Peculiarities of Russian National Character
BRICS, 19 Jan 2015
Recent events, such as the overthrow of the government in Ukraine, the secession of Crimea and its decision to join the Russian Federation, the subsequent military campaign against civilians in Eastern Ukraine, western sanctions against Russia, and, most recently, the attack on the ruble, have caused a certain phase transition to occur within Russian society, which, I believe, is very poorly, if at all, understood in the west. This lack of understanding puts Europe at a significant disadvantage in being able to negotiate an end to this crisis.
Whereas prior to these events the Russians were rather content to consider themselves “just another European country,” they have now remembered that they are a distinct civilization, with different civilizational roots (Byzantium rather than Rome)—one that has been subject to concerted western efforts to destroy it once or twice a century, be it by Sweden, Poland, France, Germany, or some combination of the above. This has conditioned the Russian character in a specific set of ways which, if not adequately understood, is likely to lead to disaster for Europe and the world.
Lest you think that Byzantium is some minor cultural influence on Russia, it is, in fact, rather key. Byzantine cultural influences, which came along with Orthodox Christianity, first through Crimea (the birthplace of Christianity in Russia), then through the Russian capital Kiev (the same Kiev that is now the capital of Ukraine), allowed Russia to leapfrog across a millennium or so of cultural development. Such influences include the opaque and ponderously bureaucratic nature of Russian governance, which the westerners, who love transparency (if only in others) find so unnerving, along with many other things. Russians sometimes like to call Moscow the Third Rome—third after Rome itself and Constantinople—and this is not an entirely empty claim. But this is not to say that Russian civilization is derivative; yes, it has managed to absorb the entire classical heritage, viewed through a distinctly eastern lens, but its vast northern environment has transformed that heritage into something radically different.
Since this subject is of overwhelming complexity, I will focus on just four factors, which I find essential for understanding the transformation we are currently witnessing.
1. Taking offense
Western nations have emerged in an environment of limited resources and relentless population pressure, and this has to a large degree determined the way in which they respond when they are offended. For quite a long time, while centralized authority was weak, conflicts were settled through bloody conflict, and even a minor affront could cause former friends to become instant adversaries and draw their swords. This is because it was an environment in which standing your ground was key to survival.
In contrast, Russia emerged as a nation in an environment of almost infinite, although mostly quite diffuse, resources. It also drew from the bounty of the trade route that led from the Vikings to the Greeks, which was so active that Arab geographers believed that there was a salt-water strait linking the Black Sea with the Baltic, whereas the route consisted of rivers with a considerable amount of portage. In this environment, it was important to avoid conflict, and people who would draw their swords at a single misspoken word were unlikely to do well in it.
Thus, a very different conflict resolution strategy has emerged, which survives to this day. If you insult, aggrieve or otherwise harm a Russian, you are unlikely to get a fight (unless it happens to be a demonstrative beating held in a public setting, or a calculated settling of scores through violence). Instead, more likely than not, the Russian will simply tell you to go to hell, and then refuse to have anything further to do with you. If physical proximity makes this difficult, the Russian will consider relocating, moving in any direction that happens to be away from you. So common is this speech act in practice that it has been abbreviated to a monosyllabic utterance: “Пшёл!” (“Pshol!”) and can be referred to simply as “послать” (literally, “to send”). In an environment where there is an almost infinite amount of free land to settle, such a strategy makes perfect sense. Russians live like settled people, but when they have to move, they move like nomads, whose main method of conflict resolution is voluntary relocation.
This response to grievance as something permanent is a major facet of the Russian culture, and westerners who do not understand it are unlikely to achieve an outcome they would like, or even understand. To a westerner, an insult can be resolved by saying something like “I am sorry!” To a Russian that’s pretty much just noise, especially if it is being emitted by somebody who has already been told to go to hell. A verbal apology that is not backed up by something tangible is one of these rules of politeness, which to the Russians are something of a luxury. Until a couple of decades ago, the standard Russian apology was “извиняюсь” (“izviniáius’”), which can be translated literally as “I excuse myself.” Russia is now a much more polite country, but the basic cultural pattern remains in place.
