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. Russia has expanded its territory substantially since Ivan the Terrible in the 16th century.
Ivan the Terrible (1530–1584) transformed Russia from a medieval state into an empire under the Tsar, 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 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 centers 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!