Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Collapse of the USSR: Insights After Twenty Years Part VI: Rebuilding Russia

December 2011 marks the twentieth anniversary of the collapse of the USSR. On December 31, 1991, the flag of the Soviet Union was lowered from the Kremlin flagpoles and replaced by the tri-color flag of the Russian Federation. This is the fourth and final in a series of “Reflections” on this momentous historical event.

The failure of the coup in August 1991 and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991 are events that few people ever anticipated. In fact, some government leaders in Washington, D.C. were less than enthusiastic about the implosion of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics because they now had to deal with fifteen different governments rather than one known enemy.

What became clear in the months following the collapse of the USSR was this simple reality: it is much easier to tear something down than it is to replace it with a viable alternative. President Boris Yeltsin had keen political sensitivities and he knew how to mobilize support to dismantle the Communist regime, but he had little idea how to rebuild Russian society based on the rule of law, political freedom and governmental accountability.

The Firm Rejection of Communist Values

Like the collapse of the Romanov dynasty in 1917, the implosion of the Communist government took place because it had lost its moral legitimacy and there was no constituency large enough to defend it. During the Gorbachev years and the early years of Yeltsin’s presidency, there appeared to be a strong desire to restore civil society, political pluralism, the rule of law, private property and free enterprise.

Take, for example, the parliamentary elections of December 1993, just two years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. There was no major national party that advocated a return to centralized economic planning. There was no major party in favor of using military force to restore the former Soviet empire. There was no major party claiming to be the sole source of truth and political power, like the Communist Party did for 70 years. All of the parties who gained representation in the parliament because of this election operated on the basis of political pluralism under the rule of law.

For three generations the Communist Party had advocated collectivism under the guise of “socialist internationalism,” but there was not one political group in 1993 that supported this policy. A solid consensus had formed that combined patriotism with a market-oriented economic system.

“The Velvet Revolution” in Russia

Moscow Protests, Dec. 2011
Timothy Garton Ash has helped us understand the unique character of the revolutions that took place in 1989-1991 in Eastern Europe and Russia. The French Revolution of 1789, the Russian Revolution of 1917, and Mao’s Chinese Revolution, were all violent, utopian, class-based, and characterized by a progressive radicalization, culminating in terror. But the revolutions in Poland, Czechoslovakia and Russia, by comparison, were nonviolent, anti-utopian, and based on broad social coalitions. They utilized mass social pressure, not terror, to force those in power to negotiate.

Unlike the earlier violent revolutions, changes in the post-Communist world were the result of “negotiated revolutions” and many of the ruling elites were able to hang on to their positions of power, because the protestors lacked experience in governance. Many retained their social positions and wealth and converted their former political power into economic power. They did not wind up hanging from lampposts, as in France in 1789, but became leaders in the new governments.

Vladivostok Protests, Dec. 2011
It is not surprising that over time the Russians who protested and filled the city squares to demonstrate against the Communist regime would become disillusioned with the “new” leaders who talk about democracy and the rule of law, but have no interest in building a new political order with accountability. In fact, the demonstrations all across Russia during the last few weeks shows how angry people are with the corruption and lack of dignity and respect they feel from government leaders. It is very hard to predict how these demonstrations will impact Russia’s future or how the Putin administration will respond, but it appears that the days of political passivity on the part of the middle class are over.

For many Russians, the transition to a market economy, while painful in process, brought a standard-of-living that they have not experienced before. They quickly and gladly became consumers, but are still learning how to become citizens. Learning civic responsibility, after 70 years of living under a Communist regime that discouraged independent grassroots associations, is a slow time-consuming process, but it is happening in Russia.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Collapse of the USSR: Insights After Twenty Years” Part III: The Role of Religious Dissidents

December 2011 marks the twentieth anniversary of the collapse of the USSR.  On December 31, 1991, the flag of the Soviet Union was lowered from the Kremlin flagpoles and replaced by the tri-color flag of the Russian Federation.  This is the third in a series of “Reflections” on this momentous historical event.

Human Rights Protesters
in Moscow, April 1980
Based on my experience in Russia since 1990, I am convinced that the role of religious leaders and institutions, as well as religious belief, are not only critical to Russia’s future development, but were also key factors in why the USSR collapsed.  This is not a topic that gets much attention in foreign policy circles either in the States or in Russia.

The First Protests Inside Russia

When Nikita Khrushchev began to close down churches in the late 1950s, hundreds of Christians decided to resist.  During this period, the first open letters of protest to the Communist leadership began to appear.   They predated the political samizdat (underground literature) generated by human rights groups by a decade.

Three thousand residents of the village of Pochaev signed a letter to the leaders of the USSR claiming that Party officials had tortured local nuns and that some of these nuns had died from the beatings they received.  In a follow-up letter, the villagers demanded that Party officials stop meddling in church affairs.  This became known outside the USSR when a copy of this letter was given to Western tourists in September 1962.

A better-known dissident appeal from the early 1960s was a forty-page letter written by two parish priests and sent to the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church.  The priests asked the Patriarch to petition the Communist government to stay out of church affairs and respect the separation of church and state.  The priests also requested that the Patriarch convene an All-Union Church Synod to review activities of the church hierarchy and all other aspects of church life.

It is significant that these two priests cited the existing Soviet constitution that guaranteed freedom of religion and they used as a rallying cry “Respect your own Constitution” which later became the central theme of the human rights movement in Russia.  The immediate results of this letter were prison terms for the two priests and a suspension of their status as priests by the Church hierarchy.  But the deeper significance of this bold action was that it ended the period of silence of parish leaders and people of faith.  They now became convinced that they must resist the submission of church leaders to the Soviet government.

Religious Leaders and the Human Rights Movement

In the decades that followed, clergy and laymen became active in building human rights organizations and sowing dissidence against the Communist regime.  The first of these was the Action Group for the Defense of Human Rights and many of the noted human rights activists from these early days specifically cited their Orthodox faith as the inspiration for their political activities. 

By the mid-1970s, “. . . it was religious samizdat alone that accounted for more than half of all underground publications,” according to Professor Nicolai Petro, and “. . . by the end of the 1970s, religious dissidents of all faiths numbered roughly fifty thousand as compared with ten thousand human rights and civil rights dissidents.”  It is a little known fact that for most of these people their struggle for a free society coincided with their struggle for a free church.

In 1976, the Christian Committee for the Defense of the Rights of Believers in the USSR was formed.  During the next four years, although its leaders were being arrested and jailed, the Committee distributed more than four hundred documents on violations of the civil rights of people from all religions.  It is interesting to note that leaders of this Committee did not see their activities as anti-Soviet government, but rather as a natural extension of their Orthodox faith.

Mikhail Gorbachev’s Reforms and Russia’s Future

The anti-Soviet movements of the 1960s and 1970s were the products of grassroots organizations, many of which were formed by religious leaders.  Khrushchev’s anti-religious campaign of 1960 -1964 unexpectedly raised the stature of Christians who took leadership in the human rights movement.  The 1970s saw a dramatic increase in religious samizdat, as well as the founding of underground journals devoted entirely to religion.   Regular sections on religion were also included in leading cultural publications.

When Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985, he was convinced that he needed to the stop the persecution of the churches and, instead, partner with them.  He joined forces with the surging underground movement – top-down now connecting with bottom-up. 

Years later, Gorbachev made this observation: ‘The Soviet model was defeated not only on the economic and social levels; it was defeated on the cultural level.  Our society, our people, the most educated, the most intellectual, rejected the model on the cultural level because it does not respect the man, oppresses him spiritually and politically.”
 
