I learned it wasn’t really like that. It’s much more like a Stendhal novel.” That is to say, both grand and comically banal. “You might have a brilliant idea, but then you have to go find out if it’s already being done. That takes a while. Then you find out it’s already being done. And it doesn’t work.”

Kimmage nonetheless found the experience enlightening, and he came away with the feeling that a lot of what the American government did had deep and sometimes invisible ideological sources. The apparent final triumph of liberal democracy in Europe in 1989 produced two powerful strains in American internationalist foreign-policy thinking, according to Kimmage — one radical, the other moderate. The radical strain, associated with the neocons, called for a universal democratization, by force if need be. This strain was (mostly) discredited in Iraq. But the other strain, which aimed to spread American-style democracy as far east as possible into Eurasia, has never been discredited. It is close to being the conventional wisdom in Washington, and it is carried forth, Kimmage suggests, by a certain sort of young person, typically a graduate of Yale or Georgetown, “who believes — perhaps by definition — in the virtues of American power.”

And yet there is, within the Russia-hand community, a small countervailing tendency. This new generation of Russia hands is deeply skeptical of the missionary impulse that has characterized American policy toward Russia for so long. Oliker is one, Kimmage another. There is also the military analyst Michael Kofman, at the Center for Naval Analyses, and Samuel Charap, at RAND, whose recent book on the events leading to the war in Ukraine, “Everyone Loses,” written with the Harvard political scientist Timothy Colton, lays out week by week the way in which American, European and Russian policy in 2012 and 2013 pushed Ukraine into a zero-sum choice, leading eventually to the collapse of the government and the dismemberment of the country. And there are others, some who prefer not to be named.

Despite some differences in politics, all are seeking a less chauvinistic approach to Russia policy. They are disgusted by American failures and want them to end. “I find the past 17 years of continuous warfare to be abnormal and abhorrent,” one of them wrote in an email. “It’s a real reflection on our policy community that they have placed their nation in this position.” In the harsh climate of Washington opinion, where an errant editorial could come back in the form of an angry senator reading it aloud at your confirmation hearing, they do what they can to push back. As a group, they have opposed sending weapons to Ukraine as an unnecessary escalation of the proxy war there — “We just lost a proxy war in Syria!” Kofman cried. “Why do we expect to do better in Ukraine?” — and are concerned about the current hype over a potential Russian incursion into the Baltics. Kofman compared American worries about a Russian invasion of the Baltics to equally far-fetched Russian worries about an American move into Belarus. “I don’t know about you,” he said, “but I’ve never heard anyone in Washington say: ‘Wow, Belarus. That’s real prime real estate. We should get that.’ By the same token, the Russians are amazed that we think they want to take the Baltics. They just find it incredible. They’re going to go into the Baltics — which they have no use for — and take on the world’s pre-eminent military alliance? It’s crazy.”

There is also a strong bureaucratic incentive to exaggerate the threat. “You might say it’s provided a new imperative to parts of the Pentagon that used to be focused on counterinsurgency in unpleasant places like Helmand Province” in Afghanistan, one skeptical Russia hand said. “Sitting in the Baltic States or Poland or Germany is a lot more pleasant. It’s kayf,” he said, using a Russian word meaning, approximately, “bliss.”

Kofman believes that some form of conventional deterrence on NATO’s eastern flank is useful, but he worries that it can turn into what international relations theorists call a “security dilemma,” wherein the actions you take to increase your security cause your adversary to feel threatened, so that it takes steps to increase its security, forcing you in turn to take further steps to increase yours, and so on, until war. “You have to be very careful where you put forces,” Kofman said. “You can’t start stacking units 20 minutes from St. Petersburg. Keep in mind Russia is the world’s pre-eminent Eurasian land power. They can put more ground forces in Russia, because that’s where they happen to live, than you can put in the Baltics, because that’s not where you live. That’s not a tough competition.”

These young Russia hands find the current political and news attention to Russia deeply frustrating, even as its sources are no mystery to them.

“I’m a Democrat,” said one Russia hand who spoke on the condition of anonymity so that he could comment openly. “And Russia contributed to the defeat of Secretary Clinton and, frankly, to our current national tragedy. It’s hard for me not to think about that.

