- The Mythos of Russian Identity Tied to Putin’s Power
- Did Putin’s Attack Solidify Ukrainian Identity?
- Will The War In Ukraine Ultimately Dethrone Dollar Hegemony?
The Story Of Russia – Orlando Figes
December 21, 2022
“The area of Ukraine that is now contested by the sides in this war, namely the seven coastal districts of Ukraine, from Odessa to Mariupol, which used to be called, before 1917, New Russia. The Putinite view is in his argument that Ukraine is like a soft underbelly. It’s unprotected against the West, it’s a conduit for Western influence. It will always fall under the West if we can’t control it, and become an anti-Russia. All of this then was exacerbated in Putin’s twisted mind by NATO expansion.” — Orlando Figes
Kevin: Welcome to the McAlvany Weekly Commentary. I’m Kevin Orrick, along with David McAlvany.
One of the things I love about meeting with you, Dave, is oftentimes we’ll sit there at Table 30 on Monday nights and you’ll have a new book sitting on top of the table near the Talisker. And a couple of months ago you had The Story of Russia by Orlando Figes, and you said, “You know this is really interesting. I’m just a few pages in.” So I got it and we both read the book. The reason why—and this is for the listener—why would you read The Story of Russia? Well, right now it may be the story of the world, and if we look forward to the next few years with China, American elections, that type of thing, we need to actually have a deeper approach to what’s going on and what the history of Russia is, Ukraine, that region, than just an eight-minute or 10-minute YouTube telling people to take one side or another.
David: That’s right. So 35 years of teaching Russian history at Cambridge University and now Emeritus professor at Birkbeck University of London, Orlando’s spent a few years considering not only the past but the relevance of the present moment and how we can better understand it. So when he puts together the story of Russia, he’s doing it as an academic, but he’s doing it as someone who’s interested in a variety of aspects and elements and dimensions within the Russian story.
Kevin: And though we would encourage our readers to read the books that you read, just in case they don’t necessarily get through the book, I find it’s so helpful to read a book and then sit down and you and I discuss it. And that’s actually what this next hour is about.
David: Yeah, context is critical and we’ve done this in the past. If we wanted to understand the complexity of the Middle East, who better to talk to than Bernard Lewis from Princeton, respected on all sides as a fair broker of history and of the nuance of Middle East politics?
Kevin: Yeah, we did that back in 2009, I think, didn’t we? 2008, 2009?
David: That’s right. So again, context is critical for understanding. Hopefully, we discover more context today for the events in Russia and Ukraine. Orlando, thank you so much for joining us today.
Orlando Figes: Well, thanks for having me on the podcast, David.
David: In the story of Russia, your most recent book, you shrink a thousand years of history into 300 pages. That’s ambitious. But if your book had been a thousand pages or multiple volumes, I doubt the readership would extend beyond a handful of academics. So I’ll try and shrink your 300 pages into something smaller yet, and then you can give me a critique. There are five names and five myths that act as threads through this Russian tapestry. Vladimir, Ivan, Peter, Katherine, and Nicholas. And the myths that you explore are the foundation myths, the myths of a holy Russia, a holy czar, the myth of a Russian soul, and the myth of the third Rome. Now clearly my version of brevity [unclear] is more than humorous, so let’s talk. You’ve written lots of other books on Russia and Crimea. So to start, where did your interest in Russia begin? What made you curious decades ago?
Orlando: It’s sort of an accident how I ended up studying Russia for all these years, and the book, I suppose, represents the distillation of 35 years of teaching Russian history at Cambridge and London universities.
But originally my interest was in German Jewish intellectual history. I had that from my family background, and I was interested in studying a group of young Hegelian thinkers that might have influenced the young Karl Marx, and was going to go off to Oxford to do that. But a supervisor at Cambridge by the name of Norman Stone, who was a heavy drinking and romantically inclined Glaswegian, said to me, “Orlando if you’ve got trouble with your girlfriend or you’ve got a hangover, you don’t want to battle every day with Hegel, why didn’t you do something empirical?” And he suggested I study Russian peasants, I guess on the basis that if I can’t philosophize with peasants, I can at least count them or do something empirically based. And it turned out to be good advice. I’d give it myself to young scholars setting out, not to do something too abstract, but to get into a project that involves some sort of fieldwork, I suppose.
And on that basis, I got a scholarship in 1983 from the college in Cambridge that took me on at Trinity, where I ended up teaching for 15 years, and having done my fairly perfunctory Russian language courses, then basically went off to the Soviet Union as it was then, and found myself studying there in the archives for the next three years just as the archives were opening up. So it was at that point a very, it seemed to me, fortuitous choice to choose Russia, and it’s certainly been a rollercoaster ride ever since.
David: The issues of the day between Russia and Ukraine can be understood through a variety of lenses. You argue that regular references to historical figures and historical events dating back more than a thousand years are conscripted, are used, and then woven into the modern narratives, but are mostly myth. Let’s look at Putin’s claim that his Russia, which in his view is Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine, dates back to Grand Prince Vladimir in 988.
Orlando Figes: Well, that is central to his vision of the modern Russian state, that it has a lineage going all the way back to the first millennium and the conversion of this grand Prince of Vladimir, the Volodymyr as the Ukrainians call him, to Christianity in 988, which is for Putin the beginning of our Russian spiritual civilization from which the Russian state emerges. And it is a fairly classic foundation myth. The problem with it is that it clashes with Ukraine’s own foundation myth, which is rooted in exactly the same event and the same person, the Grand Prince Volodymyr. So we have a sort of parallel going on today between one Vladimir Putin and one Volodymyr Zelensky and their namesakes in their Russian or Ukrainian form from the beginning.