I agree with Nicolai Petro’s unique insights: “In post-communist Russia, the [Russian Orthodox] Church will continue to play an important role in the reassertion of Russia’s alternative political culture.  For now it is primarily the politically conservative forces who have recognized this and tried to associate their agenda with the Church, but it is only a matter of time before these values will be espoused by a much broader political spectrum.  .  . Without a proper appreciation of this religious context, it will surely be impossible to understand post-communist Russian politics.”  I would add, however, that the role of all Russian churches and religious institutions, not just the Orthodox Church, will be important influences in shaping Russia’s future.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

“The Collapse of the USSR: Insights After Twenty Years” Part II: The Loss of Moral Legitimacy

December 2011 marks the twentieth anniversary of the collapse of the USSR. On December 31, 1991, the flag of the Soviet Union was lowered from the Kremlin flagpoles and replaced by the tri-color flag of the Russian Federation. This is the second in a series of “Reflections” on this momentous historical event.

The moral and spiritual upheaval in Russia that contributed substantially to the collapse of the Soviet Union is a phenomenon largely overlooked by Western scholars and policy makers. Western elites, who do not consider religion to be a major factor in a nation’s corporate life and who find people’s belief in transcendent values to be of little interest, have missed essential factors that helped to undermine the Soviet regime.

In my last “Reflections,” we reviewed Mikhail Gorbachev’s open and repeated statements about the need for a moral and spiritual revolution in the Soviet Union. When Gorbachev severed the link between Marxism-Leninism and atheism in 1988, this was a dramatic reversal in Communist Party ideology.

The USSR was the first nation in the 20th century to be specifically created as a secular state and its militant atheism was firmly grounded in Marxist-Leninist thought, which identified religion as “the opium of the people.” Gorbachev knew that the policy of militant atheism was a failure and he pushed through a new law in 1990 that “guarantees the right of citizens to decide and express their attitudes toward religion.” He realized that the Soviet state had failed to eliminate religion from Russian society and that Christians had made and were making important contributions to their country, as they were in the West.

On the occasion of the 1,000th anniversary of Christianity in Russia in 1988, Gorbachev honored the Russian Orthodox Church. Gorbachev recognized, more than many politicians in the US and Western Europe, that a new political and economic order could not be built without a moral foundation.

As Leon Aron (American Enterprise Institute) has pointed out, Gorbachev’s key advisers shared his strong convictions about the need for a moral revolution. Aleksandr Yakovlev, the “godfather of glasnost,” in an interview in 1989, said “Enough! We cannot live like this any longer. Everything must be done in a new way . . . . There has come an understanding that it is simply impossible to live as we lived before. . . .”

Gorbachev’s Prime Minister, Nikolai Ryzhkov, noted that the “moral state of the society” in 1985 was its “most terrifying” feature. He boldly declared that Communist Party leaders “stole from ourselves, took and gave bribes, lied in reports, in newspapers, from high podiums, wallowed in our lies, hung medals on one another.” The Foreign Minister, Eduard Shevardnadze, recalls telling Gorbachev in 1984-85: “Everything is rotten. It has to be changed.”

Mikhail Bulgakov
These radical changes in the perspectives of the government leaders in Gorbachev’s cabinet was a reflection of larger currents in society. Bottom-up changes were also underway. In my many trips to Russia in the early 1990s, I repeatedly asked Russian university students what their favorite books were. One book stood out with no challenger in sight – Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita.

This brilliant novel, written in 1940 but not published until 1967 because of the opposition of Soviet censors, creatively weaves together three stories. The first is a love story about an author (called “the Master”) and his girlfriend Margarita; the second is a delightful satire on life in Moscow in the 1930s in which a professor of black magic (who is Satan portrayed as Professor Woland) causes havoc through his supernatural powers; and the third story deals with the encounter between Jesus and Pontius Pilate leading up to and including Jesus’ brutal crucifixion.

I know a number of Russian students who have read this book 20-25 times! If I had to summarize a book as complex and intricate as The Master and Margarita, I would say one of its central messages is this: Only a fool believes there is no God! The brilliance of Bulgakov is that he used Satan’s testimony to prove the existence of God.

Chingis Aitmatov
There are many other examples in the creative arts and in the mass media that illustrate the basic crisis that Marxist-Leninist ideology was going through. Chingis Aitmatov, the popular writer from Kirghizia, wrote a remarkably pointed essay in Pravda in February 1987 in which he stated that 70 years of Soviet power succeeded in removing Christian values but failed to replace them with anything positive. He charged that Soviet society was devoid of “compassion” and dominated by ruthlessness in a way that raped the concept of social justice.

From the bottom-up and then the top-down, a moral and spiritual revolution was underway in the 1980s that contributed to the collapse of the USSR. The bottom line was this: Marxism-Leninism was a false ideology that lead to the creation of a corrupt society and a government that had no moral legitimacy. Just like the Romanov dynasty in 1917, the Communist Party of the USSR lost its moral legitimacy and had no defenders left in December 1991.

Twenty years ago, the Russian people decided that they had had enough of the lies and hypocrisy of the Soviet system and instead wanted dignity, freedom and true citizenship. Unfortunately this powerful moral impulse, as Leon Aron notes, is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the successful remaking of a country. Reflections on this will follow.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

“The Collapse of the USSR: Insights After Twenty Years” Part I: The Moral and Spiritual Dimensions of the Collapse

December 2011 marks the twentieth anniversary of the collapse of the USSR. On December 31, 1991, the flag of the Soviet Union was lowered from the Kremlin flagpoles and replaced by the tri-color flag of the Russian Federation. This is the first in a series of “Reflections” on this momentous historical event.

Gorbachev addresses
a Communist Party rally
A number of foreign policy journals and think tanks have focused on the revolution in 1991 at its twentieth anniversary. As I have read through these articles and attended several seminars on this topic in recent months, I am surprised at how little we have learned.

Despite a dramatic increase in scholarly publications that highlight the importance of religion in international affairs, the leading Western scholars on Russia have not gotten the message. I attended a one-day seminar at the distinguished Kennan Institute of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., and listened to nine panelists who discussed the collapse of the Soviet Union without mentioning the role of religion and the impact of Russian Orthodox priests and other religious leaders. Even when several of us in the audience asked questions about this omission, the topic was largely dismissed.

The foreign policy elites in the West continue to operate as “genteel secularists” and this blind spot on religion is continuing to hamper their analysis, in my judgment. At the Kennan Institute seminar, a former U. S. ambassador to Russia described the three revolutions in Russia in 1991 – the political revolution that ended the one-party rule of the Communist Party, the economic revolution that replaced the centrally-controlled economy with a free market, and the military or imperial revolution that brought a dramatic reduction in the size of Russian armed forces and their pull-back from their former satellite states in Eastern and Central Europe.

This analysis focusing only on political, economic and military factors is the typical lens through which Western scholars and policy analysts view developments internationally. But this analysis is like viewing events with one eye closed. There were not just three revolutions taking place in Russia in 1991 -- there were five.! In addition to the political, economic and military revolutions, there were two others – a social revolution and a moral/spiritual revolution. This was a unique phenomena in modern history.

The social revolution involved the complete collapse of all the supporting mechanisms for families and communities. The Young Pioneers and their summer youth camps were disbanded, the various Communist Party social and cultural centers that provided training and childcare were closed, along with numerous other social networks.

These were an integral part of life throughout the Soviet Union, enabling parents to work while providing activities for their children. Their disappearance left families without the support they needed to endure the radical political and economic changes underway.