Although purely verbal apologies are worthless, restitution is not. Setting things right may involve parting with a prized possession, or making a significant new pledge, or announcing an important change of direction. The point is, these all involve taking pivotal actions, not just words, because beyond a certain point words can only make the situation worse, taking it from the “Go to hell” stage to the even less copacetic “Let me show you the way” stage.
2. Dealing with invaders
Russia has a long history of being invaded from every direction, but especially from the west, and Russian culture has evolved a certain mindset which is difficult for outsiders to comprehend. First of all, it is important to realize that when Russians fight off an invasion (and having the CIA and the US State Department run Ukraine with the help of Ukrainian Nazis qualifies as an invasion) they are not fighting for territory, at least not directly. Rather, they are fighting for Russia as a concept. And the concept states that Russia has been invaded numerous times, but never successfully. In the Russian mindset, invading Russia successfully involves killing just about every Russian, and, as they are fond of saying, “They can’t kill us all.” (“Нас всех не убьёшь.”) Population can be restored over time (it was down 22 million at the end of World War II) but the concept, once lost, would be lost forever. It may sound nonsensical to a westerner to hear Russians call their country “a country of princes, poets and saints,” but that’s what it is—it is a state of mind. Russia doesn’t have a history—it is its history.
Because the Russians fight for the concept of Russia rather than for any given chunk of Russian territory, they are always rather willing to retreat—at first. When Napoleon invaded Russia, fully planning to plunder his way across the countryside, he found the entire countryside torched by the retreating Russians. When he finally occupied Moscow, it too went up in flames. Napoleon camped out for a bit, but eventually, realizing that there was nothing more to be done (attack Siberia?) and that his army would starve and die of exposure if they remained, he beat a hasty and shameful retreat, eventually abandoning his men to their fate. As they retreated, another facet of Russian cultural heritage came to the fore: every peasant from every village that got torched as the Russians retreated was in the forefront as the Russians advanced, itching for a chance to take a pot shot at a French soldier.
Similarly, the German invasion during World War II was at first able to make rapid advances, taking a lot of territory, while the Russians equally swiftly retreated and evacuated their populations, relocating entire factories and other institutions to Siberia and resettling families in the interior of the country. Then the German advance stopped, reversed, and eventually turned into a rout. The standard pattern repeated itself, with the Russian army breaking the invader’s will while most of the locals that found themselves under occupation withheld cooperation, organized as partisans and inflicted maximum possible damage on the retreating invader.
Another Russian adaptation for dealing with invaders is to rely on the Russian climate to do the job. A standard way of ridding a Russian village house of vermin is simply to not heat it; a few days at 40 below or better and the cockroaches, bedbugs, lice, nits, weevils, mice, rats are all dead. It works with invaders too. Russia is the world’s most northern country. Canada is far north, but most of its population is spread along its southern border, and it has no major cities above the Arctic Circle, while Russia has two. Life in Russia in some ways resembles life in outer space or on the open ocean: impossible without life support. The Russian winter is simply not survivable without cooperation from the locals, and so all they have to do to wipe out an invader is withhold cooperation. And if you think that an invader can secure cooperation by shooting a few locals to scare the rest, see above under “Taking offense.”
3. Dealing with foreign powers
Russia owns almost the entire northern portion of the Eurasian continent, which comprises something like 1/6 of the Earth’s dry surface. That, by Earth standards, is a lot of territory. This is not an aberration or an accident of history: throughout their history, the Russians were absolutely driven to provide for their collective security by gaining as much territory as possible. If you are wondering what motivated them to undertake such a quest, see “Dealing with invaders” above.
If you think that foreign powers repeatedly attempted to invade and conquer Russia in order to gain access to its vast natural resources, then you are wrong: the access was always there for the asking. The Russians are not exactly known for refusing to sell their natural resources—even to their potential enemies. No, what Russia’s enemies wanted was to be able to tap into Russia’s resources free of charge. To them, Russia’s existence was an inconvenience, which they attempted to eliminate through violence.