“But the Democrats see this as a political opening. And the conversation has moved into politics. They don’t want to know what’s actually happening or what we should actually do. They want to beat Trump with this Russia thing.”

Oliker, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, makes a similar point: “It used to be you could explain things to people at great length and with nuance, and they would say: ‘Oh, how interesting. You’ve explained it so well, and now I understand better where the Russians are coming from.’ Of course,” she added, “they wouldn’t do any of it, because Russia was secondary or tertiary, and no one cared about Russia.

“Now everyone cares about Russia, and there’s no nuance.”

Charap, at RAND, says that the postelection political climate has made it impossible to work with Russia even on issues that would benefit both sides. “When the U.S. and Russia work together, they can accomplish things no two other countries can. The only reason we were able to kill bin Laden is that the Northern Distribution Network was set up! McFaul did that. And he had to deal with a lot of people saying: ‘Why are we talking to these people? They’re never going to stick to their agreements.’

“Even I was told once: ‘We don’t want to be chasing Russia.’ What is this, dating?”

The difference between these Russia hands and most others is less their analysis of Russia than their analysis of America. According to Oliker, what the United States should be focusing on is “managing hegemonic decline.” America’s vast overseas commitments need to be scaled down bit by bit, in a slow and responsible process. The amount of money spent on the United States military should be brought in line with historical norms and recalibrated to the country’s actual defense needs. Diplomacy (cheap, effective), rather than military might (expensive, deadly, counterproductive), needs to become America’s primary means of interacting with the world. So far, Oliker points out, the Trump administration is largely doing the opposite.

As for Russia, it’s a threat that needs to be handled, not exaggerated. “We have to talk to them,” Oliker says. “If we don’t talk to them, things are going to get a lot worse. Yes, they hacked our election. Did they invade Ukraine? Yup, they did that. But we talk to countries that do bad things all the time. We have to talk to them, and as we’re talking to them, we have to understand that they don’t think they’re evil. I was testifying on the Hill not long ago, and I was saying, ‘The Russians think they’re acting defensively.’ And the senators were like, ‘But we’ve explained to them over and over that we’re not a threat.’ Like, are you serious?”

Zwack, the retired brigadier general who once waited for the Soviets to break through the Fulda Gap and now teaches at the National Defense University, agrees. “Short of a shooting war, you have to find bridges,” he says. “Some people say, ‘It’s not business as usual with the Russians.’ But it’s never business as usual with the Russians! They’re the one nation on the planet that, on a bad day — they’ll go away, too — but they can take us off that planet.

“The crisis might not happen in the Baltics or over Syria. It could happen in the Sea of Okhotsk. You’ve got all kinds of Russian military stuff out there; we’ve got military stuff; the Japanese have stuff. It takes one incident — an accident that, to someone threat-inclined, looks like a deliberate action. If those commanders can’t get on the phone or on email to say, ‘This is what it is,’ if the crisis has to now be resolved in Washington or Moscow, it may be too late.”

Charap, at RAND, puts it most succinctly: “The threshold for bad stuff happening in the Russia-U.S. relationship is pretty high. Like, nuclear Armageddon. That’s low probability,” he says. “But high impact.”

With Trump, the Russia relationship has taken some unprecedented turns: No other president has come into office suspected of being subject to blackmail by the Kremlin. Nor has any other presidential campaign been investigated for colluding with Russia to undermine American elections. But in other ways, the Trump presidency fits perfectly the pattern identified by the longtime Russia hand and Georgetown professor Angela Stent: an initial attempt to mend relations with Russia, followed by a plunge into a deeper crisis.

For the past year, the administration’s top Russia hand has been a British-born, Harvard-educated historian and policy analyst named Fiona Hill. A longtime fellow at the Brookings Institution, of which Strobe Talbott became president after the end of the Clinton administration, Hill is the author of “Mr. Putin,” a probing and not entirely unsympathetic biography of the Russian president. In that book, Hill and her co-author, Clifford Gaddy, advocate what another historian has called “strategic empathy,” trying to see the situation from the perspective of your adversary — in this case, Putin. This is the sort of move that more hawkish Russia hands like Fried have long counseled against. But it is unclear how much influence Hill has had on current policy. One report in The Washington Post indicated that the president at one point mistook her for administrative staff and yelled at her; another report in the same paper described her as heading up the recent American expulsion of Russian diplomatic personnel in response to the nerve-agent poisoning of the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in England.