Overlooking the dramatic social revolution of the late 1980s was an unfortunate oversight, but missing the moral/spiritual revolution was egregious. While, on the one hand, the failure of Western scholars to understand the importance of dramatic changes in the moral and spiritual environment in Russia is not surprising because they view religion as unimportant, what is surprising is that moral and spiritual factors were overlooked even when Russian leaders involved in these dramatic events talked and wrote about them openly and frequently!

Mikhail Gorbachev’s bestseller, Perestroika, discusses the reasons for his and his colleagues’ “new thinking” related to the re-structuring of the Soviet Union. He describes how Communist Party leaders in the late 1970s began to realize that the country “began to lose momentum” – a kind of “braking mechanism” had formed affecting social and economic development. In addition to economic stagnation and deadlock, Gorbachev identified the “gradual erosion of the ideological and moral values of our people.” He noted how a “breach had formed between word and deed” which caused a “decay” in public morals.

To the author of Perestroika, the challenge was clear: to re-structure Soviet society, including its moral life. In his own words, Gorbachev makes this point: “Today our main job is to lift the individual spiritually, respecting his inner world and giving him moral strength. . . . Perestroika means the elimination from society of the distortions of socialist ethics, the inconsistent implementation of the principles of social justice. It means the unity of words and deeds, rights and duties.” Gorbachev was describing a moral and spiritual revolution! How did Western scholars miss this?

Gorbachev visits Pope John Paul II
at the Vatican (1989)
During his visit to the Vatican in 1989, Gorbachev again made his views explicit. He said: “We need spiritual values, we need a revolution of the mind. This is the only way toward a new culture and new politics that can meet the challenge of our time. We have changed attitudes toward some matters – such as religion – that, admittedly, we used to treat in a simplistic manner. . . . Now we not only proceed from the assumption that no one should interfere in matters of the individual’s conscience; we also say that the moral values that religion generated and embodied for centuries can help in the work of renewal in our country, too. . . .”

Western scholars and policy makers failed in their diagnosis of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and their failure to see and understand the moral and spiritual dimensions of Russian society will continue to limit the value of their analysis. Gorbachev saw something that Western scholars and policy makers continue to overlook – that the moral and spiritual foundations of Russian society need to be rebuilt before free and just political and economic institutions can be formed.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Russia’s Binary Character

In the introduction to his new survey of Russian history, Professor Geoffrey Hosking describes the geopolitics and the ecology of the Eurasian landmass and highlights features of the national character of the Russian people, features that have developed over their thousand-year history. One of these insights in particular stands out, as it is an insight I also observed during my years studying Russian history.

Peter the Great
Professor Hosking notes the “binary nature” of Russian culture, its tendency to seek extreme solutions to problems and to lurch from one set of cultural patterns to their diametric opposite. He gives three examples from Russia’s history to bolster this argument: the abrupt replacement of an eclectic paganism with Orthodox Christianity during the reign of Prince Vladimir toward the end of the tenth century; the radical reforms of Peter the Great in the early eighteenth century, when the young tsar forced Westernization on his people; and the Communist revolution of 1917, when radical Marxists announced the formation of a new socialist state with its “new Soviet man and new Soviet woman.”
Vladimir Lenin

Hosking then suggests that the post-Soviet transformation in Russia in the 1990s may come to be judged as yet another of these radical, binary actions. “In each case,” Hosking writes, “the new was presented as the complete supplanting of the old, the dismissal of absolute evil and the introduction of absolute good.” As he studied Russian history, Hosking observed the problems this caused over time. “In a society marked by such extreme discontinuities, the elites, animated by one kind of mentality, would try to introduce reforms, conceived as being for the benefit of everyone, but would come up against the mistrust and conservatism of the masses.”

For the bulk of the Russian population, struggling for survival in a harsh climatic and geographic milieu, novelty and experimentation could be hazardous, even disastrous. Their resistance caused conflict between the elite ruling classes and the masses, and, as a result, rulers resorted to force and violence to make the changes they wanted. Such a society, Hosking claims, tends to generate utopias and anti-utopias.

Hosking notes that the same duality is present in Russian folksongs and folktales. Very often, the tragedy or humor evident in folklore is the contrast between a world of order and culture and another world characterized by poverty, hunger, nakedness or disorderly conduct. In Russian popular culture, the world of darkness is often used as a device to shed light on the world of morality and convention.

Russia’s Cultural Life

Interestingly, Dr. James Billington, in his book The Face of Russia, makes a similar observation. Billington notes that the Russians produced “a culture of explosion,” of unpredictable outbursts – “flash fires in endless snow, sensational creativity amidst senseless suffering.”

Billington’s book analyzes five periods of Russian art and concludes that, in each period, Russian artists followed a similar binary pattern. First, without much warning, Russian artists took over some new type of creative enterprise from a more advanced foreign civilization that they previously reviled. Second, having taken over someone else’s art medium, they suddenly produced a stunningly original and even better version of their own. This often happened, Billington notes, at the same time people elsewhere had given up on the artistic medium suddenly embraced in Russia. Finally, after having established a new and higher art form, the Russians threw it down and broke it apart, leaving only fragments behind for later generations.

Billington’s book and accompanying video trace this pattern through the lives and work of five innovative Russian artistic pioneers – the medieval painter Andrei Rublev, the early modern architect Bartolomeo Rastrelli, the early 19th century writer Nicholas Gogol, the late 19th century composer Modest Musorgsky, and the 20th century filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein.

Insights Gained

Understanding this characteristic of the Russian people provides helpful insights and may give us some hints concerning how Russians are addressing their current problems. Will the Russians, having taken over the democratic model of their previous enemy, create a new and distinctive Russian variant that will serve their country in the decades ahead? Or will they destroy their own experiment and revert back to the authoritarian tradition of the past?

After reflecting on these insights, I interpret them in a positive light. The Russians are the ones who will shape their own future. While outside forces can have limited impact on the margins, it will be the Russians themselves who will figure out what path to follow. If the West is waiting to see their institutions copied and transplanted in Russia, there will be much disappointment ahead. The most important change that is needed in Russia, in my judgment, is for the welfare of the people to be determined by the people themselves. Russia’s history has been one of “reform from above,” reform forced on the masses. When change begins to generate on the grassroots level, and slowly builds support among the people, then perhaps the extreme swings of Russia’s binary character can be moderated and a healthy civil society built.

References: Geoffrey Hosking, Russia and the Russians: A History (Harvard University Press); James H. Billington, The Face of Russia: Anguish, Aspiration and Achievement in Russian Culture (TV Books).

Originally circulated in July 2002

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Russia and the Pattern of Revolutionary Change

Yeltsin & Gorbachev
The level of frustration that many in the West have regarding Russia’s post-Communist transformation is unreasonably high, and this frustration is evidence of a lack of historical perspective. As a historian, I am often troubled by the views of journalists who apparently never took any history or political science classes and suffer from a disease best described as “presentism.” “Presentism” is a preoccupation with current developments without any comparative frame-of-reference or any understanding of historical context or antecedents. Reading the work of these writers, it is as if Russia does not have a past, only a present.

Russia’s Revolutionary Experience

The dramatic changes that occurred in the Soviet Union when Communism imploded are truly remarkable. Russians experienced five revolutions simultaneously: a political revolution, when the one-party Communist system was replaced by free elections and new parliamentary institutions; an economic revolution, when the planned economy was replaced by a free market; an imperial revolution, when the Russian government freed up its Eastern European satellites and the USSR dissolved into fifteen independent nations; a social revolution, when all of the supporting social systems maintained by the Communist Party dissolved, leaving families without the only assistance they knew; and finally, a moral and spiritual revolution, when Marxist ideology was discredited, leaving a moral vacuum and ending seventy years of official atheism. Few nations in the world have ever experienced trauma of this magnitude. Few nations have ever gone through radical changes like this without considerable bloodshed.