And for the Ukrainians, this is a slightly different sort of foundation myth in the sense that it’s to argue that in that conversion, the Ukrainians chose a sort of European path. So when in 2016, and it’s the event with which I begin the book, Vladimir Putin and the patriarch [unclear] opened this sort of other hideous, monumental Russian nationalist kitsch statue of the Grand Prince Vladimir in front of the Kremlin in Moscow, and made all these statements about, this was the moment the modern Russian state was born. Petro Poroshenko, then the Ukrainian president, tweeted, accusing the Russians of stealing their history, that they had the real Volodymyr. And indeed there is a statue to the Grand Prince overlooking Kiev, which was erected in 1853.
Now at that point, obviously Ukraine was still part of the Russian Empire, but by the end of the 19th century, that statue had already become a sort of focal point for Ukrainian—not necessarily national sentiment, but sort of regional or civic pride in Ukraine. And certainly, after 1991, that statue became a focus for Ukraine’s national identity, really. So to have Putin claim it as the origin of Russia seemed to be a complete usurpation of their own history, and Poroshenko said so.
But that is just to open up what, in fact, I then begin to explore in the book, namely that both these countries, Russia and Ukraine, are fighting over precedence to this Kievan heritage, this state that we know very little about, which was actually probably a multiethnic state with all sorts of Kazakhs, central Asians, Jews, Slavs, Hungarians, all sorts of people making a living in it, mainly through trade. And yet for both Russia and Ukraine, there’s been this attempt to sort of claim it as the beginning of their nation-state, using, I would say, actually, a sort of terminology—the nation-state—which is completely sort of anachronistic. There was no mention in any document we can find of Ukraine, for example, until about 250 years after this moment of Grand Prince Volodymyr’s conversion to Christianity. So what Ukraine actually meant at that time is part of the debate itself. Both sides have used nationalist mythologies to claim that inheritance, to claim who should have the precedence in the lineage that Kievan Rus established, and it’s become caught up in the post-imperial conflict that we have on our hands today.
David: Your reference to Orwell fits nicely, “Who controls the past, controls the future, who controls the present controls the past.” And Putin is not the first in Russia to sort of fight for a claim to history, which then serves as the basis for regime legitimacy. This takes us to some of those other myths that you reference in the book, and also to some very creative genealogies.
Orlando: Absolutely, yes. And the Russian state isn’t alone in doing this. Of course, all monarchies at least have claimed and reinvented historical lines to legitimize their power and project their power and their vision into the future. And not just monarchies, I mean revolutionary states depend on this sort of time trajectory from the past into the future. Marxism is based on this historical materialism, which is all about time.
But in Putin’s case, and I think actually in Russia’s case, there’s something quite special going on, and I made the case in the book. The absence of a free political space for the discussion of concepts and rights and wrongs has given to history a political role that it doesn’t have in other countries. So that in Russia, for example, there’s no clear understanding of what freedom or security or any of the other things mean. Indeed, there’s no space in which to discuss these ideas. So when governments have set out to launch campaigns or policy initiatives that involve ideological elements to them, they’ve usually done so by couching it in historical terms. So Stalin when launching the five-year plans constantly went on about the need for Russia to overcome its historical backwardness to overcome the legacy of defeat by every foreign power there ever was. And Putin has done something very similar in his campaign since I’d say around 2005, to reclaim the whole of Russian history, including the Stalin period, not to obliterate the memory of all the terror that went on under Stalin, but not to dwell on it either, in order to give pride to the Russian population in their history and give them the energy which he believed they needed that time to move on to greater projects.
So this is the sphere in which political ideologies are developed in Russia, in a way that is quite unusual to that country, which has everything to do with how the Russians envisage time, and indeed how the Russians—and this is in relation to another myth you mentioned, the myth of the third Rome, the Byzantine tradition in Russia, the reigns in which the Russians see the destiny of their nation, of their empire, and destined by itself obviously connotes some sort of temporal projection that you have a mission to achieve and that means that it was always in your past. And the purpose of your regime if it’s revolutionary, or your monarchy if it’s not, is to steer the country towards the manifest destiny, if you like to adopt an American term for it.
And as you say, this has created all sorts of not just distortions, but inventions of historical genealogies. So before you return to the question of Kievan Rus and the Russian attempts to reclaim that as part of its legacy, then the problem for the state of Muscovy, which is really the first political manifestation of Russia as we now know it from the Mongol period, by which I mean the period of the 14th century onwards, really, when Moscow or Muscovy emerged as the most powerful of the principalities under Mongol rule.
Well, why did they need to reclaim this legitimacy of Kiev? Because that lineage had been broken by the Mongol occupation. The Mongol hoards had run over Russia and subjected it to an indirect form of rule from the middle of the 13th century. And Kiev was sort of separated from all of that because the western provinces of Ukraine went a separate way. They came under the orbit, really most of them, under the orbit of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Whereas Muscovy, the eastern part of the old Kievan Rus, fell under Mongol rule. But then, when Ivan the Fourth, or Ivan the Terrible as we now know, him began to build Muscovy’s power and take on the Mongols and eventually to unseat their khanates, their little kingdoms from the vulgar lands in the middle of the 16th century, on his coronation, Ivan the Fourth wanted desperately to reconnect to that Kievan Byzantine inheritance. And so he had himself crowned as czar, which was just the Russian word for Caesar, and invented for himself a book of genealogy that connected him personally with Vladimir Monomakh of the Kievan dynasty, whose cap of Monomakh—the great sort of hat always used by the czars until 1917—was supposedly a gift of Vladimir Monomakh from the Monomakh emperor of Byzantium. Well, it was nothing of the sort, and almost certainly was a gift to a much later Russian ruler in Muscovy from one of the central Asian states.
