How the Russians See Themselves

Rodric Braithwaite

With Putin’s pronouncements on his nuclear threat, this is consistent with previous rulers’ sabre rattling, and speaks to Russia’s pride in how it sees itself. Sir Rodric Braithwaite, British Ambassador in Moscow from 1989 to 1992, describes the Russian mindset.
The Baptism of Saint Prince Vladimir, by Viktor Vasnetsov
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How the Russians See Themselves

If you want to work out what your opponent is likely to do next, you need to understand how he sees himself.

During the Cold War our judgement of Soviet behaviour was often distorted by prejudice, ignorance, and wishful thinking. Raymond Garthoff, a wise CIA analyst, believed that ‘the inability to empathize with the other side and visualize its interests in other than adversarial terms’ was one reason why we often got the USSR wrong. We exaggerated the Russians’ determination, competence, and power. We failed to realise that they were quite as  frightened of us as we were of them. So we were more surprised by the Soviet collapse than we should have been.

We are not doing much better now. Our inability to think our way into the thoughts and emotions of Vladimir Putin and his people means that we are continually, and for the most part unnecessarily, baffled and surprised by what he does.

Each of us has a national narrative, a story we tell ourselves from generation to generation, adapting it to new realities and omitting the bits we find uncomfortable or disgraceful. The British, for example, believe they are the inheritors of a glorious ‘Island Story’ of undeviating progress from Magna Carta towards power and democracy. They are always surprised to learn that foreigners – especially their former imperial subjects – see them as greedy, brutal, devious and hypocritical.

So too with the Russians. They trace their history back more than a thousand years. The story they tell is profoundly patriotic. It differs greatly from the story told about them by others.

This is what it looks like.

It starts, as most national stories do, with an inadequately documented founding myth. In the eighth or ninth century after Christ, so the legend goes, some Vikings who were called Rus, meaning “men who row”, settled at the eastern end of the Baltic Sea. They founded a trading post and later a town on land already inhabited by Finns. Under their leader Ryurik, they raided and traded their way down the great river Dnepr towards the rich empire of Byzantium. On their way they met people called Slavs. The two combined. The Vikings adopted the language of the Slavs. The Slavs, a disorganised lot, welcomed the superior organising skills of the Varangians.

Together they set up a great city called Kiev – or Kyiv in Ukrainian. In the ninth century their Grand Prince Vladimir, a descendant of Ryurik, adopted the Orthodox Christianity practiced in Byzantium. Kievan Rus became one of the most sophisticated states in Christendom, a conglomerate of princedoms ruled by the Ryurik dynasty and stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Its inhabitants thought the Catholics to their west were heretical and hostile. They still do.

In 1242 disaster struck when the Mongols utterly destroyed Kiev and the princedoms in the South. But those in the North survived, still under Ryurik rule. At first they paid the Mongols tribute, then they wriggled free. Dmitri Donskoi defeated the Mongols in battle. Ivan III “the Great” of Moscow successfully bought the so-called “Mongol Yoke” to an end.

Ivan the Great set out to reassemble the ancient lands of Kievan Rus. He centralised the northern princedoms into a state which people called “Muscovy”. He began to recover those bits of Kievan Rus into which Poles, Lithuanians, Turks, and Crimean Tartars had moved as the Mongols withdrew.

It was a protracted process, completed by Catherine the Great. She defeated the Turks to obtain Ukraine and Crimea. She joined with the Prussians and the Austrians to partition Poland and erase it from the map. She saw no need for excuses: the territories “belonged in antiquity to Russia, where the cities were built by Russian princes and the population descends from the same tribe as the Russians and are also of our same [Orthodox] faith.” She struck a medal which read: “I have recovered what was torn away.” Putin uses the same language when he talks about Ukraine.

Many Russians praise Ivan III and his autocratic successors because they believe Russia is too large to be except by a strong hand. Once again, Catherine summed it up: “The Sovereign is absolute; for there is no other Authority but that which centres in his single person, that can act with a Vigour proportionate to the extent of such a vast Dominion”. A recent Russian blogger put it like this: “Ivan the Terrible, like Joseph Stalin, is one of the most slandered Russian rulers. and you can understand why. They built a strong Russia and harshly suppressed Western attempts to establish political, economic, or ideological control over it. Under Ivan the Terrible Russia became an empire. … [The autocracy] has existed for four centuries and guarantees Russia’s power, which is why the West dislikes it.”

Ivan the Terrible, by Viktor Vasnetsov

Byzantium fell to the Turks in 1453, leaving Russia as the chief champion of Orthodoxy against Rome and its heresies. Many Russians believe that Peter the Great’s drive to Westernise his country was a dangerous distraction from Dostoevsky [who] was not the first nor the last to believe that Russia’s overriding mission was to bring Truth to a corrupted, worldly, and heretical Europe. The Soviets shared this sense of Russia’s mission: but for them it was Communism, not Orthodoxy. The Russian Orthodox Patriarch, and Vladimir Putin, still proclaim the moral superiority of today’s Orthodox Russia.