Medvedev & Putin
To expect Russia to become a democracy with a free market economy in fewer than twenty years shows little understanding of the complexity of change on this scale and demonstrates a lack of sensitivity to the legacy of history and how characteristics and qualities in Russian culture need to change before political, economic, social and moral transformations can occur.

America’s Revolutionary Experience

Think about American history. Twenty years after the American Revolution, the United States was engaged in its first foreign war against the Barbary States, and opponents of Thomas Jefferson were fighting against his plan for a national navy for fear that the federal government might use this military force against the states.

From its birth, Americans had a Constitution and a country before they had a nation. Until the Civil War, as historian Jay Winik has noted, America remained a fragile artificial state, or to be more exact, a series of states and potential separate nations. It is no accident that the word “nation” appears nowhere in the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence. Forty years after the Revolutionary War, the election of Andrew Jackson, the hero of the War of 1812, confirmed the nation’s support for a strong and unified federal government. Forty years later, not twenty or thirty. It took time – decades – for America to develop into a unified country.

There’s a Pattern Here

Forming a new nation and building its infrastructure of laws and governing agencies is never a quick process. Professor Richard W. Bulliet of Columbia University made this argument very convincingly a few years back when he pointed out the following historical parallels:
  • Twenty years after the surrender of Charles I to Parliament in the English Revolution, Charles II was back in power. But forty years later, the Glorious Revolution of 1688-89 ended the Stuart Dynasty and established a firm new relationship between the ruler and the people of England.
  • Twenty years after the French Revolution, Napoleon had transformed the First Republic into an autocratic empire. But forty years later, the principles of the French Revolution were inspiring similar revolutions all across Europe in 1830.
  • Twenty years after the Bolshevik Revolution, the USSR was experiencing Stalin’s purge trials and the decimation of the Red Army officer corps. But forty years later, the USSR put the first Sputnik into space and openly challenged the United States for world leadership.
  • And finally, twenty years after Mao Tse-Tung’s Communist revolution, the People’s Republic of China was being torn apart by the violence of the Cultural Revolution. But forty years later, the country was experiencing a successful transition to the free market and prosperity was spreading across this huge nation.
Commentary

The writings of many commentators make it clear to me that they have little understanding of the difficult process involved in creating democratic and free market institutions. Democracy and capitalism cannot be generated in any nation without the construction of a moral base upon which these political and economic systems can be built. Systematic change of this magnitude does not happen quickly, certainly not in fewer than twenty years.

We need patience and an understanding of history. For those of us who are Americans, it would also help if we knew the history of our own country.

Originally circulated in November 2007

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

A Russian Literary Treasure: The Legend of the Three Hermits

Portrait of Leo Tolstoy,
Ilya Efimovich Repin, 1887
An old legend from the Volga District tells of a Bishop who was traveling from Archangel to the Solovetsk Monastery. While on board the ship, he overheard a sailor telling other passengers about three hermits who lived on a remote island along the route of the ship. When the Bishop inquired about the story, he was told that there were rumors about these three hermits who lived on this island for the “salvation of their souls.”

The Bishop’s curiosity was piqued, so he decided he wanted to visit the three hermits. He instructed the captain of the ship to trim the sails and take him to this island. The captain dutifully complied. As the Bishop approached the island on a rowboat powered by a crew from the sailing ship, he saw the three hermits (“the tall one,” “the short one” and the “old one”) standing on the shore hand-in-hand.

After they bowed and he blessed them, the Bishop said, “I have heard that you, godly men, live here saving your souls and praying to our Lord Christ for your fellow men. I, an unworthy servant of Christ, am called, by God’s mercy, to keep and teach His flock. I wished to see you, servants of God, and to do what I can to teach you, also.” The old men smiled, but remained silent.

“Tell me,” said the Bishop, “what are you doing to save your souls, and how do you serve God on this island?” The old hermit responded, “We do not know how to serve God. We only serve and support ourselves, servant of God.” “But how do you pray to God?” asked the Bishop.

“We pray this way,” replied the hermit. “Three are ye, three are we, have mercy on us.” And when the old man said this, all three hermits raised their eyes to heaven and repeated: “Three are ye, three are we, have mercy on us.”

So the Bishop began to teach the three hermits the Lord’s Prayer. All day long he labored, saying each word and phrase over many times. He did not quit until they could repeat the Lord’s Prayer in its entirety. As night approached, the hermits were finally able to say the Lord’s Prayer without error, so the Bishop said farewell and returned to the ship.

That night the Bishop could not sleep, but sat near the rear of the ship watching as the island disappeared from sight. As he gazed into the dark, he noticed a light sparkling on the water. It grew in intensity and became brighter and brighter. It was as if a ship were rapidly approaching and overtaking them.

To his amazement, the Bishop suddenly realized that it was the three hermits running upon the water, all gleaming in white with their grey beards shining. When they saw the Bishop, they said in one voice, “We have forgotten your teaching, servant of God. As long as we kept repeating it we remembered, but when we stopped saying it for a time, a word dropped out, and now it has all gone to pieces. We can remember nothing of it. Teach us again.”

The Bishop crossed himself, and leaning over the side of the ship said, “Your own prayer will reach the Lord, men of God. It is not for me to teach you. Pray for us sinners.” And the Bishop bowed low before the old men and they turned and went back across the sea.

Rediscovering Russia’s Rich Heritage

This legend, recaptured by Leo Tolstoy in 1886, is one example of the rich literary heritage of Russian culture. Efforts to build a New Russia and to educate a new generation of Russian leaders must begin, not by looking to the West for answers, but by rediscovering the wealth of its own literature, which addresses the critical spiritual and moral issues of life in profound and creative ways. This short legend, which is provocative as well as delightful, is just one example.

The influence of Christianity on Russian culture is pervasive, despite the seventy-year effort to ignore and even obliterate its influence. Building a New Russia must begin with its citizens rediscovering their own rich heritage. Education will be one of the keys in this process of rediscovery.

Originally circulated in May 1994

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Russia’s DNA: Unsettled Identity

*Note: This is the sixth and final in a series of essays on 'Russia's DNA.' The first essay 'Russia's DNA: Fear of Invasion' explains the background for this series."

Is Russia an Enigma?

To outsiders, gaining an understanding of Russia can be a challenge. Many of us take refuge in Winston Churchill’s famous statement that Russia is “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” Russia often seems to be a remote country, with a history that is not easily understood by foreigners, but as journalist Robert Kaiser wrote more than twenty years ago, “This is a myth, encouraged by the Russians themselves, who would prefer that no one discover who they really are and how they really live.”
Recently, President Putin’s Deputy Chief of Staff, Vladislav Surkov, offered this advice to Westerners who wanted to better understand Russia: “Read Dostoevsky.” Because Dostoevsky’s characters are such complex and sometimes irrational people, Surkov might be suggesting that Russians elude understanding because of their uniqueness.

The Great Russian Debate

For centuries there has been an ongoing debate in Russian leadership circles about how Russians should identify themselves. Historians have labeled the two opposing poles in this debate “Westernizers” and “Slavophiles.” “Westernizers” are those who believe that Russia is a European nation and that it should follow Europe’s path of development. “Slavophiles,” on the other hand, argue that Russia is unique, it is not like Europe, and it should carve out its own special path of development. For some, Russia is a “Eurasian power,” a nation that straddles Europe and Asia.

