Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Russia’s Lost Legacy of Charity

Moscow Orphanage, est. 1764
One of the casualties of the Russian Revolution of 1917 was the culture of giving, of charity, that had developed from the 18th to the early 20th centuries. The Soviet regime forbade the Russian Orthodox Church and other religious organizations from engaging in humanitarian relief to the poor. By the time of the 1921-22 famine, the last secular private charities were also outlawed. The rich tradition of voluntary charitable organizations was destroyed and the Soviet regime diligently suppressed all organizations it did not control. Individuals were discouraged from forming voluntary associations of any kind and the atomization of society became a priority.

The Russian Tradition of Charity

The foundation for Russia’s tradition of charitable giving was largely based on Orthodox teachings. Russian Orthodoxy neither condemned nor praised wealth, but emphasized instead the concept of stewardship. Because wealth was a gift of God, the possessors of wealth were not necessarily superior people, according to church teaching. In fact, wealth brought with it an obligation to use it for the general good and specifically to give to charity.

Orthodox doctrine adopted a gracious attitude toward the poor and taught that poverty and need were not the fault of the poor, but the result of accident and misfortune. The poor are “our spiritual equals,” according to the Orthodox Church, and they are “our flesh and blood, God’s children.” The colorful vocabulary Russians used when writing about the poor reflects this tolerance. In addition to “the poor,” the words used were “the unfortunate,” “the needy,” “the suffering, “ “the deprived” – words with less negative connotations than their English equivalents. In addition, the poor were often identified with Christ in Orthodox teachings.

This sanctification of poverty by religious leaders helped Russians to see the poor not as unruly beggars or vagrants, but like pilgrims, cripples, orphans or widows of Biblical times. The poor were victims, not threats to the social order. These views of wealth and poverty formed the basis for a distinctive Russian view of giving. Charity was a moral duty and everyone needed to help the poor. In addition, Orthodox teaching emphasized that there was a symbiotic exchange relationship between the rich and the poor. The rich had a duty to give and the poor had the responsibility to accept these gifts graciously and to bless the giver with prayers.

The Orthodox Church also taught that every charitable act must be personal, spontaneous and direct. Unconditional love and compassion must be a part of charity for Christians. The model often cited by Orthodox leaders was that of the early Church in the Book of Acts.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, there was also an element of national chauvinism in Orthodox pronouncements on charity. Catholics and Protestants were often described as having strayed from the teachings and examples of early Christians, but Orthodoxy alone preserved the Biblical principles on this subject. These feelings fed the Slavophile conviction that Russia was distinct from the West and was a superior culture.

An Outside Perspective

In 1905, an English woman named Edith Sellers published her appraisal of relief for the poor in Russia after visiting the country and interviewing many officials and private citizens. On the eve of World War I, Russia had no centrally funded or organized public relief system and Sellers was initially shocked and dismayed by this discovery. However, Sellers soon realized that traditional charitable beliefs and practices in Russia were tenaciously held by many Russians and she concluded: “No people are so lavish in their charity as the Russians; no people give alms with the same reckless generosity.” She found a general tolerance for beggars and the poor and a strong preference for private, morally-based assistance that influenced the behavior of peasants, merchants and local government officials.

The rapid growth of private charities, especially from the 1890s on, was another striking feature of Russian life. Sellers wrote: “Never was I in a country where there are so many private institutions for the benefit of the poor.” Between 1896 and 1900, for example, over 1,100 charitable organizations were founded and, between 1881 and 1900, almost 3,000 had been created. Private charities were doing the work that the government ignored. These voluntary organizations were contributing to the formation of a civil society in pre-revolutionary Russia. Although many of these organizations were small and often organized by just one or two families, they served important functions. They showed that Russians could identify and attack social problems, mobilize private funds for “the common good,” and forge bonds between individuals and small groups.

After Perestroika

The dramatic reforms initiated by Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 1980s as a part of his “re-structuring” (perestroika) campaign brought significant changes in Russian life. Pre-revolutionary behaviors and institutions that had been eliminated under Communism quickly re-emerged. One of the most striking changes, often overlooked by the Western press, was the rapid creation of thousands of charitable and other voluntary organizations. Forms of private charity that existed in Russia before 1917 were re-invented to combat poverty and dislocation caused by the collapse of Communism and local government agencies. Private soup kitchens, for example, were organized, usually by Orthodox, Catholic or Protestant churches.

