Year of Russia Introductory Essay

Dan Paracka, Professor of Education, Interdisciplinary Studies Department

This introductory essay provides an historical overview of Russia, its international relations, and current context highlighting the country’s unique position in global affairs. It is a story of both tragic suffering and tremendous accomplishments that has helped shape the Russian character making the people resilient and proud. At the same time, Russian society and geography are too complex, too diverse, and too large for a single culture to serve as the national heritage (Figes,2002, xxviii). Russia, situated in the middle of Eurasia, is both Eastern and Western and it is this ambiguity, this pull in two directions, which has helped make Russians skilled diplomats and negotiators. Having experienced invading forces from both directions, it has also made them wary and put them on guard. For this reason and “as a general rule, Russia has pursued balance- of-power policies” (Donaldson et al, 2014, 4). Moreover, “Russians have traditionally had a deeply ingrained fear of anarchy and the centrifugal forces that tug at the unity and stability of their vast state…[which] has made Russians prize order and security” (Smith, 1976, 251). Unfortunately, the efforts to build a strong state have, at times, led to “subverted institutions and personalistic rule” (Kotkin, 2016, 4). This view, a type of Russian exceptionalism, where Russians are seen as having suffered under oppression for centuries and subjected to continuous external threats and harsh political realities, emerged first during the enlightenment period and was amplified as the Red Scare and Cold War emerged (Pate, 2016).  However, Russia, in continuous relationship with its neighbors, influencing them and influenced by them, is not so different from the rest of the world.  

Notably, United States' views of Russia have often been biased tending towards such negative interpretations due, in part, to limited direct interaction and staunch ideological differences. Characterized by Cold War acrimony and antagonism, there has been far too little collaboration between the two countries. It is hoped that this essay will inspire students to examine the complexity of what Winston Churchill famously called “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma” and will spark further engagement through the upcoming 2016-2017 lecture series and other campus activities.

The topics introduced through this essay will be explored in greater depth throughout the year. This essay, like the lecture series, tends to concentrate its analysis through historical, political and economic lenses, the traditional academic disciplines that developed strong programs in Russian studies supported by U.S. government funding during the Cold War. Special attention is also given to the role of the arts.

Moscow as the Third Rome

The early history of Russia consisted of a collection of principalities. The Viking, Rurik of Rutland, defeated the Slavs at Novgorod in 862 becoming ruler of Northern Russia and his successor Oleg conquered Kiev. According to legend in 988, “after considering and rejecting Judaism and Islam, Great Prince Vladimir of Kiev embraced the Christian faith and established it as a state religion” (Taruskin, 156). Nicholas Riasanovsky (2005) has asserted that adopting Orthodox Christianity is the single most important event shaping Russian identity. One of the first cities to establish broader control and establish itself as a center of trade was Kiev which flourished between 882 and 1125. Moscow was founded in 1147 by Yuri Dolgoruky (a monument in his honor stands in front of the City Hall). The cities of Kievan Rus with the exception of Novgorod and Pskov were completely destroyed in 1240 by the vastly superior military of the Mongols (also known as the Tatars). The Mongols indirectly ruled the territory from the 13th to the 15th century. Christianity came to Russia through Constantinople but ties were severed when the Ottoman Turks took control of Constantinople in 1453. The patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church transferred north to Moscow. After Kievan Rus was shattered by the Mongols, there was no large Rus state until one was reconstituted by Muscovy. Muscovy’s strength gradually grew under Ivan the Great and it was at this time that the doctrine of Moscow as the Third Rome was firmly established, making Muscovy an heir to the older Byzantine and even Roman classical civilizations and the origins of Christianity. The term Tsar is derived from Caesar, implying a system where the ruler of the state assumed a level of Church authority. To mark the final victory over the Mongols, Ivan the Terrible ordered the construction of St. Basil’s Cathedral consecrated in 1561 symbolizing the triumphant restoration of Orthodox Byzantium. Historically, after adopting Orthodox Christianity as a move towards the West, Russian Orthodoxy became a way for the West in its Catholic and Protestant traditions to differentiate itself from Russia thus contributing to a divide in which each has tended to view the other with a level of distrust. The first meeting of the Pope and the Russian Patriarch in nearly 1000 years occurred on February 12, 2016.

It should be noted that the Mongol Empire brought many advances, not only in military technology but also in trade, taxation and administrative systems. “In nearly every country touched by the Mongols, the initial destruction and shock of conquest…yielded quickly to an unprecedented rise in cultural communication, expanded trade, and improved civilization” (Weatherford, 2004, xxiii). They also brought tea to Russia which is still a favorite drink. Overall, historians find very little impact from the "Mongol Yoke" since the Mongols themselves splintered and expected only tribute rather than servitude. The Mongols were not particularly interested in Russia’s northern forests, rather their main interests lay further south with the lucrative Silk Road trade routes to India, Persia and the Middle East. The Russian steppes are a rather desolate space; hence Siberia’s repeated use as a land of banishment. Historically, Russia has tried to set itself apart from its Asian neighbors by emphasizing its Christian nature although many of its people follow Muslim, Buddhist or Shamanic traditions. In this regard, it is important to distinguish between “Russian” as an ethnic identity from the broader community of peoples who make up the Russian state.

According to Orlando Figes (297), “the entire spirit of the Russian people, and much of their best art and music, has been poured into the Church, and at times of national crisis, under the

Mongols or the Communists, they have always turned to it for support and hope.” Under Christian theology, poverty was at times cast as a virtue among Russia’s peasants, and excessive wealth was viewed as a sin. The liturgy in Russian Orthodox Church services is always sung and the chants and choral songs of the church are known for their beauty. However, instrumental music was long banned  by the church and sacred compositions were not played in concert halls until Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom was performed in 1878 (Figes, 298). The KSU Symphony will perform a concert on September 7th featuring masterworks of several Russian composers from the early 20th century.

