The images of November 9, 1989, were immediately seared into the world’s collective memory. On that day, all eyes were on Germany—specifically the Berlin Wall. The graffiti-laden structure was overwhelmed with curious onlookers from the western portion of the city.
Westerners climbed on top of the wall and conversed with eastern border guards—an unthinkable act just weeks earlier. Armed with sledgehammers, citizens vented decades of pent-up emotions by taking swings at the concrete barrier. Travel bans were lifted and thousands of East Berliners poured across the border and into the welcoming arms of their counterparts on the other side.
The wall came down; the Iron Curtain began to lift.
In the following years, as the USSR dissolved, the Cold War threat vanished, and the decades-long Soviet reign was over—a new era appeared on the horizon. The United States and Europe hoped Russia and its former satellite states would, as the East Berliners basking in newfound freedoms, sprint from communism to the warm embrace of Western-style democracy.
Eye on energy: Russia’s President-elect Vladimir Putin (right) listens to Russian Transport Minister Igor Levitin (left) while visiting an oil terminal in St. Petersburg, Russia (March 23, 2012).Source: Alexei Nikolsky/AFP/Getty Images
Fast-forward 20 years after the USSR collapsed. Things have not gone as the West envisioned. Russia has failed to blossom into a carbon-copy of European governing models, let alone model itself after the United States. Persistent problems wear on the nation. While the country has a rapidly growing middle class, they are still largely politically irrelevant.
The New York Times reported on a World Bank study of Russia: “A number of factors are weakening the Russian economy…The aging population, unproductive workers, and business executives who are reluctant to invest over the long term, fearful of risk in general but with specific concerns about Russia.”
The state once again is under the rule of Vladimir Putin, whose leadership style has been labeled authoritarian. He was elected for a third presidential term in early March 2012, and may remain in office for up to 12 more years.
To the West, Russia’s return to such a governing style raises concerns. Yet for many of its citizens, Mr. Putin’s decisive actions brought stability after the rampant political chaos, weak economy, high inflation, hunger, war and crime of the 1990s.
The Economist wrote that the West failed to take into account the country’s “ruined economy, depleted and exhausted human capital and the mental and moral dent made by 70 years of Soviet rule. Nobody knew what kind of country would succeed the Soviet Union, or what being Russian really meant.”
Russia has long befuddled Western powers. Discussing the nation during World War II, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill stated, “I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma…” (The Churchill Society).
Being misunderstood has been a historical problem for the former Soviet republic. In pre-USSR days, Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich, brother-in-law of Russian Emperor Nicholas II, said, “I have never met anyone who understood Russians” (From Nyet to Da: Understanding the New Russia).
Outsiders tend to paint the northern Eurasian nation with a broad brush, and in doing so, miss what it really means to be Russian. Today, many in the West view the country simplistically as still overcoming the effects of a failed communist state—including holding onto Soviet-style authoritarian control.
Other countries, where certain democratic freedoms are guaranteed, assume the only logical way to solve the nation’s problems is for it to make a clean break from its past.
For Russia, however, this is no easy task.
Parliament elections held in December 2011 seemed to herald a shift in Russia’s public mood. After the vote, thousands of demonstrators, outraged about suspected electoral rigging and at Vladimir Putin’s bid for president, crowded Moscow to voice their discontentment. Similar events also occurred in the weeks prior.
Protesters at these gatherings, which were the largest demonstrations since the Soviet Union’s fall 20 years prior, cried “New Elections, New Elections” and “Russia without Putin.”
A main point of dissatisfaction was Vladimir Putin’s return as president. He held the position from 1999 to 2008, after which he backed Dmitry Medvedev as his successor, and Mr. Putin then became the prime minister. Due to changes in the Russian Constitution and Mr. Putin’s recent re-election, it is possible that he could retain his position in the Kremlin until 2024. Mr. Medvedev may then again switch to prime minister (a position that is appointed in Russia).
“It’s absolutely unacceptable that the man who’s in power [already] for 12 years will be here for 12 years more!” one demonstrator told NBC News. He later stated, “We don’t want another revolution, or bloodshed, but if Putin is going to win then there may be a ‘Russian Spring’—not an Arab Spring but a Russian one.”
Western media latched on to such comments as hope of significant change for the nation.
The Telegraph quoted Sergei Mironov, who ran against Mr. Putin in the recent presidential election: “Whoever wins the presidency, if he does not immediately begin deep political and social reforms including a clearer articulation of our foreign policy objectives, my prediction is that Russia will [be] shaken by a kind of Arab Spring within two years.”
An “anti-corruption crusader” told the International Herald Tribune, “We have something to say to Mr. Putin…Change is coming. Let democracy spring from the city of Yaroslavl.”
In reality, however, these comments come from the vocal minority. Mr. Putin remains popular with most of Russia. A February opinion poll showed that before his official election, he held at least 50 percent of the vote.
The European Voice stated that “most participants hold few illusions about the efficacy of their protest. They want to express to Russia’s rulers the extent of their frustration and determination. They may not expect regime change, but they expect at least some minimal reforms.”
