In political terms, Putin’s Russia is a conglomerate of toxic residue carried over from successive eras in this country’s history. From its imperial past, Russia took over its fixation for becoming a global power, but chose to discard its elites’ affiliation to Western culture and traditions, hence the absence of any moral constraints to the way it fosters its interests. From Russia’s Soviet past, Putin sought not only to capitalize on the symbolic remnants of the lost superpower status, but also to make Russians believe that this chapter in Russia’s history represented the pinnacle of their political existence, systematically feeding them the illusion of a lost paradise which never actually existed. Putin didn’t however carry over the honest objective of Soviet general secretaries (with Stalin’s exception) of avoiding a new world war, nor their down-to-earth perception of reality underlying their foreign policy choices, with a few notable exceptions. What Putin did, instead, was mix this legacy with cynicism and cunning, behaviors typical of the criminal underworld, and wrap them in the illusion of power and wealth, only to conceal the ruin and rot of widespread corruption.
In the Russian mindset, the Empire and the leader’s persona have always overshadowed individual rights
When president Yeltsin called for the need of a new “national idea” that should fill the ideological void created by the demise of communism in 1993, shortly before the adoption of the Constitution that would enshrine Russia’s breakaway with the illusions of democracy, it quickly became clear that the new ideology would be built on the foundation of the imperial legacy and the emergence of a dictatorial central power. Soon afterwards, the then Foreign Minister, Andrei Kozyrev, introduced the principle of intervention in support of “compatriots” in the “near abroad”, the term Russia used to refer to former republics of the USSR, which had in the meantime become independent. Once the beacon was lit, the theoretical “contributions” of Russian intellectuals whom the collapse of the USSR had left seriously traumatized, started piling up. In 1995, Natalya Narochnitskaya published “The Act on the Unity of the Russian People”, which declared Russians a “divided people” who had the unalienable right to reunification. At the end of the 1990s, Petr Shchedrovitsky also coined the concept of “Russian World”, which promoted the use of Russian communities abroad with the aim of creating a network of support for Russia. Aleksandr Panarin, a philosopher and supporter of reforms turned conservative theorist, also prophesized the quest for empire of Orthodox Russia, whose sacred mission was to actively oppose American globalism.
In reality, irrespective of the names they took over the years (whether we’re talking about narodnicism, socialism, bolshevism or Soviet-imperial nostalgia), none of the ideological currents that stuck in Russia over the years claimed to promote individual rights. At the center of each (with the exception perhaps of the peasant anarchic utopia, which was very popular during the Ukrainian Civil War) was not the individual, but an imaginary community which Russians never succeeded in creating.
The goal of all political regimes in Russia, regardless of their ideological underpinnings and the obsessions that fueled them, was in fact to prevent the creation of a civil society, capable of shaping up its own destiny outside state-imposed boundaries. A Russian society made up of individuals reluctant to pay the price of the empire, which consisted in the deprivation of liberties and the denial of individual happiness, would be irreducibly at odds with political power.
Whether it was called empire, union or federation, Russian regimes always wanted to have a strong economy and a formidable army, both serving the territorial conquest and internal control, time and again ignoring the fact that both entail the existence of societies matching their ambitions. Empires can be built and upheld at the expense of serfs as long as they believe in the divine source of power and the existence of a Russia protected by God himself. And while the spell of Russian divinity had started to break ever since imperial times, it was Bolshevism that hopelessly obliterated Russians’ belief in their collective, God-ordained destiny. The revolutionary Messianism, which temporarily replaced Bolshevism, in turn succumbed to the pressure of changing realities and gave way to the raw force of statehood and the dogma of the infallible leader, both concepts founded on coercion. To this day, the essence of Moscow’s present-day political practices boils down to these three elements.
Reform – the fallback of autocracies
Reform is not the path to changing Russia. For Russian leaders, reforms were always something they could fall back on in case they lost power, a last resort used only when all other attempts had failed. Russia undertakes reforms, often without seeing them through, only when it loses wars and the autocracy finds itself in mortal danger. The drive to reform is triggered not by a desire to modernize the country, but its leaders’ need to “buy more time” to consolidate their ever-fragile grip on power. Only when all the “spoils” of Russia’s participation in the Napoleonic Wars had been laid to waste, along with the fearsome Cossack cavalry, by the accuracy and swiftness of British and French weapons under the walls of Sevastopol in the Crimean War of 1853-1856, did the new emperor, Alexander II, saw the need to begin the modernization of Russia. Similar to what we’re witnessing in Ukraine today, back then the illusion of power radiating from “Europe’s gendarme” was also meant to conceal an army equipped with obsolete weaponry, undertrained and following the orders of officers willing to secure the attention and favor of affluent individuals at any cost, even if it meant sending their soldiers charging to their death, a strategy as brave as it was foolish. It was only when Russia’s appetite for new European territories was staved off by the Paris Peace agreement, which also gave rise to modern Romania, that the Russian autocrat found it appropriate to abolish the peasants’ vassalage, to make universities self-determined and provide magistrates with independence. “The Paris yoke” did not however prevent Russia from expanding elsewhere. Russia would continue to conquer new territories in Central Asia and the North Caucasus, where the Russians faced an ill-equipped enemy, whose bravery nevertheless often offset its lack of modern weapons and military discipline.
