Without any doubt Russia is an remarkable country with a civilization which has great depth. A society which has been greatly influenced by the Romanov dynasty which ruled for 304 years, by the brutal destruction during the Russian revolution of October 1917 and by the line of autocratic leaders which balanced the different interests and have ruled the country often with a iron fist.
To understand Russia is to understand its culture, history and position it claims in the world. Russian culture has a long and rich cultural history, steeped in literature, ballet, painting and classical music.
As Nikolai Gogol wrote in Dead Souls:
“Russia! Russia! What is the incomprehensible, mysterious force that draws me to you? Why does your mournful song, carried along your whole length and breadth from sea to sea, each and re-echo incessantly in my ears? What is there in that song? What is it that calls, and sobs, and clutches at my heart? What are those sounds that caress me so poignantly, that go straight to my soul and twine about my heart? Russia! What do you want from me? What is that mysterious, hidden bond between us?”
The country, with the greatest landmass (one-sixth) on earth, eleven time zones, 144 million people and since the 13th century with Moscow as its cultural Centre.
The country, with the greatest landmass (one-sixth) on earth, eleven time zones, 144 million people, and since the 13th century with Moscow as its cultural centre.
There is much division in Russia about Russia’s beginnings and history, also influenced by that history is political. All the great debates about character and destiny have been framed in questions about history.
A ancient history in which the origins of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus are all traced back to Kievan Rus, but the suggestion that Kievan Rus was the birthplace of modern Russia or Ukrainian state is as Orlando Figes writes absurd. But about the history they share, nationalism and narratives about national identity, and the interpretation of events the views which separate Russia from Ukraine are as wide as the Volga.
Much of the origins of Russia are traced back to the ninth century and are mentioned in Byzantine, Persian and French sources. The very first local mentioning of the Rus’ can be found in the Primary Chronicle, composed by the monk Nestor and other monks in Kiev during the 1110’s and much is based on nationalist myth, although like all myths they contain elements of truth.
The story tells how in 882 when Kiev was captured by Prince Oleg of Novgorod, Kievan Rus was formed, a loose dynastic federation of principalities rather than a kingdom and kindship not kingship was the constitutional principle.
But when the Mongols captured and destroyed Kiev on 6 December 1240 they effectively marked the end of Kievan Rus.
The Mongol Golden Horde invaded Russia from the east the battle at the Kalka River in 1223 was a resounding victory for the Mongols. In 1240, the Mongols led by Batu Khan destroyed Kiev when the city would not surrender, burning it to the ground. This was also retaliation for the killing of Mongol ambassadors by the Kiev city leaders. Batu Khan expanded the Golden Horde’s borders to the Carpathian Mountains, Siberia, the Black Sea, and the Caucasus Mountains. He also established its capital in the city of Sarai near the Volga River.
The Mongol conquest destroyed Kievan Rus and turned the princes into vassals of the Golden Horde.
As the historian Orlando Figes writes in his excellent book The Story Of Russia
”Within a century of the Mongol invasion the make-up of the lands once constitution Kievan Rus has changed dramatically – so much that neither Russia nor Ukraine nor Belarus can lay any general claim to them. Kievan Rus was cut in two by the Mongol occupation, which each half set upon a different path of political development. The southern western principalities were drawn into the orbit of Poland and Lithuanian, which offered them protection from the Mongols and continued access to the west. The north-east part (Russian) half of Kievan Rus followed a different part and these lands would form the nucleus of Muscovy, where patrimonial autocracy emerged from the Mongol occupation as a ruling principle.”
After the death of Kublai Khan 1294, the Mongols started to decline, in part due to the outbreak of the Black Death pandemic but it was not until 1378 that the Tatars and Mongols Hordes could first be successfully challenged at the Battle of Kulikovo, (Sept. 8, 1380), which is today part of the nationalist consciousness, like other military episodes which required great sacrifices. Although the Mongols gradually weakened, Moscow remained a vassal of the Khans until 1502.
