An imperial power
Russian identity dates back to the Middle Ages, with the first state known as Kievan Rus and its religion rooted in Byzantine Christianity (i.e. Greek Orthodox as opposed to Latin Catholic) adopted in Constantinople. However, it was not considered part of ordinary Europe until the reign of Tsar Peter the Great, who ruled until 1725. He was a staunch Europhile and the first Tsar to actually visit Europe, having visited several European countries as an apprentice during his incognito travels before coming to power (there are monuments to him in Greenwich and in some places in the Netherlands where he briefly resided).
Peter founded the Russian Empire in 1721, although the Romanov dynasty had been in power since 1613. One of Russia’s most charismatic and powerful rulers, Peter laid the foundation of the empire on a centralised and authoritarian political culture and pushed for the “westernisation” of the nation. As part of this effort, he moved the capital of the medieval island city from Moscow to St Petersburg, a city built by the force of his will and the strength of his treasure. Largely modelled on the French and Italian styles, St Petersburg is known as Russia’s “window on the West”, adopting the manners and style of Western European royal courts, even to the point of adopting French as the preferred language.
The Russian Empire reached its peak in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, producing many dazzling and enlightened figures such as Catherine the Great, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. Nevertheless, the gap between the authoritarian dynasty and its subjects became more pronounced with each generation. Although Russia proved to be at least the equal of some great powers in the Great Northern War (1700-1721) and the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763), it was not until Napoleon’s unfortunate invasion that the rest of Europe realised that Russia had risen to the rank of a great power on a par with France, Prussia or Austria. However, this position of power did not last long, partly because of the ultra-authoritarian reactionary government. At the end of the 19th century, political crises followed one another in rapid succession, with rebellion and repression enclosing a vicious circle of death and despair. The occasional attempts by the Romanovs and the privileged classes to reform society and improve the situation of the lower classes always ended in failure. Perhaps one of the factors contributing to this failure is the fact that the (relatively) liberal and reformist “Tsar-Liberator” Alexander II was assassinated by an anarchist in 1881 to spite him. After his death, his successors were even less willing to reform. To make matters worse, Russia was unlucky in foreign affairs, and the Crimean War and the Russo-Japanese War proved disastrous militarily, but even more so politically. The 1905 revolution – the last one that could be more or less suppressed – was partly caused by the apparent “non-existence” (at least in the eyes of Europeans) of Japan, which humiliated the Russian army. Russia entered the First World War alongside Britain and France, ostensibly to defend Serbia, as did other European empires, with disastrous consequences for itself. Tsar Nicholas II and his wife, the granddaughter of Queen Victoria, proved weak, defenceless and distracted by personal tragedies (such as the hemophilia of the heir to the throne) and the burden of war. While the Russian army initially proved stronger than Germany had expected and threatened to reverse Germany’s progress on the Western Front with victories in the East, the tide turned after the Russian defeat at Tanneberg and by 1917 morale was at rock bottom, desertion was rampant and the general call for peace was pervasive. The government was unable to curb the Russian revolutions of 1917 (a bourgeois one in February and a Leninist one in October). While the short-lived provisional government that emerged from the February 1917 revolution tried unsuccessfully to continue the struggle (partly at the insistence of the French and British, who feared being overwhelmed by the troops deployed against Russia), the Bolsheviks under their leader Vladimir Ilyich “Lenin” Ulyanov rushed to promise bread, peace and an end to the unjust distribution of land and wealth. Many people believed Lenin’s promises and in October 1917 the communist Bolsheviks took control of Moscow and St Petersburg (then called Petrograd and soon Leningrad) and with it effective control of the government. Deported and placed under house arrest, Nicholas, Alexandra and their children – and with them the Romanov dynasty – were shot in the basement of a Ekaterinburg estate on the orders of the new Lenin government and buried in unmarked graves, which were found after Communism and reinterred in St Paul’s and St Peter’s Cathedrals in St Petersburg.