Imperial Russia and the Rise of Colonial Nationalism

Peter the Great ruled Russia from 1689-1725 and constructed the new capital of St. Petersburg out of a swamp as a true work of art. He led the effort to Westernize/Europeanize the empire and his most successful military efforts concentrated on establishing Russia as a Baltic Sea power.

He is forever commemorated with the monumental Bronze Horseman statue. In 1698 when Peter returned from a tour of Europe, he ordered the noble boyars to give up their kaftans for Western dress and to cut off their beards. Old Believers who rebelled against what they viewed as the Church’s authoritarian reforms to align more closely with Greek Orthodoxy also refused to obey the Tsar’s decrees or accept the monarchy’s confiscation of church lands and wealth. The transformation was so great that historians tend to mark Peter’s reign as the end of one era, Muscovy, and the start of another, the imperial.

By the time of Catherine the Great, who ruled from 1762-1796, Russian noblemen and women were emulating European language, customs and attitudes, and immersing themselves in the secular culture of the French Enlightenment (Figes, 55-57). Catherine’s Russia competed with the other great empires of the age defeating Sweden again and partitioning Poland. Much of Catherine’s military expansion concentrated on establishing Russia as a Black Sea power. The Black Sea port of Odessa was founded in 1796, the year of Catherine’s death.

Alexander I, who ruled Russia from 1801-1825, defeated Napoleon, but he never could have done so alone. Alexander needed alliances with other European powers especially the Prussians and later decisively the Austrians who switched their allegiance away from France. They were not easily convinced. The fall of Moscow in 1812, the city burned for six days and three-quarters of its buildings were destroyed, was a clear indication of Russia’s vulnerability. But Napoleon had overextended his supply lines and the Russian strategy of retreat rather than taking on Napoleon’s troops when they were not fully prepared proved wise. Many have credited geography and climate for Napoleon’s failure, but strategic leadership and skillful diplomacy were equally if not more important than the cold weather or even Russian patriotism in defeating Napoleon. “One key reason why Russia defeated Napoleon was that her top leaders out-thought him. In 1812 they planned and then successfully imposed on him a drawn-out campaign, knowing full well that it was precisely the kind of war he was least equipped to wage” (Lieven, 13). It was a strategy of deep retreat and restrained patience similar to one used by Peter the Great against Charles XII of Sweden and by the Mongols to defeat the Russians in 1223 at the Kalka River (Lieven, 132 and Weatherford, 263). Between 1812 and 1814, the Russian army first retreated from Vilna to Moscow and then advanced from Moscow to Paris. In 1815, after defeating Napoleon, Alexander I signed what came to be known as the Holy Alliance with Prussia and Austria.

The Napoleonic Wars accompanied rising European nationalism where British sea power had confined French imperialism to mainland Europe, while Russian imperial interests lied primarily southwards towards the Ottomans and Persians. The Portuguese monarchy escorted to Brazil and rescued by the British from Napoleon opened the entire Portuguese Empire to British trade, indicating the importance of collaborative alliances to compete globally. Russia’s defeat of Napoleon also served to embolden and strengthen British imperialism, thereby increasing competition between Britain and Russia.

Interestingly, the War of 1812 seems to have served as both a glorious imperial victory of salvation and a watershed moment in Russia’s movement towards national liberation (Figes,138). The leaders of the 1825 Decembrist uprising were influenced greatly by soldiers and officers who had returned from the Napoleonic battlefield. It was the first attempt ever to overthrow the imperial political system. Nobleman had witnessed side-by-side the sacrifices of peasants on the battlefield who more than proved their worth as patriots. Russia mobilized over 230,000 men for the war effort most of them serfs. Returned officers hoped to establish a new constitution that everyman could understand, protect and defend but their plans were ill- conceived and poorly timed choosing to revolt at the swearing in ceremony for Tsar Nicholas I whose royal soldiers were also assembled and who dealt harshly with the mutineers. Five hundred Decembrists were arrested and 121 conspirators, including the so-called peasant prince Sergei Volkonsky, found guilty and sentenced as convict laborers to Siberia (Figes, 83-90). Nonetheless, in this period, the educated classes had begun a process in solidarity with the common people to question and challenge authority. Along these lines, writing in the middle of the century, Fedor Dostoevsky repeatedly poses the question how one could believe in a God who created a world with so much suffering? (Figes, 328) Dostoevsky looked to establish a higher spiritual consciousness here on earth dedicated to the social good. Leo Tolstoy, too, called for a spiritual life dedicated to alleviating poverty, inequality, cruelty and oppression.

Nicholas I ruled with an iron hand from 1825-1855. He turned his ambitions to the Ottoman Empire defeating the Turks in 1828, winning independence for Greece, and extending Russia’s control over the Caucasus region. Later, when Russia assisted the Ottoman Sultan’s call for assistance in putting down a revolt by Mohammed Ali in Egypt, Russia was rewarded with the rights to have its warships pass through the Turkish straits, but the British and French objected. Encouraged by Britain, the Turks declared war on Russia in 1853 and Russia was defeated in what became known as the Crimean War (Donaldson et al, 22-23). It was a defeat that the Russians would not forget.1 European competition including Russian ambitions for control over the Ottoman Empire and its important sea trade routes would only intensify eventually resulting in World War I.

