Note: This is the third in a series of essays on ‘Russia’s DNA.’ The first essay ‘Russia’s DNA: Fear of Invasion’ explains the background for this series.
Russia’s Unique Historical Context
As Russian historian Edvard Radzinsky noted, “Russia is an exceptional place. In the 20th century, over a single lifetime – 70 years – it saw three civilizations. Each of the first two was rejected by its successor, forcing people to renounce their convictions. You can imagine the chaos of ideas and beliefs in their hearts.”
For those of us who have lived in the United States or Western Europe, it is hard to truly understand what it is like to be raised in a historical context like Russia’s. Hundreds of years of oppressive rule by Asiatic Mongol rulers, followed by three hundred years of autocratic rule by the Romanovs, created an historical legacy that is not easily overcome. As one historian wrote, “It is easier to imagine Russia without the people than without a tsar.” For centuries the Russian people have been impoverished, while the ruling dynasty enjoyed an extravagant lifestyle.
When Mongol rule began to collapse and local war lords emerged, the ensuing chaos created an opportunity for change. This period, known as the “Time of Troubles” (1598 to 1613), was a critical time in Russia’s development, and out of this turmoil came not a new political order, but one that resembled the old. The autocratic Romanov dynasty, greatly strengthened by Ivan the Great’s reign, was not unlike that of the preceding Mongolian clans. The fear of more chaos justified the creation of strong centralized rule.
20th Century Russia
As the Romanov dynasty began to implode at the beginning of the 20th century, with increasing numbers of political assassinations, riots in the streets, and the pressures of the First World War for which the nation was not prepared, chaos was the order of the day. Russian nihilists called terrorism “the strength of the powerless,” and many Russian young people became cold-blooded killers, assassinating Tsar Alexander II in 1881, among many others. When, at a trial of terrorists, the prosecutor noted the death of innocent bystanders, the terrorist leader laughed. The prosecutor’s response, repeated throughout Russia for years
Fyodor Dostoyevsky described this period of Russia’s history as “balancing on the edge of the abyss.” The subsequent end of the Romanov dynasty in 1917 led to the creation of another regime, another civilization. Vladimir Lenin seized power with the dream of destroying the state only to create an even more ruthless state; he also railed against the Romanov bureaucracy only to create an even more powerful bureaucratic regime. The Bolshevik state created by Lenin was very similar to the ruthless monarchy of Tsar Nicholas I, and Stalin became an Asiatic Napoleon. Fear of chaos led to more autocratic rule, not less.
In 1991, when this second regime imploded – with very few defenders, as happened in 1917 – there was another opportunity for a new order in Russia. Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, the last two rulers of the 20th century, began the path toward freedom that resulted in the dissolution of the USSR. However, building a free society in a context where ruthless autocracy has reigned for centuries is very difficult. The tensions and the risks involved in this kind of radical change eventually drove Boris Yeltsin to seek solace in the bottle and this destroyed his strength and health, for which he was famous. The end of his reign was marked by chaos and corruption. I experienced this anarchy on a personal level when I was robbed by Moscow police at a Metro station in 1995.
Once again, the Russian people sought a strong leader to get them out of chaos and uncertainty. In President Vladimir Putin, they found a modern, young leader who is athletic, hard-working, articulate and self-confident. Stability has been restored and a new sense of a viable future is evident. The fear of chaos has been replaced by another strong Russian state under the control of a very popular Russian leader.
What Does the Future Hold?
The historical legacy of centuries of authoritarian political rule in Russia is an important factor in understanding Russia’s “DNA.” The fear of chaos and instability, especially when viewed together with the geopolitical context of a country that covers eleven time zones and shares borders with fourteen other nations, is important to understand when evaluating Russia’s development. Protecting human rights and political freedom has value to many Russians, but only if the nation’s well-being is secure.
To the surprise of many Western observers, Russia’s new middle class is politically apathetic, but in light of Russia’s history and her “DNA,” it is understandable. Will this situation change in our lifetime? This is an open question, in my judgment, but one thing is clear – it will take a new generation or two before any fundamental shifts occur in this aspect of contemporary Russian society.