On January 16 1547 the head of the Russian Church Markery crowned the grand prince of Moscow as the first Tsar of Russia in the Cathedral of the Dormition, the main church of the Moscow metropolitan. Markery proclaimed on that day “Now thou art anointed and titled Prince Ivan Vasilevich, God-crowned Tsar and Autocrat of all great Russia,“ later known given his megalomania as Ivan the Terrible. In February 1547 Ivan married Anastasia Romanovna (1530 1560,) a great-aunt of the future first Tsar Michael I of Russia, the first Tsar of the Romanov dynasty.
Before his crowning Ivan IV had already been greatly influenced by the views of the metropolitan of Moscow, Makary, who encouraged the young tsar in his desire to establish a Christian state based on the principles of justice. Ivan’s government soon embarked on a wide program of reforms and of the reorganization of both central and local administration. Church councils summoned in 1547 and 1549 strengthened and systematized the church’s affairs, affirming its Orthodoxy and canonizing a large number of Russian saints.
Ivan the Terrible (1530–1584), Tsar and autocrat transformed Russia from a medieval state into an empire under the Tsar, all his actions were directed toward forcing Russia into Europe—a foreign policy that Peter I the Great continued and expanded upon and encouraged Russia’s cultural development, especially through printing.
Russia has expanded its territory substantially since Ivan the Terrible in the 16th century as he conquered the Khanates of Kazan, Astrakhan and Siberia and developed the bureaucracy to administer the new territories, while strengthening the autocratic powers of the monarch to a unprecedented level. The prolonged and unsuccessful Livonian War overextended the state’s resources and helped bring Russia to the verge of economic collapse.
Following the death of Ivan the Terrible, who left Russia without a successor after he murdered his only viable heir, Ivan, in 1581, this set in motion events leading to the political crisis known as the Time of Troubles, , the civil war which ended with the choice of a Romanov as the next Tsar.
The Romanovs ruled from 1613 until 1917 with policies always orientated towards Western Europe. Tsar Peter the Great abolished the church patriarchy and effectively made the Russian Orthodox church an arm of the state, in fact making Russia a theocracy, which influence the Orthodox church still holds today.
Over the last five centuries, Russia and Europe have been closely interconnected politically, economically and culturally. Especially from the 18th century onward, the relationship between Russia and other European countries and societies expanded in different areas and during the 18 and 19th was characterized by a high degree of cultural interconnection.
The large territories are a source of great pride, just as Lake Baikal is, confirming its uniqueness and importance of Russia in the world, but also has made Russia feel vulnerable and insecure for expansion on it territories by others.
This vulnerability finds its origin how on different occasions foreign troops have entered the country and Moscow, which first was attacked and occupied in 1238 by the Mongols, followed by different occupations throughout its history.
These territories are bordered by countries which after the collapse of the Soviet Empire are not seen as partners or friends but as potential beachheads for enemies. Stalin already viewed independent states as security risks to Russian interests, stepping stones for possible aggression against Russia by adversaries.
This feeling of “Russia alone” against bigger adversaries has often resulted in defensive aggressiveness against the bordering countries of which Georgia, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Ukraine as latest example. This type of intimidation and aggressiveness has led that former Soviet belongings such as Azerbaijan, Georgia and Ukraine now have security arrangements with the west.
In its most recent history Russia has been involved in different wars; there have been victories over Charles XII and Sweden which cemented Russian influence on the Baltic Sea and Europe. Just as Russia was victorious in WWII. But most wars were lost; the Crimean War of 1853-56; the Russo/Japanese war 1904-5; WWI.
Russia is not an easy country to govern and as Stefan Hedlund of the Uppsala university pointed out in Russian Path Dependence addressing Vladimir Putin’s authoritarianism,
“Russia has essentially collapsed three times in its history, in 1610-1613, 1917-1918 and in 1991 and each time the country was revived fundamentally unchanged. Despite the depth of the crises and the stated intentions of would-be transformative leaders, Russia remerged with an unaccountable government, repression, and resistance to the imposition of the rule of law.”
