Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Russia’s Historical Legacy: Top-Down Rule

I recently discovered a new author – that is, an author who is new to me, but who has been writing historical novels since the early 1980s. Edward Rutherfurd was born in England and educated both in England (Cambridge University) and in the States (Stanford University). His historical novels follow the model of James Michener and they are lengthy books that often cover multiple generations in a city or country, like New York City, England or Russia. Many of his books have become best-sellers and they have been translated into twenty languages.

I recently finished his book, Russka: The Novel of Russia, which was published in 1991 and is 945 pages in length. I rarely read books this long, but once I got into this historical novel, I had to finish it! I was struck by the comment that appears in the book’s preface: “If we hope to understand anything of this extraordinary country’s present and possible future, it is of great importance to delve, as far as we may, into her past.” As a historian by training, I was immediately drawn into this 1,800-year history of Russia as seen through the eyes of numerous generations of Russians, who the author often connects to the ruling elites of the country.

The Mongols

Genghis Khan
One of the dominant themes running through this carefully-researched historical novel is the lengthy history of top-down authoritarian rule that characterizes so much of Russia’s political legacy. During its early history, Russia was under constant attack from every direction and without borders that provide defensive advantages, the people of Russia were extremely vulnerable.

The Mongol invasion in the 13th century lead to over 250 years of rule by foreigners. They did not kill peasants in the lands they conquered, because peasants tilled the soil, paid taxes, and supplied recruits. They only killed those who resisted Mongol rule. Once Russia was completely under the control of the Mongols, they divided the ancient state of Rus into two parts. The southern part, that included the territories around Kiev and the southern steppe, was placed under direct Mongol rule, while the northern part was left under nominal Russian rule. The Mongols gave the Russian princes simple guidelines: you rule as a representative of the Great Khan and your job is to keep the people quiet and collect tribute. The only reason the Russian princes were allowed to exist at all was that the Mongols were unimpressed with the wealth of the northern forests and decided that these territories were not worth the cost of direct Mongol administration.

Ivan the Terrible

Ivan the Terrible
In the 16th century, after breaking away from Mongol control, Ivan, who took on the title of Holy Tsar, Autocrat of All the Russias, gradually gained control of the cities of northern Russia and formed a new state. His capital was Moscow and his newly formed empire was no federation – the Prince of Moscow was as much a despot as had been the Great Khan of the Mongol empire. Absolute obedience to Moscow, to the Holy Tsar, was the way things would be under his rule. Ivan’s vision was to be the Christian Russian tsar who would one day rule over the vast Eurasian empire of the mighty Genghis Khan. During Ivan’s reign, the men of the northern forests were going to conquer the vast steppes for the first time in Russia’s history,

Peter the Great and Catherine the Great

Rutherfurd’s history of the reigns of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great describes this continuing legacy of authoritarian rule. Peter the Great was a brutal leader who made major changes in Russia and implemented them by force. While his travels to Western Europe created a certain mythology about his leadership – that he wanted to make Russia like the Western Europe, Peter’s motives for these trips were to help him prepare his country for war and to learn shipbuilding so Russia could conquer its neighbors. It has been calculated, Rutherfurd argues, that in over two decades Peter only enjoyed a few months of actual peace -- the rest was spent in warfare with the peasants his principal “cannon fodder” (p. 494). Similarly, the building of St. Petersburg was done at an enormous human cost. “For though history is uncertain how many workers died of disease, fatigue, and starvation in the building of St. Petersburg, it was certainly tens of thousands, some say hundreds of thousands” (p. 500).

Like Peter, Catherine the Great ruled as an autocrat. Nobility was forced into subservience to her and, needing their support, she showered them with favors (p. 522). Her interest in European Enlightenment ideas lasted only until the time of the French Revolution in 1789, when she then clamped down on these revolutionary new ideas because she feared a similar revolt in Russia.

Lenin & Stalin

Centuries of top-down authoritarian rule was continued through the 19th century and worsened again under Tsars Alexander III and Nicholas II, the last two Romanov rulers. When the Bolsheviks came to power in 1917, the pattern of absolute power held in the hands of a few elite was perpetuated – now under Communist dictators. It is not a surprise that Stalin’s hero was Peter the Great because, like Peter, he saw all people as nothing more than creatures whose purpose was to serve the state (p. 926).