Following the death of Nicholas I, Alexander II (who ruled from 1855 until his assassination in 1881) signed the treaty that ended the Crimean War and began initiating several important reforms, most importantly the Emancipation of Serfs (1861). The economic imperative calling for emancipation asserted that free labor is more productive than slave labor. Militarily, Russia turned to its Eastern borders winning territory in the Amur region of China founding the city of Vladivostok in 1860. In 1874, Russia successfully defeated the khanates of Kokand, Bukhara and Khiva in Turkestan and later Tashkent right up to the borders of Afghanistan and British India (Figes, 411). In 1877, Russia renewed its conflicts in the Balkans attempting to liberate Bulgaria from Turkish occupation leading to the 1878 Treaty of Berlin (involving all of the major European powers of the time) and an uneasy accord between Russia and Austria. The Treaty “created a series of Christian nation states in the Balkans and forced a realignment of Muslim populations” setting off massive migration movements (Karpat, 2010, 48).  German Chancellor Bismarck also organized the 1884 Conference of Berlin known for unleashing the Scramble for Africa as the European powers divided the world into spheres of influence and their leaders engaged in a dangerous chess match of shifting allegiances and self-serving treaties. Following the Berlin Conference, Germany increasingly saw itself vying with France, Great Britain, and Russia for predominance, and therefore looked to the Ottoman Empire as an important sphere of influence and potential ally.  The Young Turks reformist movement also saw in Germany a successful, rapidly industrializing country able to help protect them from Russian expansionism (Fromkin, 1989, p. 66).  German railroads connected Berlin with Istanbul.

It is during this period in the 19th century of rising nationalism and competing colonial empires that Russia expands and solidifies its rule into the Caucasus, Central Asia and East Asia regions. Russian nationalism, like that of other 19th century nationalisms, was brutal in its treatment of minorities. It has long been argued that since Russia itself was a frontier society, its borders were relatively undefined and under-fortified contributing to expansionist tendencies. Perhaps for these reasons, Russia had also become quite adept at using local elites to promote its imperial agenda long before the British attempted to do the same in India. Russia’s frontier colonialism also had much in common with the United States’ frontier subjugation of native peoples especially in its promotion of a Christian civilizing mission. In addition, “the need to transform pasturelands into agricultural colonies and industrial enterprises kept the [Russian] government on a confrontational course with its nomadic neighbors” (Khodarkovsky, 2002, 222). At the end of the 19th century, the so-called “Great Game” in Asia pitted the world’s two most powerful nations of the period, Britain and Russia, on a collision course for control over the Middle East (Fromkin, 1980, 936).

Anti-Jewish pogroms or persecutions swept through south-western Imperial Russia (especially present-day Ukraine and Poland) from 1881 to 1884. The pogroms resulted in mass Jewish emigration with two million Jews fleeing Russia between 1880 and 1914 many coming to the United States. Jewish persecution within Russia continued and took numerous forms in the period between the war, during World War II and under Soviet rule. In 1948, Stalin initiated anti-Jewish purges criminalizing Jewish activities and calling for all Jews to be resettled in Birobidzhan, Siberia a Jewish Autonomous Oblast established by the Soviets as a Jewish homeland in 1934 as an alternative to settling in Palestine (Weinberg, 1998). During the Cold War and with the founding of Israel, Soviet authorities began suspecting Jews of being pro-Israel and hence pro-U.S.

Serfs, Slavophiles, Artists and Intellectuals

Following the emancipation of the serfs, groups like the narodniki (populists) as well as many intellectuals, artists and writers increasingly celebrated and romanticized the peasant as a heroic figure capable of withstanding great suffering with human dignity (Figes, 220). There was a new found fascination with a rural life little known or understood by the ruling classes of the urban centers.  These artists and intellectuals viewed peasants as oppressed and in need of liberation, and increasingly advocated for all Russians to adopt the collectivist, in some ways quasi-socialist form of organization, that prevailed in peasant villages.

At the same time, Europe was also increasingly viewed by Russians as a morally corrupting influence - decadent, materialistic, superficial and egotistical, and it was portrayed this way in many of the works of Russia’s literature. This reflected, in part, what came to be known as the Slavophile movement calling for a rediscovery of Russian roots and values, and where history might belong to the people (Figes, 65, 135). Morality, spirituality and social justice were core themes in their works. In general, the Slavophiles tended to be political conservatives, while the populists were revolutionaries. Both groups generally opposed those advocating for greater Westernization which was also a prevalent view at the time.

Artists, composers, playwrights, and novelists turned their attention to folk music, folk art, mythology and especially history for their inspiration. For example, the story of Ivan the Terrible who killed his eldest son, Ivan’s own death, the end of his royal lineage, the Time of Troubles with its famine and revolts against Russia’s first boyar-elected tsar Boris Godunov, the occupation of Moscow by Polish forces, and the establishment in 1613 of what would result in 300 years of rule by the Romanov dynasty, figured significantly (Figes, 182-187). The portrayal of Orthodox clergy and tsars was banned from the theatre until 1872 when Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera about Ivan the Terrible was performed, followed by Mussorgsky’s opera based on Pushkin’s novel titled “Boris Godunov,” both of which managed to escape tsarist censorship as the works’ main characters were from the pre-Romanov period (Taruskin, 157).  The Golden and Silver Ages of Russian literature include writers such as Aleksandr Pushkin (1799-1837), Nokolay Gogol (1809-1852), Mikhail Lermontov (1814-1841), Ivan Turgenev (1818-1883), Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881), Lev Tolstoy (1828-1910, Anton Chekhov (1860-1904), Maxim Gorki (1868-1936), Ivan Bunin (1870-1953), and Boris Pasternak (1890-1960). This period also includes renowned Russian composers such as Mikhail Glinka (1804 –1857), Alexander Dargomyzhsky (1813-1869), Anton Rubinstein (1829 –1894), Alexander Borodin (1833-1887), César Cui (1835-1918), Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881), Pyotr Tchaikovsky (1840-1893), Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908), Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915), Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943), Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953), and Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975).

Richard Taruskin (2009) problematizes the notion of “Russian” music as both a conventional product of 19th century European nationalism and a unique hybrid creation utilizing select folk traditions. At the time, Russian music aimed to prove itself on par with classical Western musical achievements and represent a national if not exotic flavor. Taruskin also criticizes the often narrow constructs of what constitutes Russian folklore reminding observers that Russia is large and diverse. “Russian music has a direct relationship, positive or negative, to the national question, which question is often very reductively construed in terms of ‘sources in folk song and church chant’” (Taruskin, 29). He continues this line of criticism commenting: “viewing the Russian style and the Russian mind in this essentialized way leads to an obsession with purity” (Taruskin, 92).

