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Russia: The Burden of History

Russia: The Burden of History

The deep historical roots of Putin's autocracy make it difficult to establish the kind of government in Russia that will live in peace with its neighbors.

Michael Mandelbaum

An autocratic Slavic ruler launches an attack on a neighboring country for the purpose of bringing it under his control. That describes Vladimir Putin’s ongoing assault on Ukraine, but it fits, as well, a military campaign of the Russian Tsar Ivan III in the fifteenth century, who also attacked and conquered part of what is now Ukraine. The current conflict in that part of the world thus demonstrates, among other things, a strong element of continuity in Russian history.

To be sure, all countries exhibit historical continuities of one kind or another, and for most of their histories other European countries had autocratic rulers who made war on their neighbors. By the twenty-first century, however, things had changed. In response to Putin’s initial attacks on Ukraine, in 2014, Angela Merkel, the chancellor of Germany—a country once, but no longer, as autocratically governed and as aggressive as Russia is today—could say with dismay: “Who would have thought it possible 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall . . . something like this could happen in the middle of Europe?” While the countries to its west became democratic and peaceful, Russia has remained autocratic and belligerent.___STEADY_PAYWALL___

This continuity itself follows a broader historical pattern. In his book Russia Under Western Eyes, the distinguished historian Martin Malia described a feature of Russian and European history that he called the “West-East cultural gradient.” By that he meant that democratic politics, market-driven prosperity, and peaceful relations with other countries appeared earlier and developed deeper roots in the western part of the European continent than in the east, and that over time the countries to the east tended to move, in political and economic terms, in a westerly direction. Russia, the easternmost outpost of Europe, continually lagged behind the countries to its west. The events of 2022 exemplify the persistence of the gap separating Russia from the rest of Europe.

What accounts for that gap? A logical place to look for an answer is Russia’s history, and a new book, Russia: Myths and Realities, provides a concise overview of that history. Its author, Rodric Braithwaite, the British ambassador in Moscow during the crucial years 1988-92 and subsequently the author of several well-received books about the Soviet era, tells Russia’s story from medieval times to the present in brisk, lucid, and well-informed fashion.

From his book emerge two reasons for Russia’s distinctiveness in comparison with the rest of Europe. One is its geography. The country’s vast expanse—it is territorially the largest country on the planet—has required, or has seemed to its rulers to require, that power be concentrated in a single person, in order to hold Russia together. The author quotes the eighteenth-century Russian empress Catherine the Great to this effect: “The Sovereign is absolute, for there is no other Authority but that which centers in his single Person, that can act with a Vigour proportionate to the Extent of such a vast Dominion.” Vladimir Putin would presumably agree, and in the twenty-first century, as in the eighteenth, one all-powerful individual can more easily start a war, as Putin did, than is possible in a political system in which power is divided.

Braithwaite notes another feature of Russian history with particular relevance to the events of this year. From the second half of the seventeenth century to the last decade of the twentieth, Ukraine was almost uninterruptedly part of a larger Russian state. The idea that this was the normal, natural state of affairs thus had more than three centuries to take root. When Putin told the American president George W. Bush in 2008 that Ukraine wasn’t a real country, he was expressing a sentiment widely held among Russians—although clearly not among Ukrainians.

In his 1974 book Russia Under the Old Regime, the eminent historian of Russia and the Soviet Union Richard Pipes offered yet another reason for Russia’s differences from the rest of Europe: the relative absence, throughout its history, of the institution that serves as a bulwark of the democratic government that has never truly existed in Russia: private property. On this score the Communists who seized power in 1917 simply continued the practice of their tsarist predecessors.

Two more recent features of Russia also inhibit the development of democracy, and thus of constitutional restrictions on the power of its government to launch wars such as the one in Ukraine. The country’s abundance of natural resources, especially energy, have turned post-Soviet Russia into what is sometimes called a “petrostate.” In petrostates the wealth available from controlling the extraction and sale of energy gives autocrats both the incentive to monopolize political power, in order to obtain and retain the resulting wealth for themselves, and the means to do so, using that wealth to maintain their power by bribing and coercing the people they govern.