Because many of us are not familiar with the history of different countries and regions of the world, we often fail to understand the profound ways in which the history of a country shapes its culture and how culture, in turn, impacts its development. Countries like Russia have a long historical legacy that is not quickly overcome. Patterns of behavior that have been cultivated over hundreds of years, as seen in Russia, can be changed -- but these changes take time. Rutherfurd’s historical novel makes this point very clear.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

John Steinbeck Goes to the USSR

Robert Capa (with camera)
and John Steinbeck, USSR, 1947
At the peak of his career, having published three powerful novels in the 1930s – especially one of his best known books, The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck decided to make a forty-day trip to the Soviet Union in 1947. World War Two had just ended and Winston Churchill announced that an “Iron Curtain” had been drawn across Eastern Europe.

To Steinbeck, who for twenty years had been writing books about ordinary people, the Russian people were the focus of his trip. He had no plans to meet any “big shots” and was going to consciously avoid political and military topics. For him it was “an expedition of the curious.” His traveling companion was Robert Capa, a famous war photographer, and the two of them had a difficult time together, which is clearly documented in Steinbeck’s journal. Capa shot over 4,000 photos, but these two creative personalities repeatedly clashed.

The Travel Itinerary and Goals

Steinbeck and Capa began their trip in Moscow, then made their way to Stalingrad (now Volgograd) and on to smaller cities in the Ukraine and the Caucasus. Steinbeck’s eye for detail and his compassion for the average Russian farmer or factory worker, together with the sharp photographic perspectives of Capa, make for a fascinating study.

Steinbeck noted that the newspapers in America contained thousands of words about Russia, especially about Stalin’s aggressiveness and the plans of the Soviet General Staff, but very little was written about the people themselves: what they wear, what they serve for dinner, and how they celebrate. While Steinbeck said that politics are important, there is another side to life, just as there is the United States and he was determined to learn more about this. He wrote: “There must be a private life of the Russian people, and that we could not read about because no one wrote about it, and no one photographed it.” So Steinbeck and Capa decided to fill this void.

They agreed before they left, “We should not go in with chips on our shoulders and we should try to be neither critical nor favorable. We would try to do honest reporting.” Once their travels began, they decided to record their experiences as they happened, day by day, experience by experience, sight by sight, without much editorializing. They agreed to simply write what they saw and heard which, Steinbeck noted, “ . . . is contrary to a large part of modern journalism, but for that very reason it might be a relief.”

Notable Differences in Culture

One of the first major differences that Steinbeck observed between Russian and American culture was the way in which the citizens of the two countries viewed their government. When Steinbeck and Capa were in Moscow, they were struck by the way in which Russians were taught, trained and encouraged to believe that their government was good – “that every part of it was good.” In sharp contrast, Steinbeck believed that most Americans (as well as the British) had a deep emotional feeling that all government was somehow dangerous and that there should be as little government as possible. In addition, in American society people were convinced that government must be watched very carefully and criticized when needed to “keep it sharp and on its toes.”

On a related theme, Steinbeck noted that the role of writers in both cultures was also very different. In the Soviet Union, the writers he met described their job to be one of encouragement and celebration of the achievements of the Soviet system. In America, as well as England, Steinbeck argued that a good writer was the watch-dog of society. From Steinbeck’s point-of-view, the writer’s job “is to satirize [society’s] silliness, to attack its injustices, to stigmatize its faults.” For this reason, writers were not very popular in America and their standing in society was somewhere “just below acrobats and just above seals.”

Soviet writers lived in a different world that American writers, but Steinbeck highlighted the fact that the great Russian writers of the 19th century – Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Turgenev and Chekhov – were much more like American writers who served as society’s watch-dogs. In Steinbeck’s judgment, Soviet writers who propagated the ideology of Marxism-Leninism had not yet produced a great piece of writing.

Steinbeck’s Conclusion

Steinbeck and Capa went to the Soviet Union in 1947 to meet average Russian citizens, to learn about their life, their families, and their customs. What did they discover? “We found, as we had suspected, that the Russian people are people, and, as with other people, that they are very nice. The ones we met had a hatred of war, they wanted the same things all people want – good lives, increased comfort, security, and peace. . . . Some bad ones there are surely, but by far the greater number are very good.”

Robert Capa died seven years after this trip, killed by a land-mine in Indochina where he was photographing the war. John Steinbeck died in 1968, having won the Nobel Prize in 1962. Neither of them saw a significant breakthrough in Russian-American relations in their lifetime.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

America’s Mission in Russia

Professor David S. Foglesong from Rutgers University has written a fascinating book, The American Mission and the “Evil Empire”: The Crusade for a “Free Russia” since 1881. Foglesong traces the efforts of Americans to liberate and remake Russia over the last 140 years. He studied the involvement of journalists, political activists, missionaries, and diplomats with a special focus on how religious beliefs in America helped to shape their sense of duty to emancipate, convert or reform Russia. He also argues that for many of those involved in Russia, the belief that Russia was being remade in America’s image was held because of their desire to reaffirm America’s special virtue and historic mission in the world.