What they achieved instead was a higher price for themselves, once their invasion attempt failed. The calculus is simple: the foreigners want Russia’s resources; to defend them, Russia needs a strong, centralized state with a big, powerful military; ergo, the foreigners should be made to pay, to support Russia’s state and military. Consequently, most of the Russian state’s financial needs are addressed through export tariffs, on oil and natural gas especially, rather than by taxing the Russian population. After all, the Russian population is taxed heavily enough by having to fight off periodic invasions; why tax them more? Thus, the Russian state is a customs state: it uses customs duties and tariffs to extract funds from the enemies who would destroy it and use these funds to defend itself. Since there is no replacement for Russia’s natural resources, the more hostile the outside world acts toward Russia, the more it will end up paying for Russia’s national defense.
Note that this policy is directed at foreign powers, not at foreign-born people. Over the centuries, Russia has absorbed numerous immigrants: from Germany during the 30 years’ war; from France after the French revolution. More recent influxes have been from Vietnam, Korea, China and Central Asia. Last year Russia absorbed more immigrants than any other country except for the United States, which is dealing with an influx from countries on its southern border, whose populations its policies have done much to impoverish. Moreover, the Russians are absorbing this major influx, which includes close to a million from war-torn Ukraine, without much complaint. Russia is a nation of immigrants to a greater extent than most others, and is more of a melting pot than the United States.
4. Thanks, but we have our own
One more interesting Russian cultural trait is that Russians have always felt compelled to excel in all categories, from ballet and figure-skating to hockey and football to space flight and microchip manufacturing. You may think of champagne as a trademark French product, but last I checked “Советское шампанское” (“Soviet champagne”) was still selling briskly around New Year’s Eve, and not only in Russia but in Russian shops in the US because, you see, the French stuff may be nice, but it just doesn’t taste sufficiently Russian. For just about every thing you can imagine there is a Russian version of it, which the Russians often feel is better, and sometimes can claim they invented in the first place (the radio, for instance, was invented by Popov, not by Marconi). There are exceptions (tropical fruit is one example) and they are allowed provided they come from a “brotherly nation” such as Cuba. That was the pattern during the Soviet times, and it appears to be coming back to some extent now.
During the late Brezhnev/Andropov/Gorbachev “stagnation” period Russian innovation indeed stagnated, along with everything else, and Russia lost ground against the west technologically (but not culturally). After the Soviet collapse Russians became eager for western imports, and this was quite normal considering that Russia wasn’t producing much of anything at the time. Then, during the 1990s, there came the era of western compradors, who dumped imported products on Russia with the long-term goal of completely wiping out domestic industry and making Russia into a pure raw materials supplier, at which point it would be defenseless against an embargo and easily forced to surrender its sovereignty. This would be an invasion by non-military means, against which Russia would find itself defenseless.
This process ran quite far before it hit a couple of major snags. First, Russian manufacturing and non-hydrocarbon exports rebounded, doubling several times in the course of a decade. The surge included grain exports, weapons, and high-tech. Second, Russia found lots of better, cheaper, friendlier trading partners around the world. Still, Russia’s trade with the west, and with the EU specifically, is by no means insignificant. Third, the Russian defense industry has been able to maintain its standards, and its independence from imports. (This can hardly be said about the defense firms in the west, which depend on Russian titanium exports.)
And now there has come the perfect storm for the compradors: the ruble has partially devalued in response to lower oil prices, pricing out imports and helping domestic producers; sanctions have undermined Russia’s confidence in the reliability of the west as suppliers; and the conflict over Crimea has boosted the Russians’ confidence in their own abilities. The Russian government is seizing this opportunity to champion companies that can quickly effect import replacement for imports from the west. Russia’s central bank has been charged with financing them at interest rates that make import replacement even more attractive.
