The ghastly Soviet episode is all that most Westerners know about Russia. But Russia is much more than that. And a broader understanding of Russia is surely important now that the appalling Cold War with Russia has resumed.
To understand Russia, you need to understand Russians. You need to understand a people hardy enough to endure the terrible winters that grip most of the country -- and who flourish in that environment. Such people are never going to be soft. And, more than that, you need to know something about Russian history and geography.
It is very presumptuous of me to address such a large topic in a short blog post, but at some risk of oversimplification, I am going to try to say something useful about all that.
Something that most people are probably aware of in at least a dim way is the sheer size of the Russian Federation. We all know the strict boundaries that enclose most countries but in Russia we have one country that spans the entire Eurasian continent -- from the Baltic to the Pacific. And Russians are not dimly aware of it. They are acutely aware of it. That one country could be so utterly exceptional is a matter of great and justified pride for them. No other country is both a great European country and a great Asian country.
And Russia did not get there overnight. It all began with Muscovy. After the curse of the Mongol domination had been thrown off, Muscovy steadily expanded. It expanded through conquest and annexation from just 20,000 square kilometers in 1300 to 430,000 in 1462, 2.8 million in 1533, and 5.4 million by 1584. And it didn't stop there. Successive Muscovite leaders, not least being Ivan the Terrible, expanded and expanded again their realms. Ivan the Terrible left his domain comprising a BILLION acres.
And they did that largely through good leadership. As Wikipedia says of Ivan: "He was an able diplomat, a patron of arts and trade, founder of Russia's first Print Yard, a leader highly popular among the common people of Russia, but he is also remembered for his paranoia and arguably harsh treatment of the nobility"
And Russian expansion never really stopped until the end of the Soviet era. Given Russia's incredible history of expansion, the shrinking that took place after the Soviet collapse HAS to be seen by Russians as a great humiliation. It feels like the end of their long and glorious history.
And let me not gloss over the details of that expansion. It was often savage. Ivan, for instance, really was terrible. He even had his own son and heir apparent executed in one of his rages.
And Ivan was not alone. Even into relatively recent times Russian mercy was often in short supply. The conquest of the Muslim Circassians in the 19th century has led some to speak of the Circassian genocide. The Circassians had a rather nice tract of land on the North shore of the Black Sea and Russia wanted it. They saw all of the Black sea region (including Crimea!) as rightly theirs. So they just drove the Circassians out -- mostly to what we now know as Turkey, on the South shore of the Black sea.
Leftists tend to portray pre-revolution Russia as backward and primitive. But that is just the sort of reality-defying propaganda that you expect from Leftists. It is true that Russia was mostly an agricultural country and it is true that the Duma (parliament) was relatively weak versus the Tsar.
But it is also true that Russia WAS a democracy, or, more precisely, a constitutional monarchy. The Tsar had approved a fairly modern constitution in 1906. And it was not primitive and backward overall. The lives of the farm-workers undoubtedly were poor and oppressed but Russia was rapidly industrializing and railroads were snaking out across the land. And, despite the difficult climate and mostly indifferent soils, the farms were very productive. Russia was a major exporter of grain until the Bolsheviks ruined everything, the farming sector in particular. Something as basic as feeding their people has always been a problem for Communists.
This image, taken in 1911, shows some of the power generators in the Hindu Kush Hydro Power Plant, in Turkmenistan, the largest hyro-electric plant built during the Russian Empire
So is Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin just reviving traditional Russian expansionism? Not really. He is just trying to get back the ethnically Russian lands that were carelessly lopped off from Russia in the chaos of the immediate post-Soviet period. He is trying to tidy up that re-organization. The implosion of the Soviets and the prosperity of his Western neighbors has made it clear to him that there are large limits on Russian power.
How do I know that? Because he has made all his moves in the East and has limited them to areas where Russians are in the majority. There are substantial Russian minorities both to the West and the East of the Russian Federation but he has shown no interest in them. And his moves have grown more cautious, if anything. He sent his tanks into the Russian bits of Georgia only under severe provocation from the Georgians and, even then, he was happy for those regions to remain autonomous rather than absorbing them into Russia.
And in Ukraine he has kept his tanks at home, content to encourage and arm the ethnic Russian Ukrainian rebels. He has boasted, undoubtedly accurately, that he could have his tanks in Kiev in a couple of weeks -- but he has not done so. He has shown admirable restraint. He knows that the West could do nothing to stop him but has chosen great caution nonetheless.
So what should the West do at this juncture? One thing: Recognize the great and justified pride Russians have in their country and their people. "We shall overcome" was the song of a self-praising 1960s American clique but it would with much greater justification be seen as the song of the Russians.
They have endured terrible oppression, a terrible climate and two terrible wars with Germany -- and yet have still come out of it with a generally modern and powerful country that STILL stretches from one end of Eurasia to the other. Britons for long had great pride in their now-lost worldwide empire. How much more pride should Russians have in their still intact vast empire?
Russians have many reasons for pride -- not only in terms of their phenomenal territorial reach but also in the great contributions that Russians have made to science and technology and their equally great contributions to classical music, literature and art. In all those respects Russia is among the top few of contributing nations. Who invented the helicopter as we know it today? Igor Ivanovich Sikorsky. Who invented TV as we know it today? The world's first 625-line television standard was designed in the Soviet Union in 1944, and became a national standard in 1946. And I hardly need to mention Russian achievements in space and the great range of acclaimed Russian composers and performers. Does the name Tchaikovsy ring a bell?
So Russians tend to feel rather aggrieved that Russia is rarely accorded the respect that they feel it deserves. The Soviet image still looms large in people's thinking about Russia. What Russia wants is by and large simply the respect that Russians feel is their due. If Western leaders weere to start praising Russia and Russian achievements instead of condemning Russia, it would be a great leap forward for world peace. Any Western leader who publicly praised "the great Russian people" would almost immediately have the friendship of Russia. And the friendship of Russia is very much worth having.
So Vladimir Vladimirovich is reasserting Russian power to great acclaim in Russia. He is doing what any Russian ruler would do. We must be glad that he is doing it with great caution and restraint. No Western population would agree to a war with Russia so it is only his innate caution that keeps Europe largely undisturbed.
After two ghastly world wars erupting from their lands, Europeans generally are frantic to avoid any repetition of that. And pendula are very common in human affairs. So from the furious nationalism of 1914, Europe has swung to the artificial and absurd internationalism of the EU. And it seems clear that Vladimir Vladimirovich has also learned from that gory lesson, but without resorting to a corrupt internationalism. No Russian would want a re-run of WWII.
Footnote: Why do I refer to Mr Putin as Vladimir Vladimirovich? It's just manners. Remember them? It's terribly old-fashioned of me even to mention them, I suppose. The polite and friendly way to address or refer to any Russian is by way of his Christan name and patronymic (father's name). And Russia still does have Christian names. Russia is a Christian country. They are a branch of our people. The gospel was never lost in Russia even in the Soviet era -- unlike most of the Western Europe of today.