Birthing a Modern Russia

The people of Russia don't all stand behind Putin.

The nation of Russia, as its geography dictates, has always had one eye towards the West and one towards the Orient.  Its culture, politics, and disposition have never been entirely Eastern, like, say, China; but it's never been wholly Western either, like Germany, France, or England.

For centuries, Russia has had a desire to be viewed as a Western country - from Peter the Great's tour of Europe to the later Czars' attempts to modernize, and right through Stalin's forced industrialization, the history of Russia is a long, slow, halting march towards the Western world, with much backsliding and horrific detours along the way.

At the ill-named "End of History" in the 1990s, it seemed that, finally, Russia had achieved its goal, throwing off a medieval and despotic tyranny that utilized the powers of technology to oppress the common people more than any Czar or lord ever dreamed of.  Russia has always been a land of great natural wealth, an impressive culture, and even notable scientific prowess entirely its own - why shouldn't it now take its rightful place?

As we all know, things haven't quite worked out that way.  The problem with modernity and the economic success that comes from a free market is that it is incompatible with tyranny - it can tolerate a certain amount of regulation, but too much government control cripples the economy and leads to shared poverty.  Under President Vladimir Putin, Russia could have taken the next step toward more open markets and greater prosperity.

For a while, he seemed to be moving in that direction - but more recently, Mr. Putin seems to have returned to that most retrograde of habits, a war of conquest.  Has the thirty years since the fall of the Berlin Wall been a total failure?

Without in any way minimizing the suffering of Ukraine, this may be an over-pessimistic view.  One of the key distinctions between an old-school autocracy or dictatorship is that the views of the Leader are effectively indistinguishable from those of his subjects or the country at large, if for no other reason than because anyone who publicly declaims an opposing view tends to abruptly vanish.  In contrast a modern democracy, the political leadership and the people can often be very much at odds, leading to profound changes at the next election - we've seen quite a few examples of this around the world this year, with more likely on the wayt.

It's easy to conflate the two, and assume that Mr. Putin's actions, desires, goals, hopes, and dreams are those of the Russian people.  Nobody would make the same mistake of considering either President Trump or Joe Biden to be the universally-accepted thought leader of all of the American people.

So, the real question isn't, is Russia modern and Western?  Obviously it is not, at least not fully.

A better question is - how do the Russian people view themselves?  Unfortunately, we don't have the budget, connections, or expertise to go ask them.  Scragged specializes in theorizing and triangulating based mostly off of whatever resources we can access, read, and ponder from the comfort of our computer chair, no on-the-spot reporting required.  And to our surprise, there is ample cause to think that, just maybe, the Russian people may be a lot more modern than their current Leader makes them appear.

Consider the wars, invasions, interventions, etc. that took place under Communism.  There was never any serious question that the Red Army would fight, and fight hard; nor that the great body of the Russian people would support them in that fight.  Perhaps that was because they'd be shot if they didn't, but fear of brutality can be a source of strength.

The justice or need for the war was irrelevant. Obviously, when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, the Russians had every right and good reason to drive the Nazis back, which they did at immeasurable human cost that dwarfs the price paid by the United States, England, or even France.

There was no valid reason for the Red Army to march into Hungary or Czechoslovakia, but no significant internal resistance when they did.  The invasion of Afghanistan was even less justified, far more costly, and ended in failure, but when the Russians retreated, they did so in good order, marching out with flags flying.  By the end, the average Russian soldier in Afghanistan was neither particularly motivated nor particularly competent, but he was at least well-supplied and reasonably well led.  And, at least on the surface, the civilians back home supported the war effort.

What a contrast to what's going on in Russia today!  For the first few months of the Ukraine war, Mr. Putin tried to pretend that it was anything but a war, the favorite term being "special military operation."  Most of the soldiers participating in the invasion weren't even told they were going to war - it was just a training exercise, until they suddenly found themselves under very effective hostile fire in a foreign country.

Despite brutal crackdowns by European standards, antiwar protests in Russia are growing.  Mr. Putin is becoming more violent in response - but still, he is brutal is only in comparison to Western Europe.  By Czarist Russian, to say nothing of recent Soviet standards of brutality, it's nothing.

At the same time, many thousands of the Russian wealthy and middle class are fleeing the country.  Obviously many of these simply don't want to be drafted into a war they don't believe in, but that's not the only reason:

"Many people are afraid," says Oleg, a bar owner from Moscow who has just crossed over to the Finnish side. "The mobilisation is a first sign that something worse might happen."

He fears the border might "close forever" and Russians "will live in a totalitarian state where they can't do anything at all".

There certainly were no shortage of people who wished to leave the Soviet Union under Stalin, but very few of them ever got the opportunity to do so until the USSR itself was no more.  But since the Wall fell, there haven't been vast throngs exiting... until now.

The first step towards having freedom is wanting it.  The second is being willing to do something inconvenient in order to get it.  Oleg did something to benefit himself that doesn't benefit his country as a whole, but the hordes of protesters on the streets of Russian cities might just do both.

Do the Russian people want to live in a modern, free country?  Do they understand what that is and what it means?  In a way we have not seen before, it seems that perhaps they do.

This is not merely admirable, it's saintly.  Consider the countless millions of Third Worlders pouring unimpeded across America's southern border, with a hungry eye on American wealth.  It is of course perfectly natural and understandable to want to improve your own personal state and that of your family.  But, there is a difference between doing so by taking from someone else vs creating the wealth yourself.  How much better off would the nations of Latin America be if all the illegals now in the US were still in their home countries, forcing change on the corrupt kleptocracies and banana-republic dictatorships that so characterize that part of the world?

Overthrowing Mr. Putin will be no picnic, but it's ten thousand times easier than toppling Stalin would have been, which is why nobody ever tried.  When a Soviet leader died or was ousted, he was simply replaced with another just as bad.

When Communism fell, the new leader was Boris Yeltsin - by Russian standards not a bad guy, but also, not exactly George Washington.  Who might prove to be the man to finally lead Russia into modernity?

We haven't a clue, but for the first time, there may be a people for him to lead, should he happen to appear.  We wish the Russian people well, and every good fortune as they make some very serious choices.

Petrarch is a contributing editor for Scragged.  Read other articles by Petrarch or other articles on Foreign Affairs.
Reader Comments

I would like to see an article discussing the religious underpinnings of countries and their tendencies (past and present) toward stable democracy vs. upheaval or revolution--i.e. countries with Protestant vs. Roman Catholicism/Eastern Orthodox, even Islamic majorities. It seems to me that the people of a nation will put up with a particular amount of authoritarian leadership based on their traditional, inner religious sensibility and the amount of its adherence to earthly authority. In other words, how much are they OK, based on their religion with replacing religious authority with some kind of state authority? Maybe there is no real connection, but it would be fun to explore the issue.

November 4, 2022 9:34 PM

Good idea Peter.. Why not consider writing that article yourself and submitting it for publication here.
I'm not being sarcastic either.
The publishers have graciously allowed me to write a few articles and it was a thoroughly rewarding experience.

November 6, 2022 3:10 PM

Interesting idea Peter... I do have some thoughts as to what could be said. But, as Rico pointed out, we do accept article submissions. :-)

November 8, 2022 2:41 PM
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