The formation of humanitarian organizations is important not only because these institutions provide care for poor and disadvantaged people, but their existence is a critical part of the rebuilding of civil society in Russia. Can the Russian people learn once again about the importance of stewardship and that wealth is a gift of God which brings with it responsibility to help the poor? Can charitable giving once again become a part of the fabric of Russian society? There is a rich tradition in Russia to draw upon, but after the experience under Soviet rule, most Russians today need to be introduced to this impressive legacy.

*NOTE: This essay is based on Adele Lindenmeyr’s book, Poverty is Not a Vice: Charity, Society and the State in Imperial Russia.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Battle for Moscow

Andrew Nagorski’s book, The Greatest Battle, is a fascinating study of how an epic World War Two struggle can get lost in historical memory because it did not suit the political interests of Soviet leaders who chose to bury this embarrassing story.  In both Russia and the West, the battle for Stalingrad and the human drama of the siege of Leningrad are much better known and celebrated.  These were clear-cut Soviet victories over the Nazis.

In Nagorski’s judgment, the battle for Moscow was “arguably the most important battle of World War II and inarguably the largest battle between two armies of all time.”   Approximately seven million troops were involved in some portion of this battle, and of those seven million, 2.5 million were killed, taken prisoner, missing or wounded badly enough to require hospitalization.  Overall Soviet losses were 1,896,500, three times the number of German casualties that totaled 615,000.

The battle for Moscow marked the first time that Hitler’s armies failed to be victorious with their Blitzkrieg tactics.  After crushing Poland, France and much of Western Europe in 1939-40, the Nazi army looked unstoppable.  That was the case until they invaded Russia in June 1941.  Their defeat at Moscow and the opening of a second front marked the beginning of the end of the Wehrmacht’s campaign of aggression – the earliest turning point in the war.

The Nazi Attack

Despite the German-Soviet Agreement of Friendship signed on September 29, 1939, within one year Hitler issued Directive 21, his secret order for Operation Barbarossa – the planned attack on the Soviet Union.  Hitler was obsessed with his hatred of Russia, a country he dismissed as “a Slavic-Tartar body” with “a Jewish head.” 

Repeated warnings of a pending Nazi attack on Russia did nothing to convince Stalin that he needed to prepare for this invasion.  Stalin distrusted his own intelligence agents and was convinced that warnings from the West were meant to sow discord between Moscow and Berlin.  Even visible signs of German military preparations in the border regions did nothing to change Stalin’s mind.

On June 22, 1941, the Nazi army launched an attack on Russia with three million troops, 3,550 tanks, 2,770 aircraft and about 6,000 horses.  Another half-million troops were provided by Finland and Romania, which were German allies.  This was the largest military force ever assembled.

Hitler’s decision to attack Russia in 1941 was a calculated gamble, a gamble that made this front the central factor in the life-or-death struggle for the Nazi effort to build a Thousand-Year Reich. There was no doubt that the Germans needed to conquer Moscow in order to deal a mortal blow to the Soviet state.  Yet for some inexplicable reason, just when this goal was within reach, Hitler hesitated.  Much to the dismay of his generals, Hitler did not seem to know what he wanted to do and he surprised his officers by reallocating part of his invading force to other targets in the Ukraine.  This proved to be a massive error that gave the Russians the first glimmer of hope that they might be able to survive the Nazi attack.

The Defense of Moscow

As Nazi forces approached the outskirts of Moscow in October 1941, the city erupted in panic.  The rush to leave Moscow was close to a stampede.  All roads leading east from Moscow were jammed and police officers largely disappeared.  Looters attacked shops and invaded the homes of those who had left.  While countless Muscovites fled to the east, others decided to make their stand against the Germans and devoted themselves to preparing defenses to stop any further Nazi advances.  The sense of danger was in the air when reports circulated throughout Moscow that German troops were only twenty-five miles from the city’s outskirts.  From the air, the Germans made their presence known on an almost daily basis with new bombing raids.

The courage of the Muscovites who stayed to fight got an enormous boost when Stalin decided to send a large part of the forces in the Soviet Far East to Moscow and other cities to aid in their defense.  These forces, known as the Siberians, dramatically changed the situation in Moscow and shocked the Germans.  Approximately 250,000 fresh troops from the Far East, properly outfitted with winter clothing, helped blunt the Nazi offensive and gradually began to push them back.