Peasants were also viewed authentically and not just romantically or in need of uplift. In 1897, Chekov’s tale of the “Peasants” disabused many in the populace of any such notions showing how poverty resulted in a coarse and brutal existence (Figes, 255-56). Writing at the height of the Cold War, the Russian dissident and award winning author of Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977) noted: “They were – those nineteenth-century writers, composers, and painters – quite certain that they lived in a country of oppression and slavery, but they had something that onecan appreciate only now, namely, the immense advantage over their grandsons in modern Russia of not being compelled to say that there was no oppression and no slavery” (Nabokov, 1981, 3). Nabokov wrote of Anton Chekov that “what interested him was that it was true to life, true to the character of the man as a character and not as a symbol…Chekov gives us a living human being without bothering about political messages or traditions of writing” (Nabokov, 249-250). Chekov wrote about “the good man who cannot make good...Chekov took a special artistic pleasure in fixing all the delicate varieties of that pre-war, pre- revolutionary type of Russian intellectual.  Those men could dream; they could not rule. They broke their own lives and the lives of others, they were silly, weak, futile, hysterical; but Chekov suggests, blessed be the country that could produce that particular type of man…all this pathetic dimness, all this lovely weakness, all this Chekhovian dove-gray world is worth treasuring in the glare of those strong, self-sufficient worlds that are promised us by the worshippers of totalitarian states” (Nabokov, 253-255).

People like Stanislavsky and Chekov focused on natural and realist conceptions developing “method acting” – acting without acting (Figes, 205). KSU students will perform Chekov’s play the Three Sisters in the spring semester from March 16-26, 2017.

At the end of the 19th century, writers turned increasingly to the present but were often skeptical of progress, modernity, and science. They wrote about present circumstances and called for change. Much was changing and change was possible giving rise to constructivist and revolutionary thinking.

In the early 20th century, Russian art continued to find inspiration in folk traditions and tribal cultures while also working to modernize and synthesize these subjects in abstract and symbolic ways. Natalia Goncharova, Kazimir Malevich and Marc Chagall all stand out for their work. Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes took the world by storm with its innovations of an ossified art form that had become disregarded as old-fashioned in Europe (Figes, 273). His ballet The Firebird symbolized the mythical phoenix-like transformation of a resurgent peasant Russia in its freedom and beauty and was accompanied by Igor Stravinsky’s inspired use of folk instruments in the musical score, in Mikhail Fokine’s rhythmic choreography, and in Alexander Benois’ sumptuous costuming (Figes, 275-276). “This very deliberately, in fact demonstratively ‘Russian’ work had no antecedent in Russian art and was expressively created for a non-Russian audience…The Ballet Russes…changed the course of 20th   century artistic history” (Taruskin, 208).  Vatslav Nijinsky’s shocking choreography of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring culminating with its pagan sacrifice accompanied by convulsive irregular downbeats required the orchestra conductor “to throw himself about and wave his arms in jerky motions, as if performing a shamanic dance” (Figes, 281-282). In great contrast, but equally innovative, Stravinsky’s The Peasant Wedding emphasized the harmony of the community where voices merge as one in the singing of church chants (Figes, 286). The Firebird with its promise of renewal and rebirth is the inspiration for the KSU student-designed Year of Russia Logo.

Artistically and intellectually, what began in the 1830s as largely a romantic view of the beleaguered peasant, by the latter half of the century began to challenge the received truths linking Orthodoxy, autocracy and nationalism under Romanov rule, and by the 1930s became an almost blind faith in progress under Communist state control eventually giving rise to more outspoken dissidents after World War II.

The Trans-Siberian Railroad and East Asia

The development of railroads was a central aspect of infrastructure development in Russia at the end of the 19th and throughout the 20th century. Railways, a symbol of modernity, attracted people to towns and brought growth, replacing the old world of rural Russia with a new more urban context. Birth rates also increased dramatically during the second half of the 19th century with the population rising in Russia from 50 to 79 million. As more and more land was farmed (primarily in the southern regions) soil quality declined along with agricultural and livestock production, resulting in shortages and eventually famine (Figes, 258). Overall, less than 15 percent of Russian land is fit for agriculture as the Tundra is a treeless plain with poor soil and little precipitation, while the Taiga regions, over half of the nation’s land mass, has cold winters, hot summers, leached soils, and is covered in forest.

In 1898, China granted Russia a 25 year lease over the Liaotung Peninsula and Russia completed the Trans-Siberian Railway in 1903. In 1904, Japan concerned about losing its trade privileges with China due to Russian expansion launched a surprise attack on the Russians at Port Arthur. Japan’s substantial military victories against Russia (the Russian navy was defeated at Tsushima and the army lost 80,000 men at Mukden) resulted in concessions of Manchurian territories to

Japan and contributed to revolutionary fervor throughout Russia. The 1905 Revolution in Russia was fueled by striking workers, peasant unrest and military mutinies which led to the creation of the State Duma, a multiparty system and a Constitutional Monarchy in 1906. The 1905

Revolution largely failed to create real change in the political power of Tsar Nicholas II and it would not be until the middle of World War I and the additional suffering placed on the nation that a more complete revolution would occur.

The Russian Revolution and World War

Russian losses during World War I exceeded 3 million people and caused great hardship. In 1917 in the middle of the War, Russia experienced two revolutions, revolutions that were a reaction to over 300 years of monocratic rule. The Bolsheviks led by Vladimir Lenin came to power during the second revolution in October 1917 and promised to end Russia’s involvement in World War I. They signed a peace treaty with Germany in 1918 but continued to face incursions by Allied forces especially Polish forces. They signed a peace treaty with Poland in 1921 ceding parts of the Ukraine and Belorussia to Poland. Conditions in Russia continued to deteriorate. At least 5 million Russians died of starvation and disease during the famine of 1921 and the Bolsheviks had no choice but to accept foreign assistance. Three million Russians fled their native land between 1919 and 1929 (Figes, 528). In 1921, “Lenin’s answer to the crisis was the New Economic Policy which represented a retreat from socialist economics. The peasants were given greater freedom, and private trade and private ownership of small businesses were again legalized” Donaldson et al, 51).

