A skilled miner is useless without a seam of ore. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, czar in all but name, has a genius for mining the ore of Russian nationalism, but the crucial factor is that the ore was there, waiting to be exploited. A ruler perfectly fitted to Russian tradition, Putin is the right man at the right time to dig up Russia’s baleful obsessions, messianic delusions, and aggressive impulses.
The short answer to the question “Why is Putin so aggressive?” is because aggression works. The twenty-first century is revisionist: After the collapse of European empires in the twentieth century, old imperial and crusading (aka jihadi) forces have reawakened in Orthodox Russia, in post-Ottoman Turkey, in Shia Persia, and among Sunni Muslims entranced by romanticized caliphates. History didn’t end. It just rolled over. The human chronicle reverted to forms dating back millennia (the geographic aspirations of today’s rulers in Iran match those of Cyrus the Great). Racial and religious hatred are back in vogue, and brutalities we view as transgressive are merely a return to form for humankind.
Putin’s Russia is a perfect fit.
As for why Russians respond so well to Putin’s smirking belligerence, naked corruption, and growing tyranny, the short answer is “Because they’re Russians!” Assigning national characteristics may be politically incorrect, but it’s strategically essential if we hope to understand the depths of emotion, the ingrained responses, and the social DNA that have allowed Putin to become the most successful leader in Moscow since Josef Stalin (a figure currently undergoing rehabilitation in Russia’s media).
Putin’s invocation of strong leaders reaches back beyond Stalin, however, through the early eighteenth century’s Peter the Great to the late sixteenth century’s Ivan the Terrible, both ferocious empire-builders and Russian to the core. Catherine the Great, whose military conquests outshone those of Ivan and Peter, remains absent from Putin’s gallery of heroes, though: Catherine was born a German princess, and only Russians need apply to Putin’s Pantheon—with the Georgian Stalin the sole and alarming exception.
Western observers—even many familiar with Russian affairs—refuse to recognize either Putin’s brilliance or the innate predilections of Russians. As to the first, Putin didn’t go to the right prep school and, literally, lacks table manners. So Western elites long dismissed him and still attempt to explain his success away. Even now, in the wake of Putin’s unchallenged interference in a U.S. presidential election, Washington insiders decline to credit his genius. Regarding the second point, a chaotic burst of freedom after the Soviet Union’s collapse didn’t convert Russians to our liberal values; rather, it terrified them. Meanwhile, our disregard of the profoundly different historical experiences that molded the Russian mentality amounts to self-congratulatory and self-deluding folly.
So what are the key historical ingredients that combine to give us Putin and a Russia once again militant? What political qualities make Russians Russian? What has allowed a state composed of eleven time zones of desolation, poverty, and disease to reclaim its status as a superpower?
Dread of chaos. If Germans revere order (and they do), Russians crave it. The threat of smutnoye vremya, a “time of troubles” of political and social breakdown, is more unnerving to Russians than plague or fire (both of which often accompanied troubled times in the filthy, wooden Moscow of the czars). Deadly upheavals—generally the result of a power vacuum—have unleashed anarchic demons time and again, permanently scarring the “Russian soul,” the Russkaya dusha, so deeply that even the two greatest Russian operas, Boris Gudonov and Khovanshchina, both deal with such periods of disorder, while the Soviet-era novels most revered in the West, Doctor Zhivago and Quiet Flows the Don, both emerged from another time of troubles. And then there was Akhmatova, the poet of fracture and loss, who lived through horrors beyond Hieronymus Bosch or H. P. Lovecraft.
While every extant nation has had crises, in just the last hundred years Russia has suffered military defeat, revolution, civil war, repeated famines, multiple insurgencies, the most-devastating invasion of modern times, mass repression and vast concentration camps, the loss of empire and economic chaos, and a swift collapse from superpower status to shame and lawlessness. In one century, from 1917 to 2017, at least fifty million and perhaps twice that many Russians and subject peoples died violently, or of starvation, or of epidemic disease, a loss proportionate to the Black Death of the fourteenth century, the last time Europe suffered so great a demographic catastrophe.
