Whether one likes Russia or not, I think that everybody would agree that this country is really different, different in a profound and unique way. And there is some truth to that. One famous Russian author even wrote that “Russia cannot be understood rationally” (he used the expression “cannot be comprehended by the intellect”). Add to this some already rather eccentric politicians like Vladimir Zhirinovskii who is known to mix very rational and well-informed analyses with utter nonsense and you get the famous “Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”. Frankly, this is just some witty hyperbole, Russia is not that mysterious. It is, however, rather dramatically different from the west, central and east European countries and even though a big chunk of Russia lies inside the European continent west of the Urals, in civilizational terms she is far removed from the so-called “West”, especially the modern West.
For example, Russia never underwent any “Renaissance”. I would even argue that Russia never really underwent any Middle-Ages either since, being an heir to the East Roman Empire (aka Byzantium), Russian roots are in Antiquity. While one could, arguably, describe the phases of western civilization as Middle-Ages -> Renaissance -> Modernity -> Contemporary era, in the case of Russia the sequence would be a much shorter Antiquity -> Modernity -> Contemporary era.
[Sidebar: you will notice that I did place the roots of the modern western civilization in the Middle-Ages, not in antiquity. The reason for this is the fact that when the Franks finally conquered the western Roman Empire they destroyed it to such a degree that the era following the collapse of the western Roman Empire is called the “Dark Ages” (Russia, by the way, never went through this millennium of darkness and, hence, she never had any need for any “renaissance” or “re-birth”). Contrary to the official historical narrative, the current western civilization has never had any roots in the Roman Empire, and even less so, Greek antiquity. The true founders of the “western world” were, in so many ways, the Franks]
I would therefore argue that while geographically-speaking Russia (at least the most populated part of it) is in Europe, culturally it has never shared a common history or, even less so, a common culture with the West. To say that Russia is “Asian” is also problematic for two crucial reasons: first, Russia, as a culture, was born from the Baptism of ancient “Rus” by Saint Vladimir in the late 10th century. The brand of Christianity received by Russia was the Roman, not the Frankish one. I don’t believe that anybody would seriously argue that Rome or Byzantium were “Asian”. So the cultural and spiritual roots of Russia are not Asian. Ethnically speaking, most Russians are Slavs, mixed to various degrees with other ethnic groups. And though I personally find the category “White” of dubious analytical value, I don’t think that anybody would seriously argue that “Whites” are Asians. That leaves us with the Russian state, the Russian polity and here, yes, I would argue that it was the Asian Tatar-Mongol (an inaccurate and misleading term, but that is the commonly used one) invaders which created the modern Russian state. The complicating factor here is that since Russia became a western-style Empire under Peter I it has been ruled by a mostly westernized elite which had much more in common with the elites of western Europe than with the majority of the Russian people. Both the 18th and 19th century in Russia were marked by a ruthless, and often violent, imposition of western political, social, cultural and religious models by the Russian ruling elites upon the Russian masses. This is a complex and multifaceted process which saw many contradictory phenomena taking place and we can argue forever about it but what is certain is that this process ended in 1917 with a bourgeois (masonic) liberal coup d’etat, followed, eight months later, by a Communist takeover and a bloody civil war. While neither the February coup nor the Communist takeover in November were true “revolutions”, the year 1917, taken as a whole, saw an immense revolution take place: one ruling class was completely replaced by an entirely different one.
I have neither the time nor intention here to discuss the Soviet period here, I have done so many times elsewhere, but I will only present my main conclusion here: there is no way to consider the Soviet period as a continuation of the pre-1917 Russia. Yes, geographically speaking the USSR more or less covered the previous Russian Empire and, yes, the population which lived in pre-1917 Russia continued to live in the new Soviet Union, but the roots of the dominant Bolshevik/Communist ideology in power were not found in ancient Russia and in the traditional Russian cultural, spiritual and religious values: the roots were imported from the West (just as the main leaders of the Bolshevik uprising for that matter). I would therefore argue that in 1917 one type of western elite (the aristocracy) was replaced by another type of western elite (the Communist Party) and that both of them were “imports” and not “Russian intellectual products”. I would even go further, and argue that the Russian people, culture and civilization have been persecuted for the last 300 years and that only with the arrival of Vladimir Putin at the helm of the Russian state did this persecution end.
Let me immediately clarify that these past three centuries were not uniform and that some periods were better for the Russian people and some worse. I would submit that the period when Petr Stolypin was Prime Minister (1906-1911) was probably the best time for Russia. The worst times for the Russians happened only six years later when the Lenin-Trotsky gang seized power and immediately began indulging in a genocidal campaign against everything and anything “Russian” in the cultural, spiritual or intellectual sense (this bloody orgy only abated in 1938). All in all, even with very strong variations, I believe that in a cultural and spiritual sense, the Russian nation was oppressed to various degrees roughly between 1666 and 1999. That is 333 years: a long period by any standards.
