Posts Tagged ‘Russian History’

If the USA and Russia could change places

September 26, 2016


My experience and knowledge of foreign countries is limited, but I try to understand foreign leaders by putting myself in their place, and imagining what I would do if I were them.

Peter Hitchens, a Briton who was a foreign correspondent in Moscow for many years, invites us to imagine how we would feel if we were Russians, a nation that, unlike the USA, has been invaded not once, but many times, and lost millions, not thousands, of lives to invaders within living memory.

Safety, for Russians, is something to be achieved by neutralizing a danger that is presumed to exist at all times.  From this follows a particular attitude to life and government.

If the U.S. had China on the 49th Parallel and Germany on the Rio Grande, and a long land border with the Islamic world where the Pacific Ocean now is, it might be a very different place.  There might even be a good excuse for the Patriot Act and the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI.

If Russia’s neighbors were Canada and Mexico, rather than Germany, China, Turkey, and Poland, and if its other flanks were guarded by thousands of miles of open ocean, it might have free institutions and long traditions of free speech and the rule of law. It might also be a lot richer.

As it is, Russia is a strong state with a country, rather than a country with a strong state.  If it were otherwise, it would have gone the way of the Lithuanian Empire or, come to that, the Golden Horde.

Source: Peter Hitchens | First Things

That is not to say that life in Vladimir Putin’s Russia is good, or that Putin is a benign ruler.  But he is no worse than many of the despots with whom the United States is allied, and life in the Russian Federation is infinitely preferable to live in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republicans.

Far from being a new Hitler, Hitchens wrote, his goal is to keep territories formerly controlled by the USSR from joining anti-Russian alliances.  Whatever you think of this, it is not a threat to the United States or any other Western nation.


The roots of Putin’s Russian nationalism

May 7, 2014
Historical Map of Russia and the USSR.  Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

Russians, like Americans, have historically had a sense of special destiny among the nations — exceptionalism, if you want to call it that.   The history and special nature of Russian nationalism is worth understanding because it is embodied in Vladimir Putin.  Like many 19th century Russians, he has a sense that Russia is not fully accepted as a member of the European family of nations, and, like them, he sees Russian destiny as a Eurasian, not just a European, nation.

Russian culture is rooted in Eastern Orthodox Christianity and its converts in “Kievan Russ” in what is now Ukraine.  The region was overwhelmed by the Mongol Golden Horde and ruled by their descendents, the Tatars.   The present-day Russian state when the rulers of Muscovy threw off the Tatar rule.  After the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453, some Russians started to refer to Moscow as “the Third Rome”.   Just as Constantinople became the capital of the Roman Empire after the fall of Rome itself, they said, so Moscow succeeded Constantinople.   The title Czar derives from Caesar.

Over a few centuries, Russia became the largest nation in the world in area, covering a sixth of the world’s land surface.  Its remarkable spread is shown in the historical maps above and below [1], a historical saga as remarkable as the spread of the United States from sea to shining sea during the 19th century.

Through the years, Russian thinkers have been divided among what historians call the “Slavophiles” and the “Westernizers.”  The Westernizers saw Russia as a backward nation that needed to learn from the more modern nations of western Europe.  The Slavophiles thought Russia had a special spiritual wisdom that the western Europeans never would understand.  They thought Russia needed autocratic rules, and the democracy and individual rights merely reflected human selfishness.  They also thought that the western Europeans never would accept them as equals, and that Russia’s destiny lay toward the East, not the West.   These attitudes are shared by Vladimir Putin today.

I think the Russian resentment of western European attitudes has some basis.  During World War One, Czar Nicholas II sought to be a loyal member of the alliance with Britain and France against Germany, and responded to their calls to sacrifice Russian lives in the common effort.  If he had been a less loyal member of the alliance, or if Alexander Kerensky, the head of the provisional government that took power after Nicholas abdicated, had not committed to keeping Russia in the war, the Bolshevik Revolution might not have happened — at least not in the way it did.

The same attitudes are reflected in British and American histories of the Second World War, which fail to acknowledge most of the fighting against Hitler’s Germany was done by the Red Army, which suffered most of the casualties.

Alexander Solzhenitzyn, the great 20th century Russian novelist and dissident, was a Russian nationalist.  He said that the Soviet Union was not Russian [2] and that the most oppressed people under Communist rule were the Russians themselves, because the Bolsheviks sought to wipe out Russian religion and traditions.  He advocated liberation of the Baltic and central Asian states, and the formation of a new state in which Russians were the majority — Russia proper, Belorussia, Ukraine and northern Kazakhstan.

This is the area which Vladimir Putin hopes to form into a “Eurasian Union,” an economic bloc comparable to the European Union.   Interesting, he has signed a new naturalization law which will allow anyone born in the territory of the former Soviet Union, who speaks Russian, to apply for Russian citizenship.  This could be the basis for intervention later on in these regions to protect Russian citizens.

A friend of mine, a naturalized American citizen who was educated in the old Soviet Union, watches Russian-language television on-line.  She tells me the Russians are chauvinistic, and openly contemptuous of other peoples, in a way that would not be acceptable in the USA today.   She said they regard Ukrainians as an inferior people, and us Americans as weaklings and fools, and they regard Russia as being on the march.   I don’t doubt the accuracy of what she says.

Vladimir Putin came out of the old Soviet KGB and he said the breakup of the USSR was a geopolitical catastrophe.  But it seems to me that he is not so much trying to recreate the old Soviet Union as he is the pre-1914 Russian Empire, with its traditions of autocratic government, an established religion and little tolerance for dissent.  He reportedly has a portrait of Peter the Great in his office.  He reportedly quoted Czar Alexander III as saying that Russia has only two trustworthy allies, its army and its navy. He is not a second coming of Hitler or Stalin,  but that doesn’t make him a friend of democracy or freedom.

Expansion of Russia Under the Czars.

Expansion of Russia Under the Czars.