After the war was over, German officers argued that the Russian winter was what defeated them.  This infuriates the Russians, who argue that they had to fight under the same conditions.  This, of course, is true.  Why did Hitler fail to equip his troops with winter gear and why did he hesitate to attack Moscow when he had the chance in the late summer of 1941?  These failures, together with his decision to deploy troops elsewhere when he had the advantage in the early months of the Nazi attack, ultimately lead to the defeat of the Nazi invaders. 

In retrospect, Nagorski concludes, “Hitler’s failure to reach Moscow did signal the beginning of his end, but only the very beginning . . . . Moscow’s defenders paid a horrific price, but they changed the course of history not just for their own country but also for everyone locked in the struggle against Hitler’s Germany.”

In light of this, it is no wonder that Russians today take great pride in their defeat of the Nazi regime, a role often minimized in the West.  When times are difficult during tumultuous periods of transition, nostalgia for past glories can become a source of pride that brings stability and offers the possibility of a future hope.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Russia’s Out-Migration – the “Third Wave”

Putin & Medvedev
In a speech to the Russian Duma (Parliament) on May 10, 2006, then-President Putin called the problem of Russia’s dramatic population decline “the most acute problem of contemporary Russia.”  His successor, Dmitri Medvedev, has expressed similar concerns.  It is hard to avoid the harsh reality that Russia is experiencing a population decline of major proportions.  In fact, Chinese experts who are tracking Russia’s low birth rates have described Russia as “the world’s largest dying nation.”

When the Soviet Union came to an end, the population of the country was 148 million.  Twenty years later, Russia’s population is 143 million and population experts are predicting it will decease to 116 million by the year 2050.  If this occurs and the current spending rates continue, government age-related expenditures will increase from 13% to 25% of Russia’s gross domestic product.

The primary causes of this decline are a high death rate, low birth rate, high rate of abortions, and low level of immigration.  Russia’s death rate of 15 deaths per 1,000 people per year is far higher than the world’s average of just under 9.  The World Health Organization estimates the life expectancy of Russian men at 59 years, while women’s life expectancy is considerably higher at 72 years.  Alcoholism among Russian men is the primary cause of this difference.

In addition, Russia’s birth rate of 10 births per 1,000 people is half the world average.  Russian news services report that there are more abortions than births in Russia, estimating 13 abortions for every 10 live births.

These factors, together with a low level of immigration from former republics of the Soviet Union, are creating a major obstacle in the path of Russia’s future development.  For Kremlin leaders, the three most striking features of these data points are as follows:
·          the overall decline with all of its implications for the loss of a future labor force and recruits for the military services;
·          the worsening of the gender imbalance with women now 54% of the population; and,
·          the relative decline of the ethnic Russian share of the population and the growth of ethnic minority populations, especially Muslims.

The “Third Wave”

The newest related trend, however, appears to be tied to the current political realities in Russia.  Businesses that facilitate the relocation of Russian citizens overseas are reporting record numbers of clients.  One expert said, “It seems that the whole generation of 25- to 45-year old Russians is actively thinking about running away, especially considering the prospect of seeing the same people in power for another 12 years, starting in 2012.”

Analysts are calling this the “third wave” of out-migration.  The first wave came in the early 1990s, when the Soviet Union imploded and the country struggled through outbreaks of anarchy during Yeltsin’s administration.  The second came following the 1998 financial crisis and before Yeltsin transferred power to Putin at the end of 1999.

The exact number of Russians who are fleeing the country is hard to pin down, but if the movement of people cannot be precisely measured, the flow of dollars can.  Last year more than $38 billion in capital flight was recorded.

One businessman who works with Russians seeking to move overseas notes that “a third of my clients are doing it for the sake of their children; one-third are simply sick of corruption; and one-third are people who’ve amassed enough wealth and just feel like doing it because they can now afford to.”

Another analyst comments: “The scale of the outflow of the most talented young prospective professionals from Russia is almost beyond belief.”  While the exact numbers are not known, estimates run as high as 40-45,000 per year.  Approximately three million Russians are now ex-pats in the European Union. 