But the idea was that you could reestablish a sort of divine legitimacy for Muscovy and for Czar Ivan, going back not just to Byzantium through its connections and genealogy to Kievan Rus, but by extension going all the way back to the Roman emperors. And in this book of genealogy, that is what Ivan the Fourth tried to do. So you can see that there’s quite a lot of invention of history going on to establish not just the divine sanction of the monarchy, but also its right to rule over lands deemed to have always been part of Holy Rus, or the Rus of the first millennium.
David: The history who controls the past controls the future. As you say, this is not unique, whether it’s revolutionary polities or monarchies, this is not unique. I did find something very unique in the sacralization of authority, a very notable theme in Russian history. And you begin with Princess Olga and her grandson, Grand Prince Vladimir, and sort of the transition from paganism to Byzantine Christianity. And you note that in your book there’s 800 saints recognized by the Orthodox Church, 100 of them are princes and princesses. Ivan the Terrible leveraging this as you just described. Walk us through this mixing of politics and religion.
Orlando: Yes. Well, the central concept of power under Byzantine rule is that it’s a symphony of patriarch and czar, or patriarch and the emperor. And there are two sides of the same entity and rule in tandem, and in the Russian context that gave to Ivan and the later czars who claimed—or reclaimed—this inheritance a sense of their power as sacred, as instruments of God. And the idea that their role, as it was ideologized by the patriarch at the time, it was their role to prepare the people of Russia for the last judgment—in other words, to rule as a sort of purger of sin on earth. And this was the third Rome myth of Byzantium as created for Ivan by the patriarch at the time. It was the idea that it was Russia, as the last seat of true orthodoxy, that Christ would return to at the second coming. That was the idea of holy Russia, and this came from the fact that the second Rome—Constantinople—had been conquered by the Turks in 1453, and the patriarchy of Constantinople, such as it was left, and other churches of the East, like the Greek church, had moved into a sort of closer relationship with the papacy as a result of the Muslim threat, leaving Moscow as a sort of national church on its own.
On that basis, the Russians began to claim that only Moscow retained the true seat of Christianity, and therefore had this sort of messianic role to save not just Christianity, but the whole of humanity from heresy. So the czar in this ideology had a power that was sacralized, and which had a function of enforcing divine rule on this earth, and on this particular bit of earth, namely Russia. Now I think that did come basically from Byzantium, but it was there under Kievan Rus. As you say, there were so many princes who were canonized princes made into saints, or saints who had a princely form in the iconography of the Russian church. And I think it comes from the myth of who were the first saints in the Russian church whose death was again mythologized by church chronicles into a great sacrifice for the Russian land. In fact, they’d fallen out and killed each other in a civil war.
But I mean, essentially this was how the church used those deaths to project the idea that the Prince of Russia, the Grand Prince of Kiev, [unclear] the Grand Prince of Muscovy, had the sacred status because he followed in a line of princes who had fallen for the Holy Rus, they had sacrificed their lands for this Rus where Christ would return. And I think that this feeds into a long tradition of the sacralization of power, and it’s not just reflected in the canonization of rulers. It’s also, I think, reflected in the cult of the leader, in the cult of Czar Nicholas the II, which played heavily on this Byzantine tradition, and later the cult of Lenin even, because that came from a tradition of revolutionary martyrdom where those who had fallen for the revolutionary cause were praised like saints in folklore.
After 1917, there was quite a burgeoning sort of folkloristic propagandistic tradition of telling the story of fallen revolutionaries as if they were saints, to appeal to what was still a largely illiterate and peasant society. And in the case of the culture of Lenin, the iconography of it is very much based on the canonization of the old saints. I mean, it’s this selfless man who’d fought for the people, fought for justice, and people had tried to assassinate him in 1918, and then he died early. But he hovered above the Russians and the Soviet people under Stalin, who created this cult for his own political purposes, obviously. He hovered above the population as some sort of revolutionary saint, the embodiment of goodness, the embodiment of everybody’s ideals that could be used by the state to keep people in line by punishing those who were anti-Leninist, and could be used by the state to call on patriotic sacrifice or collective sacrifice, all these quasi Christian values that the revolution built upon.
David: Well, speaking of quasi-Christian values, I’ve heard a few commentators claim that Putin is acting as a champion for traditional values and morality, and pushing back against a slide towards Western depravity and godlessness. It seems like, starting with Grand Prince Vladimir, coming all the way up to Vladimir Putin, so for a thousand years, the appeal to religious superiority is common, but it’s more, it would appear, a matter of statecraft and diplomacy than of true piety. What are your thoughts?
Orlando: Yes, to some extent I’d agree with that. I mean, as we’ve just discussed, obviously the state in its ideology and its enforcement, largely through the church, fostered these ideas of sacrifice, of obedience, of the czar being God on earth, a god on earth, a hand of God on earth, values which developed in more secular cultures. So until 1917, the Russian Orthodox priest was obliged to report on confessions to the political police. So this is like a theocratic dictatorship if you like.
But I think that the traditional values that Putin espouses, or claims to espouse—not sure there’s much in traditional values in bombing the hell out of civilian populations—but this claim I think is based on a broader ideological tradition in Russia, which we would associate with Slavophilism. Now the Slavophil movement was a reaction against Western material secular culture, as it was, for them anyway, imposed on Russia by Peter and Catherine the Great in the 18th century. They saw these Westernizing reforms as rather alien, and they feared that the adoption of a Latin script and the secularization of the state more generally would erode traditional values, patriarchal customs, and they began in the cultural sphere in the late 18th century. But by the middle of the 19th century it evolved into something a little bit more political, which posited that there was this thing called a Russian soul, as we have already mentioned, and that this soul was the embodiment of Russian spirituality and collectivism, which gave it a higher moral standing, in effect, than people in the West, who were corrupted by the greed of materialism and secular culture. And this gave the Russians a special destiny, much lauded by writers like Gogol or Dostoyevsky in the 19th century. And in the later 19th century, this Slavophil ideology became more radicalized as thinkers like Danielewski in the wake of the Crimean War, when Russia suffered a great defeat and humiliation at the hands of the Western powers, began to argue that Russia should no longer try to even match up to the West, should no longer measure its progress by Western standards because the West was actually hostile to Russia.