There isn’t, in any case, much room to maneuver. Fried reached retirement age and left the State Department a few weeks into the Trump administration; Nuland, not yet of retirement age, stepped down the day before Trump’s inauguration. “To show up for work on Inauguration Day and have to do a 180 on U.S. policy toward NATO, Russia, Germany, Brexit — I just couldn’t do it,” she said. But their legacy lives on. Over the summer, and partly in response to the investigation of the Trump campaign’s possible collusion with Russia, Congress voted overwhelmingly to strip the president of his authority to release Russia from Fried’s and Nuland’s sanctions. Only Congress can now end the sanctions. In the words of one Russia hand, the congressional bill makes the United States-Russia confrontation “structural.” “The president is like a captain holding a wheel that isn’t attached to anything,” said the Russia hand.

In early March, I met to talk about Russia policy with a senior official in the current administration, who was not authorized to speak to the press and thus asked not to be identified. Nastya Rybka, the Instagramming Belarusian escort, had just been arrested in Thailand, but to my chagrin the official hadn’t even heard of her; instead, the official was focused on a speech Putin had just delivered in which he announced that Russia had supermissiles that could elude American defenses. “He is putting us on notice that we are not listening to him,” the official said of Putin and cautioned that we were at an inflection point in American relations with Russia. “We can’t just have half-cocked sanctions legislation. We can’t go around sanctioning everybody without thinking through the implications.

“We’re in a period where the Russians’ threat perception is causing them to think that they need to take pre-emptive, preventive, very aggressive action to get us to back off, or to make us incapable of having a concerted effort to be able to push back,” the official went on. “And if we don’t get our act together and try to tackle that, we’re not going to be able to change the trajectory of our relationship.” The word “trajectory” had a particularly resonant ring in the wake of Putin’s missile video.

Our time was over, and I walked back out onto the streets of the capital. A strong nor’easter had knocked out power and grounded flights all along the Eastern Seaboard. Schools, many businesses and parts of the federal government were shut down; the capital looked deserted. I wasn’t sure what to make of my meeting with the administration official. That the official was deeply knowledgeable and highly competent was without any doubt. But it was hard not to feel that in terms of the United States-Russia relationship, it was too little, too late. The official stressed to me that the decision to join the administration came out of wanting to head off a crisis: “When your house is on fire, you go put it out.” But this was now a fire that was going to burn for a very long time. In the Russia-hands community, some who had once been doves had become hawks, and those who had been hawks all along felt vindicated. The small contingent of dissidents was keeping a low profile. I asked one of them if he felt lonely. “I do feel lonely,” he said. “But I am not alone. It’s just that we have to speak more quietly.”

One of the first Russia hands trained by the United States government back in the 1920s was George Kennan. The government paid for his Russian lessons in Berlin, then posted him to Riga, the capital of newly independent Latvia, where he mixed with Russian émigrés and studied economic reports from the Soviet Union. When diplomatic relations were finally established between the United States and the U.S.S.R. in the 1930s, he helped set up the embassy in Moscow, and in the postwar era he was among the first to articulate clearly the nature of the Soviet threat. But he was also concerned that his home country not freak out. “Much depends,” he cautioned in his famous “long telegram” from 1946, “on health and vigor of our own society.”

That society now looks sick. The absence of nuance on the Russia question — the embrace of Russia as America’s new-old supervillain — is probably best understood as a symptom of that sickness. And even as both parties gnash their teeth over Russia, politicians and experts alike seem to be in denial about mistakes made in the past and the lessons to be learned from them. Many foreign-policy hands are eager to return to the Obama-era status quo, as if American foreign policy since the end of the Cold War had, until the evening of Nov. 8, 2016, been doing just fine. “I would give anything to have that world back,” said a Russia hand who has been critical of the old interventionist paradigm. But chances are, that world will come back soon enough. Wasn’t the idea, in the end, to change it?