Lenin also revised Marxist thought to emphasize its international dimension highlighting how imperialist nations exploited their colonies exacerbating the problems of class struggle. He believed that Russia would lead a worldwide movement of liberation from the oppression of bourgeois capitalism. Lenin’s death in 1924 resulted in a divisive power struggle with Joseph Stalin emerging as the leader, ruling from 1929-1953. He immediately began to collectivize agricultural lands creating large state-run farms, expand industrial output, repress religion and close churches, and purge all opposition. It is estimated that as many as 10 million people died during the man-made famine of 1932-34, and an additional 7 million people were killed and 8-12 million arrested during the purges of 1934-38.

With the on-set of World War II, the Soviet Union crippled by Stalin’s Great Purge of 1937, having executed or imprisoned many high ranking officers, was generally ill-prepared for war and signed a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany. They were caught off guard when they were attacked by Nazi Germany in June of 1941. By mid-September 1941, Hitler’s forces had cut off the city of Leningrad and advanced to within a few hundred miles of Moscow. With great sacrifice, the Russians stopped the Nazi advance and slowly began to push them back. The siege of Leningrad lasted 900 days and as many as one million people died of disease and starvation before it was broken in January 1944 (Figes, 492). By the end of the war, 27 million people in Soviet Russia (especially many Ukrainians, Belarusians, Lithuanians, Latvians, and Estonians, and many of the civilian victims were Jews) had died but the country emerged with control of vast territory in Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans. “That the Soviet Union not only survived but emerged from the War as Europe’s strongest power was a tribute to Soviet military valor and diplomatic skill” (Donaldson et al, 62). Word War II or The Great Patriotic War as it is known in Russia mobilized all of its resources including more than one million women who served with the Soviet armed forces as medics, scouts, snipers, and communication operators and in combat positions in the infantry, artillery, armored tank and anti-aircraft divisions (Pennington, 2010).2

Stalinism and the Cold War

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, “the arts in Russia have served as an arena for political, philosophical and religious debate in the absence of a parliament or a free press” (Figes, 2002, xxvii). During the Stalin era, especially, there were many dissidents whose voices were silenced and marginalized. It was such people that Anna Akhmatova mourned in her poem Requiem “a mouth through which a hundred million scream” conceived while standing in line before the central prison in Leningrad waiting to hear word of her son’s fate and only published in Russia in 1989 long after her death in 1966 (Poetry Foundation). Akhmatova’s was a voice that could not be silenced; having lived through and written about the Russian Revolution, World War I, Stalin’s Purges, and World War II, she remained a patriot despite suffering persecution, intimidation and oppression. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918–2008) awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1970 was expelled from the USSR in 1974 and Andrei Sakharov (1921–1989) awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975 was later arrested and lived much of his life under forced internal exile.

Under communism, old aristocratic ideas were abandoned for new proletarian ones where science and a mechanized collectivism would transform the world, where faith in religion would be replaced by scientific progress. Communism called for the abolition of private ownership over the means of production, state control of everyday life, and subordination of the individual to the power of the bureaucracy. While the socialist ideal called for equality and the destruction of hierarchy, it especially targeted the privileges afforded to both the well-educated and religious institutions (Shafarevich, 1974, 44, 53-54). The Soviet economy largely operated on plans from above rather than consumer demand from below. While very successful as a tool of industrialization, the planned economy did not necessarily promote individual initiative or innovation. It has been highly criticized for lacking quality and competitiveness. Solzhenitsyn criticized the communist state for usurping land ownership from peasants, political power from trade unions, and voice from minority communities (Solzhenitsyn, 1974, 11).


Following WWII, “both the USSR and the United States perceived themselves as heading coalitions struggling for peace and justice against an evil and determined rival” (Donaldson, et al, 73-74). Under such a competitive nationalistic framework, the United States and Russia viewed compromise and accommodation as forms of unpatriotic treachery. Solzhenitsyn described the context thus: “not a single event in our life has been freely and comprehensively discussed, so that a true appreciation of it could be arrived at and solutions found” (Solzhenitsyn, 1974, ix). He called for the USSR and the United States to find common interests, to cease being antagonists, and ensure respect for human rights (8). He was critical of unfettered freedom devoid of moral responsibility and immersed in protecting its own self-interests. He called for both social justice and the renunciation of violence, for free will in joining the social contract.

After Stalin died, Nikita Khrushchev takes over denouncing Stalin in a secret speech and releases 5 million people from the gulags (forced labor camps that housed mainly political prisoners). Khrushchev’s rule saw numerous challenges and confrontations including the Soviet invasion of Hungary (1956), the Suez Canal crisis (1956), Sputnik and the space race (1957), the erection of the Berlin Wall (1961), and the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962).

The Cold War begins with stalemates dividing East and West Berlin and North and South Korea, leading to divisiveness in other parts of the world and increases in arms sales. The Cold War begins in the Middle East with the Suez Canal crisis. In 1955, Gamal Abdel Nasser obtained $200 million dollars of advanced Soviet weaponry from Czechoslovakia, a move that angered the United States, which then withdrew funding for the Aswan High Dam project leading to the 1956 nationalization of the Suez Canal and the subsequent British, French, and Israeli attack on Egypt (Ahmed, 2011, p. 58). Weapons were the chief export of the USSR to the Third World (Donaldson et al, 86). In 1962, Soviet-supported Nasser began carrying out a proxy war in Yemen that spread into Saudi Arabia resulting in increased military support to Saudi Arabia from the United States (Bronson, 2006, pp. 85-88). U.S. strategic interests in the Middle East were to ensure access to oil and prevent any hostile power from acquiring control over this resource. During the Cold War the Soviet Union was seen as the primary threat to those interests (Sick, 2009, p. 295). In 1968, when the British announced their intention of reducing their presence in the Middle East, the United States looked to partner with Iran and Saudi Arabia in order to counter the threat of Soviet expansion.  This Twin Pillars policy ignored the issue that both Iran and Saudi Arabia were unhappy with Israel’s aggressive stance in the Middle East.  For Iran, The United State’s support for Israel was untenable; however, “the Saudi leadership considered its geostrategic competition with the Soviets and its relationship with the United States more important than the Arab-Israeli one, and viewed the United States as its long-term central partner in that larger struggle” (Bronson, 2006, p. 120). Saudi Arabia and the United States became partners against “Godless” communism.  Saudi Arabia was the United States’ most important ally during the Cold War, assisting the United States to conduct proxy wars in Afghanistan, Angola, Ethiopia, Nicaragua, Yemen, and the Sudan.  The U.S.-Saudi partnership helped bankrupt the Soviet Union and contributed to its defeat in Afghanistan and losses in Africa (Bronson, 203).