And this is where Putin is coming in his defense of traditional values. When he began to run with this discourse, around 2012, at the beginning of his third presidency, much under the influence of the patriarch [unclear], I think in the Russian Orthodox Church more generally, it was to argue that everything that was liberal and decadent in the West, the religious toleration we have in the West, or LGBTQ rights that we have, all of this was just a form of degeneration, and that it would erode away Russian spiritual principles, family values. And he took it up, I don’t think out of any genuine belief, I think he— any sincere belief, I mean. I really doubt that a man who spent all his career as a KGB officer can have sincere Christian beliefs. But he certainly could see the political capital in that propaganda, in mobilizing a new form of Russian nationalism based on the hostile negation of Western influence, based on the idea that they had as a people greater endurance, suffering, a higher sense of destiny, and that therefore they didn’t need all these material goods from the West because where that got the West, it just led them to decadence. We have higher spiritual values, and we will call on them for patriotic sacrifice. That’s essentially the subtext, I believe, of what he has been saying about traditional values ever since 2012. That and of course, using the campaign against homosexuals or against liberal thinkers and so on and so on to silence the opposition and rally against any form of opposition, some sort of rather ugly, almost fascistic sort of nationalist reaction because it’s easy to stir xenophobic or homophobic or basically just a very ignorant opinion against minorities or against people whose values you don’t share.
David: When we think about this desire to Westernize contrasted with the Slavic pride and identity, in what ways is Russia dealing with an inferiority or a superiority complex?
Orlando: Well, that’s a good question because I think probably the answer is both. The inferiority complex of a country that since 1700 circa has tried to be part of the West by reforming its institutions, modernizing itself, and so on and so on, but which has never quite felt that the West took it seriously. I mean, the great 19th-century writer Alexander Gertsen—Herzen as we know him—wrote once in his wonderful book My Past and Thoughts that the Russians arrived in Europe like the provincials at a metropolitan ball. So they felt a little bit sort of awkward. Were they properly dressed? Were they taken seriously? That’s always been part of their inferiority complex, I believe.
On the other hand, this idea of the Russian soul, this idea that the West does not properly respect us, this idea that we’ve never been fully acknowledged for our contribution to the civilization of the West in our great culture, which they’ve always wanted, or in the fact that we saved Europe from Hitler or we saved Europe from Napoleon, or for that matter we saved Europe from the Mongols back in the 14th century, all of these things going unacknowledged by the West, who just looks down upon us.
This resentment creates at the same time a sort of superiority complex. A complex of superiority that they are more inclined to show against the Ukrainians, I’m afraid, than they are against anybody else because they see the Ukrainians as inferior to themselves. Part of Russia’s imperial ideology was always that the Ukrainians were the little Russians. We the Russians are the great Russians. So they’re just a sort of junior version of us and need our patronage and tutelage. And yet, at the same time, the Ukrainians have the audacity to try to break away from us. And when they do, they fall under the influence of Western powers.
I mean, this is basically the argument of Putin’s now notorious 2021 essay on the historical unity of Ukrainians and Russians, that Ukrainians are basically Russians. Ukraine is just a borderland of Russia, and it’s part of its spiritual civilization, and the only statehood possible for this spiritual civilization is Moscow. So that if Ukraine tries to become independent, it will fall under the influence of Western powers trying to use it and stir its nationalism to undermine the Russian Empire. And in this scenario, the Ukrainians, unfortunately, on a number of occasions, but obviously now most pertinently, have sort of been punished by the Russians because they see them as a sort of fifth column of the West.
And indeed it’s true that modern Russian Empire’s history, Ukraine has been a sort of conduit for Western ideas. It was through the Kiev Academy that religious reforms came in the 17th and 18th centuries. Ukraine, like Poland, has always been the sort of borderland between Europe and Russia through which Western ideas, technologies, and fashions have moved. So there’s always been a slight suspicion of Ukraine in the Moscow elites, and a sense that they need to somehow be controlled because otherwise they will turn westward and become a tool against Russia. So that sort of really rather poisonous mixture of inferiority and superiority complex at the same time is manifested in this sort of imperial behavior that we’re seeing now.
David: Well, the resentments you talk about, the 13th century, forgetting the defeat of the Mongols and Alexander’s defeat of Napoleon and the Russian people’s sacrifice at Stalingrad—it all kind of left aside or just barely noted historically as a footnote—are those resentments necessary in some sense to keep Slavic pride alive, a national identity distinct from the West? It seems like a point of cultural leverage. As you said, maybe that’s what stirs up the superiority complex all over again.
Orlando: Is it necessary for the national identity, you mean, to have this resentment? I don’t see it before 1945 as anything but a sort of cultural ideological phenomenon, but I think that it has been used politically since 1945. So I think it became part of the Cold War ideology of Stalin that they hadn’t been properly acknowledged by the West, that the sacrifice they had made hadn’t been acknowledged. And if I’ve understood your question correctly, then I think that how it’s necessary for that state is that if you don’t hammer home this ideology, this propaganda, very strongly, then the danger is that you allow a counter-narrative about the war, the Second World War to take root. And of course, the counter-narrative is highly damning of the Soviet Union because between 1939 and 1941, it was in alliance with Hitler. So the argument has to be made that everything that happened between 1939 and 1941 was a conscious preparation for the Soviet Union to gain time and arm itself to defeat Hitler, and that it carried out that job, and without the Soviet Union Hitler would’ve never been defeated. So we can take pride in what we did and forget all about what happened between 1939 and 1941, which actually most of the Russian population don’t know anyway.