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What Europe’s Tough New Data Law Means for You, and the Internet

The European Union is introducing some of the strictest online privacy rules in the world. The changes aim to give internet users more control.

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Apple’s Deal for Shazam Delayed in Europe Over Data Concerns

European authorities are testing the idea that data can give companies an unfair edge over rivals.

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Breakingviews: Is It Time for More Adult Supervision at Facebook?

As the social network’s list of woes grows, its 33-year-old founder, Mark Zuckerberg, will have to prove somehow he is not in way over his head.

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U.K. and E.U. Agree on Plan to Avoid Brexit ‘Cliff Edge’

The two sides have negotiated a 21-month transition period after the withdrawal next March. But the deal depends on a solution to the Irish border question.

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On Beauty: Direct From Europe: High-Tech Holistic Skincare

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Credit Mari Maeda and Yuji Oboshi

These days, plant-based beauty products are de rigueur Stateside. But the roots of many natural skin care solutions can be traced to Europe, where alternative medicine practitioners have been bottling botanical tinctures and homeopathic remedies for centuries. Take, for example, Rudolf Steiner — the Austrian scientist and philosopher launched his Weleda skin care range in the 1920s using flowers, herbs and other extracts cultivated on biodynamic farms. Or the Vienna-born chemist Rudolf Hauschka, who took inspiration from the rhythms of nature when co-creating his Dr. Hauschka line of essential-oil-spiked elixirs in 1967 — long before self-care Sundays were a thing.

Now, a new guard of European scientists and skin experts is combining an old-world respect for nature with the latest advancements in chemistry to perfect the skin. Newly arriving in the U.S. this month: The Cream and The Cream Rich ($265 each) from Augustinus Bader, a German university professor who has spent the last three decades working as a specialist in the field of regenerative medicine. In 2007, Bader developed a breakthrough hydrogel that eliminates the need for skin grafts in some burn patients (just one of the 200-plus patents he holds). Tapping into similar self-healing technology, his creams contain a complex of amino acids, vitamins and compounds that mimic those naturally found in the skin and help minimize everything from fine lines to redness to dark spots. “It takes skin care to the next level; it’s about achieving skin health through physiologic and innate ways,” Bader says. The collection is also boosted with evening primrose, avocado and argan oils — and it gives back. Part of the proceeds from the range will fund the Augustinus Bader Foundation, which provides free hydrogel treatments to clinics that treat burn victims.

German orthopedic surgeon Barbara Sturm, M.D., meanwhile, spent the early years of her medical training on the slopes, analyzing how professional skiers recover from injury and trauma. She discovered that quelling inflammation is the key to physical longevity, a theory that applies to the entire body — especially the skin. Inspired by this finding, she opened her first aesthetic clinic in Düsseldorf in 2004. Among her more experimental offerings is MC1, a bespoke anti-aging cream infused with patients’ own plasma (and for this, there is a lengthy waitlist). Next came a ready-made range of cleansers, creams and masks that aim to enhance youthfulness via fresh doses of purslane. The plant, says Dr. Sturm, has “potent anti-inflammatory, wound-healing and nutritive properties,” and also “extends cell life.” It’s pumped into all of her products, along with lab-derived actives like the hydrating long- and short-chain hyaluronic acids in her popular plumping serum Ampoules ($215), and the nontoxic UV filters in her Sun Drops ($145, currently sold out until spring). Her newest innovation: Anti-Pollution Drops, made with “an interesting new compound produced by marine microbes,” Dr. Sturm says. “It’s able to directly combat the effects of environmental pollution on the skin surface.”

Other complexion concerns — from stubborn acne to dullness — require looking beneath the surface, says Nigma Talib, a London-based naturopathic doctor. After suffering from eczema and digestive issues as a child, Dr. Talib eventually tried botanical supplements to balance her system rather than steroid creams and antacids. “In three to six months, I was 100 percent better,” she says. “I decided this was the type of doctor I wanted to be — one that looks at the root cause of illness.” Now, she’s leveraging her 18 years of experience to create holistic products that improve skin from the inside out: her Healthy Flora ($65) supplement contains probiotics and grapeseed oil to fight oxidative damage while her Hydrating and Plumping Serum No. 1 ($205) uses plant stem cells and light-water technology. “Most creams and serums are mainly made up of water,” Dr. Talib explains. “But we remove the heavy isotopes from the water molecule.” It’s a process that allows the ingredients to deeply penetrate the skin for more effective results, she says.