Khrushchev was succeeded by Leonid Brezhnev in 1964. During the Brezhnev era, the major conflicts and issues included the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia (1968), the Vietnam War, war in Bangladesh (1971), Yom Kippur War (1973), SALT I & II ballistic missile agreements, war in Angola (1975), Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (1979), and the boycott of 1980 Moscow Olympics).

It was estimated “that from 1950-1970, Soviet per capita food consumption doubled, disposable income quadrupled, the work week was shortened, welfare benefits increased, consumption of soft-goods tripled and purchases of hard-goods rose twelve-fold” (Smith, 1976, 58). By 1970, life expectancy reached 70 years and the Soviet Union had the highest ratio of doctors to population in the world. Furthermore, in 1974, 85 percent of all working-age women were employed, the highest percentage in the industrialized world (Smith, 72, 130). However, by the late 1970’s, there were significant signs of trouble. New York Times correspondent Hedrick Smith in his 1976 book The Russians reported that the Soviet underground economy or black market grew out of the system’s inefficiencies, shortages, poor quality and terrible delays in service (Smith, 1976, 86). Communism became a patronage system where who you knew and their administrative position in the party’s privileged class was decisive to improving one’s quality of life. (Smith, 1976, 29) People relied on blat, reciprocal favors from connections providing access that were more valuable than money. Smith commented that what surprised him most was “the irrepressive unruliness of human beings in a system of rules” and “how expert Russians were at finagling ways to beat the system” (Smith, 1976, 9).

Certainly, by the early 1980s the costs of war abroad had seriously undermined the Soviet economy fueling disillusionment if not despair at home. Between 1982 and 1985 the USSR had three successive leadership changes. Mikhail Gorbachev was elected general secretary by the politburo in March 1985 inheriting dismal prospects - most notably a stagnant economy, poor agricultural productivity, substandard housing, declining life expectancy and rising infant mortality. His first unexpected crisis was the Chernobyl nuclear reactor accident in April 1986.

Perestroika and Glasnost

Aimed at restructuring and not dismantling the Soviet system, Gorbachev’s perestroika (restructuring) reforms and glasnost (openness) campaigns required great courage as they nonetheless challenged the foundations of communist ideology. He recognized how military power and expenditures had been generally unproductive and that there was a need to shift focus and find a way to empower people to become more competitively engaged in the global economy. He was also particularly focused on curbing nuclear proliferation and the arms race.

In the late 1980s, Gorbachev began withdrawing troops from conflicts in Angola (1988) and Afghanistan (1989), ending military aid to Nicaragua (1989), sponsoring a cease-fire in the Iran/Iraq war (1987), and encouraging Vietnam to withdraw troops from Cambodia (1989).

The opening up of reforms in Soviet Russia soon spread in unexpected ways throughout the region. In the spring of 1989 Poland conducted elections with Lech Walesa’s Solidarity labor union winning the majority of contested seats, this was followed by a wave of mass demonstrations in Hungary, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and Romania all leading to the ousting of Communist Party control and new elections. The fall of the Berlin Wall in November of 1989 and the reunification of Germany signaling an end to the Cold War as Gorbachev was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990.

In 1991, concerned about the slow pace of reforms in Russia and the collapse of Soviet rule in Eastern Europe and the Baltic States, Russia becomes an independent state under pro-democracy President Boris Yeltsin, the first freely elected leader in Russian history, and soon thereafter formed the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) first with Belorussia and Ukraine and then adding Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Moldova, Armenia and Azerbaijan.  Russia’s first order of business was to negotiate new relationships and promote economic integration with the former Soviet republics and gain acceptance/membership in organizations such as the World Trade Organization (WTO), and International Monetary Fund (IMF). However, there were many hurdles and roadblocks to joining these European and Global Institutions, and the CIS proved to be a very loose federation with each of the members pursuing their own interests and memberships in these international organizations, and each establishing its own currency. Russia offered CIS nations below market prices for commodities such as oil and gas, asking in return that these countries not enter into external defense treaties or allow foreign military bases to be established in the region but this tactic largely failed and soon Russia was increasing prices to assert greater control (Donaldson et al, 178). The Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) gained membership in the EU in 2004 along with former Communist bloc countries of Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia, followed by Bulgaria and Romania in 2007 and Croatia in 2013. More concerning to Russia, these countries also all joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a military alliance originally created to prevent a Soviet invasion of Western Europe. Notably, Finland which has as much reason to distrust and fear Russia as any nation is a member of the European Union but not of NATO.

Conflicts in the Balkans and Caucasus Regions

Continued NATO expansion was based on old fears of the potential for Russian aggression and was viewed by Russia as a broken promise that limited their influence in partnering to resolve regional conflicts. Immediately following the breakup of the Soviet Union, several conflicts arose in the former republics including civil war in Tajikistan, two secessionist movements in Georgia (South Ossetia and Abkhazia), the war over Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan and Armenia, and the independence struggle of the Trans-Dniester region in Moldova, all of which contributed to these fears and to declining regional trade. The total volume of trade between Russia and the former Soviet Republics dropped by half between 1989 and 1993. In 1992-93, despite pledges of 1.6 billion dollar assistance package from the United States and a ten year deferral on debt obligations, Russia continued to experience severe economic hardships, hyperinflation, unemployment and reduction in social services (Donaldson et al., 170, 237-238, 252, 257). It is estimated that by mid-1993, more than 40 million Russians were living below the poverty line.

