Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Why Russia Will Remain Russia

As Russia reemerges from the shadow of the iron curtain, many in America are disappointed by what they see as a lack of success in the former Soviet Republic. Although Communism has been eradicated, democracy and capitalism have still yet to find fertile ground in Russia’s harsh soil. In addition, despite the ultimate triumph of the United States over the USSR, Russia continues to profoundly shape international issues across the globe, often to the detriment of U.S. interests.

While the state of Russia may be frustrating, it should not be surprising. The traits Russia is exhibiting are continuations of not just the Soviet era, but also, in essence, of the entire history of Russia. Whether under the tsars, the Bolsheviks, or United Russia (Vladimir Putin’s political party), and whether operating an agrarian, socialist or free market economy, certain distinct Russian characteristics have persisted and continue to define a unique Russia.

This singular entity has, for most of its history, been dominated by the single, overarching authority of the state and its leader. Mr. Putin and his purported puppet, Dmitry Medvedev, are simply the latest examples of a long tradition of autocratic, central rulers in Russia, from the tsars, like infamous Ivan the Terrible and cunning Catherine the Great, to the Communists, like merciless Stalin. Throughout Russian history, these heavy-handed rulers, not surprisingly, have met any opposition or threat to their rule with brutal retaliation. Ivan the Terrible is called so for a reason: he executed any boyars (nobles) that he suspected of disloyalty. Peter the Great harshly suppressed an army mutiny and even put his own son to death. Catherine the Great violently crushed the Pugachev Rebellion, personally executing Pugachev. Nicholas I brutally put down the Decembrists. Nicholas II ordered the army to open fire on protesters during the infamous Bloody Sunday massacre of the 1905 Revolution. Stalin utterly annihilated any real, suspected, or imaginary threats to his absolute power. Through forced starvations and gulag labor camps, among other things, Stalin was responsible for the deaths of 20-40 million people. The emergence of "democracy" in post-Soviet Russia has yet to bring about any relief for opponents of the government. While not to the same degree as the tsars, and certainly not Stalin, over the past eight years Putin and his United Russia have degraded and dealt with any opponents to their dominance of Russian politics. Putin and his party were especially intrusive in the months leading up to the elections: according to a recent New York Times article, Putin’s party cowed factory workers to vote for the party, manipulated the media to discredit the opposition, broke up opposition demonstrations, and even forcefully peopled Kremlin rallies. Under the veil of “democracy,” opposition, in one form or another, is still being forcibly subjugated in Russia.

The ability of Russian rulers to maintain their hold on power has been possible in no small part due to Russia’s longtime military orientation. Ever since being reborn in a long war against the Mongols and ever expanding in all directions, Russia has been in an almost perpetual state of war. As the military grew and advanced to fuel the constant wars and expansion, they increasingly became an important component of the tsars’ hold on power. The increasingly able forces of the tsar were readily dispatched to suffocate internal unrest. Between the desire for empire and order, it is no wonder that Russia’s leaders geared Russian productivity towards the military. Peter the Great uprooted entire villages so that the people could staff the mines and factories that manufactured arms and ammunition (ironically enough, this was the most prominent example of any manufacturing in Russia for over 150 years). The Bolshevik revolution did not reverse this trend at all; indeed, the new regime put even more emphasis on the military and in particular armed the USSR with a formidable nuclear arsenal. Even today, the Russian military remains formidable – only four other countries have more active troops than Russia. Although no longer expanding Russia's border, this military has seen its fair share of action, particularly in Chechnya.

Even more potent than the important military has been the secret police. The brainchild of none other than Ivan the Terrible, some sort of secret police unit, from Ivan’s Oprichnina to the infamous KGB to Putin’s shady FSB, has stealthily eliminated enemies of the government, leaving in its wake an atmosphere of intense fear and distrust.

Abroad, due to in no small part to its military-centric society, Russia has wielded a heavy hand in foreign policy. As Russia steadily grew to become the largest land empire in modern times, it encountered a great many civilized nations and regions and soon began to interfere in their affairs. As it expanded into Eastern Europe to the coast of the Baltic Sea, Russia soon became a key European player, as European alliances and diplomacy increasingly factored in the growing power and influence of Russia. Inevitably, due to its growing intrusions into European affairs, Russia became involved in many of the major European wars, like the Napoleonic Wars and both World Wars, and even saw wars specifically directed at it, like the Crimean War. As the army pushed south, Russia repeatedly clashed with the Ottoman Empire, gaining a sizeable amount of land from the teetering Turkish state and eventually provoking the British to intervene to prevent Russia from extending its vast domains to the shores of the Mediterranean. As Russia expanded to the Pacific Ocean, Russia came in increasing contact with the Qing Empire and soon started to seize land and exert great control over the declining Chinese state. Later, Russia came in conflict with the newly emergent Japan, and openly clashed with it in the Russo-Japanese War. Following the overthrow of the tsars, the Soviet Union was one of the most heavy-handed, powerful entities in history with a vigorous foreign policy aimed at furthering territorial expansion, spreading Communism, and deterring its superpower rival, the United States. Even after the decline of the Soviet Union, Russia has yet to relinquish its aggressive foreign policy. Still mistrustful of the United States, Russia continues to antagonize America through actions such as shipping nuclear fuel to Iran, taking a half-hearted stance against Sudan's actions in Darfur, allegedly providing Sadaam Hussein with military intelligence reports on U.S. troop movements before the Iraq invasion, and claiming large sections of the polar ice cap. In addition, Russia continues to exert great influence over its former territorial domains, meddling in the affairs of Georgia and Ukraine as well as clamping down hard on Chechnya.