For most Europeans, the goal of skincare is natural-looking results, says Munich-based dermatologist Timm Golueke, M.D., who created his Royal Fern line to nurture skin by noninvasive means. Its star ingredient — Scottish fern — might be able to protect cellular DNA from the harmful effects of UV exposure, a detail Dr. Golueke uncovered in his reading of medical literature. He adds other botanicals to his products — including wild rose blossoms and sea buckthorn — to form an encapsulated complex that promises to deliver hydration, fight hyperpigmentation and soften fine lines gradually over time. In a nod to German efficiency, all of the formulas are multitasking: the Phytoactive Anti-Aging Serum ($295) and Phytoactive Anti-Aging Cream ($250), for example, are designed to firm, brighten and nourish. Such no-fuss solutions mesh well with the broader European perspective on aging, which hasn’t changed much over time. In Europe, says Dr. Golueke, aging “is really a term that implies taking care of oneself, eating well and exercising often.”

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Global Health: Measles Cases in Europe Quadrupled in 2017

Vaccination rates across Europe are lower than in the United States. Various longstanding anti-vaccine movements persist there, and some conservative Protestant sects in Europe believe vaccination subverts God’s will.

Twenty years ago this month, a study of eight children published in The Lancet by Dr. Andrew J. Wakefield suggested that the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine triggered intestinal inflammation and autism. The journal later retracted the paper, and Dr. Wakefield lost his British medical license after it was revealed that he was a paid consultant for attorneys suing vaccine companies.

The controversy nonetheless triggered a wave of anti-vaccine hysteria. A 2016 survey of 67 countries led by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine found that skepticism about vaccine safety was highest in France. Skepticism was also high in Russia, Ukraine, Greece and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The measles outbreaks have led some European countries to crack down. Laws were passed in France, Germany and Italy requiring that parents vaccinate their children or at least consult a doctor about doing so. Italy and Germany imposed fines of $600 to $3,000 for failing to comply.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently has Level 1 travel watches in effect for Americans thinking of visiting Britain, Greece, Italy, Romania, Serbia and Ukraine. Travelers under age 60 are advised to have two doses of measles vaccine before going. (Everyone born before 1957 is assumed to have had measles as a child and therefore to be immune.)

The United States eliminated measles transmission in 2000, but since then there have been sporadic outbreaks caused by infected travelers. In 2015, the “Disneyland outbreak” ultimately led to over 150 cases in seven states. Investigators believe it began with a single theme park visitor who infected 39 others.

As a result, California outlawed “personal belief” exemptions from vaccination requirements for schoolchildren, and vaccination rates shot up.

In the United States, measles causes pneumonia in about one of 20 cases. One to two cases of measles per 1,000 are fatal; some survivors are left blind or deaf. In countries where children are malnourished and health care is rare, the death rate is as high as 6 percent, the World Health Organization said.

Despite setbacks in Europe, measles vaccine has led to a huge drop in global deaths from the disease. In the 1980s, measles killed 2.6 million a year. In 2016, for the first time since records were kept, deaths fell below 100,000.

In the last two decades, philanthropic donors have paid for 5.5 billion doses for poor countries.

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In Search of Lost Time in Europe’s Sanatoriums

Also connected to that culture was a parallel institution that flourished in Europe around the turn of the century: the thermal spa. Since the 1800s, doctors had been prescribing hydrotherapy, and health resorts were being established across the continent. As the historian David Clay Large has written, “the grand spas in their heyday amounted to their world’s equivalent of today’s golf and tennis resorts, conference centers, business retreats, political summits, fashion shows, theme parks and sexual hideaways — all rolled into one.”