The Hitler-Stalin Pact was a subject debated, for example, on a very popular television show called Judgment of History, when they would take a historical episode and debate it with evidence and advocates from either side, and they had one on the Hitler-Stalin Pact of August ’39, and 93% of the television viewers watching and are voting on it in a telephone poll agreed with the notion that it was a necessary act for the Soviet Union to re-arm for war. And only 7% believe that it helped start the Second World War by enabling Hitler to invade Poland, which of course is the truth of the matter. But it just shows how powerful these propaganda myths are.
I think the power of those myths, the fact that they have such traction, the fact that the war is still a highly emotional subject—and as I have done in the occasion lectured on something that has involved the war, and there’s been even a Russian exile émigré in the audience, and he feels that I haven’t given due justice to this, you’re likely to get a sort of long lecture and angry tirade. I think everyone who has lectured with Russians in the audience on World War II will have experienced that. So it’s a highly emotive issue, and it’s because there were so many lives lost. Every family was damaged by the war, and yet the suffering that they’d also undergone during the 1930s and in the post-war years somehow gets sublimated in this symbolic episode of the defeat of [Nazism], so that anything that was bad that happened even directly to your family can somehow be rolled into this victory and given some sort of higher meaning which they can identify with. So that’s why Putin has, again, always gone back to the war as this sort of emotive propaganda symbol to reinforce his nationalism and turn it against the West as somehow belittling Russia, belittling the contribution of the Soviet Union.
David: Speaking of counter-narrative, you could look at the extreme loss of life and look at it as almost sort of a reckless allocation of human resources, and you do note early on that there is this sense in which one of the resources that you can spend liberally is this human resource. You just spend through lives. 1941 to 1945, I think one of the most shocking statistics I found in your book was that, of the 18-year-olds who entered the war in 1941, only 3% remained in 1945.
Orlando: Yeah, incredible, isn’t it?
David: That’s unbelievable. It’s unbelievable.
Orlando: And there were a lot of 18-year-olds who went into the army as volunteers, most of them in 1941, because they were whipped up by patriotic fervor, they wanted to do something. Many of them had come of age—well, they all come of age—in the 1930s when films like Chapaev, released in 1934 about this civil war hero, built Chapaev into this great cult hero because he’d gone to fight against the enemy and he’d sacrificed himself. And this sort of element of sacrifice, this belief in sacrifices, this belief in throwing yourself into the revolutionary struggle in a way that those 18-year-olds had read about, watched on cinema, but maybe heard about from elder siblings or parents, but they hadn’t managed to do it themselves. They wanted to share in that sort of great selfless, patriotic act to defend the motherland.
So lots of them, they just fled from colleges and university halls to go and volunteer. And unfortunately not all of them even had weapons, but then none of them had much training, and they didn’t know how to preserve themselves. But yeah, it’s absolutely typical of that.
As you say, it’s a sort of human capital, which the state has always relied upon in its way of fighting war. I mean, we’re seeing the Russian way of fighting war now, but the Russian State literally just sort of grabbing men off the street and mobilizing them and giving them a very rough training and sending them out to the front, and many of them will be just cannon fodder to hold the line in the Donbas, and there’s nothing new about that.
I mean, Russia has always substituted quantity for military backwardness—or for quality. And that was based on the conscription system. That was based on serfdom. That was based on the fact that, under serfdom, the landowner for every so many hectares or acres of land he owned was obliged to send to the army so many serfs. And that carried on right through until a modern system of military conscription, similar to the Prussian, was introduced in 1874. But under the Soviet system, again, we find basically a return to this mass mobilization—the militarization of society with deep reserves that can be called upon when necessary. And it became a sort of what Stalin himself said, “there is in quantity a quality of its own.” So you can see where the thinking is: by sheer force of numbers you can prevail. And I think that is how Putin is thinking that he can win in this war, if not by bombarding civilian infrastructure in Ukraine and hoping that the West gets fed up supporting the Ukrainians. I think, if those tactics fail, and I hope very much they will, then I think he’s probably counting on the old tried and tested Russian method of you just wear out the enemy by having an almost limitless supply of cannon fodder.
David: Brings the next consistent theme through the thousand years land and labor, the theme that runs through really the scarcity of labor, the abundance of land, whether it’s the boyars to the collective farms of the 19th centuries. Just reflect with us a little bit of how these elements have shaped Russian history, and maybe it’s either a little ironic or certainly not coincidental, that as you devalue and spend through your human resources, you’re always deficient with labor, even if you have an abundance of land.
Orlando: Absolutely. I mean, that is, you put your finger right on the— I mean, it is the absolute key to Russian history. Russia is this vast open land mass, colonized slowly from the hot Muscovite heartland eastward, and with very open porous borders, very difficult to defend. So you could have the Mongol hordes, as they were called, raiding and then invading Russia from the East, as so many Turkic-speaking tribes like the Polovtsians had done before. So the state expanded into these vast open territories by having military servitors, lawyers as they were called at one time. And basically the system worked by rewarding the military servitors with land. So conquest of new land was feeding the servitors, and the more servitors you had, the more land you needed to conquer. And that’s one of the driving forces of the Russian Empire east, along with the hunt for furs and gold and all the other things that drove the Cossacks east from the 16th century.
But the problem of this land, as you say, is shortage of labor. I mean, it’s a very harsh climate. There’s only a very short growing season, and much of it is forested, and in the early period of Russian history—I mean up till the 16th, 17th century—the steppe plains of the south were not really under Russian control. So at best the Russia that was occupied by Russians was forested or forest and meadow and pasture and arable, but basically heavily forested, which required large teams of laborers to clear.