Given the tales still told by Russian grandmothers, the average Russian will choose Putin over liberty.
And one must note: Putin had a powerful insight that eluded the last century’s totalitarians: It doesn’t matter if people complain around the kitchen table or in the bedroom, as long as they hold their tongues when they step outside. Previous dictators, from Stalin and Mao through Orwell’s fictional Big Brother, tried to control every thought—an impossible task, given human fractiousness. Human beings need a realm in which they can revile the government clerk or even the czar—In Putin’s Russia, that’s your apartment or dacha, once the door is shut. Go on, get drunk, pity yourself, blame the bureaucrats and beat your wife, Putin only requires that you toe the line in public (hungover or not). Given Russia’s history, it’s a bargain.
The Strong Czar. For all of the reasons above (and there are far more historical justifications), Russians admire and support leaders who guarantee security. On the sunniest day, Russians expect it to rain. And the czar is their umbrella. To a greater extent than in Western Europe, Russian rulers were viewed, however incorrectly, as the people’s champion and a check on the voracious, capricious nobility, the boyari. The clichéd sigh of the Russian peasant, “If only the czar knew!” in the face of the aristocracy’s depredations was psychologically essential: the czar as future savior and redeemer. If only he knew… .
Sense of divine mission. Just as beautifully educated Western chat-mongers dismiss Islam as a source of Islamist terrorism, so they write off Putin’s embrace of the Orthodox Church as politically expedient. That reads the man, his people and the church utterly wrong. Even if Putin doesn’t fit our conception of a believer (although William James wisely pointed out that belief takes many forms), he is imbued with a mythic sense of mission. The idea of Moscow as the “Third Rome” is the Russian version of our “city on a hill,” only stronger in tone and far more aggressive in practice.
Possessed by our kiddie-car version of Realpolitik, we dismiss religion’s role in strategic affairs. But faiths burrow deep into the consciousness of men and nations. Stalin’s gone, but the Orthodox Church he sought to crush remains. Czars consistently viewed themselves as defenders of their faith against not only their immutable enemy, the Turk, but against the Catholic Pole, the Baltic or Swedish Lutheran and, of course, the Jew. In the nineteenth century, Russia’s militant foreign policy was driven by the goal of liberating and protecting Orthodox nations and by pan-Slavism—even at the cost of strategic self-interest. In the end, Russia found itself paralyzed by its embrace of this destiny, first because fellow Slavs (not least, the Poles) had their own quarrels and would not unite under Moscow’s tutelage, but also because the key Orthodox states, Serbia, Bulgaria and (non-Slav) Greece, no sooner gained full independence than they engaged in a round of wars with each other that drew Russia deeper into Balkan affairs and, consequently, into the Great War.
Time and again, Imperial Russia leapt before it looked—a literal “leap of faith.” The same pattern is alive and well today, with Putin’s vision of a restored empire of the czars and hegemony over all lands possessed of a Slavic heritage or that embrace the Orthodox faith. Do not seek logic here: Humanity is governed by emotion.
As a relevant note on the Orthodox faith: It’s utterly unlike the rational organizations which most Western Protestant churches and, increasingly, Papal Catholicism have become. The Orthodox faith is mystical and millenarian, far closer to the pre-Christian “mystery religions” of the Near East than to, say, Episcopalianism. The iconostasis is the gateway to Asia.
Insularity. After just over a decade of relative freedom of the press, Putin began to put an end to media criticism of his government. And the only Russians who’ve objected are pallid members of the intelligentsia, which has ever been out of touch with the common people. The result is that, despite the vaunted power of the internet, Russians today are astonishingly insular—as they always have been. And Putin knows how to serve up delectable propaganda that bolsters the national ego and, even better, blames others for all of Russia’s mistakes and misfortunes.
Because our “Russia experts” generally meet only well-educated counterparts, they have no sense of the weight of centuries of ignorance on Russian minds. Suspect books were banned under czars and Soviet leaders alike (the brief czarist liberalization of the press after the 1905 revolution proved catastrophic). Propaganda has always been effective—and often exported (Protocols of the Elders of Zion anyone?). Prince Potemkin didn’t invent the false façade, he was merely its first true master.