The biggest conflicts in the region testing the evolving relationship between Russia and the West (NATO) were the wars in the Balkans and the war in Chechnya. The West did not question the right of Russia to assert authority over Chechnya but it did object to the brutality of fighting forces and the killing of civilians. Russia charged that the violations of human rights were being committed by Chechen rebels. The two-year war in Chechnya ended in 1994 with a compromise agreement providing some local autonomy to the region. However, the failure of Russian troops to win the war contributed to a gradual decline in Yeltsin’s popularity as he was increasingly viewed as inept and weak, capitulating to Western demands. (Indeed, the West was treating Russia this way in its refusal to involve them more closely in actions in Kosovo.) Yeltsin was also increasingly seen as undemocratic following a Constitutional crisis and legislative power- struggle that included his impeachment and bombardment of the Russian White House in 1993.

Terrorist attacks by Chechen rebels involving over 2000 hostages at hospitals in Budyonnovsk in 1995, and Kizlar in 1996 continued to force the question of how to deal with the region. In 1997, Yeltsin and Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov signed an agreement that was to extend autonomy, end hostilities, and follow the rules of law.  Of special note, Chechnya is strategically important because it provides a vital link in the flow of oil from Baku, Azerbaijan to the Black Sea port of Novorossik (Donaldson et al, 240-245, 264). Comparatively, the level of concern and regulation over the placement of oil and gas infrastructure between the United States, Canada and Mexico as regards to environmental protection and impact studies pales with the security risks and economic competition over the placement of oil and gas pipelines in the Baltic, Caucasus, Caspian Sea and Central Asia regions. Throughout the region of the former Soviet Republics, the process of controlling oil and gas resources and supply pipelines is highly contested.

Oligarchs and a Powerful Petro State

Economic growth was accompanied by the rise of oligarchs - a small number of people who gained control of a large share of what had earlier been state assets as the Soviet economy privatized – who were getting rich very quickly. The means by which they gained control has also been called into serious question, Jerrold Schecter writing in 1998 noted that “six hundred bankers and business people have been killed since the fall of the Soviet Union” (13). Some of these Oligarchs have treated Russia like their own personal property while others invested in building a stronger civil society through supporting democratic institutions such as a free press (Gessen, 124-134). A number of high profile corruption and murder cases have emerged in recent years including cases involving not just oligarchs but also political dissidents such as: the arrests of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Vladimir Gusinsky, Dmitry Rozhdestvensky, Pussy Riot, Alexei Navalny, and the deaths of Sergei Yushenkov, Alexander Litvinenko, Boris Berezovsky, Galina Starovoitova, Anna Politkovskaya, Sergei Magnitsky, and Boris Nemtsov.

Helped by soaring revenues of petroleum exports, the rise of Vladimir Putin has been largely ascribed to his success in responding to the “dizzying economic decline of the early 1990s [that] produced a profound sense of national humiliation” (Donaldson et al, 117).

In 1999, Chechnya invaded the Dagestan region of Russia and Yeltsin appointed Vladimir Putin to put down the incursion. This was followed by several terrorist bombings in different cities across Russia including two in Moscow that resulted in more than 100 deaths and led Putin to initiate a full-scale war on Chechnya producing hundreds of thousands of refugees (Gessen, 2012, 23-27). Later that year, Yeltsin resigns and Putin becomes his successor. Putin wins the election for President in 2000.

Beyond the important policy differences on the wars in Kosovo, Libya and Iraq, NATO enlargement, and attempts to establish U.S. military bases and missile defense systems in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, Putin has generally been supportive of developing good bilateral relations with the United States. This is best exemplified through Russia’s support for the war on terrorism. At the same time, Putin has insisted that Russia’s role in regional and world affairs be recognized. Since he became president, Vladimir Putin has worked to concentrate power and eliminate critics and competitors. As one of his vocal critics has observed: “three months after his inauguration, two of the country’s wealthiest men had been stripped of their influence and effectively kicked out of the country [and] less than a year after Putin came to power, all three federal television networks were controlled by the state” (Gessen, 174).

After 9/11, the war against Chechnya was largely portrayed as part of the West’s war on Islamic fundamentalist terrorism (Gessen, 229). The 2004 hostage crisis at a school in Beslan, North Ossetia in which 342 mostly children were killed was followed by “Putin’s decision to centralize Moscow’s control over Russia’s regions by discarding the popular election of regional governors and republic presidents” (Donaldson et al, 384).

Russia’s growing economic success and Putin’s efforts to take back control from the oligarchs was largely touted among the emerging BRIC countries’ multipolar world (Brazil, Russia, India and China) (Gessen, 243). The Shanghai Cooperation Organization was another sign of Russia’s attempts to develop strong regional partnerships. Putin won a landslide victory for re-election in 2004. In 2008, Dmitry Medvedev becomes president and appoints Putin prime minister as he is ineligible to run for a third consecutive term.

Today, “most economic production is in private hands, the ruble is fully convertible, and prices are free to fluctuate with supply and demand” (Donaldson et al, 9). Russia also has a large domestic market and well-educated workforce. Russia has joined the International Monetary Fund and World Trade Organization but continues to be very dependent on oil and gas revenues which have been subject to significant price fluctuations effecting economic stability. Gazprom has a near monopoly on natural gas production and transport in Russia and about 17 percent of the world gas production, 18 percent of estimated reserves and 15 percent of the global transport network (Donaldson et al, 150). Unfortunately, Russia has poor protection of property rights, relatively high levels of corruption, increasing state ownership, and an unpredictable judicial system (Guriev, 2016, 21-22). Prospects for Russia’s future economic growth are unclear and will depend largely on the degree of improvement in regional trade relations, legal protections, and controlled government spending.

