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.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Internet’s Impact on Russia

Over the past ten years Russia has witnessed an enormous growth in the use of the Internet. According to official Russian government sources, the number of regular Internet users in 2010 was 66 million, or 46 percent of the population. More reliable public opinion polls indicate that among adults eighteen years and older 38-43 percent (44-50 million people) use the Internet “regularly” (at least once a month).

For comparative purposes, it is interesting to note that 240 million Americans are regular Internet users (out of a population of 311 million). Among American adults eighteen years and older, 40 percent (46 million) use the Internet once a week in the States, while 31 percent (36 million) use it daily. The gap between our two countries is beginning to close.

According to an analysis by Leon Aron, the director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute, who compiled these statistics, the number of Internet users in Russia has increased by a factor of four since the first survey of Internet usage was taken in the winter of 2003-04. Aron notes that there are almost eight times more weekly users today than seven years ago and the number of daily users has grown by a factor of ten!

Polls tell us that in Russia today 94 percent of the population watch the news on government-controlled television, while only 9 percent get the news from independent sources on the Internet. What is important to highlight, however, is that the Internet is a more popular source of news for younger adults, people who live in Moscow, those with higher education, and wealthier elites. The other interesting insight is this: those who use the Internet regularly are more politically engaged in Russia. After studying this data, Leon Aron has concluded that there are two nations in Russia today – the “television nation” and the “Internet nation.”

Does It Help To Build Civil Society in Russia?

Watching Prime Minister Putin online
Analysts whose judgment I trust, like Leon Aron, are convinced that the Internet “is the backbone of civil society in Russia.” During the Soviet period, there was an underground network of dissidents in the 1960s and 1970s that printed and circulated samizdat (literally, self-publishing) -- publications that included banned books of fiction and nonfiction as well as reports on the violation of human rights and religious freedom. This literature provided interested Soviets with uncensored information and paved the way for Mikhail Gorbachev’s reform efforts.

The Internet has lead to the creation of a new phenomenon in Russia, and in other emerging nations, that Aron labels as nyetizdat. While samizdat was read by thousands of Russians, nyetizdat is being read by millions. The Internet has become a powerful tool in Russia for freely disseminating information and for creating a forum for national debates on issues affecting average Russian citizens.

A major topic on the Internet today in Russia is government corruption. There are numerous sites where corruption is discussed openly and where Russians are encouraged to report cases of attempted bribery -- with the promise of anonymity. It has also become a place to post petitions and organize protest rallies.

Some observers have noted that the Internet may be a double-edged sword. Masha Lipman from the Moscow Carnegie Center has written: “There are no obstacles to expressing yourself against the authorities online, and people love to grumble and get angry. But there is no action behind it . . . This is very convenient for the government: people let off stream verbally, and there is no energy left for action.”

The one area where Russians have been active and engaged so far in Internet-related activity relates to their newly-gained consumer rights. The Federation of Russian Car Owners, for example, has brought out thousands of drivers to protest rising import duties, gas prices and police bribery for fabricated traffic violations. While civic engagement is at a very low level in Russia today, especially among the young, the Internet will likely become a major factor in changing this.

NOTE: This essay is largely based on Leon Aron’s Spring 2011 issue of Russian Outlook, “Nyetizdat: How the Internet is Building Civil Society in Russia.” Aron’s quarterly Russian Outlook is one of my favorite information sources about Russia.