Monday, February 26, 2018

Russia: A Very Brief History, Updated

View from Millionnaia Street onto the Palace Square before the Hermitage, with St. Isaac's in the distance; in the foreground, a detail of the caryatid in the entryway to the Maly Hermitage. St. Petersburg. 2006. Photo by the author.

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 easily expand laterally and hold contiguous territories. Either way, holding the perimeter required a military force, consequently, taxes, and a powerful state to collect them.  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 spans the entire northern part of the Eurasian continent, from the Pacific to the Baltic Sea, and south to the Black Sea, including the latest claim to the Crimean Peninsula.

Adoption of Orthodox Christianity from Byzantium (988) brought Russia early 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 nineteenth-century Slavophiles, or revolutionary socialism preached by radical Westernizers, or world Communism inaugurated by the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, or, of late, the conservative nativist nationalism of Putin’s Russia.

Isolated and fractured under the Mongol dominion and later threatened by the increasingly aggressive West, Russia was barely touched by the major European movements, the Renaissance, Reformation and Counter-Reformation, until the Enlightenment. Its own Russian Orthodox Church was never free from the tutelage of the state and to this day remains 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 modernized West – maintaining an uneasy and shifting balance between selective adoption of modern Western institutions, knowledge, dress and manners while protecting the centralized state and its power to impose corvĂ©e, heavy taxes, and to repress dissent.

Where the modernizing reforms were successful, achievements have been spectacular: in literature (Pushkin, Gogol, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov), music (Chaikovsky, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Prokofiev), art (Repin, Kandinsky, Malevich), theater and ballet (Stanislavsky, Meyerhold, the Ballets Russes), film (Eisenstein, Vertov, Pudovkin), science (Mendeleev, Pavlov, Sakharov, Kapitsa), hi-tech weaponry and space technology (the Bomb, the Sputnik). Russia was first 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 quasi-superpower status, largely thanks to its nuclear stockpiles and Europe's largest military. But the price of modernization has exacted a heavy toll: Peter’s reforms strengthen serfdom, abolished only in 1861, private ownership of land and property rights, abolished under communism and restored after 1991, are still subject to the whim of the state authorities; civil society is thwarted by the officialdom and state control of the electronic media; corruption is ubiquitous and practically unchecked.

Deep antagonism between modernizing trends, especially the rule of law and the concentration of unchecked power at the top — be it under a tsar, a communist dictatorship (1917-1991), or Vladimir Putin’s vertical “sovereign democracy” — has produced an unstable and skittish polity. Periods of repression (extreme under Stalin) are punctuated by decade-long episodes of exuberant liberation (viz. Gorbachev and Yeltsin), but consolidating reforms are, in turn, undermined by renewed centralization and turn toward authoritarianism at the top.

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 state control of the economy, rise of nativism and nationalism, and, on the part of the power elite, a backsliding into a populist authoritarianism stoking resentment against the West. Significant progress has been achieved nevertheless, in part, because the profits from the rich deposits of oil and natural gas have been shared broadly, albeit unevenly. A new generation of Russian citizens, modern and free from the instinctive Soviet fear of state authority, is now entering their twenties and is bound to affect the country's future by expecting more democracy and more freedom. But the overall picture remains mixed, especially since Russia’s annexation of the Crimea in 2014 and subsequent fomenting of civil war in eastern Ukraine. Russia’s aggression toward Ukraine led to the imposition of sanctions by the US and EU, as well as relative international  isolation.  Russia's aggressive meddling in the US Presidential Elections in 2016 has led to further estrangement between the two nuclear superpowers. The benign international climate Russia enjoyed for over two decades since the end of the cold war and collapse of communism has been replaced with a renewed antagonism with the West.

Copyright © 2010, 2018 by Gregory Freidin

PS. This is the most recent update for the essay on Russian history in 300 words that I was commissioned to write for an on-line reference in 2000. I've updated it twice now, trying to keep it short enough - 700 words - to fit into a newspaper column. For the 2010 version, click here.