There are no easy answers to this complex of public policy challenges, but people of faith have an opportunity to take a public stand by emphasizing the importance of strong and healthy families and promoting a vibrant pro-life agenda.  These will be the future goals of the Russian-American Institute, goals that Protestants, Orthodox and Catholics can work toward together.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Russia's Defeat of Napoleon

It is not very often that a historian writes a book to counter the “myths” created by a novelist.  Dominic Lieven, a professor of Russian history at the London School of Economics, wrote his 528-page book, Russia Against Napoleon, in order to give “the true story of the campaigns of [Leo Tolstoy’s famous novel,] War and Peace.

Professor Lieven sets the stage by making it clear to his readers that before the reign of Peter the Great (1689-1725), most European elites considered the Russians to be “barbarous, alien and unimportant.”  However, following the reigns of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great (1762-1796), the power and international status of Russia had grown enormously.  Its series of successful military campaigns had increased the legitimacy of the Romanov dynasty and its autocratic system of government.

The Leadership of Alexander I

Tsar Alexander I
Lieven’s study emphasizes the key role that Tsar Alexander I (1801-1825) played in this dramatic struggle against Napoleon.  On its own, Russia could never have destroyed Napoleon’s empire and the struggle between the armies of these two countries from 1812 to 1814 strained almost every sinew of Russian power to the breaking point.  It was Alexander I’s greatest achievement that he could put together a European grand alliance and hold it together, despite conflicting national priorities of Austrian, Prussian and British leadership.

Alexander I’s faith was a key factor in his leadership role and his religious convictions grew as the pressures of war increased.  He read his Bible every day and underlined passages that he found most relevant.  As he shared with other Russian leaders, his faith sustained him during the difficult challenges of war. 

Historians and contemporary observers have found Alexander I a difficult man to understand.  While he was charming on one level, he also operated in a secretive fashion and was often elusive and distrustful of others.  Perhaps the fact that his father and grandfather were both overthrown and murdered, as well as the previous monarch, Ivan VI, may explain some of his behavior.  Nevertheless, his significance in the victory over Napoleon deserves to he highlighted.

The Crucial Battles at Borodino and Moscow

One of Tolstoy’s myths that Lieven attacks is the elevation of Mikhail Kutuzov, the Supreme Commander of the Russian forces, to a Russian patriotic icon; this myth was embraced by Stalin who described Kutuzov as a military genius far superior to Napoleon.  In Lieven’s judgment, “all this is nonsense.”  Kutuzov struggled with his age and lack of energy and had an aversion to risk.  It was also clear to Lieven that Kutuzov did not share Alexander I’s views on strategy for defeating Napoleon and liberating Europe.
The famous battle at Borodino in September 1812 pitted 130,000 French soldiers against 125,000 Russians, many of whom were armed with pikes and axes and had no military training.  Both armies lost between 35,000 and 50,000 men in this struggle, but these losses were especially devastating for Napoleon because of the distance from his source of supplies and re-enforcements.

The battleground then shifted to Moscow and the Russians decided to vacate the city and retreat further into the interior of their vast country.  When Napoleon entered Moscow on September 15 and set up his headquarters in the Kremlin, fires started all over Moscow and the fires burned for six days destroying three-quarters of its buildings.  The causes for these fires has never been determined, but Lieven insists that neither Alexander or Napoleon ordered the city to be burned. 

Napoleon's Retreat
It was Napoleon’s fatal mistake to spend six weeks in Moscow, before he began his retreat.  Napoleon and his supporters later argued that the unusually cold winter was responsible for destroying his army, but Lieven argues that the French army was largely defeated before December when the weather really turned cold.

Not only did the Russian army retreat for hundreds of miles into the interior of the country, but it then marched forward all the way to Paris entering the French capital on Sunday, March 31, 1814.  It is also important to note that Tsar Alexander ordered his generals and allies to preserve the strictest discipline as they marched into France, stressing the importance of cultivating French opinion in their favor.  Russian troops did not pillage, which was a common wartime behavior, but set a remarkable example for their allies.

The Russian Victory

The defeat of Napoleon may be the greatest victory in Russia’s history.  It is the judgment of Lieven that the Russian leaders out-thought Napoleon.   He failed to exploit Russia’s weaknesses, while Alexander I accurately understood the strengths and weaknesses of the French army and used these insights to defeat Napoleon.  It is to Alexander I’s credit that he assembled a grand alliance with Austria and Prussia, getting them to fight side by side against the French.