In the 19th century, this debate often focused on the top-down radical reforms of Peter the Great, who is a hero to the “Westernizers.” For the “Slavophiles,” Peter is no hero, but rather a cruel ruler who tried to force Slavic people to be like Europeans. The debate during the Gorbachev years reflected some of these same tensions. Supporters of Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms often argued that Russia needed to catch up with the West, to adopt capitalism and democracy, and to reach the level of development that the rulers of the Soviet Union promised but never delivered. Critics opposed the perestroika (restructuring) reforms of Gorbachev on the grounds that Russia was not a part of the “European family,” and that its future was distinctively different.

When this debate is being argued among knowledgeable Russians, the “Westernizers” praise the leadership not only of Peter the Great, but also of Catherine the Great and Alexander II, the “Tsar Liberator” of the serfs. The “Slavophiles,” in response, accentuate the reigns of Alexander I, who defeated Napoleon and taught Europe a lesson about power, and Nicholas I, whose slogan was “Autocracy, Orthodoxy, and Nationality.” These two rulers looked down on Europe and clearly were convinced that Russia was a superior nation. In a similar way, the Bolshevik leaders who came to power in 1917 were committed to offering the world a model socialist society populated by “new” Soviet men and women. The USSR was an experiment in social engineering that its rulers believed was the wave of the future – and not a copy of the West.

Russian Federation
For some, the two-headed eagle that symbolizes the Russian Federation illustrates Russia’s uniqueness: one eagle is facing west, the other east. For others, the two-headed eagle represents the problem: Russians cannot figure out who they are. Unlike other dominant cultures – such as China, with its strong sense that it is indeed “the Middle Kingdom” in this world, or the United States, where there is no identity crisis to speak of – Russians have not settled this question. Are they truly Europeans who just need to catch up with their neighbors to the west, or are they unique in the world, in which case they should forge their own special path?

Russians Learn from Others

As James Billington, the Librarian of the U.S. Congress and a leading authority on Russian history, has observed, Russians have repeatedly ended long periods of passivity with sudden, large-scale innovations in areas where they had no previous experience. They have demonstrated the ability to adopt wholesale the key institutions of their previous adversaries. For example, they raided Byzantium before taking over its culture, fought the Swedes before adopting their method of government, adopted French as the court language for a century before Napoleon attacked Moscow, and copied German modes of large-scale industrial organization while fighting them in two world wars. Whether the United States will serve as a basic model for Russia’s attempt to build a federated democracy is still an open question, but it is the only example of a democracy with a market economy on a continental scale with a multiethnic population.

While historical patterns that are centuries old only change slowly, they can change. Cultures can change over time, and it is yet to be seen how Russia’s new generation of youth and its emerging middle class will find their identity. Up until now, one strand of Russia’s “DNA” has been its unsettled identity.

Originally circulated in July 2007

Friday, October 21, 2011

Russia’s DNA: “Deep-Seated Spirituality”

*Note: This is the fifth 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 History

Millennium Celebration of the
Russian Orthodox Church, 1988

In 1988, Russians celebrated 1000 years of Christianity in their country, a celebration that was a problem for the ruling Communist Party, with its atheist ideology. But the reality of a millennia of Orthodox history could not be ignored in a country with such deep-seated spirituality. The events of 1988 focused on Prince Vladimir and his decision to adopt Christianity as the religion of his realm, and during this period of celebration Mikhail Gorbachev came to the realization that he needed to sever the link between Communist ideology and atheism – a radical decision that went largely unnoticed in the West. The Communist regime was established by Vladimir Lenin as an explicitly atheist system, utilizing Karl Marx’s famous slogan that religion is “the opium of the people.” Gorbachev concluded 70 years later that this was not true, and he passed a law on freedom of conscience and religion that was one of the most progressive laws in the world.

Even before the collapse of Communism, Party leaders realized that the spirituality of the Russian people could not be denied. At times, this realization was grounded in a cynical pragmatism, for example when Joseph Stalin asked Russian Orthodox Church leaders for their help during the dark days of World War Two, after decades of persecuting Orthodox priests and their congregations. Gorbachev’s dramatic change did not appear to be motivated by a desire to manipulate church leaders, like Stalin, but rather by a realization that Russians were deeply spiritual people and that religious people were some of the most loyal, most hard-working citizens in the USSR.

As a Westerner visiting Moscow for the first time in 1990, I was immediately struck by the irony of the Soviet government declaring itself an atheist regime while headquartered in the Kremlin with the magnificent gold-covered, onion-shaped domes of its cathedrals – the Cathedral of the Assumption, the Cathedral of the Annunciation, and the Cathedral of the Archangel Michael. Historians tell us that before Moscow was burned down by Russians as Napoleon approached the city in 1812, there were hundreds of churches in the nation’s capitol. Even today, one is struck by the number of active churches in Moscow and scattered across the countryside.

Russia’s Literary Legacy

The greatest of Russian literature, highlighted in the 19th and 20th centuries by the names of Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostosevsky, Mikhail Bulgakov, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, to name just a few of my favorites, is characterized by deep philosophical and religious themes. Bulgakov’s classic The Master and Margarita is an amazing, complex novel written during Stalin’s Great Terror in which Bulgakov uses Satan to prove the existence of God and makes fun of anyone who is silly enough to believe that there is no God.

The Religion of the Communist Party

Lenin's Mausoleum in Red Square
Despite the original intention of Bolshevik leaders to create “a new Soviet man and Soviet woman,” who were thoroughly secular, Stalin – a former seminarian – realized that the spirituality of the Russian people could not be ignored so he deliberately attempted to build a “cult of Lenin” as the “Marxist Messiah.” The funeral and subsequent construction of Lenin’s tomb on Red Square were clearly designed to have religious symbolism; the tomb itself was built like an altar. National holidays were created to mirror religious holidays, and celebrations generated by the Communist Party were often made to tap into the religious “DNA” of the Russian people.

Contemporary Attitudes toward Religion

Despite seventy years of the worst persecution of Christianity since the days of the Roman Empire, the deep-seated spirituality of the Russian people has survived. Unlike secularized Western Europe, where there is often open hostility toward any religious beliefs, in today’s Russia there is a great freedom to talk about spiritual issues. In many ways there is a greater freedom in Russia to discuss spiritual issues than there is in the United States, where the “separation of church and state” argument is often used to stifle substantive discussions of religious issues. In the States, religion is acceptable if you keep it private; this kind of privatized religion is less evident in Russia.

According to a poll in late 2006, only fifteen years after the collapse of the atheistic Soviet Union, 84% of Russia’s citizens believe in God. 63% described themselves as Russian Orthodox, 6% Muslim, and 1-2% Protestant. Atheists -- at 16% -- are a clear minority in Russia.

The challenging issues that have yet to be determined in Russian society are as follows:
  • Will different religions and theological traditions be given equal freedom to exist or will the Russian Orthodox Church insist on its primary status as a “national religion,” thereby making all other faiths second-class?
  • Will Islam be allowed to develop without severe restraints from the Russian government?
  • Will Russian spirituality survive the onslaught of Western materialism?

Russia’s “DNA” includes a deep-seated spirituality, but cultures do change. As one of Russia’s most famous pollsters noted a few years back, Russian young people are some of the richest in their society. “They know how to make money.” In addition to their materialism and lack of interest in politics, he also noted that among Russian young people “there is a total absence of any larger ideas or values. . . . They have no concept about any long-lasting values in life.” It is an open question whether or not the spirituality of previous generations will be passed down.