In addition to great social and political control, the Russian government has also historically had a significant role in the economy. Indeed, the state and boyar dominance over the enserfed Russians gave them almost absolute control over the largely agrarian economy in the pre-industrial years: they could control output through how brutally hard they pushed the peasants to farm the land and how many forced laborers they staffed the mines with. Peter the Great in particular was very adamant about this, forcing entire towns to become forced labor in the mines fueling Russia’s military industries. When it became clear that Russia needed to industrialize to keep pace with Europe, the state spearheaded the effort, since the tightly bound social hierarchy left little room for a middle class to emerge that could instigate economic activity. In this respect, Communism brought little drastic change, as the state took control over the few economic aspects that it had not already encompassed earlier. Even now, after the overthrow of the Communists, the state remains intimately involved in the economy. The oil and natural gas boom that has fueled the surge of Russia’s economy is almost completely under the oversight of the state. The largest natural gas provider, Gazprom, is state owned: in fact, the new President, Medvedev, used to be the head of Gazprom. One of the largest oil providers, Rosneft, is state owned, and its private competitors have little autonomy: Lukoil, a major oil provider, is closely supervised by the Kremlin, and one of the former oil giants, Yukos, was only a few years ago completely dismantled by the government and its owner thrown in jail. Clearly, as Russia moves into the 21st century, the economy will continue to be made or broken under the direction of the state.

Under such state dominance, Russia’s economy has been anchored on exporting raw materials. In the tsarist days, Russia, like many of the Eastern European nations, mainly exported food and raw materials, like iron, to the West in exchange for Western manufactured goods. Now, Russia has become one of the world’s largest oil and natural gas providers, and the rising cost of such resources has skyrocketed Russian revenues, sending their economy on a tear with 7% GDP growth.

Whatever the state of the economy throughout Russian history, there has historically been a large gap between a small rich elite and the poorer majority. Tsarist times saw one of the most polarized societies ever, with the majority of the population enserfed – and virtually enslaved – to the small ruling elite. The emancipation of the serfs did not make peasant fortunes rise very much, as redemption payments to the boyars kept most peasants indebted and mired in poverty. During the majority of the 20th century, Communist policies did little to bridge the gap between the rich and the poor despite the fact that their supposed aim was to make everyone equal. Equality, it seemed, meant poverty, as most of Russia remained poor while the state reaped the few economic rewards. The emergence of “capitalism” has yet to disperse wealth evenly amongst Russians. Although Russian incomes are on the rise, the economy is dominated by the state and the mega-rich oligarchs loyal to the state, a loyalty that the state, as the Yukos affair shows, goes to great lengths to ensure.

The extent of state control over the economy, among other factors, has historically stifled competition and motivation. During Tsarist Russia, the serfs had little self-instilled motivation whatsoever to work hard amidst the brutal treatment they were subject to by their boyar masters. Under Communist direction, Russians still had little will to work hard: the state supposedly tried to keep everyone equal, and so there was little room for someone to gain an edge over his neighbors and few luxury goods to indulge in. In addition, since the state controlled all faucets of the economy, there was no room or desire for competition. The lack of output from this system eventually helped cause Communism in Russia to implode. It is truly interesting, then, that the current leadership has retained much of their control over the economy so as to continue to discourage motivation and competition. As a recent Economist article highlighted, blatant corruption and state intervention have not only spawned a host of state-controlled and state-loyal monopolies, but have also encouraged Russians to appeal to the state to get rid of competition rather than to work harder. As Andrei Sharonov, the former deputy economic minister, put it, “It is easier to get a competitor into a jail than to compete with him.”

Russia is by no means an old civilization. Many regions had had many different societies over the course of hundreds – even thousands – of years at the time of Russia’s humble beginnings. Still, a lot changed in the world during the 600 years of Russia’s existence, and some regions look profoundly different from their older selves. In the midst of change, Russia has, remarkably, retained its fundamental elements and has continued to be shaped by them.

Perhaps those in America and elsewhere should not be so surprised by what they see in Russia, considering that it has been happening there in some form for over half a millennium. Given that Russia’s central leaders have historically actively asserted their hold on power, the shady election of Mr. Medvedev earlier this month should hardly raise an eyebrow. Given Russia’s past position in world affairs, it should seem intuitive that Russia continues to assert itself in the world, often opposing the powerful United States, like in their recent opposition of the independence of Kosovo from their Slavic cousin, Serbia (Russian support of which also helped to trigger WWI). Given Russia’s past economic role and makeup, it should seem rather predictable that a small handful of elites control the vast amount of wealth achieved from, once again, exporting raw materials.

For whatever reason, Russia’s fundamental traits have endured and continue to fundamentally define Russia. And the events of the last two decades, if not the last 600 years, should reconfirm that Russia will remain Russia. That is the reality that the United States and the world must accept, and deal with, for years to come.

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