Thursday, December 30, 2010

Russia: A Very Brief History

- To see the newer version, updated in 2018, click here

Some time in the late 1990s, I was asked by Encyclopaedia Britannica to produce a short piece condensing the history of Russia into 300 words. As I recall, the idea was to fit the text onto one screen for some reference service having to do with the 2000 Olympics in Australia. I liked the challenge and struggled with it for a couple of weeks, in the end surprising myself that once things were distilled to an essence, communism got barely a mention. A colleague has just asked me for a permission to use it in a course, and I decided to give the 300 words original a once-over, padding it to about 500 words. Here, then, is my short course in Russian history, revised for the present.

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Situated on the great Eurasian plane, Russia has been vulnerable to invasions from both East and West (Mongols, 1247-1480; Poles, 1605-1610; French, 1812; Germans, 1941). By the same token, once a centralized autocratic state was established under the grand princes of Muscovy, beginning with Ivan III (1462-1505), Russia could expand laterally and hold contiguous territories,. Even today, after the dissolution of the USSR in 1991 and the secession of Ukraine, Belorus, the Baltic republics and those of Central Asia, Russia still spans the entire northern part of the Eurasian continent, from the Pacific to the Baltic Sea.

Adoption of Orthodox Christianity from Byzantium (988) brought Russia into the fold of Christian Europe, but it also set it apart from the Roman Catholic West. Therein lies the beginning of Russia’s ambivalence toward the West and the recurrent belief in Russia’s special destiny as the bearer of true faith, whether Orthodox Christianity (“Moscow the Third Rome”), or the Slavic commonwealth imagined by the Slavophiles, or revolutionary socialism preached by radical Westernizers, or world Communism inaugurated by the Bolshevik revolution of 1917.

Isolated and fractured under the Mongol dominion and later threatened by the increasingly aggressive West, Russia was barely touched by the Renaissance, Reformation and Counter-Reformation, and its own Russian Orthodox Church was never free from the tutelage of the state and is to this day unreformed. Westernization came with Russia’s emergence on the world stage under Peter the Great (1682-1725). A modernizing autocrat, Peter established a lasting pattern for meeting the challenge of the West – maintaining an unstable balance between, on the one hand, selective adoption of modern Western institutions and knowledge and, on the other, protection of the centralized state and its power to impose corvée, heavy taxes, and to repress dissent.

Where the reforms were successful, achievements have been spectacular: in literature (Pushkin, Gogol, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov), music (Chaikovsky, Stravinsky, Shostakovich), art (Kandinsky, Malevich), theater and ballet (Stanislavsky, Meyerhold, the Ballets Russes), film (Eisenstein), science (Mendeleev, Pavlov, Kapitsa), hi-tech weaponry and space technology (the Bomb, the Sputnik). Russia was recognized as a military superpower when it defeated Napoleon in 1812 and under the Soviets when it vanquished Nazi Germany in 1945. It still enjoys a superpower status, if only in nuclear weapons. But serfdom was abolished only in 1861, private ownership of land and property rights are still subject to the whim of the state; civil society is thwarted by the officialdom; and corruption is unchecked.

Deep antagonism between modernizing trends, including the rule of law, and concentration of power at the top — be it a tsar or a communist dictatorship (1917-1991), or Vladimir Putin’s “sovereign democracy” — has produced an unstable and skittish polity. Periods of repression (notably extreme under Stalin) are punctuated by episodes of exuberant liberation, followed by reforms, in turn, undermined by renewed centralization and authoritarian tendencies.

Emancipated from communism in 1991, Russia has been struggling to institute democracy and a market economy in the face of countervailing trends, among them, Muslim irredentism in the Caucasus, endemic corruption, and backsliding into authoritarianism on the part of the power elite. Much progress has been achieved but the overall picture remains mixed, with the exception of Russia’s foreign policy. Since the end of the cold war, Russia has enjoyed an international climate, especially vis-à-vis the West, which is benign without precedent.

Copyright © 2010 by Gregory Freidin

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