Washington-With the Khodorkovsky trial in Russia now concluded, Western journalists and commentators need to ask themselves some hard questions about the record of their profession.

They might begin by making a comparison between the amount of space, and outrage, devoted by the Western media to this trial and the limited attention and anger directed by the same Western media to the process by which Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the other "oligarchs" acquired their immense wealth in the first place.

It is not just that while Khodorkovsky's trial was deeply flawed, the legal case against him was well-based and credible. More important is the comparative damage done to Russia by the two processes.

Khodorkovsky's trial has undermined to some degree Western and Russian domestic investment in the Russian energy sector. The massive theft of Russian state resources by Khodorkovsky and others in the 1990s had infinitely worse effects.

This was the single greatest example of such plundering in the whole of modern history. It crippled the ability of the Russian state to provide basic services to its population - including for long periods even wages and pensions. As for state services, the collapse of state revenues had a disastrous effect on their funding, pay and morale.

Before indulging in self-righteous denunciations of the Russian government, Westerners also need to ask themselves where Russia's stolen billions went. Jupiter? Pluto? No. The stolen funds of the Russian people largely went into Western banks, Western real estate, and Western luxury goods. Russians may have been the thieves, but Westerners were their fences.

It is universally recognized that official corruption in Russia is a disastrous barrier to that country's development. The defense of Khodorkovsky, however, essentially rests on the idea that the enormous corruption of the 1990s should now be legitimized, while ordinary Russian policemen, judges and officials should be required to live on their miserable salaries for the sake of honesty and patriotism. This proposition is intellectually, politically, psychologically and above all morally vacuous.

Outside Britain and the United States, the great majority of states in the world exercise dominant influence over their energy sectors. Why then is the effort of the Russian state to regain this influence so widely portrayed as a "return to the Soviet Union"? Across much of the world, oligarchical pseudo-democracies like the Philippines have failed to deliver economic growth and even basic human rights to their peoples. Why then is it so widely assumed that a Russia dominated by the likes of Khodorkovsky would be preferable to one dominated by Vladimir Putin and his followers?

In some cases, this peculiar approach to Russia reflects obsessive hatred left over from the cold war. Probably more widespread, however, is a Western attitude which genuinely wishes Russia well, but which is based on fundamental misconceptions.

Of these, the most important is the belief that developments in Russia can legitimately be compared to those in Central Europe over the past 15 years. This is obviously wrong given Russia's immense size and multi-ethnic character, and the way in which Russian wealth is concentrated in the natural resources sector.

Even more significant, however, is the differing role of nationalism. In Central Europe, society could be mobilized behind painful reforms in part because of a nationalist desire to escape from the hated domination of Moscow.

Russian nationalism obviously could not operate in this way. Instead, in the 1990s Russia had to go through not just wrenching socioeconomic change but the loss of empire - something which, as the French in particular would do well to remember, has been an extremely painful and ugly process even for some long-established democracies.

Finally, the Central Europeans were spurred on to reform by the genuine offer of membership in the European Union and NATO - something which is hardly possible for Russia, and which has certainly never been sincerely offered, even as a remote possibility.

If Russia is compared with Poland or Hungary, then obviously it looks gravely defective from the point of view of both democratic and economic progress. If a fairer comparison is made with the larger countries of the "developing world," then things do not look nearly so bad.

The greatest economic reformer Russia has ever known, Count Sergei Witte, once said not long before the Russian Revolution that instead of complaining that Russia did not have a government like France or England, Russian liberals should thank God that it did not have a government like China's. That is something for which Mikhail Khodorkovsky too has cause to be thankful.

(Anatol Lieven is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. His latest book is ''America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism.'')