And then there is modern Russia, which I call “New Russia”. Clearly not the Russia of pre-1917, but not Soviet Russia either. And yet, a Russia which, for the first time in three centuries, is finally in the process of gradually shaking off western cultural, political and socio-economic models and which is trying to re-establish what I call the “Russian civilizational realm”. Of course, we should not be naive here: Putin inherited a political system entirely created by US “advisers” whose sole purpose was to further oppress and exploit the Russian people. The human and economic costs of the Gorbachev and Eltsin years can only be compared to the effects of a major war. And yet, out of this horror, came a leader whose loyalty was solely to the Russian people and who set out to liberate Russia from her foreign oppressors. This process of “sovereignization” is far from completed and will probably take many years and go through many ups and downs, but it has undeniably been initiated and, for the first time in centuries, the ruler of the Kremlin is not somebody whom the West can hope to subdue or coopt.
Hence the hysterical paranoia about Putin and his evil Russkies.
The West is terrified by the very real risk that for the first time in 333 years Russia might become truly Russian again.
Scary thought indeed.
Consider the record of what we can call “oppressed Russia”. It began with the defeat by Peter I of one of the greatest European military powers, Sweden, during the Great Northern War (1700-1721). If you are interested, take a look at this Wikipedia list of Russian wars between 1721 and 1917 and pay special attention to those wars listed as “defeats” for Russia and notice that with the exception of the Crimean War, the Russo-Japanese War and WWI Russia won all of her relevant/important wars (wars in which Russia played a major role or had a major stake). I personally do not consider that Russia lost the war against Japan (neither do Japanese historians, by the way), and in the case of WWI Russia basically self-destructed on the eve of victory. As for what I call the “Great Ecumenical War against Russia” (it united the Latins, the Anglicans and the Ottoman Muslims together), I would call it an “ugly draw” whose worst consequences for Russia were soon mitigated. Contrast this with the really important war, the Napoleonic aggression on Russia in which Russia single-handedly defeated a coalition basically uniting all of Europe against Russia. Take a look at this photo of a monument at the location of the biggest battle of the war, the battle of Borodino, and check out the list of countries allied together against Russia:
- German Confederation
- Total: 20 nations
- Infantry: 145,000
- Cavalry: 40,000
- Canons: 1,000
That is 15 countries against Russia. There were fewer aggressors during the “Great Ecumenical War” but three out of four of those aggressors were not just countries, but entire empires: the French Empire, the British Empire, the Ottoman Empire. Whether it is 15:1 countries or 3:1 empires, a pattern begins to emerge. And while during WWII only six countries participated in the initial invasion of the Soviet Union (Germany, Romania, Finland, Italy, Hungary, Slovakia) in reality there were numerous more or less “volunteer” units which joined in.
European unity at its best indeed.
Each time Europe gathered all her forces to finally defeat, subdue, conquer and assimilate Russia, Russia prevailed and only got bigger and stronger. That despite being, in so many ways, a crippled Russia, torn apart by profound internal contradictions, ruled by an elites which the Russian masses found uninspiring at best. True, individual Czars during these years were truly popular, but the regime, the order, was hardly one I would consider as popular or representative of the worldview and culture of the Russian masses. And yet Russia won. Over and over. Despite being weak.
Some will say that this is the distant past, that the world is different today, that nobody in Europe thinks about these wars. But this is not true. For one thing, every one of those wars was accompanied by a frenzied Russia-bashing campaign in the media and literature and all these wars were represented as being fought in the name of lofty European values and against the barbaric hordes from the savage East. And in the years when Russia was not the object of a military attack she was always the object of economic sanctions under one pious pretext or another. King Solomon was right when he wrote “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun”. Gradually and insidiously, the hatred and fear of Russia became part of the western cultural identity. Considering how the West learned to fear a crippled and weakened Russia, can you imagine the terror a truly united Russia would inspire?
Do you know what Putin’s political party is called? “United Russia”, of course.
Keep in mind that during these years Russia was ruled by a hopelessly pro-Western elite and that every Russian ruler from Peter I to Dmitry Medvedev, with the exception of Alexander III and Joseph Stalin, wanted to be accepted as an equal partner by the West. But the western elites had no use for a partner or an ally, what they wanted was a compliant slave.
Vladimir Putin has made it quite clear that he has no such plans at all.
Speaking of Putin, there is something else in his rule which makes him quite unique: his real power does not come from the Russian Constitution or from the fact that he is the commander in chief of the Russian military, intelligence and security forces. If that were really the case, then the Russian elites, which are still largely pro-western, would have found a way to topple him a long time ago, with the assistance of Uncle Sam if necessary. No, is real power is in the undeniable fact that the Russian people recognize him not only as their leader, but also as their representative, if you wish, at the helm of the Russian state and in international affairs. There is a personal trust, a personal political capital, that the Russian people have given Vladimir Putin which sets him aside from all other Russian political figures. This feeling is so strong that even a lot of former political opponents have now become his supporters and that those who still openly oppose him do that with a great deal of difficulty and personal discomfort.