For the unfortunate tsar Nikolai II, the reforms started only after the Japanese had succeeded in annihilating most of Russia’s fleet in the Pacific, following brave attacks on Port Arthur and Chemulpo Bay in February 1904, which would seriously impact Japanese war tactics for generations. After a number of clashes at sea and on land, which brought victories to Japan, in 1905, with the USA’s help, the Russian Empire somehow managed to lose the war and secure the peace, relinquishing its influence in the Pacific area. And while the arrogant and incompetent Russian diplomats did nothing but ridicule Japan’s reverence for tradition and reject all their claims, Douglas MacArthur, the American general-to-be, arrived in Seoul shortly after the war ended, at the time his father’s left-hand, sent to assess Japan’s naval power and observe its tactics. This would be the exact spot Douglas MacArthur would choose to disembark its forces during the Korean War of 1950-1953. Nikolai II, on the other hand had regarded the war with Japan as a temporary setback.
After the violent repression of the protest in front of the Winter Palace in January 1905, mass strikes swept Saint Petersburg, gradually spreading to most of Western Russia. It wasn’t until the revolution turned into national movements in Poland, Finland and Georgia, and the emergence of Soviets in Russia in Ukraine, that tsar Nikolai II, facing the imminent breakdown of the empire, transformed Russia into a sort of constitutional monarchy, with the tsar still holding most of the power prerogatives. Once the revolution was quelled, in 1906, the brave and radical Pyotr Stolypin, pushed for the establishment of a class of landowners which would thus expand the social pillars of the monarchy while at the same time easing political tension in the European states of Russia.
Providing peasants with the right of withdrawing from collective farms coincided with the authorities’ early plans to populate Siberia. Once the railway network was expanded across this region, the freshly landed peasants were brought here, finding their predicament very similar to life in exile.
There was hardly a worthy lesson history could teach Russian leaders, given that Russia’s defeat in the Great War was the spark that started the revolution and that Stalin later defeated Hitler. It was only after the Soviet Union had exhausted its economic resources in the war in Afghanistan, and particularly in the wake of the Chernobyl disaster that Mikhail Gorbachev felt compelled to resort to reforms. Just like the Crimean War before, the war in Afghanistan had revealed the weaknesses of the imperial army. The strong impact of propaganda schemes on military planning, the perpetual disregard for the most basic security standards, the exultation in imaginary victories (such as the ones in the Peshawar Plateau), and the reckless misuse of resources and manpower had reduced the morale of the Red Army and given rise to strong criticism, particularly from mothers and wives of Soviet soldiers. Months after the Chernobyl explosion, which Gorbachev himself said had persuaded him to take up reforms, in December 1986 the Russian leader would resort to the violent repression of the Zheltoksan protests in Alma-Ata, which demanded Moscow appoint Kazakh ethics at the helm of the communist party of Kazakhstan.
The desperate attempts at preserving both his office and the Union, even at the cost of conceding some European territories of the empire, annexed during World War II, would push Gorbachev into a spiral of fatal decisions, which eventually put him at odds with Russian nationalists. Gorbachev no longer had either the power or the will to resist their growing influence, and was forced to consent to the collapse of the USSR, in a nauseating ceremony held in Belovezha forest. It is also here that Putin suggested to president Zelenskyy that delegations of the two countries meet to commence “peace negotiations”, shortly after Russia attacked Ukraine. Putin’s hopes of restoring the Russian Empire exactly where the hopes of the USSR’s survival had died were once again disproved by a reality he still refuses to accept.
Moscow’s revenge: Ivan the Terrible’s ruling model became a mainstay of Russian politics up to the Putin era
Despite the fact that their empire spread at times to the farthest corners of Earth and in spite of their lavish lifestyle, Russian rulers ruled over their dominion much like the despots of a smaller realm, where holding onto power is hard as securing it in the face of so many staunch contenders. Seemingly identifying themselves with state power, Russian leaders made their personal protection their top priority, trying to make their subjects believe that only chaos, anarchy and destruction would follow should they be deposed.
Putin is neither Hitler nor Genghis Khan. He is merely the embodiment of Ivan the Terrible, whose ghost haunts every leader who ruled Russia throughout the centuries.
Russia’s war in Ukraine today was fueled by the same fears that gave Ivan the Terrible the chills when he ordered the destruction of Novgorod.
