A big sporting event grabs the global spotlight and turns it on the city or country where it is held. With the Sochi Winter Olympics barely two weeks away, that spotlight will shine on Russia, for better or worse. So it’s a good time to talk about that tragic and complicated nation and ask a question that baffles most Americans:
What makes the Russians tick?
Granted, this is a long way from our usual Midwestern beat. In an earlier life as a foreign correspondent, I spent four years in the old Soviet Union, went back regularly on shorter assignments, and covered the Soviet implosion in 1991 and its tortured transformation into the Russia we know today, which is the Russia of Vladimir Putin. So I know the territory and hope you’ll follow me on this Russian detour.
Americans don’t understand the Russians (and vice versa) because we share almost nothing – our histories, culture, mindsets, basic assumptions. Similarities here are literally skin-deep. Underneath, our histories have shaped two entirely different cultures – what the late scholar Samuel Huntington defined as “the Western civilization,” which is mostly us and the Europeans, and the “orthodox Russian civilization,” which embraces Russia and other Orthodox nations such as Romania and Serbia.
This doesn’t have much to do with the Soviet Union or with Putin, who inherited this Russian civilization as surely as Presidents Bush and Obama are products of the history of the West. In a sense, Russia lives behind an iron curtain, but it’s 1,000 years old.
Basically, we Westerners, from Poland and France to Canada and California, are the inheritors of events that took place centuries ago in Renaissance Italy or feudal England. The way we think and run our societies was set in motion 500 to 800 years ago, with the Reformation, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, with the Magna Carta and Martin Luther’s 95 Theses. These events established the role of the individual in society - just what society, government and the individual really mean, and how they relate to each other.
Most of us go through life without giving a thought to any of this, because it’s so ingrained. But it’s the historical DNA that makes us what we are. Every time we write a letter to the editor or try to fight city hall, we’re channeling Martin Luther and the barons at Runnymede. Both taught us that it’s right and necessary to challenge supreme power, either church or state.
Russia simply had none of this. If our civilization came from Rome, theirs came up from Byzantium and Constantinople, via Kiev, where the Russian state of Kievan Rus and its form of Christianity first took root.
By the 13th century, this had moved north to Moscow where it blossomed into the Russian civilization. This is a civilization based on the Russian Orthodox Church, the tsars, constant invasions from east and west, the sheer vastness of the land, and the distance between Russia and the rest of the world.
If we spring from our contrarian history, the Russians rise from an Orthodoxy, untempered by reform, and from a tsardom based on divine right. Both ruled by the will of God, and anyone who questioned it got sent to Siberia, or worse.
This couldn’t be reformed, only overthrown. The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 ousted tsarism – and then set up a regime in its image. The Communists substituted history for God. History decreed the triumph of Communism, and anyone who questioned it got sent to Siberia, or worse. The relationship between the Party and the people was precisely the same as the relationship between the tsar and the people – of master and subject.
What’s happening now is history (once again) having its own way. We’ve gone from the despotism of the tsars to the totalitarianism of the communists to the autocracy of Putin. Opposition has always existed – the Decembrist to the tsars, the dissidents to the communists, Pussy Riot to Putin – and is squashed or exiled. Under Tsar Nicholas II, Lenin found exile in the West. The Communists exiled novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn to the West. Now, Putin has done the same to oligarch-turned-foe Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Rulers change, but the rule remains.
These dissidents have their followers, but not many. By and large, the Russian people accept – even admire – iron rule. There never will be a mass movement for democracy in Russia. It’s just not in the genes.
This is harsh, but all Russian history is tragic, hard, despotic. Constantly invaded, Russians fear the outside world. Traditionally backward, Russia both admires and resents the West. As the American diplomat George Kennan wrote, Russia has “a neurotic view of world affairs” based on an “instinctive Russian sense of insecurity... a fear of more competent, more powerful, more highly organized societies.” Russia is, literally, a nation without a friend, fearing and feared by all its neighbors.
From these tragic centuries has sprung the most marvelous and remarkable people – intelligent, sensual, funny, deep, wonderfully creative, producers of literature and music that, perhaps more than any culture except the German (another country with a complex history) has enriched our lives. But what they have never done is run a decent country, and this seems unlikely to change.
The Soviet Union collapsed as a superpower because its shackled economy could no longer support its defense and foreign policies (a lesson we’d be wise to learn). Russia exists today as a shriveled, corrupt, bitter kernel of that empire, still with an incompetent economy. It’s big enough to be important but not big enough to keep us awake at nights. In this, it resembles post-Ottoman Turkey – the shrunken inheritor of a mighty empire. Turkey, though, had Ataturk and has been wrestling for a century over what kind of country it should be. Russia had Yeltsin, then Putin, and that debate has yet to begin.
It’s important to note that Putin’s Russia, like post-Ottoman Turkey, is autocratic but not totalitarian. The Soviet Union was totalitarian, in that everything – from schools to newspapers to clubs to stores to children’s group – was run by the state. Civil society didn‘t exist. Putin’s Russia permits a brave but marginal civil society, tolerated but kept under control. Some newspapers may oppose the Kremlin, but their low readership makes them an escape value, not a real opposition. Television, which reaches a mass audience, is tightly controlled.
In short, Putin’s Russia is no aberration but a logical next step in the long march of Russia history. Putin and the Russians simply view the world differently than we do – in foreign relations, in terms of democracy and civil society.
Our lectures won’t change them, nor should we expect them to. The best we can do is to live with this deep difference, to contain conflicts, and hope that both sides at least try to understand the other.