This personal authority of Putin does not, however, extend to Medvedev or, even less so, to the Russian government. I would argue that the Russian government is largely unpopular, as is the Russian Duma, but the lack of viable alternatives to the power of the “United Russia” Party makes this lack of popularity almost irrelevant.
If we take the word “monarchy” in its original meaning as “power of one” and if we recall that many Czars were personally popular even when their regimes were not, we could say that Putin’s rule is a kind of very traditional Russian “neo-monarchy” and that Putin has found a way to combine the external forms of democracy with the internal characteristics of Russian monarchy. Interestingly, the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov has decided to create a personal guard for Vladimir Putin (you can read about this here). In order to comply with the law, these personal guards all resigned their commission and offered their services to Vladimir Putin as a person, not to the Russian President.
Needless to say, the so-called “Russian experts” in the West dismiss it all as being sign of the Putin’s “authoritarian” rule and characterize him as a “strongman” at best and a “dictator” at worst. In truth, fear and hatred are very poor advisors and it is little wonder that they get it so wrong. But then, “Russian experts” are not paid to understand Russia, they are only paid to demonize her.
So where, or what, is Russia today?
At this point in time, I would say that Russia is both a promise and a process. As a promise, she is very vague, there are numerous different ideas of what “real Russia” was or should be. She is an ideal which is more perceived than understood. As a process, Russia is much more unambiguous: de-colonization, sovereignization, resistance and the unapologetic proclamation of a unique, different, civilizational model. The days when Russians were mindlessly aping the West are apparently truly over. Some say that the future of Russia is in the South (Caucasus, Central-Asia, Middle-East, Indian subcontinent), some see the future of Russia in the East (Siberia and Far East Asia, especially China) while some see it in the North (Siberia, again, and the Arctic).
But nobody sees it in the West any more.
Of course, this is not how many Europeans see Russia’s intentions. The Poles and the Balts, especially, keep themselves awake at night with nightmares featuring a Russian invasion of a conventional or “hybrid” kind. This reminds me of a Russian joke which goes like this: a man is walking down the street when a woman on the balcony suddenly screams “Help! This man is about to rape me!!!”. The baffled man looks up and says, “Lady, you are crazy. I have no intention of raping you. Besides, I am here in the street and you are above me on the balcony,” to which the woman replies, “Maybe, but I am about to come down!”. Just like this woman, the Poles and Balts, maybe moved a deep sense of guilt mixed in with an old inferiority complex are strenuously trying to convince themselves that Russia really badly wants to invade them. Russia, of course, has exactly zero need for more land, and even less need for the rabidly hostile and frankly psychotic population of these countries. In reality, the Russian plan for these countries is simple: simply leave the Baltic states and let the Poles and the Germans enjoy their traditional love-fest. From a Russian point of view, these countries and people are not coveted prizes but useless liabilities.
In contrast, Russia cannot ignore the Ukraine, especially not a Nazi-occupied one. As for the rest of Europe, it will always remain an important economic market for Russia and a place Russians will enjoy visiting, especially southern Europe and the Mediterranean. The very last thing Russia needs is any kind of war, especially a useless and potentially dangerous one with the West. Finally, it is likely that Russia will seek to establish close relationships with those southern European countries which really never wanted to pursue any anti-Russian policies, especially Greece and Serbia. So, while not being a priority anymore, the West will never become irrelevant either.
The hardest and also the most interesting thing to try to guess is what Russia will become internally. Probably not a monarchy, at least not in the foreseeable future. The most recent poll strongly suggests that a majority of Russians do not want to trade a democratic republican system for a monarchy. Besides, in a country where truly religious Orthodox Christians are a minority, a monarchy really would make little sense. The problem with the current system is that it is entirely based upon the person of Vladimir Putin. In fact, I would argue that there is no “current system” at all, there is only one person, Vladimir Putin who, while immensely popular, has to deal with all of the many Russian problems is the “manual mode” – meaning personally. As soon as something escapes his personal attention things begin to go wrong. This is simply not a viable system. And just to make things worse, there is no credible successor to Putin in sight. Should something happen to Putin tomorrow morning the crisis hitting Russia would be huge. Add to this that Russians have a long history of good leaders succeeded by mediocre ones and you see how serious a threat the current “one man show” is for the Russian future. I would therefore argue that the development of a truly Russian political system (as opposed to an individual ruler) ought to be considered as one of the most important strategic priorities for those Russians who do not want their country to, yet again, become a western colony. Alas, the struggle between the “Atlantic Integrationists” (the Medvedev people) and the “Eurasian Sovereignists” (the Putin people) leaves very little time for that kind of endeavor.
So yes, “Russia is back”, but she is still very much wobbling on her feet, and unsure as to where to go next. Right now, her future depends on the fate of one man and that is exceedingly dangerous.