Originally circulated in May 2007

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Russia’s DNA: “Giantism”

*Note: This is the fourth 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 Geography

Russia is the largest country in the world in terms of area, covering one-eighth of the earth’s inhabited land. The country’s 10,672,000 square miles (17.1 million kilometers) includes the world’s deepest lake and Europe’s highest mountain and longest river. Russia extends 5,625 miles (9,000 kilometers) from east to west and includes eleven time zones. Russia shares its 13,125-mile border with fourteen countries and is only 55 miles across the Bering Straits from its fifteenth neighbor, the United States. Russia’s global position and size contributes to the sense of its rulers and its people that it is a “giant,” a major power in the world, and to a sense of entitlement in terms of international leadership.

A Real-Life Parable
  
The Church of Christ our Savior
in Moscow
In my judgment, the story of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow captures this sense of “giantism” that is a part of Russia’s DNA. The Cathedral was originally commissioned by Tsar Alexander I on Christmas Day in 1812 to celebrate the defeat of Napoleon. Its construction near the Kremlin began in 1839 and was completed forty years later. Konstantin Ton, the Cathedral’s architect, used an original neo-Russian design mirrored on the traditional plan of a Russian Orthodox Church, but on an unprecedented scale. When construction was complete, its enormous golden dome was visible from all over central Moscow.

Joseph Stalin, at the peak of his power in the 1930s, decided to destroy the Cathedral and replace it with a new “temple” – the Palace of the Soviets. Stalin’s dream was to erect a giant building that would exceed the height of the Empire State Building in New York, and to top the building with a massive, 100-meter-tall aluminum statue of Lenin. In the middle of one night in 1933, the Cathedral was demolished and preparations for construction of the Palace of the Soviets began.
Palace of Soviets

However, Soviet engineers soon realized that the ground on which the Cathedral was located would not hold a structure of this massive size, and numerous delays ensued as they tried to figure out how to fulfill their dictator’s instructions. With the outbreak of World War Two, there was no time to work on this project and steel was desperately needed for armaments and weapons in the battle against the Nazis. After the war, the plans for the Palace of the Soviets were set aside and a massive outdoor swimming pool was constructed on the site of the Cathedral. I remember visiting this huge outdoor pool in 1990 in the middle of the winter and being impressed by the size and audacity of its creation.

In 1990, with the radical changes initiated by Mikhail Gorbachev, the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church approached the federal government and the city government of Moscow with a proposal to rebuild the Cathedral on its original location and to its original size and design. In the midst of the tumultuous 1990s, despite all of the radical economic and political changes that the Russian Federation was experiencing, the Cathedral of Christ the Savior was rebuilt. By 1995, the foundation of the restored Cathedral was finished; by the following year, the main cupola was restored and the massive golden cross installed. The Cathedral was completed and open for worship in 2000. Once again, the Cathedral is the largest church in Russia and one of the largest in the world.

The rebuilding of the Cathedral was more than just an act of benevolence to the Russian Orthodox Church that had suffered at the hands of the Communist Party, it was also an effort on the part of the government to restore Russian patriotism and to make a statement about the newly restored power of the Russian Orthodox Church, a close ally of the state. Every facet of this story involves facets of “giantism” -- building the biggest, the largest, the first cathedral of its kind.

But Wait! There’s More…

One of the Kremlin’s most popular tourist sites is Ivan the Great’s Bell Tower, which is said to mark the exact center of Moscow and resemble a burning candle. Completed in 1600, it is 266 feet high and, until the Russian Revolution in 1917, it was the tallest structure in the city. Until 1917, in fact, no buildings were allowed to be taller than the Bell Tower, a law that changed under Soviet rule. Right next to the Bell Tower are the Tsar Bell and the Tsar Canon, two curious monuments to Russian “giantism.” The 16th century canon weighs 40 tons and has an 890 millimeter caliber – but it has never been fired. The 18th century bell, weighing 200 tons, has never been rung. When they were built, these monuments were the biggest cannon and the biggest bell ever constructed -- but they never worked. Why these symbols of Russian non-functioning “giantism” have not been removed, I do not understand. Russians themselves have poked fun of this bell and cannon for decades, and yet, these giants remain, forever a testament to this potent strand of Russia’s DNA.”

The evidence of Russian “giantism” is present everywhere you look, both in Russian history and in contemporary Russia, especially in Moscow. The gigantic size of Russian missiles and nuclear submarines, a Metro system that is the largest in the world, the enormous size of Russian gas and oil corporations – all of these are indicators that Russians pride themselves in the size and strength of their country. This is a part of what it means to be Russian.

Originally circulated in April 2007

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Russia’s DNA: “Fear of Anarchy”

*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

The Assassination of Tsar Alexander II
in 1881
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 afterwards, was “When people weep, they laugh.”

The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917
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.

Originally circulated in March 2007

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Russia’s DNA: “Lack of Trust”

*Note: This is the second in a series of essays on 'Russia's DNA.'  The first essay 'Russia's DNA: Fear of Invasion' explains the background for this series."

Just Ask the Russians

Recently a poll was taken that included this question: “Would you trust a stranger on a train to look after your bag while you use the toilet?” Probably not, if you are Russian. Seventy per cent of the people who were interviewed in Russia said “No, you can’t be too careful in dealing with people.” Only twenty-five per cent agreed with the statement that “generally most people can be trusted.”

One Russian analyst noted that “when institutions are good, you do not need mutual trust that much” because people know that their agreements are secure and pledges will be enforced. “Our institutions,” she said, “such as the judicial system, are horrible, so we need trust, but trust is nowhere to be found.” In a recent study of Eastern European countries, Russia was one of only two nations where more people said they did not trust “most people in this country” than said they did.

The leaders of SEN, an organization that works with young people in post-Communist Eastern Europe, have observed that the greatest victims of Communism were trust, hope, and the belief in truth. I can confirm this insight based on my years of working in Russia.

The Public/Private Dichotomy

Many foreigners who travel in Russia, especially those from the West, immediately notice the lack of warmth or friendliness on Russian streets. In the Metro, no one talks with strangers. There is little “small talk.” When taking a Russian language class, I asked the tutor which Russian greetings I would use when speaking with a stranger. The tutor looked at me in disbelief and said “Why would you greet someone you don’t know?”

Yet, once you make a friend in Russia, the warmth and cordiality of this friendship is often remarkable. Russian hospitality among friends is extraordinary. Even poor Russians will go to great lengths to host friends, spending money that they can’t afford to spend so that their guests are treated well. In the immediate circles of families and close friends, there is great warmth and trust, but once you move beyond this close-knit circle, there is little trust or willingness to confide in “outsiders.”

This public/private dichotomy has been present in Russia for centuries, and Russian literature is full of illustrations of this dimension of life under the Romanovs as well as in the Soviet period. The ever present secret police accentuated this behavior, because every neighbor was assumed to be an informer. The result is a “closed communication society” in which people developed these characteristics to protect themselves from the “authorities.” This social order persists today and this has impeded public activism and civic engagement. A profound “horizontal” and “vertical” distrust exists at all levels throughout Russia.

The Soviet Legacy

As Francis Fuyukama pointed out in his book, Trust: The Social Virtues & The Creation of Prosperity, culture involves ethical habits and habits change very slowly – much more slowly than ideas. Communism created many habits, such as excessive dependence on the state, which lead to an absence of entrepreneurial energy, an inability to compromise, and a disinclination to cooperate voluntarily in local groups.