So that enforced the collectivism from very early on. I think the collectivism of the Russian population is one of its deeply historically ingrained characteristics, but it also meant that the sparseness of the population made it very difficult for these military servitors, the landowners, to tie the population down because the peasants were always looking for better opportunities. They could always move to new land. They could go south to the plains, the fertile steppe lands where they could join the Cossacks and others on the wild lands, as they were called, living from banditry and farming. Or they could form themselves into communes, which most of them did. But then that meant that they were more easily controlled by landowners whose land they depended on renting, essentially, in some sort of contract which would involve their labor as a form of payment for the land. So sort of sharecropping systems existed, or some sort of labor duties existed. And in addition to that, they would have to pay taxes to the state if they were registered as the peasants of a particular landowner.
So from this, we get two really essential characteristics of Russian history. The first we’ve already discussed, which is serfdom. And this came about because, as the servitors became more and more impoverished, which they did because of the flight of the peasants from the land, they were given more and more powers, protection by the state, to recapture runaway serfs, or a little bit like in America, runaway slaves. The labor of the serf was deemed the property of the landowner, and the serf running away to avoid those labor duties was deemed a criminal, and the state would intervene to recapture them.
So serfdom was gradually imposed and became the way of life for the mass of the population from certainly the beginning of the 17th century until the middle of the 19th century. And it had all sorts of consequences that lived on in terms of corporal punishment, in terms of attitudes to the peasants, and so on. But the other element of this land/labor balance which is so important to understand Russia is that because the land was so big, communications so difficult—and I mean, it would take two years to get a message from Moscow to parts of Siberia, so four years for a return of messages—because of the difficulty of communications and the sparse population that was literate enough and trustworthy enough to administer the country, it meant that you essentially had a sort of warlord system develop, where these servitors ran their land as fiefdoms and they would then delegate down. But at every level of this sort of command tribute system, because of the poverty of communications and the population sparseness, the only way to effectively get anything done, or verify that what you were doing was getting done, or get your servitors to do it, was to hit them over the head with a stick, basically, metaphorically speaking. So that’s essentially how it worked.
But you know, you would use violence to collect the taxes from the peasant communes just as the higher state would sort of use terror or the deprivation of their property or their punishment, or even their beheading to enforce the nobility to carry out the czar’s orders. So I think that to some degree you could say that the tradition of Russian tyranny comes precisely from this problem of Russia’s size, of how do you enforce the power of the center in the localities? And we’re still seeing it today. I mean, we see it in the way Putin punishes the boyars who don’t do, in other words the oligarchs who don’t do what he says. I mean, this is part of that tradition,
David: Well, going through your book, that those two things are really there in high relief, autocracy and serfdom kind of continual threads throughout the thousand years. And it made me wonder why was freedom never more elevated, even when Catherine the Great showed interest in enlightenment ideas of freedom. What kept the idea of freedom stifled?
Orlando: Oh, the idea of freedom is very strong in Russian cultural history and in social history. The basic unit of Russian society, as I’ve said, was, for 80% of the population, the Russian peasant commune. The word for this institution is mir, which in Russian means both peace and universe and the village, and it’s based on very fundamentally egalitarian freedom-loving principles. So the great ideological war cry, if you like, of peasant rebels since the early Middle Ages in Russia has been land and freedom.
And it’s not therefore that the Russians don’t have in their DNA, if you like, the burning desire for freedom. They’ve carried out revolutions for freedom. But it’s that the institutions through which that freedom could be stabilized were not there because power was based on coercion, because serfdom existed. I mean, okay, Catherine the Great paid lip service, if you like, to the enlightenment ideas of freedom. She loved the idea that the human being is sort of sovereign in this enlightenment concept, but she wasn’t prepared to give freedom to the serf because they were serfs. I mean, they were the property of the landowners. Her state depended on the support of the landowners. And so, yeah, it was, if you like, a very hypocritical position, but it also showed the ideological limits, and it meant that the question of freedom in Russia for everybody who was prepared to debate it, I mean the intelligentsia and the more liberal-minded nobility as much as the common people.
The question of whether Russia could ever be free was intrinsically connected with the question of, well, what do we do about serfdom? And so serfdom is abolished in 1861, and the institutions necessary to consolidate the new-won freedoms of the peasant citizenry begin slowly to come into being through the efforts largely of the liberal nobility who ran— paid the taxes for local land assemblies called zemstvos. But by 1917, they hadn’t really dug any deep roots in the Russian soil. There was a proposal to establish these local land assemblies at the village level, or volost level as it was called, in 1905. But that was rejected by the nobility because they feared their local power bases would be swamped by the peasants. So that level never really came into operation.
And it meant that, in 1917, any sort of civic or local representative governmental structure for the consolidation of freedom in our understanding of the term just wasn’t there. And it became a war, a class war, if you like, between those who had once been serfs and those who had once been serf owners, between those who were landless and poor and proletarian and those who owned property. And unfortunately, that led to the collapse of the state and civil war, and the reemergence of a dictatorship in the Bolsheviks, whose vision of state building and hyper-modernization, if you like, through industrialization, was based on, again, a new enslavement of society, a new form of serfdom.
David: I want to ask about Crimea in the Ukraine. And just to frame the issue with Ukraine, we did talk about the massively expansionist move, the sort of boyar structure of incentives to move farther and farther East. So maybe that was expansionism, some might argue it was aggressively defensive in some capacity. And that’s actually how this move into Ukraine has been presented in some circles. This is Russian interests as a strategic land buffer, and really it should be seen as a response to NATO and NATO’s eastern expansion since the end of the Cold War. So maybe with some of those ideas in mind—this notion of buffer zones in this massive land we know as Russia, and NATO’s move eastwards—maybe with that in mind you can frame 2014 and Russia’s move back into Crimea, and then of course 2022 with Russia’s move into Ukraine.