People afflicted with everything from gout to arthritis came to “take the waters” at spa towns across Europe, but unlike the sanatoriums with which they were concurrent, their visitors were not always ill. Instead they came to socialize, attend cultural events and negotiate political treaties. The towns themselves — Aix-les-Bains and Vichy in France; Bath and Buxton in England; Aachen and Baden-Baden in Germany — built above the rubble of thermal baths established by Roman conquerors centuries earlier, were plotted to maximize what was known as a “therapeutic landscape,” a kind of aestheticized social engineering that promoted strolling and alfresco mingling. The architectural style of the bathhouses themselves was formal and atavistic, with marble walls, high arches, domed ceilings and mosaic floors. Well-maintained, infrastructurally sophisticated and aggressively promoted, these grand spa complexes were some of the earliest examples of modern tourist destinations.

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A private marbled soaking room in the neo-Classical Danubius Health Spa Resort Nove Lazne. Since its reconstruction in 1896, its healing waters have drawn everyone from King Edward VII to Franz Kafka. Located in the Czech Republic spa town of Marianske Lazne (more widely known by its German name, Marienbad), the 97-room retreat still makes use of the area’s natural mineral springs with its grand, Roman-style baths. Credit Fabrice Fouillet

YEARS BEFORE THE concept of a politically and culturally unified Europe gained traction, withdrawing from life (if even for a week) was a recurring feature of Continental existence. Spa culture — defined by its intentional architecture, geographical remove and somnambulistic ambience — was experienced in direct opposition to the rapid-paced, sick-making atmosphere of industrialized Europe. Unlike in America, where tuberculosis sanatoriums functioned more like hospitals than lifestyle colonies, the bosky outreaches of central Europe served as a sort of mystical destination where people from kingdoms near and far could live temporarily apart from reality — intermingling, arguing, falling in love — even as the security and sovereignty of the world around them remained imperiled. It’s unsurprising that a microcosm containing different types of people with little to do but reflect and cathect provided fiction writers with a generative setting, one which everyone from George Eliot to Henry James to Guy de Maupassant took advantage of.

Indeed, with enough selective reading it can seem as though every 19th-century writer of note spent at least a little time at a spa town. Turgenev and Goethe took the waters at Karlovy Vary in western Bohemia; Dickens and Tennyson visited Yorkshire’s Harrogate. The Black Forest-surrounded Baden-Baden was perhaps the most popular, especially among the Russians: Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky both visited; Chekhov died 90 miles south of there in Badenweiler in 1904 after an injection of camphor, a sip of champagne and a few weeks of writing letters to his sister in which he described his diet (boiled mutton, strawberry tea and “enormous quantities” of butter) and complained about German women’s poor taste in clothing. His body was brought home in a refrigerator car meant for oysters. Mark Twain visited the Bohemian spa town of Marianske Lazne (often referred to by its German name, Marienbad) in 1892 and sarcastically cataloged a spa regimen for a patient suffering from gout that involved rising at 5:30 a.m., drinking “dreadful” water, tramping in the hills, wallowing in the mud and eating as much as possible “so long as he is careful and eats only such things as he doesn’t want.”

My daily routine in Marianske Lazne wasn’t actually so different. It began with a walk through the small, central part of the village, whose springs have been touted as curative for centuries and which was visited by an almost-laughable list of luminaries that included state heads (Czar Nicholas II, Emperor Franz Josef I), intellectuals (Freud, Edison, Kafka, Nietzsche, Kipling) and composers (Mahler, Wagner, Chopin, Strauss). The town is made up of pale neo-Classical buildings edged with verdigrised turrets and elaborate spires. The public gardens are tidy and politely pretty. Czech couples stroll along camel-colored crushed-granite paths, carrying flattened porcelain spa cups whose handles also serve as straws and which they fill at public fountains. Large groups of Germans walk briskly in excessive hiking gear, stopping at outdoor cafes where they order steins of pilsner and read Der Spiegel. The Russians wear their bathrobes everywhere and keep to the gilded hotel lobbies, where they play chess with one another as mole-removal videos loop on overhead TVs. At the grand hotels, whose convoluted floor plans also house spas, sublimated weight loss strategies are nonexistent, as are the high-tech instruments and the suggestions of pan-Asian wellness (gongs, bamboo) that one sees everywhere in America. In the absence of vanity and hard science and globalism, a sort of generic and primal prewar Europeanness persists, as unsettling as it is soothing.