Reflecting on Russia’s history, culture and present position and looking at the rise and fall of the great powers in history it cannot be avoided like others also Russia has great difficulty to relinquish its own sense of exceptionalism while coming to terms with its own past, its reduced role in the world which process Germans call “Vergangenheitsbewältigung.”
In today’s world which is dominated by the main economic centres China, EU and US, Russia geopolitical position is not that of a super power equal to the China, EU or the US but that of a great power on the peripheral, outside the developed industrialized nations.
“Delusion of Russian greatness has not helped it’s integration into Europe,” the writer Ivan Turgenev noted in the nineteenth century.
Today Russia can be seen as a “great weak” country of peasants and nomads which has been in decline since Catherine the Great, but also a country which has been haunted by its relative backwardness. By 1900 Russia was the 4th / 5th largest industrial power but its capita GDP reached 20% of the UK and average life span 30 years while literacy was 33%, lower than 18th century UK.
Russia’s position in the world is that of a country on the economic peripheral, being the 11th industrial power with a GDP equal to Korea, with its capita GDP reaching 59% of the UK and constituting 1,8% of the world economy.
As of 2017 life expectancy at birth is 72.5 years, a substantial improvement but still low compared to countries with a similar income. However there is a striking difference between men (66,5) and women (77,1) which 11-year gap is correlated with alcohol consumption. Today the population is highly educated with the adult literacy rate for the Russian Federation at 99.8%.
Russia, has since the Romanov’s and until today always been Governed by autocrats and today is no different. Authoritarianism is embedded in its culture.
The tyrant Stalin believed Russia needs a tsar, as the people are accustomed to one person being at the head “a tsar the people can worship and for whom they can live and work.” Today’s Putinism is no different and blends Romanov authoritarianism, Orthodox sanctity, nationalism, crony capitalism and adds to nostalgia for the Soviet Union and the Romanov empire.
It is ironic as Simon Sebag Montefiore writes in this excellent book The Romanovs that Russian leaders effectively nominate their successors just as Peter the Great did, while unlike Western Europe, Russia did not build independent assembles or institutions early on. Still today there is a low level of development of the system of checks and balances and a low level of institutionalization of social processes.
It is naïve and unrealistic to expect Russia will in the foreseeable future be able to turn the page and find the way forward to a more free and open society. Not under Vladimir Putin or after Vladimir Putin.
Russia is organized around the ruler exercising undivided power, ruled by opaque cliques, able to amass vast wealth while linked together through hierarchical client – patron relationships all at the mercy of the ruler but also requires from the ruler to balance the different vested interests.
The highest value is that of the state, which all dominant power supersedes the individual, liberty, human- or property-rights whereby the strong state is seen at the final arbiter and guarantor of the domestic order.
The Russian nation may be motivated by a deep, creedal ideology that has been wafting through the culture for centuries and can be traced back to Byzantium with overestimated visions of Grandeur, but its present position in the World it is that of a regional power at best, albeit one with nuclear weapons.
With Vladimir Putin, a 21st Century Czar who rules Russia with and through the wealthy few and is opposed to democracy, the country seems to have made a full turn since the revolution in 1917.
In fact the country has returned to its origins during Peter the Great during which the Aristocracy ruled over the serfs and Prince Fyodor Yuryevich. Romodanovsky (1640–1717) was one of Peter the Great’s foremost assistants in the task of modernizing Russia.
Fyodor Yuryevich, an influential boyar from the Romodanovsky family was the first head of the head of the secret police the Preobrazhensky prikaz in 1686 and ensured, with an iron hand, that there was no opposition.
Today it is if the revolution never happened and the situation seems not much different, with Russia controlled by the oligarchs, a few thousand masters ruling over a hundred and forty million commoners who are making $5 to $ 7 a day in retirement payments and who like with the serfs don’t complain, with the Federal Security Service FSB keeping a safe and watchful eye disallowing any dissent which could lead to the evils of equal representation and democracy!
This diatribe expresses my personal views and observations.
20/2/2021 – Revised 24/2/2022