In the nineteenth century, even Russian nobles needed government permission to travel abroad (nor have today’s package tours to sunny spots turned into springs of enlightenment). Russia’s vastness, too, its stunning remoteness, hindered factual awareness of all that was not Russian—and of much that was. (On the positive side of Russia’s isolation, Russians didn’t suffer the widespread devastation of the syphilis epidemic that ravaged Europe for over four centuries—Russia’s few, awful roads and trackless expanses held the spirochete at bay until the railroad came; today, of course, Russia is AIDS-ridden, thanks to the advantages of modernity.)
Egalitarianism. Karl Marx did not think Russia would lead the Communist revolution because he didn’t know Russia. A bourgeois German panhandler living in London, he had no idea of the communalism traditional among Russian peasants or of the proto-communist egalitarianism preached by the Orthodox Church (along with respect for authority, of course), especially among the Old Believers and other offshoot cults. Again, clichés exist because they capture truths. Russians can stomach a great deal of misery, as long as the misery is shared equally by all (ruling classes get a pass, until the next peasant uprising). The daily degradations of the Soviet era remained acceptable long after other nations would have rebelled because life was more or less equally wretched for everyone.
Then came the uproar of the 1990s. Some Russians got rich quick (and some of the best-known oligarchs were Jews, reinforcing Russian anti-Semitism). The compact was broken. Suddenly, haves and have-nots were neighbors, and friends left friends behind in their gilded wake. Guaranteed jobs disappeared. Savings became worthless as foreign products tantalized. Warned for seventy years that capitalists were gangsters, Russians abruptly were told to become capitalists—and became gangsters. The nuclear superpower lay humiliated. And Big Macs were insufficient consolations for the sense of failure, betrayal, and shame.
Putin understood. Perhaps his greatest gift is his ability to read presidents and populations. Former President George W. Bush believed that he had seen into Putin’s soul, but saw only his own reflection. Putin saw deep into Bush, though, as he later saw through President Obama, and as he grasped the weakness of a European political order in its dotage, and as he felt the wounds of his own people.
He began by giving Russians back their pride. Now he is giving them the gift that Russian culture values above all else: revenge.
For all that, he’s one czar in a long line. He longs for empire, to regain eastern and central Ukraine (the western sliver was part of Austria-Hungary and can wait), territory that was only brought under czarist rule in the mid-eighteenth century and remained subject to popular revolts, some of them, such as the Pugachev Uprising, hugely destructive. Catherine the Great’s generals only conquered Crimea in the 1770s (she annexed it in 1783, and Premier Khrushchev “gave” it to Ukraine in 1954, but that’s another story). Much of the Caucasus wasn’t subdued until the mid-nineteenth century, and Central Asia’s khanates, Imperial Russia’s “wild east,” only fell in the same decades that saw the United States subdue its western plains.
The territories of the Baltic States, which Putin longs to recapture, have been subject to dispute between various powers since the Middle Ages (long before the current states existed). As Russia gobbled up the ground previously ruled by a German nobility (peasant ethnicities weren’t a factor to anyone), its Baltic possessions became of special importance not only for the coastline they offered but because (to the chagrin of pure-blooded Russians), minor German aristocrats served the St. Petersburg government as capable and less-corrupt administrators, fulfilling much the same role for the czars as Greek-speaking officials played in the regimes of Middle-Eastern sultans in Islam’s glory days—they were the loyal, culture-straddling bureaucrats who made sure the papers were signed and the salaries paid.
Add to these age-old conquests and reawakened ambitions Russia’s renewed Pan-Slavism, Neo-Orthodox mantle and the persistent longing for warm-water ports and access to the world’s seas, and you have only to substitute the United States for the German-speaking empires of yesteryear to see a formula for the Great War Redux.
The salient difference? In 1914, Russia had a weak czar. Today, Russia has a strong czar accustomed to winning.