Orlando: Yeah, well this is politically fraught. I mean there’s—
David: Yes, it is.
Orlando: There’s a more general historical contextual point that probably needs to be made as a preface, if you like. But because of these porous and insecure frontiers, the practice of the Russian state has always been since the 16th century that you need to— Well, in the East, the conclusion was that you have to just keep conquering because once you stop, then the eastern tribes will start moving back in, because it was such a large terrain. You needed forts, you needed roads, you needed to control the rivers in order to control that landmass. So that was, if you like, a territorial expansion to secure the eastern entry into the Russian heartlands. Although obviously there’ll be those who will argue—and I think probably in the future this will become, if you like, the orthodoxy as a result of this war—that was a form of imperial conquest, very similar to other forms of imperial conquest. I have my own issues with that. I’m not sure that that’s the most sensible way of looking at the Russian conquest of Siberia, but I certainly think that in the south there are some differences.
Now, the area of Ukraine that is now contested by the sides in this war, namely the seven coastal districts of Ukraine from Odessa to Mariupol, which used to be called, before 1917, New Russia—a province of New Russia—and the Donbas. Now, these were always claimed by the Russians to be Russian heartlands. I guess the Putinite view is, as you said, that because, and I’ve mentioned it already in this essay of 2021, his argument that Ukraine is like a soft underbelly. It’s unprotected against the West. It’s a conduit for western influence. It will always fall under the West if we can’t control it, and become an anti-Russia. All of this then was exacerbated in Putin’s twisted mind by NATO expansion and by the failure, I think we can say, of NATO to mollify Russian concerns over exactly what NATO’s presence in Ukraine would be.
None of that, in my view, is to justify Russian aggression. But I think we have to realize that were Russian security interests and concerns over Ukraine which were not just held by Putin, they were held by Gorbachev, and for that matter they were held by Brezhnev before him. The idea of Ukraine joining NATO, which was already mooted in the 1990s, was always going to be a massive problem. And it was badly handled by NATO and by the West more generally. But I think the idea of imperial conquest, in contrast to Siberia, which as I say I see slightly differently, does have some more credence in the case of the conquest of Ukraine because, well, it’s not that these were necessarily pure Ukrainian lands that were trampled over by Russian boots. It was that actually these lands mostly conquered by Catherine the Great in the 18th century had been part of the Ottoman Empire. They had been part of the Turkish sphere of influence and the Crimean Khanate which had been a powerful factor until the end of the 18th century.
As those two power bases weakened so obviously, Russia, looking for new export markets, looking for the agricultural riches of the Ukraine, looking for access to the Black Sea in the Mediterranean, wanted and indeed needed to pivot south as an empire if it was to compete with the West. Russia until that point was basically living by exporting furs—they were going out of fashion, timber, flax, wax. These aren’t high-value commodities. Whereas Ukraine was a very rich and powerful breadbasket. Then it became a very important source of coal, and with the Black Sea ports, Russian shipping could control the Near East, which it had done by the middle of the 19th century when that became the cause of the Crimean War because the British and the French wanted access to the Near East, too, and feared Russia’s growth, and it also gave them access to the Mediterranean and they could become a real force in the world.
So the conquest of the south fits perhaps a little bit better into the sort of paradigm of imperial expansion. But the problem with both of those examples in the empire paradigm is that they’re still contiguous empires. They’re not overseas empires as the British have an overseas empire. I mean they’re a little bit more, if you like—but if I dare call it such—the American Empire in the sense that the American Empire, which I believe it is an empire, grew by colonizing the West and by, if I may say so, the genocide of the native Indian population. It’s more like that.
The South, slightly different because it was a much more complicated geopolitical sphere with other foreign powers there, and Cossack quasi-states that felt that their autonomy was being overridden by the Russian state. And those Cossack Hetman states, as we call them, are assumed by modern Ukrainian nationalists as the beginning of Ukraine’s own national story. So there it’s more complicated, but as I think I’ve made clear, I’ve got slight problems with trying to equate Russian imperial expansion with everyday empire and conquest in that sense.
David: So 2014, Russia moves back to Crimea, and the world does not intervene. And then in 2022, Russia moves into Ukraine. Ukraine responds very strongly, with the rest of the world in support. So it’s a proxy-type thing. We’re not willing to get involved directly, but indirectly, very much so. What’s the difference between 2014 and 2022?
Orlando: Well, it’s a big difference because in 2014 the level of Ukrainian national unity was not high. It was a very divided country, east-west mainly. And the election of Yanukovych, the pro-Russian president, was based on fair and free elections, and there were party of the regions basically representing the eastern territories where the Russian speakers were in a majority. They won that election, but obviously then the question of EU membership and whether Ukraine as a whole was to turn west or remain in the Russian sphere of influence became the cause of the Maidan Revolution. And that revolution was seen by Putin as illegitimate, and that it was regime change imposed by the West, and that it was, in his view—I think probably disingenuous view, it was a sort of neo-fascist junta, as he called it, that was threatening the Russian-speaking population of East Ukraine and Crimea with genocide, as he claimed—an alarmist claim based on the rather ill-judged Ukrainian Parliament draft law to take away some of the privileges of minority languages, including Russian. All of that was used by Putin to push back against this westward move by Ukraine at a time when his ideology and his propaganda had long been preparing the Russian population for this conflict. All this discourse about the West infiltrating Ukraine, NATO expansion threatening Russia, Ukrainian nationalists being really quite Nazi, a lot of rhetoric bringing back memories of the war. And so, by the time that Putin claimed that the Crimea was threatened with genocide, there was quite a lot of support for his action, including actually, not just ultra-nationalists like Putin supporters, but Gorbachev a supporter of the Crimean annexation. So that’s one big difference.
