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 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 it did not build independent assembles or institutions early on.Today under President Putin, the Russian parliament, the “DUMA” is a rubber stamp institution in which Nationalistic feelings run high.

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.

Still today there is a low level of development of the system of checks and balances and a low level of institutionalisation of social processes as Evgeny Minchenko concludes in the “Methodological basis of the Politburo 2.0 report series.”

Russia is organised 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.

But in case of failure change can come rapidly to autocratic leaders and with mortal consequences as history has shown.

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 has been mainly shaped by its hesitation to join international bodies, unless it can be a dominant member like in the UN where it has a Veto.

A world which after WWII has moved towards a system in which international relationships are based on International Law and for the relationship between EU, Russia and US this was influenced by the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, the post-Cold War settlement  and the 1990 Charter of Paris for New Europe.

Our global, rules-based economic order with its values of free trade (NAFTA, TPP, WTO) and the rule of law has advanced and is based on a system of norms, institutions and international partnerships which have brought security, stability and prosperity to Europe, while NATO has limited escalation by Russia.

In the 1980’s Russia and our world order was greatly changed by Mikael Gorbachev (1985- 1991) attempts to reduce Cold War tensions and to reform Russia with his policies of Glasnost (openness) and Perestroika (restructuring) with aspirations of democratic governance, freely organised civil society and rule of law.

Mikael Gorbachev succeeded in giving Russia a taste of democracy seen only briefly in 1917, before it was smothered, and was smothered again in the 1990’s and beyond, regretfully Gorbachev was unable to sustain it. But gave people a glimpse of the light of freedom.

In the years of great changes (1989-2001) both H.W. Bush and Mikael Gorbachev played a pivotal role by working together in the spirit of cooperation ending the Cold War and the nuclear arms race, significantly cutting both countries arsenals as laid down in the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START).

START also led to the removal of nuclear weapons and infrastructure from the Ukraine, which started with the Lisbon Protocol in 1992 and the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances. With the annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014 the agreement was violated by Russia and made clear US security assurances had limited value and the worst fears of the Ukraine were realized.

Influenced by the events surrounding the German reunification in 1990 the EU embarked on a path of fundamental change and there have been attempts to build a safe and prosperous Europe which would include Russia. Envisioned was the expansion of the international system by essential legal rules.

But the idea that Russia should become “just another European state” or be viewed as a regional power was and is adverse to the core beliefs about Russia’s exceptionalism, status and position in the world.

A country which sees itself through the eyes of Ivan Ilyin as “pure and objective” an organism of nature and the soul,” an animal in Eden without original sin.  Such a country can only blame others for its own faults and failures, is a victim and has suffered for a thousand years since its conversion to Christianity. As Timothy Snyder writes on this “Russia can do no wrong, wrong can only be done to Russia, Facts do not matter and responsibility vanishes.”

Another limiting factor for such an association with the European order and transatlantic institutions was that Moscow was expected to give up some of Russia’s sovereignty which was and is not in line with the ideas and priorities of the Russian leadership which seek to enhance the country’s sovereignty not reducing it.

However, much was accomplished to lay a serious foundation for cooperation, whereby Russia and its 144 million people were integrated in the global economy, but there were also signs of differences in mutual interests.

There were chances for a new alignment in the world which was changing from a unipolar world into a multipolar world as Henry Kissinger predicted in his book “Diplomacy,” but the West to its own detriment failed to become deeply involved in Russia.

Gorbachev was overtaken by events and the people were sucked into anxiety about Russian society also influenced by the 1991 Soviet coup d’état attempt. The August Coup, an attempt by hard-line members within the government opposed the reform programs and the new union treaty which decentralized much of the government power to the republics. Reason for hardliners to take control of the country from Soviet President and General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev.

The Coup collapsed within days due to civil resistance led by Boris Yeltsin and Gorbachev returned shortly to power, but resigned on December 25 of the same year. These events contributed greatly to the dissolution of the USSR.

Mikael Gorbachev, an unusually decent man, in a country whose citizens crave strong, tough leaders and are prone to take decency as weakness, was instrumental to end of the cold war and allowed for the democratisation of the eastern European, Baltic states and gave the southern caucuses independence from Moscow’s rule. In fact Gorbachev initiated and oversaw the dismantling of the Romanov empire which Lenin and Stalin held together with much cunning, destructive force and enormous sacrifice in human life.