Western media think they can easily understand what protesters are saying and paint their plight as similar to that of Arab Spring revolutions across the Middle East. Yet when most journalists try to comprehend why the majority of the nation voted in favor of Vladimir Putin, the Russian mindset remains “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma…”
The Russian Federation currently has many pressing problems. It has the second-highest death rate in the world, after South Africa. Due to a declining number of births, the workforce is rapidly aging. Russian news agency RIA Novosti cited a report by sociologists who had created an index of overall well-being for nations around the world. While the global average score was 57 out of 100, Russia was 37—a number on par with North Korea.
During his presidential run for a third term in March 2012, Vladimir Putin proffered ways to tackle these issues.
A Time magazine editorial summarized his proposals: “He promised to double the wages of doctors, [policemen] and college professors, triple stipends for many students, and boost the program of ‘maternal capital’ that pays mothers to have more children. (This last provision was to help solve Russia’s demographic crisis, which has seen the population drop by 5 million people since the fall of the Soviet Union.) Putin also promised to ‘completely re-arm’ the military at a projected cost of $777 billion over the next decade and to build new housing for veterans.”
The only way to fund these efforts is a dramatic increase in oil production. Critics of this approach warn that Russia needs to diversify its exports instead of putting all its eggs in the energy basket.
While Mr. Putin handpicked Mr. Medvedev for the presidency in 2008, his protege did break with his counterpart on certain important issues—including the nation’s economic future. He stated in a 2009 essay published by Russia Today, “Should we continue sticking to the primitive economy based on natural resources, to the deep-rooted corruption, to an outdated habit to rely only on the state, on foreign countries, on any kind of a cure-all, on anyone but on ourselves? Does Russia, overloaded with such burdens, have a future?”
Mr. Medvedev stated that a “technological revolution, strong civil society, efficient parliament and reformed judicial system are the key components for a prosperous, powerful and free Russia…”
While Messrs. Putin and Medvedev belong to the same political party, their tactics are markedly different. Yet their goal always seems to be the same—a proposition that resonates well with the vast majority of Russians. The nation wants what it always has: an idealized state that plays a powerful and prominent role on the world stage.
Idealism has long been deeply ingrained in the Russian national psyche. American historian Albert Jeremiah Beveridge noted this characteristic in his 1904 book The Russian Advance: “No matter how casual his observation, every traveller through Russia will run across evidences of Russian idealism. On the other hand, men who have given their lives to the study of this curious people declare that the Russian is, first of all, an idealist.”
Beveridge especially saw this idealism in the nation’s literary works from Leo Tolstoy, Ivan Turgenieff, and Maxim Gorky, which all contain the “characteristic of ideality in spite of their realism.”
In the end, he concluded that Russians believe it is their duty to preserve “order, form, and authority in civil affairs” and then “to restore to the confused, hopeless, struggling peoples of the earth those forms of social order and political authority which the [Russian] thinks are, after all, the foundation-stones of civilization.”
Put another way, Russians want to export/expand the Russian empire in order to spread their ideals.
The same mindset persists today. In his 2001 book Does America Need a Foreign Policy? Henry Kissinger wrote, “Both Russia and the United States have historically asserted a global vocation for their societies. But while America’s idealism derives from the concept of liberty, Russia’s developed from a sense of shared suffering and common submission to authority. Everyone is eligible to share in America’s values; Russia’s have been reserved for the Russian nation, excluding even the subject nationalities of the empire. American idealism tempts isolationism; Russian idealism has prompted expansionism and nationalism.”
Mr. Kissinger quoted what Mr. Putin wrote the day before taking on the responsibilities of Russia’s presidency in early 2000: “It will not happen, if it ever happens at all, that Russia will become the second edition of, say, the United States or Great Britain…For Russians, a strong state is not an anomaly, which should be got rid of. Quite the contrary, they see it as a guarantor of order and the initiator and the main driving force of any change.”
In Letters from Russia, French traveler Astolphe, marquis de Custine, wrote that a person could journey the entire country and “return home without having surveyed anything but a series of facades.” Custine believed that on the surface Russia appeared to be much like any European nation. Yet he felt that whenever he looked past these outward shows, he invariably found something entirely different, something uniquely Russian.
A similar statement could be applied to any period in Russia’s history. At its heart, the nation does not change—whether under Czarist rule, the Soviets, or a sort of authoritarian democracy today. Its people are ready to sacrifice and suffer inconvenience for “the greater good.”
This formula has time and again bred success for the country. As a united nation backing one ruler, Russia has repeatedly expelled and repelled military advances from the Mongols, France, Poland and Germany. The nation took on the armies of Napoleon Bonaparte and Adolf Hitler. It continues to maintain a firm stance on certain global issues, even when opposed, and has vehemently defended its borders.
French Historian Francois Guizot famously remarked, “When nations have existed for a long and glorious time, they cannot break with their past, whatever they do…they remain fundamentally in character and destiny such as their history has formed them. Even powerful revolutions cannot abolish national traditions…therefore it is most important, not only for the sake of intellectual curiosity, but also for the good management of international relations, to know and understand these traditions” (The Mind of Modern Russia).
Russia’s unchanging ideals and ability to stand on its own have everything to do with where the modern nation is headed. Unknown to most, the country’s history reveals more about its future than meets the eye. Perhaps surprisingly, the picture it paints is bright—and inspiring—for those who fully examine it.
To understand more, do not miss part two of this series in next month’s Real Truth.