The other big difference is that in 2014, the West was really deeply complicit in the Putin system. There’s no two ways of putting it. They had allowed Russian dirty money to enter into their financial markets, property markets, offshore banking systems, and all the rest of it, and had colluded with the system to the point where, when the Russian [unclear] odd men, badgeless, but obviously Russian military personnel took over the Crimea with the ease that they did, there was very little reaction to it.
The sanctions were pathetically inadequate, and I was, among many at the time, furious at this because it was obvious where Putin was going with this war on Ukraine. And the Ukrainian army at that time was outdated, weak, and not properly trained. Since then, of course, since that big warning, the west woke up, began to spend a lot of money on arming and training the Ukrainians. And so by 2021, ’22, the Ukrainian army’s in a much better state because of the experience of the Crimea and the fighting in the Donbas with these pro-Russian separatists supported by Moscow fighting against Kiev, and 15,000 people died in the war between 2014 and 2022 in the Donbas. So they were used to this war and they were united now.
I mean Putin may say the Ukrainian nation doesn’t exist, but oh boy has he created a Ukrainian nation by attacking it all these years. They’re now more unified than ever, and the Russian speakers are fully behind the Ukrainian government in Kiev, it seems to me, with a few exceptions. So the morale of the Ukrainians was different, and of course, then Putin’s own position was I think probably one simply of hubris. He’d been in power so long, effectively 22 years. And he had become so isolated from other world leaders because of his actions in Crimea and from just advisors because of his autocracy and the way he locked himself away during the pandemic. He was so isolated and indeed ill-informed that he thought that the invasion of Ukraine in February of this year would be another easy takeover like it had been in Crimea.
Well, obviously we now know he was in for a rude shock, and he’d been given very bad intelligence, had made a decision for all-out invasion, virtually on his own it now seems, to the dismay and shock of even his own generals, who were not prepared for this. And so the catastrophe ensued, but I’m afraid that the old adage about Russian numbers that we’ve talked about, they will use this winter to conscript half a million men maybe, and they’ll train them to the point where they know roughly how to fight, and maybe that will begin to turn the balance on the battlefield. So I don’t think this war’s going to end soon.
David: Well, this isn’t exactly a pivot in conversation, but if Putin has no intention of losing, it just makes me reflect on the relationship that he has, of course a volatile relationship, with China through the most recent decades. But now we have this friendship without limits. What does it look like for the West to engage with China as Putin decides he will not lose? I don’t know if that means that some sort of tactical nukes are even on the table—that certainly has been suggested—or maybe it is just spending through that human capital. But how do we engage with this? For Europe, China’s one of their largest trade partners. For the US, China’s one of our largest trade partners. And yet we have a challenged relationship with Russia, to say the least.
Orlando: For sure. Yeah, you’re right. I think for the Putin regime this is now an existential war. They will continue throwing everything at it that they can until they are in a position where they feel they can claim a victory. Now, what sort of victory they can claim, it doesn’t seem to me clear at all because even if they were to keep the four administrative districts of Ukraine which they’ve annexed, or declared to have annexed, since September—and they’ve only military controlled only half of the territory there—even if they managed to win all that territory and retain it for a long enough period, even if the Ukrainians were to agree to a peace on the basis of that and losing Crimea, which I don’t see them doing for a very long time, but even if they were, they’d have to spend years fighting civil disobedience, partisan insurgency, and so on. So I can’t see how a real victory can be achieved by Putin.
On that basis, it seems to me that the only way the war could end actually is by Putinism, because it’s not just Putin, Putinism being defeated, but that means a very long war for the West. It means a very long war, obviously, for the Ukrainians. And I’m afraid that the outcome of the war will probably be decided by the next American presidential election. Because if you have Trump, I mean maybe the findings of yesterday will make this impossible. But if you have a Trump victory or if you have a Trump-alike victory, that’s probably the end of Western aid or significant enough aid to the Ukrainians, and they would lose the war without American assistance quite quickly, I should think. So it’s not really in, I think, the Russians’ hands or the Ukrainians’ hands, in a sense. It’s probably more than anything in the Americans’ hands. And so you are quite right.
The question of China becomes very important because China has a lot to gain from a new hegemony of Eurasia in which Russia is part, and it’s clearly trying to keep good relations with the Russians because it’s getting discounted energy from them, and it needs that energy for its manufacturing. And Russia may well end up a vassal state of China in that sense. But yeah, short of a sort of division of the world into something like the Orwellian vision of 1984, of Eurasia and Oceania at constant war with each other, if you like, as it was in that novel. Short of that, I mean, if we’re not going to avoid the world being divided on that basis—and it could be divided on that basis because the anti-western ideology of Putin and the Chinese system is attractive to many in the global South who have their own grievances against the West because of empire and all the rest of it. So if it’s not going to descend into that, which is a horrific image, then a lot is going to depend, yes, on China and particularly on how America handles China. And again, that will obviously depend on who wins the next election, I guess, because American-Chinese relations are at the core of this, so a lot hangs on the next election in America, I fear.
David: I’m sitting here at the desk and I have these Russian dolls, the kind that five fit into larger versions of themselves. That’s sitting on my desk just to gather for the conversation today. Last night, listening to Prokofiev and even a little bit of Sting, do the Russians love their children too? Some questions we have to consider, and hope they do.
Orlando, thanks so much for your insights. We appreciate your scholarship and we appreciate your contribution to our understanding of context so that we can better engage the world we live in with wisdom, with perspicacity, and we’ll do a better job with your contribution.
Orlando: Thank you so much, David. It’s been a pleasure to talk with you.
Kevin: You’ve been listening to the McAlvany Weekly commentary. I’m Kevin Orrick, along with David McAlvany and our guest today, Orlando Figes. You can find us at mcalvany.com. That’s M-C-A-L-V-A-N-Y.com. Or you can call us at (800) 525-9556.
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