I found this book to be a stimulating read. I was especially interested in how Foglesong connected the religious currents in America to the nation’s political agenda, particularly the “evangelical streak” that undergirded U.S. policy toward the “evil empire.” He notes that in response to the Russian revolutions of 1905, March 1917, and August 1991, many Americans expressed great enthusiasm about the expected rapid transformation of Russia into a nation resembling the United States, with democratic institutions, religious liberty, and a market economy. Then, when Russia failed to follow this course, many Americans quickly became disillusioned, blaming Russia’s failure on the national character of its people and demonizing Russian leaders who failed to meet our expectations.

America and Post-Soviet Russia

I began my work in Russia in 1990 and lived through the period Foglesong described in chapter nine of his book, “Mission Unaccomplished: American and Post-Soviet Russia.” I was in Moscow in August 1991 when the attempted coup against Gorbachev by Communist hardliners took place and then failed after three days. For many Americans – journalists, politicians, diplomats and religious leaders, the collapse of the coup in 1991 and the subsequent implosion of the Soviet Union in December 1991 lead to great euphoria. I vividly remember being at a conference center outside Moscow when the coup collapsed on August 21, 1991, and we stood in a circle with Russian faculty members and sang “We Shall Overcome” in English and then hugged each other. For many Americans, the expectation was that Russia would become a liberal democracy, create a flourishing market economy, and experience the widespread revival of Christianity.

But, in the summer of 1998, the infant Russian stock market collapsed, the Kremlin defaulted on foreign loans, and a former head of the KGB became Prime Minister. The euphoria of the early 1990s quickly gave way to a demonization of unregenerate Russians who were corrupt, superstitious and slavish. American investors fled Russia, journalists blamed Russian national character for its fear of freedom and democracy, and Republicans took advantage of this opportunity to blame Democrats for having “lost Russia.”

Folgesong argues that the problematic assumptions of journalists and policy-makers in the 1990s can be grouped into two main schools of thought: 1) liberal universalist confidence in the inevitable democratization of the former Soviet Union; and 2) Russophobic pessimism about turning a former totalitarian enemy into a genuine democratic ally.

In the first case, liberal universalists maintained that Russia had no choice but to Westernize. Globalization set the context wherein nations needed to Westernize in order to modernize and become integrated into the world economic community. The problem with this perspective is that the resistance to the hardliners’ coup attempt in August 1991 in Russia was not a popular, democratic, pro-market movement. In fact, only a relatively small number of people in major cities opposed the coup leaders. In addition, liberal universalists exaggerated the depth of enthusiasm in Russia for America and its model as a society.

The second group, in marked contrast to the first, consistently stressed the ingrained resistance toward Westernization in Russia. Some scholars, such as Professor Samuel Huntington from Harvard University, defined Russia at its core as an Orthodox civilization that was almost impossible to change. Russia’s long history of top-down leadership and oppression of the people by the ruling elites made any democratic transformation highly unlikely.

Finding a New Approach

I agree with Folgesong’s assessment that Americans need a more balanced approach toward Russia and a willingness to work with Russia, but not for the purpose of remaking Russia in America’s image. Currently the negative attitudes toward Russia are as excessive as the euphoria about its miraculous transformation in the early 1990s. Many positive changes have taken place in Russia and Americans have played a role in encouraging religious renewal, a growing civil society, and an entrepreneurial spirit. But we also deserve blame for some negative developments, such as presidential support for an erratic and increasingly autocratic Boris Yeltsin who discredited democracy during his presidency. Encouraging the hasty privatization of state enterprises was another error that contributed to massive corruption by the Russian oligarchs.

Folgesong concludes his study with an observation that deserves our consideration: “At bottom, Americans were not as successful as they might have been in promoting a free Russia during the 1990s because they failed to live up to their own ideals: they showed a lack of faith in democratic processes, put short-term expediency above long-term goals, and allowed fears to outrun hopes” (p. 218).

In addition, I would add this: our policy toward Russia focused on the creation of new political and economic systems, without addressing the deeper issues of rebuilding the moral and ethical foundations of Russian society, a foundation destroyed by 70 years of Marxism-Leninism. Without the rebuilding of trust and respect for the dignity of persons made in God’s image, for example, how can we realistically expect a society to make the difficult transition to freedom and democracy? Russia does not have to be remade in America’s image to face a better future, but its moral and religious foundations need to be laid anew.