Some people have been drawing comparisons between the period we are in now and the last time oil prices dropped—all the way to $10/barrel—in some measure precipitating the Soviet collapse. But this analogy is false. At the time, the Soviet Union was economically stagnant and dependent on western credit to secure grain imports, without which it wouldn’t have been able to raise enough livestock to feed its population. It was led by the feckless and malleable Gorbachev—an appeaser, a capitulator, and a world-class windbag whose wife loved to go shopping in London. The Russian people despised him and referred to him as “Mishka the Marked,” thanks to his birthmark. And now Russia is resurgent, is one of the world’s largest grain exporters, and is being led by the defiant and implacable President Putin who enjoys an approval rating of over 80%. In comparing pre-collapse USSR to Russia today, commentators and analysts showcase their ignorance.
This part almost writes itself. It’s a recipe for disaster, so I’ll write it out as a recipe.
1. Take a nation of people who respond to offense by damning you to hell, and refusing to having anything more to do with you, rather than fighting. Make sure that this is a nation whose natural resources are essential for keeping your lights on and your houses heated, for making your passenger airliners and your jet fighters, and for a great many other things. Keep in mind, a quarter of the light bulbs in the US light up thanks to Russian nuclear fuel, whereas a cut-off of Russian gas to Europe would be a cataclysm of the first order.
2. Make them feel that they are being invaded by installing a government that is hostile to them in a territory that they consider part of their historical homeland. The only truly non-Russian part of the Ukraine is Galicia, which parted company many centuries ago and which, most Russians will tell you, “You can take to hell with you.” If you like your neo-Nazis, you can keep your neo-Nazis. Also keep in mind how the Russians deal with invaders: they freeze them out.
3. Impose economic and financial sanctions on Russia. Watch in dismay as your exporters start losing money when in instant retaliation Russia blocks your agricultural exports. Keep in mind that this is a country that, thanks to surviving a long string of invasion attempts, traditionally relies on potentially hostile foreign states to finance its defense against them. If they fail to do so, then it will resort to other ways of deterring them, such as freezing them out. “No gas for NATO members” seems like a catchy slogan. Hope and pray that it doesn’t catch on in Moscow.
4. Mount an attack on their national currency, causing it to lose part of its value on par with a lower price of oil. Watch in dismay as Russian officials laugh all the way to the central bank because the lower ruble has caused state revenues to remain unchanged in spite of lower oil prices, erasing a potential budget deficit. Watch in dismay as your exporters go bankrupt because their exports are priced out of the Russian market. Keep in mind, Russia has no national debt to speak of, runs a negligible budget deficit, has plentiful foreign currency reserves and ample gold reserves. Also keep in mind that your banks have loaned hundreds of billions of dollars to Russian businesses (which you have just deprived of access to your banking system by imposing sanctions). Hope and pray that Russia doesn’t put a freeze on debt repayments to western banks until the sanctions are lifted, since that would blow up your banks.
5. Watch in dismay as Russia signs major natural gas export deals with everyone except you. Is there going to be enough gas left for you when they are done? Well, it appears that this no longer a concern for the Russians, because you have offended them, and, being who they are, they told you to go to hell (don’t forget to take Galicia with you) and will now deal with other, friendlier countries.
6. Continue to watch in dismay as Russia actively looks for ways to sever most of the trade links with you, finding suppliers in other parts of the world or organizing production for import replacement.
But now comes a surprise—an underreported one, to say the least. Russia has just offered the EU a deal. If the EU refuses to join the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the US (which, by the way, would hurt it economically) then it can join the Customs Union with Russia. Why freeze yourselves out when we can all freeze out Washington instead? This is the restitution Russia would accept for the EU’s offensive behavior with regard to the Ukraine and the sanctions. Coming from a customs state, it is a most generous offer. A lot went into making it: the recognition that the EU poses no military threat to Russia and not much of an economic one either; the fact that the European countries are all very cute and tiny and lovable, and make tasty cheeses and sausages; the understanding that their current crop of national politicians is feckless and beholden to Washington, and that they need a big push in order to understand where their nations’ true interests lie… Will the EU accept this offer, or will they accept Galicia as a new member and “freeze out”?
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