Headquarters of Communism
The First World War strained the state and social institutions of Imperial Russia until the break with revolution in 1917. After a brief interim government led by the social democrat Alexander Kerensky, the Bolshevik faction (named after the great Russian “Bolshoi” because it had a majority in an internal decision, although it was normally a minority) of the Communist Party of the Marxist Vladimir Lenin seized power, pulled Russia out of the war and launched a purge of religious, political dissidents, aristocrats, the bourgeoisie and the kulak class of rich independent peasants and landowners. A brutal civil war between the “Red Army” of the communist leadership and the “White Army” of the aristocracy and bourgeoisie lasted until the end of 1920. During the civil war, the Red and White (and various other smaller factions) committed war crimes and devastated the country far beyond what it had suffered during the First World War. During his years in power, Lenin used the Red Army (organised and largely constituted by Trotsky, whom many considered his designated successor), the internal security apparatus and the Communist Party leadership to kill millions of political opponents, imprison or exile millions of political opponents, launch a campaign of terror to ensure strict Communist orthodoxy, secure control over fragments of the former Romanov Empire, and “collectivise” peasants and agriculture by creating gigantic state enterprises.
The revolutionary state was not directly run by the officials responsible for controlling the government established in the name of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Government in the conventional sense was largely irrelevant during the years of communist control, both in reality and in communist theory. Real power rested with the Communist Party leadership, the Red Army and the internal security apparatus (secret police).
After Lenin’s death in 1924, a power struggle began among the Bolshevik leaders, from which Joseph Stalin emerged as the new leader of the Communist Party and dictator of the USSR. While Lenin would almost certainly have preferred someone else as his successor, Stalin went so far as to put himself in the picture with Lenin and remove others to make his claim to power appear “legitimate”. Stalin’s brutal rule (1928-53) was marked by waves of “purges” in which alleged dissidents from the government, the party, the Red Army and even the security forces were executed or exiled to gulags (prison camps) on the basis of little or no evidence. Stalin not only followed Lenin’s forced collectivisation of agriculture and his destruction of private property and economic freedom, but also introduced a ruthless economic system (“socialism in one country”) that rapidly industrialised the USSR. Although the death toll was horrendous, Stalin’s first five-year plan succeeded in building heavy industry almost from scratch, a fact that was to prove decisive in the Second World War. Mao’s subsequent “Great Leap” took its cue from Stalin’s plan, resulting in an even higher death toll and less measurable economic success. Stalin’s rivals to succeed Lenin, as well as the criticism that followed, generally fell victim to the purges. Although considered less idealistic than his predecessor, Stalin relentlessly pursued international revolution through the control of the Russian-based “Comintern” over foreign communist parties and foreign espionage. If you want to get an idea of Stalin’s regime: George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” and “1984” are largely based on his disillusionment with socialism after hearing about Stalin’s atrocities.
From the Soviet perspective, the Second World War began with Stalin’s brutal entry into a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany. This treaty, which shook Western governments and stunned the left in Europe and America, guaranteed Hitler the freedom to start a war against Poland, France and England. The pact also gave the USSR itself permission to invade and conquer neutral Finland and to occupy all of eastern Poland after the German invasion in 1939. Finally, in June 1941, after conquering France and most of Western Europe, Hitler turned against his former ally and invaded the USSR. The switch to an emergency alliance with the Western nations contributed to the defeat of Nazism in 1945. The Red Army’s bloody campaigns on the Eastern Front and the Nazis’ murderous war and related crimes resulted in more than 20 million deaths in Russia, most of them civilian casualties or soldiers thrown into gruesome land battles. Both sides treated prisoners of war in heinous ways and many died on both sides. The last German POWs did not return until the mid-1950s in exchange for political recognition from West Germany.
After the end of the Second World War, the USSR quickly took control of all of Eastern Europe. It annexed the Baltic states and installed communist regimes in East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia and Romania, effectively crushing political dissidents. In Asia, it also helped install communist governments in Mongolia, China, North Vietnam and North Korea. Western critics have moved to describe the USSR and its European and Asian “satellites” as trapped behind an “iron curtain” of ruthless totalitarianism and command economy. The Yugoslav communist party managed to establish some independence from Moscow, but the uprisings in Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968) were mercilessly crushed.