Boris Yeltsin used the ambitions of the republics to outmanoeuvre President Mikael Gorbachev, a very wise, fair, thoughtful and experienced leader, passionate about democracy yet understanding the uncertainties and transitional difficulties and led in the first real Democracy, with free press and free market.

One wonders instead of Vladimir Putin, an expansionist autocrat in the mould of the old Soviet presidents but not a dictator, how much better and freer Russia could have been under Mikael Gorbachev’s  continued leadership.

On June 12, 1991, during the first presidential elections Boris Yeltsin was elected as the first President of the Russian Federation, which was established as a constitutional republic, a democracy where the President and parliament were chosen by free and fair election. During its existence free and fair elections is dubious as the unrest after the manipulation of the 2012 elections showed. Also the principle of concession is most debatable as Vladimir Putin, President for life shows. 

The Yeltsin years show how this potentially great country became once again hijacked both politically and economically by the vested interests around the leader at the expense of the Russian people.

Boris Yeltsin retired in 1999 and did manage assisted by his deputy chief of staff Vladislav Surkov, the brilliant public relations expert his own successor, like most czars did when he handed supreme power to former KGB colonel turned politician Vladimir Putin. Today Vladislav Surkov is known as the Puppet Master or as the Grey Cardinal.

Russia has found in Vladimir Putin the tactician an unlikely, cynical and cold-eyed host who in his life often was at the right time and place.

After Vladimir Putin attended Leningrad State University he was recruited in 1975 by the KGB and specialized in political intelligence. During the Cold war he was assigned to a field office in Dresden, East Germany, a post of little significance

Upon his return after the German unification, Putin was given a job as Deputy Rector of Leningrad University and soon was employed by Anataly Sobshak, his former University professor first as his Chief of Staff before being named Deputy Mayor while also rising in the ranks of the FSB, formerly the KGB.

In 1998 Putin became deputy to Pavel Barodin, supervising the Kremlin’s foreign transactions and state holdings and was appointed in 1998 by Boris Yeltsin as Head of the FSB.

This was followed in 1999 by his appointment of Secretary of the Security Council, in which position he fired Prosecutor General Yuri Skuratov who had authorized investigation in the corruption practices of key Yeltsin allies.

Putin was parachuted into his position of power by the Yeltsin inner circle. Part of the arrangement with the Yeltsin clan was to guarantee not to prosecute Yeltsin or confiscated his assets.

Ultimately on August 9th, 1999 Yeltsin fired his Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin and replaced him by Vladimir Putin and made him his successor. At the end of 1999 Boris Yeltsin resigned and Putin became acting President until the elections of 2000. As acting President Vladimir Putin pardoned Boris Yeltsin and his family from any criminal charges.

Putin had at approval rating at 2% at the beginning of his campaign and his election platform did reveal not much, he welcome foreign investment, but communicated the need for a strong state with traditional Russian values, but rejected Western Liberal democracy since this has no basis in Russian values and forged a coalition of centre-right, nationalist and communist elements.

This all changed when in September of 1999 bombs started to exploit in different cities killing hundreds of people and Putin ordered his war against the Chechen republic deemed responsible, although FSB involvement was rumoured.   And due to his ruthless approach Putin’s popularity rose to 45% by the end of the year.

In the March 2000 election Vladimir Putin was elected with 53% of the vote, helped by the Government control of the television stations and with a ruthless approach towards the Chechen terrorist treat which led to the complete destruction of Grozny. Obviously Vladimir Putin forgot to remember what Stalin did to the Chechens or he would not have invaded Chechnya again.

With Putin the winds of our times changed and the momentum and trust for close cooperation was gradually lost and tensions increased also influenced by the previous US bombing of Bosnia of 1995 and Belgrade in 1999.

There is a lack of understanding by Western politicians and leaders who trusted Putin, but who was never Democracy’s friend and is someone who sees politeness and friendship often a sign of weakness and will seek to destroy everything what he cannot control.

Still in 2001 after 9/11 offered support to NATO and in 2002 spoke favourable of European culture, the European Union and NATO was not in the doghouse as an adversary. In 2003 with the war in Iraq the first cracks came to the surface and also laid bare the difference which existed within the international community.

The trust further deteriorated after the 2008 Russian military intervention in the Caucasus, the manipulations during the 2012 elections in Russia, the 2014 activities of different pro-Russian groups in the Ukraine and the evasion annexation of the Crimea which was a violation of international law and Russia under Vladimir Putin turned into a revanchist expansionist nation.

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 operated the secret police “Preobrazhensky prikaz.”

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!

William J J Houtzager

February 20th 2021

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