Syria and Ukraine

“In February [2016], Moscow and Washington issued a joint statement announcing the terms of a ‘cessation of hostilities’ in Syria agreed to by major world powers, regional players, and most of the participants in the Syrian civil war…Even as it worked with Russia on the truce, the United States continued to enforce the sanctions it had placed on Russia in response to the 2014 annexation of Crimea” (Lukyanov, Putin’s Foreign Policy). Russia’s actions in Crimea and in Syria represent in part a response to U.S. aggression around the world since the end of the Cold War and what it generally views as an overly assertive U.S. foreign policy (Lukyanov, 32-35). Many Russians see Putin’s annexation of Crimea “as righting a historical injustice and reclaiming Russia’s status as a world power” (Lipman, 2016, 44). But Russia needs to develop good relations with Ukraine and its other neighbors through diplomacy not force of arms. The biggest threats to Russia are not European expansionism and certainly not the ambitions of neighbors and important potential trading partners like Ukraine, rather it stems from on-going destabilizing conflict in the Middle East. In many ways, the West needs a stable Russian military presence in Sevastopol (it had a lease agreement through 2042) which makes Russia’s aggression in Crimea, the Ukraine and even Syria all the more troubling. Russia has played and can play a productive role in Syria as it did with the removal of chemical weapons. It would be interesting to consider what influence the Moscow Patriarchate might have in regards to policies or relief efforts on behalf of Syrian Orthodox Christians. Russia’s Middle East relations are critically important in resolving conflicts there, especially its relations with Turkey and Iran. Therefore, it is critical the U.S. and Russia come together over strategic policy in Syria. There will not be real or lasting security in the region without stable cooperation with Russia.

Concluding Remarks

To summarize some of the main points of this essay, Russia has tended to have strong leaders with centralized control. It is a predominantly Christian society with diverse ethnic populations and neighbors. It has suffered and sacrificed greatly through serfdom, war, and famine but remained very patriotic, hard-working and high-achieving in both science and the arts. It has been very conscious of protecting its interests through strategic defense and diplomacy working to maintain a balance-of-power approach in its foreign policy and international relations. Today, Russia remains by far the world’s largest country and has a relatively vibrant economy albeit very dependent on oil and natural gas. It is a country facing unique and challenging circumstances as it negotiates a new identity with its neighbors in the broader global society. It is working to build trust and rapport with countries long suppressed and neglected under the Soviet sphere of influence during the Cold War period.

The storied history of U.S. / Russia relations over the last century, epitomized by the Cold War era, has often been antagonistic resulting in disastrous third world proxy wars, a tragic and wasteful consequence. Real collaboration in joint problem-solving efforts has been lacking, collaboration in space exploration being one exception and disarmament another. Direct trade with Russia has also been limited.

There is a great deal of trauma and tragedy in Russia’s history and current context that give cause for caution and concern (the same is true for most countries including the U.S. and its genocide of Native Americans, slavery, Vietnam, and Iraq), but these faults and mistakes need not define the future. We must learn from such mistakes rather than allowing them to become self-fulfilling prophecies where participants become complicit in a never-ending narrative of distrust and fear. As noted in this essay, it has been asserted that “centuries of invasion from both east and west engendered fear and distrust of the outside world” by Russia (Schecter, 26) but such circumstances have also promoted a strategy emphasizing a desire to form alliances and mutually beneficial relationships to weather such storms. Generally speaking, in global affairs, we should be looking to societies’ strengths for answers, not the weaknesses for excuses. A paradigm shift from a worldview of competing empires to one of mutual responsibility is critically needed.

The conditions for building such a mutual transformation rest on the development of trust and solidarity through practical experience and engagement in shared problem-solving. At the time of writing this essay, Great Britain had just voted to withdraw from the European Union, indicating, in part, a level of distrust in shared governance over the processes of collaborative global problem-solving. However, it may be that greater local control and autonomy will best afford opportunities to act responsibly and make choices for the common good. The vote itself is an important educational process informing both the public and the leadership.  Election results do not always tell us what we want to hear but when done fairly and openly it promotes open debate and a better understanding of the issues. The overall lack of democratic processes in the Middle East (and still developing experience in Russia) is the source of much of today’s problems, problems that have not been corrected by the use of external military force.

Rather than blaming others, people need to recognize the creative power of diverse human relationships across communities and cultures. War is costly and wasteful but we should not think that building coalitions and collaborations is inexpensive or easily accomplished. It takes time and patience to develop trust and understanding.

What is clear is that Russia is a critical partner for promoting a peaceful future. It is a country that has played an integral role shaping the current context of international relationships and it no doubt will continue to do so. Fears over security should not result in unilateral action, instead they are best addressed through engagement in relationship building efforts. Wars cannot be won anymore and there are no longer any superpowers (Carnegie Council, 2016). We live today in an interdependent world inextricably bound together.

It is hoped that KSU’s Year of Russia program will provide a strong basis for our students’ understanding of Russia and the development of mutually beneficial relationships in the future. In this regard, in addition to our robust lecture series and campus programming, the University plans to host faculty and students from Russia for a conference on “U.S. – Russia Relations” in March and then send KSU faculty and students to Moscow in May to learn from and engage with partners there. The Year of Russia does not represent an unconditional celebration of the nation rather it aims to provide a critical forum for discussion in learning about the country, from various perspectives and in context, in order to improve relations. Please join us for what promises to be a very valuable interdisciplinary educational experience on our campus.


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1 Leo Tolstoy was an artillery officer and was with the besieged troops in Sevastopol.

2 The role of women in the Red Army received little attention until Svetlana Alexievich published War’s Unwomanly Face in 1985. She received the Nobel Prize in literature in 2015 for this and other works on Chernobyl and the Afghan War.