After Stalin’s death in 1953, Soviet heavy industry and military power continued to develop under the leadership of Georgy Malenkov (1953-1955) and Nikita Khrushchev (1955-1964), Stalin’s successors as Party General Secretary. Although attempts were made to produce consumer goods, these efforts generally failed and the USSR continued to struggle under the yoke of collectivisation and totalitarianism. In 1956, Khrushchev renounced the excesses of Stalin’s regime and began his own kind of purge to “de-Stalinise” the USSR’s economy and society. The results were mixed and Khrushchev himself was deposed. But as he himself later noted, the fact that he was deposed and not outright assassinated can be seen as a belated success of his policy. In the late 1950s, the USSR launched the space race, being the first to send a thing (Sputnik), a living creature (Laika the dog), a man (Yuri Gagarin) and a woman (Valentina Tereshkova) into space. But shortly after these early advances, the brilliant chief designer Sergei Korolyov died of natural causes in 1966, and a combination of infighting between his successors, lack of money, and bad technological and strategic decisions meant that the Soviet space programme was later overtaken by the United States. When the 1969 moon landing proved that the Americans were now ahead, the Soviet space programme was redirected towards unmanned probes and a space station, leading to the great success of MIR (Russian for peace) and much of the international space station built in collaboration with Western nations after the fall of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union reached its military, diplomatic and industrial peak in the last years of Leonid Brezhnev (1964-1982). But persistent corruption and economic malaise led inexorably to a crisis that eventually prompted General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev (1985-1991) to introduce glasnost (openness) and perestroika (limited economic freedom). His initiatives unintentionally unleashed the forces that split the empire in December 1991. The European satellites freed themselves from the rule of the USSR and their local communist rulers and the USSR itself disintegrated into 15 independent countries.
Rise of Vladimir Putin
The Russian Federation emerged from the Soviet Union with a storm of problems. The first leader of the newly formed nation was Boris Yeltsin, who came to power by resisting an attempted coup by the KGB. Yeltsin largely succeeded in transferring control of the country from the former Soviet elite to his own oligarchic apparatus. Yeltsin was a charismatic leader who was widely supported by the West, but his government proved unstable and tainted by Yeltsin’s corruption and alcoholism. A wave of economic hardship left the Russian economy in ruins and the army underfunded and undisciplined. During this period, Russian organised crime and its ties to the government, now widely recognised as corrupt and incompetent, gained greater control over the nation even as political reforms were underway. Ironically, before he came to power, Yeltsin had called Russia the largest mafia state in the world”.
In addition, Russia was at war with the Chechen separatists, with devastating consequences for the already weak Russian economy. Widespread corruption, poverty and major political and social problems finally forced Yeltsin to resign, and Vladimir Putin finished the rest of his term (January-April 2000) as president. A former KGB officer under the communist regime (he had served for some time in East Germany) and head of the Russian spy service re-established under Yeltsin, Putin imposed his own personality and will on the country’s undisciplined and criminal circles, but was roundly condemned for his authoritarian behaviour. After fulfilling his constitutionally limited term (2000-2008), Putin stepped down as president but continued to control the government through his successor, Dmitry Medvedev. Unsurprisingly, Putin assumed the presidency when he was eligible for re-election in 2012. In 2014 and 2015, Russia came under increasing pressure and criticism for many foreign and domestic policies, including the way Putin and his party dealt with the political opposition and the nationalist undertones of some of his actions and speeches. The European Union and the United States consider the situation in Crimea and Ukraine to be Putin’s fault, although he blames them for at least part of it.
Since 2000, under Putin’s direct and indirect rule, the economy has recovered, thanks in particular to a fivefold increase in the price of raw materials, which Russia has in abundance. Inflation has been reduced from triple digits to single digits, poverty has been reduced and Russia has once again become a dominant economic, political and military power in the region. This achievement has often been referred to as the “Russian miracle”. Although Putin continues to be strongly condemned in the West for Russia’s economic and military successes under his rule, he enjoys great popularity in Russia itself and has been able to boost his national approval ratings to unprecedented levels in a wave of national pride following Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
Today, modern Russia has not yet fully recovered from the doldrums that have plagued the country in recent years. Inflation is driving up prices, fighting pervasive corruption is becoming increasingly difficult, the political system is not competitive, the conflict in the North Caucasus, the demographic crisis and declining economic competition. Russians also seem to face the problem of reconciling Putin’s successes with his totalitarian and self-aggrandising impulses. Nevertheless, Russians have achieved a much higher standard of living since the collapse of the USSR. However, when the prices of certain commodities, especially oil, fell in late 2014 / early 2015, this hit the Russian economy hard and the effects of this price drop are still visible. It remains to be seen whether Russia can free itself from this dependence on its resource wealth.