It is the opinion of Lieven that Tsar Alexander I excelled in his leadership role because he was convinced that Russian and European security depended on each other.  The Russian army was an army of liberation and its soldiers ended an era of constant war and restored European trade and prosperity.  It is Lieven’s hope that this legacy will inspire Russia’s rulers today.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir V. Putin

I enjoy reading the memoirs and biographies of government leaders, especially of American Presidents and Secretaries of State.  With my training in European and Russian history, and my special interest in diplomatic history, I looked forward to reading President George W. Bush’s commentary on his eight years in the White House and I was not disappointed.  His first book, Decision Points, is not a typical memoir.  It does not offer a chronological review of his presidential years, but rather focuses on a series of critical decisions he faced in his personal and public life. 

Compared to other presidential memoirs I have read, Bush’s commentaries are not defensive in nature and he is humble enough to say at certain points, I had to make a tough call without all of the information – which, of course, is what happens when you are president!  Anyone who reads this book with an open mind will be struck by the enormous pressures that any president faces every day, pressures that were never anticipated and that take your administration off in a direction you never imagined.

Bush’s first meeting with President Putin was held in a Slovenian palace and his goal was to establish a personal friendship with the Russian leader.  Like many Presidents before him, Bush was convinced that “personal diplomacy” would help these two leaders work through tough issues and give them a basis for future cooperation.  In his book, Bush cites the examples of his father and Abraham Lincoln, who both believed that developing a personal friendship with other world leaders was of critical importance.

At this first meeting, Bush surprised Putin by asking him about a cross given to him by his mother, a cross that Putin later had blessed in Jerusalem.  Putin told Bush how he had hung this cross in his dacha (summer house) and when it later caught fire, how the firefighters were able to find the cross in the wreckage. 

Bush was convinced that this personal exchange relieved the pressure present in their first meeting and, when a reporter later asked Bush if Putin was a man Americans could trust, he said yes.  He then said words that came back to haunt him – “I looked the man in the eye and . . . I was able to get a sense of his soul.”  Reflecting on this experience, Bush now says, “In the years ahead, Putin would give me reasons to revise my opinion” (p. 196).

Three months after this meeting in Slovenia, Putin was the first foreign leaders to call the White House on September 11, a fact that few Americans remember.  The next day, Bush and Putin talked by phone and Putin ended the conversation by saying “Good will triumph over evil.  I want you to know that in this struggle, we will stand together.”

While the first encounters between the two presidents were positive, it did not take long for differences to emerge as these leaders assessed the national interests of their countries from different perspectives.  Putin did not view Saddam Hussein as a threat and joined the French leader, Jacques Chirac, and the German leader, Gerhard Schroeder, in opposition to American pressure on Iraq.

Similar opposition came from President Putin regarding America’s policies toward Iran, NATO expansion, and the war against the Republic of Georgia in August 2008.  Despite hopes for a cooperative relationship with Putin that began in the meeting in Slovenia and the personal exchange about the cross Putin wears, the clashes of interests between Russia and the United States became pronounced over the next eight years.

I was surprised to read that these two presidents met forty times in eight years!  One humorous event took place in the Oval Room of the White House, when Putin entered Bush’s office early in the morning as the sunlight was streaming through the south windows.  As he stepped to the door, he blurted out, “My God . . . This is beautiful!”  Bush commented that this was quite a response for a former KGB agent from the atheist Soviet Union.

While Bush makes it clear that Russia was an opponent of his “freedom agenda,” and this was a “disappointment,” he had the following summary comments about the Russian president: “Putin was a proud man who loved his country.  He wanted Russia to have the stature of a great power again and was driven to expand Russia’s sphere of influence . . . Putin liked power, and the Russian people liked him.”

By the end of Bush’s eight years in the White House, the conflict between Russia and the Republic of Georgia in August 2008 created a hostile relationship between the two countries and the presidents were never able to restore their original friendship.  It was clear to those of us who worked in Russia at that time that this was one of the low points in US-Russian relations.  When the presidents are upset with each other, we find that working with Russian government officials, who follow the lead of their strong president or prime minister, becomes even more difficult that normal. 

While developing close personal relations with presidents and prime ministers of foreign countries has some value, it is never as valuable as the leaders imagine.  Protecting the national interests of their country will always be the bottom line that determines how leaders relate to the heads of other governments.