Putin has also adopted, although perhaps not altogether deliberately, a particular tactic that has assisted in the perpetuation of his rule, a tactic that has helped the Communist dictatorship in Cuba survive for six decades: post-Soviet Russia has let people leave. The Castros permitted, encouraged, and sometimes forced many of the ablest, most energetic, and most resourceful Cubans to emigrate. Most went to the United States, which has drawn enormous benefit from their talents, talents that were therefore unavailable in their homeland to build a different, more democratic, and more prosperous Cuba. That, of course, served the Castros’ interests, inasmuch as a democratic Cuba was the last thing they wanted. Stalin and the Communist dictators of the Soviet Union managed their country like a prison, from which almost no one was allowed to escape, but Putin’s Russia has broken with that pattern.  The war in Ukraine has caused hundreds of thousands of Russians—many of them precisely the people whom Russia needs to make itself more like the rest of Europe—to flee abroad. The other countries to which they have fled will gain from their presence, at the expense of Russia’s chances of moving up Malia’s cultural gradient.

Still, Russia is not necessarily fated to continue indefinitely to be the kind of country that its history has done so much to make it. “Only the most obstinate historical determinist,” Braithwaite writes, “would insist that Russians were uniquely incapable of shaking themselves free of the burden of history.” Their country has in fact experienced some changes that have propelled it in a western cultural direction. Since the nineteenth century the impetus for such changes has come from setbacks in wars.

In the wake of the Crimean War of 1853–56, the tsar freed Russia’s serfs. Defeat at the hands of Japan in 1905 triggered an uprising that led to the establishment of a parliament, the State Duma. World War I swept away the Romanov dynasty and made it possible for the Bolsheviks to seize power, and the Soviet Union that they created collapsed in no small part because of its failure to keep up economically with the West in the Cold War and the measures that the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, implemented in an effort to make the Communist state stronger and more prosperous. Those measures led instead—and contrary to his intention—to the demise of the Communist Party and the country over which he presided. Perhaps the increasingly unsuccessful Russian military effort in Ukraine will have a comparable impact.

Far from being confined to Russia, this particular dynamic has played out elsewhere in Europe. Its defeat in World War II helped to transform the genocidal German Third Reich into the impeccably peaceful German Federal Republic. The German precedent does not, however, provide a firm basis for optimism that the Russian invasion of Ukraine will ultimately produce a more liberal, peaceful Russia.  Germany suffered defeat in both world wars, and the aftermath of World War I was a far more turbulent and ultimately warlike era than were the years following World War II.  Unlike in 1945, in 1918 Germany was not conquered and occupied. Many Germans came to believe that they had been betrayed—“stabbed in the back”—by perfidious leaders, and Adolf Hitler’s insistence that this was what had happened paved the way for his dictatorship and the catastrophe it visited on Europe. (It did not help that the victorious powers in the First World War imposed a harsher peace than the Germans had expected. The West made a similar mistake after the Cold War by expanding its military alliance, NATO, to Russia’s borders despite assurances to Soviet and Russian leaders that no such thing would take place.)

Even if Ukraine prevails in the current war, the outcome of the conflict for Russia will almost certainly more closely resemble the consequences for Germany of the First than of the Second World War. If only because of Russia’s large stockpile of nuclear weapons, the military failure of the Putin regime that seems increasingly plausible will not lead to the unconditional surrender and occupation that post-World War II Germany had to accept. In these circumstances, Russia might well experience the continuation of autocratic rule and the autocrat, either Putin or a successor, would be all too likely to pursue a belligerent policy toward Ukraine and Russia’s other neighbors. Genuine peace in Europe therefore depends ultimately on a change in the kind of regime that holds power in Moscow. Such a change, although devoutly to be wished, is very far from being assured.

The outcome of the current war in Ukraine, and the political  consequences that will flow from that outcome, cannot, of course, be known in advance. It is safe to predict, though, that whatever the outcome and consequences turn out to be, the weight of Russian history will continue to make it difficult to transform Russia from the kind of country in which Vladmir Putin has held sway for more than two decades, and used his unchallenged power to molest neighboring countries, into one led by people with the political values and policy preferences of Angela Merkel.

Michael Mandelbaum is the Christian A. Herter Professor Emeritus of American Foreign Policy at The Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, a member of the editorial board of American Purpose, and the author of The Four Ages of American Foreign Policy: Weak Power, Great Power, Superpower, Hyperpower.

Image: Catherine the Great, Joseph Stalin, Vladimir Putin.

DemocracyEastern EuropeRussiaUkraineU.S. Foreign Policy