And as Twain himself reported, the meals were indeed curious and the prescriptions harebrained. At the Danubius Health Spa Resort Centralni Lazne, treatments are administered in tiled, cobweb-laced rooms. My first was a “mineral bath with natural CO2” for which I was led into a stainless-steel bathtub by a caustic attendant and told to ignore a half-submerged rusty wire. The water, just above lukewarm and smelling of sulfur, fizzed lightly. I had the impression of floating in rapidly cooling club soda. The attendant came back in, unannounced, wrapped me in a blanket, and discouraged me from trying to remove an arm so I could read my book. Benefits are said to include “improved blood circulation, heart and kidney activity as well as reduced stress and anxiety.” Later, I dawdled in a Kneipp foot bath, named for a Bavarian priest who advised walking without shoes through morning dew, and the following day spent a disturbing 30 minutes in a tiled alcove, while dry oxygen was delivered into my nostrils via a latex tube. Each evening, a heavy dinner was served (often including hot sauerkraut, beef tongue in cream sauce, pickled herring and, for dessert, whole peeled kiwis), followed by flutes of Bohemian sparkling wine, which one could sip while classical musicians performed.

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The Belle Epoque-style pool inside the spa of the Victoria-Jungfrau Grand Hotel & Spa in Interlaken, Switzerland. This 19th-century retreat was once considered one of Europe’s great grandes dames, visited by the likes of Emperor Dom Pedro II of Brazil and Mark Twain. Credit Fabrice Fouillet

THE SANATORIUMS OF Europe are now closed, and the spa towns where acute and imagined maladies alike were elevated to a glamorous lifestyle are today visited almost exclusively by the elderly. But medically informed repose — experienced far and away from the world, quietly and alongside others as sick (or not) as oneself — can still be had. In Vals, Switzerland, not 70 miles from Davos (once studded with about 40 sanatoriums), thermal waters run through the valley’s granite walls. A beautiful if deliberately sterile-feeling spa hotel sits just above the small village and beckons visitors from all over the world, who come to bathe in silence and eat overpriced pear bread while gazing at verdant pastures. Those seeking wellness today do not want outdoor concerts or lectures or chitchat. They want to be by themselves, ideally in a photogenic location with poor cellphone service.

The walls of the Peter Zumthor-designed spa, opened in 1996 under the name Therme Vals and now part of the 7132 Hotel, are made from 60,000 one-meter-long slabs of locally quarried quartzite; the concrete roof is covered with grass. Giant windows overlooking gray mountains somehow don’t do much to brighten what is otherwise a dark and labyrinthine experience. “Moving around this space means making discoveries,” Zumthor has said. “You are walking as if in the woods. Everyone there is looking for a path of their own.”

I often wondered if I would ever find mine. I spent as much time soaking in various baths as I did wandering around through the mist between them. It was easy to appreciate the solemn beauty of Vals’s imposing modern design, which was clearly plotted with great intention and intellect, while still feeling unpleasant panic each time you rounded a corner only to see a dim hallway coaxing you who knows where. Before the property owner stepped in and insisted otherwise, Zumthor was adamant that his spa have no clocks inside. He wanted bathers to feel not just weightless in the water but timeless too. The twin clocks that were installed are nearly hidden (I only found out about them weeks after I had come home) and the cavernous space succeeds in making the minutes melt into hours.

In daily life, it’s rare that I don’t know the time down to the minute, and with the tap of a single skeuomorphic button I can find out where I am anywhere in the world, as well as whatever terrible things are happening halfway around it. In previous centuries, those suffering from ailments and ennui could travel through forests and up glaciers, by train and horse, to drink and dip in therapeutic waters. They endured unthinkable hassle to gain access to legendary liquids and dubious expertise. Today, we know better. Sunlight doesn’t kill germs and physical maladies aren’t cured by carbonated water. The best we can hope for is the kind of psychological balm that comes from temporarily removing oneself from the responsibilities of daily life, which lately seem to involve the helpless monitoring of catastrophes we can do nothing about. To travel from one empire in decline to countries whose golden eras were over 100 years in the past is to accept — and if possible, enjoy — the undeniable fact that disorientation can be its own kind of decadence.

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