Putin is far from the first Russian to believe that an envious West has always been unremittingly hostile to Russia and determined to destroy it. After all, their country has been invaded time out of mind. In the early centuries the invaders were nomads, Mongols, Poles, Lithuanians, Germans, Danes, and Swedes. In the seventeenth century the Poles captured Moscow and practically extinguished the Russian state. Napoleon nearly did the same in 1812. The British invaded Russia in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Americans, Japanese, and French, soldiers joined them in an unsuccessful attempt to strangle the Bolshevik revolution.

Then the perfidious British and French tried to turn Hitler’s aggression eastwards. They were cunningly outmanoeuvred by Stalin, who built his defences by occupying Poland and the Baltic States in agreement: an entirely legitimate defensive manoeuvre. When Hitler nevertheless treacherously attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941, the Russians roundly defeated him. It cost them 27 million dead. Many believe that the Soviet Union won thanks above all to Stalin’s far-sighted if brutal construction of a massive defence industry before the war, and his inspired leadership during it. Russians who reject Stalin and all his works remain passionately proud of that victory.

The West never showed its gratitude for having been saved from Hitler by the Soviet Union. Instead it did their best to undermine the alliance which the Soviet Union had constructed with the countries of Eastern Europe as a barrier against further aggression. America attempted to use its monopoly of the nuclear weapon to blackmail its former ally. Thus, the West launched the Cold War. The Russians had no choice but to match them.

In 1991 Western subversion and domestic treachery nevertheless brought a great nation to its knees. The Soviet Union fell apart. Large parts were torn away to become independent. The loss of Ukraine was especially painful: it had after all been an integral part of Russia since the days of Kievan Rus. NATO, the most powerful and threatening alliance in history, expanded despite the promises of Western politicians. The West used its drunken puppet Boris Yeltsin to peddle ideas about “democracy” and “human rights” deliberately intended to undermine the essence of what it meant to be Russian.

For many Russians all this was an unbearable humiliation. Vladimir Putin restored their country to prosperity, order, and international respect. He rooted out the traitors and the corrupt. His methods were traditionally severe, but that was a reasonable price to pay. Russians were even prepared to support him in war, if that was what it took to frustrate Western intrigues in Ukraine, and restore it to its rightful place as part of Russia’s ancient lands.

This self-serving view of Russian history conceals an underlying lack of confidence. Though they are convinced of their spiritual superiority, Russians have always been uneasily aware that they could not match the West’s technological sophistication. Ivan III was only the first Russian ruler to find himself importing Western weapons. If Russia is so self-evidently superior to the West, why do its repeated attempts to catch up so regularly fail? The knowledgeable and perceptive American scholar-diplomat George Kennan spoke of the latent suspicion in every Russian soul that “the hand of failure lies heavily over all Russian undertaking, that the term “Russia” does not really signify a national society destined to know power and majesty, but only a vast unconquerable expanse of misery, poverty, inefficiency, and mud.”

It is an intriguing counterpoint to the defiant rhetoric.

The story naturally looks completely different to Russia’s immediate neighbours. For them the Russians were predatory barbarians, Asiatics, not European at all. The father of the Anglo-Polish writer, Joseph Conrad, was imprisoned and exiled by the Russians. He wrote “We Poles have suffered slaughter, conflagration, robbery, rape and torture in the hands of Muscovy, The whole of Muscovy is a prison […] corrupted and infested with vermin.” Poles remember that their Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was once the most powerful state in Eastern Europe until it was wiped out by Catherine and her Prussian and Austrian colleagues. The Polish state was reborn in 1918, only to be wiped out again in 1939 by Hitler and Stalin, and restored in 1945 only as a Soviet satellite.

Passions run high among Ukrainians too, but for them the story is more complicated. One Ukrainian historian recently described the Russians as the direct inheritors of the Mongols, “horrible in their lack of education, rage and cruelty. These people had no use for European culture and literacy. All such things like morality, honesty, shame, justice, human dignity and historical awareness were absolutely foreign to them”. Many Ukrainians would agree, and insist that modern Russia, which emerged as “Muscovy” from the Mongol Yoke, has no connection with Kievan Rus.

But many other Ukrainians are ambiguous. They are bound to Russia by family and linguistic ties. They do not want to have to choose between Russia and the West, but would prefer to have decent relations with both. Putin has gone far to change their minds.

When Putin told President George W Bush in 2008 that “Ukraine is not even a state”, he was of course talking nonsense. Europe is full of states which did not exist a century earlier, and the clock cannot be put back.

But his version of history is not entirely inaccurate: if it were, it would be impossible to sustain. As with all such national stories, the facts are jumbled together with the myths and the fantasies, and the awkward and disgraceful bits are left out. But it hardly matters whether it is “true” in any sense that would be recognised by a professional historian. People are driven by their emotions and their beliefs rather than by what other people may regard as the facts. So it is with Putin’s Russians.

And national stories can change under the pressure of events. The Germans and the Japanese reinvented themselves as peace-loving nations after they were totally defeated in 1945. The great European empires crumbled away after the war, regardless of the hopes and wishes of those who had ruled them. It makes little sense to try to predict Russia’s future at this bleak moment. But by the same token one should not rule out the possibility that it will one day learn to live in peace and prosperity with its neighbours.

Sir Rodric Braithwaite is a diplomat and writer, and the author of Russia: Myths and Realities.