One of the most devastating consequences of Marxism-Leninism was the thorough destruction of civil society. The ruling Communist Party elites deliberately set out to destroy all possible competitors to its power, from the “commanding heights” of the economy down to local farms, small businesses, unions, churches, newspapers and voluntary associations. This obliteration, after centuries of absolutism rule by the Romanovs, was of great significance because it created a “missing middle” in Russian society – the complete absence of strong, cohesive intermediate associations. There was the Soviet state, which was very powerful, and many atomized individuals and families with little in between. All of this contributed to the loss of trust.

The Rebuilding Process

Trust creates social capital. A healthy market economy is one in which there is sufficient social capital in society to permit businesses, corporations, and networks to be self-organizing. Without this capability, the state steps in to promote key firms owned by its ruling elites. The same self-organizing capability is needed to rebuild the political life of post-Communist societies, but private companies and political parties are weak in Russia and Eastern Europe because of this legacy. Elections are often based on the personalities of the candidates rather than coherent political programs. Rebuilding trust both vertically and horizontally is a necessary pre-condition to the construction of a dynamic, vibrant society and an expanding economy that benefits the entire nation, not just the elites.

Originally circulated in September 2006

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Russia’s DNA: “Fear of Invasion”

*NOTE: A number of years ago, I wrote a series on 'Russia's DNA' and I thought it would be helpful to reprint this series in my Russia Blog.  My observations about Russia's character have not changed substantially.

In March 2006, I heard a lecture in Moscow by Dr. David R. Young, Managing Director of Oxford Analytica, and one of the topics he discussed was Russia’s “DNA.” He told the audience that these “genetic characteristics” of contemporary Russia were compiled after extensive discussions with University of Oxford professors. I was fascinated by these insights because I had made similar observations over the course of my sixteen years of work in Russia. It has become increasingly apparent to me that most foreigners, especially from the West, have little knowledge of Russian history and culture and are easily discouraged with Russians who do not act like we expect them to.

Discussing Russia’s “DNA” is risky business, as it would be to discuss the “DNA” of China or the United States. The analyst must make judgments based on historical patterns, the behaviors of both ruling elites and the general population, and the dominant ideologies of various time periods – and there are always exceptions. Nevertheless, this essay and those that follow in subsequent months will attempt to describe cultural trends, attitudes, and behaviors that characterize Russians. With these insights, we can gain an appreciation for and an understanding of Russia’s culture and history. This may help us better understand what Russians believe and how they respond to the realities of the post-Communist period.

Examining the Historical Record

The Mongols Attack Kiev
Fear of invasion is one of the most dominant characteristics of Russia’s “DNA.” While many Westerners are aware of Russia’s wartime experiences in the 20th century, few have a full appreciation of the tragic history of invasions in Russia dating back for centuries – a history that has no parallel in the West, especially in the United States.

Consider this selected list:
  • 1237-1240: The Mongols attacked Kiev and established control over early Russia - a control that lasted more than 240 years. While countries in western Europe were learning about governance and the building of institutions that shared political power, Russians were controlled by Mongols, who forced them into tribute-paying subservience.
  • 1610-1613: The Polish invaded Russia during the “Time of Troubles,” a threat that was finally halted by the defense of Moscow organized by K. Minin and Dmitri Pozharsky. In Red Square, a statue of these two heroes sits right in the front of St. Basil’s cathedral. Despite the liberation of Moscow under the leadership of these two nobles, large parts of Russia remained under Polish and Swedish occupation for years. Armistice agreements with Sweden and Poland several years later brought peace for a brief period of time, but from 1632-1634, Russian and Polish armies were once again at war.
  • 1676-1681 and 1700-1721: These years represent two more military campaigns involving war, first with the Turkish Empire under Ottoman rule, and then Peter the Great’s war with Sweden. Wars with these neighbors began again in the 1740s, the 1760s, and the 1780s.
  • 1812: Napoleon’s Grande Armee invaded Russia and advanced all the way to Moscow, which the Russians burned to the ground before retreating. The French Army, which entered the country with 500,000 soldiers (twice the size of the Russian Army), left during a bitter winter and after much devastation, with only 10 percent of its troops surviving. Tolstoy’s great novel War and Peace tells this story, which all Russians know very well.
  • 1914-1917: The First World War broke out and the Romanov dynasty eventually collapsed in the face of defeat on the battlefield and revolution on the home front. For a period of time in 1915, 25 percent of the Russian troops were sent to the front unarmed and told to pick up weapons from dead Russian soldiers.
The Great Fatherland War

The Battle for Stalingrad
Of all the invasions Russia experienced, none compares with the Nazi attack on Russia in June 1941. The Nazi war machine made dramatic incursions into Russia that penetrated deep into the country’s heartland. It was not until the seven-month Battle of Stalingrad that the Germans met their first significant defeat and the Russians were able to begin counter-offensives that pushed the invaders out of their homeland. The losses at Stalingrad were very high for both sides, but especially for the Russians, who lost almost 500,000 in defensive and offensive engagements, with more than 650,000 wounded.

By the end of the war, Russian casualties dwarfed the sacrifices of any other fighting power. Of the 34.5 million Soviet men and women mobilized, an incredible 84 percent were killed, wounded or captured. Total military deaths from all causes, as recently given by the Russian government, are 8.6 million. To this figure we must add civilian deaths, which are estimated to be 17 million. Taken all together, the total Soviet war dead may have been as high as 25 million – a number that is in agreement with the figures Mikhail Gorbachev publicly announced in 1991.

In light of these enormous sacrifices, it is not hard to understand why Russians solemnly celebrate Victory Day every year, and why many young Russian couples pay their respects at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier near the Kremlin wall as a part of their wedding ceremony.

The Weight of History

With a legacy of invasion that covers almost 800 years, it is understandable that Russians fear invasion -- or encirclement that may lead to invasion -- by any foreign powers. Their sensitivities are heightened by any potential threats, and while some foreign analysts might consider this a paranoid perspective, the weight of Russian history helps us understand this fear. To many Russians, foreigners are viewed as either threats or parasites.

Russia occupies 6.5 million square miles of territory (1.8 times the size of the United States) across eleven time zones, and shares borders with fourteen neighboring countries, including a border that covers thousands of miles with China. Unlike North America, the Eurasian landmass has no easily defensible borders. For national security experts in the Kremlin, stability on their borders is of critical importance. This reality, together with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent loss of fourteen republics to independent statehood, makes Russians very anxious about their vulnerability. And so we can recognize and understand the first strand of Russia’s DNA: Fear of invasion.

Originally circulated in August 2006

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Big Three Versus Hitler

Churchill, Roosevelt & Stalin
One of the most fascinating aspects of Max Hastings’ book, Armageddon: The Battle for Germany, 1944-1945, is his discussion of the tension-filled relationship between Prime Minister Winston Churchill, President Franklin Roosevelt, and Premier Joseph Stalin. The so-called “Big Three” were allies committed to destroying the Thousand Year Reich of the Nazi Fuhrer, Adolf Hitler, but their perspectives on this conflict were rarely harmonious.

Operation Overlord, the massive British and American invasion of Europe in June 1944, was viewed with contempt by the Russians. In their opinion, this invasion did nothing to relieve the pressure they were dealing with on the Eastern Front. Having experienced another massive attack by foreign troops, Russian feelings of insecurity again came to the surface and with it a sense of resentment toward Europe. Stalin and his top military officers were convinced the British and Americans were in no hurry to engage Nazi forces, and preferred to let the Russians deal with Hitler.

Hastings makes the case that Roosevelt and Churchill, despite their disagreements, were basically pursuing war aims that were unselfish, with no intent to take over any nations defeated in the Second World War. This was clearly not the case with Stalin. His ambitions grew as the war progressed, and his lust for vengeance and conquest knew few bounds.