This merchant republic, located on the famous trade route from the Varangians to the Greeks, linking the Byzantine Empire to Scandinavia and the Kievan Rus’, Novgorod was inextricably tied to the West in economic and political terms. Spreading between the Baltic Sea all the way to the Urals in its heyday (12th -13th centuries), Novgorod underwent a fundamentally different cultural development than Muscovy. While Ivan I Kalitá of Muscovy received in 1328 the title of Grand Duke of Vladimir from the Great Khan, along with the right of collecting tribute from all Rus’ lands for the Golden Horde, Novgorod had by then developed strong trade relations with the Hanseatic League, wherefrom it also borrowed Western systems of political administration. Unlike the Muscovites, who became organically inseparable from the distant yet efficient Mongol rule, Novgorod became the Western reflection of the old Rus’. While Ivan Kalitá was urging Russian nobles to buy as many slaves from the Mongols as possible to populate Muscovy, Novgorod women owned lands, were doing business and filed civil suits against ill-treatments from their husbands, demanding financial compensations for the offenses they suffered.
The downfall of Russia’s endemic Western-oriented character came with the war waged by Ivan III against the Republic of Novgorod over 1477-1478. It was meant to destroy Novgorod’s alliance with the Grand Duke of Lithuania and King of Poland, Casimir IV. When the armies of Novgorod were finally defeated, its territories became the rightful claim of Princes of Muscovy. They introduced new taxes on the city population and denied Novgorod direct trade with the Hanseatic League, which accelerated the republic’s downfall. Just like Putin today, in order to preserve his persona as “champion” of Orthodoxy, Ivan III needed something more than simply claiming Novgorod had “betrayed” him, so he later justified his military campaign saying that Novgorod’s mass-conversion to Catholicism had been “imminent”.
The obliteration of whatever was still left of the former merchant republic was Ivan IV the Terrible’s own contribution to the consolidation of the Russian Empire. In 1570, invoking another imminent betrayal (confirmed in an apocryphal letter allegedly sent to Poland by Bishop Pimen of Novgorod), Ivan IV sent his oprichnina – an order of military monks he used to enforce his ill-fated rule of terror – to raze Novgorod to the ground. The city was burned, its people put to the sword, the churches plundered and their bells taken to Muscovy. The cellars of Malyuta Skuratov (whose nickname, Malyuta, was owed to his short height, just like Yezhov would be called “the bloody dwarf” centuries later) were already crammed with “traitors” and “conspirators”, whose stories the Tsar was keen on learning. The road to Novgorod was marked by many other “acts of bravery” from the oprichnina, who treated Russian towns as foreign conquests. Klin, Tver, Mednoye and Torzhok were each sacked, and in December 1569, during a military campaign, Malyuta Skuratov took the time the strangle to death the former Metropolitan of Muscovy, Philip, who was doing time for “treason” in a monastery near Tver for having dared stand up to the Tsar.
It took a little less than a year for the oprichnina to be eventually put to shame, as they refused to join Muscovy in its fight against the Khan of Crimea, Devlet Giray. Their refusal also lost them the Tsar’s favor and signaled the start of their downfall. Their final disbandment would come to pass only in 1572, when the Tsar’s armies, led by Prince Mikhail Vorotynsky, whom Ivan had recalled from exile to help his cause, defeated Devlet Giray near Moscow, thus ending Ivan IV’s delusions of having single-handedly brought the realm to its knees.
Ivan the Terrible’s efforts to rule over all the “lands of Rus’” through violence and terror drained Russia and its population. Shortly after his demise in 1584, the Empire would undergo not just a severe dynastic crisis, but also a long period of decay, marked by natural catastrophes, political infighting and foreign conquests, known as the Time of Troubles.
History does not repeat itself today, but its mysterious forces reach well beyond the cycles dictated by figures of authority. Putin’s Muscovy will emerge from its latest attempt at slaughtering Novgorod (embodied by a Westernized Ukraine today) defeated not just in military and economic terms, but also morally bankrupt. Despite his attempts at making his war against the West his legacy by fashioning a state ideology that, whether we like it or not, is rooted in the sound lessons of history, Putin’s reign will be followed by a Time of Troubles. Russia’s inherent Western-looking development can be historically documented, but its link to the past hangs only by a thread, which is often overlooked by widely accepted historical research. Considering its present-day territories and the fact that autocracy and the quest for empire run deep in its collective memory, Russia cannot by itself escape the spiral that inevitably leads to new forms of despotic rule. Both victims and accomplices of the tyrants that ruled over them, Russians often find comfort for their present day wretchedness in their vast dominion over free men. Blinded by the deceitful radiance of the empire, whom they can only fathom in physical form, they thus become slaves to their own will, paving the way for the rise of new tyrants.