Churchill and Roosevelt

By 1944, it was very clear to Churchill that Soviet behavior was “strange and sinister,” in his words. He saw that Stalin fully intended to impose Soviet control over every country liberated by his Red Army. Churchill was convinced that Stalin believed this was his right, because of the suffering his nation had experienced since the Nazi invasion of the USSR in June1941.

Unlike Churchill, American leaders were focused primarily on the military defeat of the Nazis in Europe and Japan in the Pacific. Washington displayed a “remarkable indifference” to the political future of Eastern Europe, in Hastings’ judgment, and many of President Roosevelt’s closest advisers were dismayed by his behavior toward Stalin and his arrogant conviction that he could “do business” with Stalin if the British got out of his way.

Churchill and Stalin

Adolph Hitler
The massive loss of lives and property that the Russians experienced following the Nazi attack and the delay in the Allied landings in Normandy convinced Stalin that the Western allies were content to wage war against the Nazis at their leisure. From 1941 to the present day, this is the perspective held by many Russians.

Churchill countered this viewpoint by arguing that Britain entered the war in 1939 as a matter of principle and fought alone against the Nazis for two years, while Russia “was content to play vulture on the carcasses of Hitler’s kills until Hitler came after them.” On the other hand, it was impossible to dispute the fact that the Red Army was overwhelming responsible for destroying Hitler’s armies.

As the war entered its last nine months, Stalin’s empire supplanted Hitler’s across large tracts of Central and Eastern Europe. While the Americans still perceived the war as primarily a military event, Churchill battled Stalin’s political agenda. In defiance of fierce American criticism, Churchill saved Greece from Communist takeover by landing British forces there, but the British were not able to take similar actions in Eastern Europe. For Stalin, the days were over when the Soviet Empire would be confined to its own republics. Russia’s reward for defeating the Nazis would be an empire of buffer states that would ensure that Russia would never again have to suffer another direct attack by enemy forces. Napoleon and Hitler were enough!

The Moral Ambiguity in War

For many of us, it is hard to imagine any other war that was more clearly a battle between good and evil. The defeat of the Thousand-Year Reich, with its destructive, racist leadership was surely a noble cause. That’s why General Dwight Eisenhower could entitle his wartime memoirs Crusade in Europe.

American and British leaders restrained their criticism of Soviet wartime behavior because they realized that Russian sacrifices made it possible to defeat Hitler at a relatively low cost in American and British lives. Even today many Westerners are surprised to learn that American and British forces each suffered fewer than 300,000 fatal casualties as a direct result of enemy action – about the same as Yugoslavia and approximately half of America’s battle deaths in the Civil War. Hastings points out that for every British and American citizen who died, more than thirty Russians perished (p. 509).

The Western allies concluded the Second World War having freed Western Europe from the tyranny of Hitler, while acquiescing to the subjection of Eastern Europe to Stalin’s regime. In Hastings’ expert judgment, “It is hard to see how this could have been prevented.”

The last paragraph in Hastings’ book deserves to be quoted in full: “The battle for Germany began as the largest single military event of the twentieth century, and ended as its greatest human tragedy. More than half a century later, we may be profoundly grateful that its worst consequences have been undone without another war. The men who fought and died for the freedom of Europe received their final reward with the collapse of the Soviet tyranny, two generations after the destruction of its Nazi counterpart.”

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Defeat of Nazi Germany

Soviet Artillery firing on Berlin,
April 1945
Back in 2006-07, I wrote a series of “Reflections” on Russia’s DNA and the first essay in this series focused on Russia’s “Fear of Invasion.” I was reminded of this earlier essay as I read Max Hastings’ book, Armageddon: The Battle for Germany, 1944-1945. Hastings’ study of the last year of World War II is an impressive one, but it is not light reading and would not be interesting reading for most people because of its detail and length.

In his Introduction, Hastings begins with this clear thesis: “The Second World War was the most disastrous human experience in history” (p. xi). In comparison to the First World War, that at one time was called “The Great War,” the Second World War lasted eighteen months longer. The 1914-1918 conflict cost the lives of nine million people, but the subsequent world war had five times as many casualties, most of whom died in the Soviet Union or in China – a harsh reality often unknown to Westerners.

Hastings’ study is unique in that it covers the last nine months of the Second World War on both the Western and Eastern Fronts, unlike most histories that focus on only one major theatre of the war. To highlight the remarkable contrasts between the two Fronts, consider these statistics: the combined combat fatalities of the United States, Britain and France amounted to less than one million, while 27 million Soviet citizens died in the war. By the way, Hastings adds a footnote to these numbers by pointing out that some modern estimates place Soviet casualties as high as 40 million, but he recognizes that any conclusive number will never be agreed upon by scholars.

A second related thesis in Hastings’ book is how the two theatres of war were “light years apart” in terms of the battlefield experiences of British and American soldiers as opposed to those of the Soviets. He puts it this way: “There was a chasm between the world of the Western allies, populated by men striving to act temperately, and the Eastern universe in which, on both sides, elemental passions dominated.”

Contrasting Fronts

Soviet Soldiers in Berlin,
May 1945
Following a series of devastating defeats on the Eastern Front in 1943-44, the Nazi war machine no longer appeared invincible and the Thousand-Year Reich was beginning to crumble. Starting in September 1944, the fifth anniversary of the German invasion of Poland that began this conflict, the Allies began their final drive into Germany and, in particular, toward its capital city of Berlin.

In the West, the Germans were defending their border with 74 divisions and 1,600 tanks against an Allied force of 87 divisions and over 6,000 tanks. In the East, the Germans deployed two million men and 4,000 tanks against the Red Army that by January 1945 had grown to six million troops and 13,000 tanks.

Unlike many American and British military historians, Hastings repeatedly highlights the remarkable fighting capabilities of the Wehrmacht, the German army, and the resistance they put up on both fronts against the overwhelming size of enemy forces. In the East in particular, since many German soldiers knew that Soviet retribution against them would be brutal, they refused to lay down their arms and chose instead to fight to the death.

Hastings also points out the remarkable achievements of the Red Army and is at a loss to understand why the Russians fought so hard to defend the repressive Stalinist regime. Long before Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, “Joseph Stalin had created within its borders the greatest edifice of repression, mass murder and human suffering the world had ever seen.” Stalin’s anti-Semitism was “almost as profound as that of Hitler” and “the victims of his tyranny, far more numerous than those of Hitler, were his own people” (pp. 95-96).

Yet despite this, the soldiers of the Red Army proved to be remarkable warriors, fearless soldiers with a hatred of the Nazis that knew few bounds. Hastings describes the Red Army as a maze of contradictions. They were sentimental and patriotic, while brutal toward enemy soldiers and civilians; they exercised amazing acts of comradeship toward their fellow warriors, but were also recklessly undisciplined at times.

While Hastings does not excuse the brutality, looting and rape that characterized the Red Army’s drive into Germany from the East, he makes clear that it was German savagery on Russian soil that provoked this Soviet response. The Nazi’s bloody deeds in the East “far outstripped anything done in the Reich by the Red Army.”

Pursuing Truth

Western scholars have written profusely about the Second World War and many different interpretations of the key events and decisions made by Allied leaders have been debated. The struggles between President Franklin Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill, for example, have been documented and analyzed by numerous Western writers, but for Russians there is no tradition of pursuing objective historical truth. As an historian, I think it is time to honestly address the Stalinist regime and its wartime history, to celebrate the achievements and mourn the failures. A healthy society needs honest self-evaluation.