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A look into the soul of Russia

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The Story of Russia, by Orlando Figes; Bloomsbury, £25.00

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has concentrated the mind yet again on this vast, incomprehensible country. So many questions arise: Why is Russia so enormous? Why has it never managed to break free of autocracy? Why do we so often view it as the enemy? Orlando Figes, a Russian scholar, provides some clear answers to these questions.

He begins with a significant event: President Putin’s unveiling of a monument to the Grand Prince Vladimir in Moscow on November 4, 2016. This Prince, ruler of Kievan Rus between 980-1015, is a source of fierce contention between Russia and Ukraine. For Putin, Vladimir had ‘gathered and defended Russia’s lands’ by ‘founding a strong, united and centralised state, incorporating diverse people, languages, cultures and religions into one enormous family’. This has given Russia the right to a ‘natural’ sphere of influence – a right of interference – in the affairs of its two close neighbours, Belarus and Ukraine.

Inevitably, Ukrainians have vigorously opposed this interpretation of the past. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, they erected their own statue of the Grand Prince Volodymyr in Kiev as a symbol of Ukraine’s independence from Russia. As Figes observes, these two foundation myths are entirely incompatible.

Putin has always been clear about his view of Ukraine. In 2008 he told the US President that Ukraine was ‘not a real country’ but an historic part of greater Russia, ‘a borderland protecting Moscow’s heartlands from the West’. As Figes notes, for Russia’s leaders their history has always been political, to be interpreted, refashioned, according to the demands of the government of the day. Interwoven in this flexible shaping of its identity is religion, Russian Orthodoxy. In Russia the Christian faith never achieved separation from the state, as in the West.

Readers of Dostoyevsky will have noted the mythical ideas surrounding Russian identity: ‘Holy Russia’ and the ‘Russian soul’. Such ideas have been carefully applied by Russia’s leaders – tsars as well as commissars – to invoke the most potent of all myths: the divine destiny of the Russian people to suffer for the salvation of their country. Figes quotes the Russian cultural historian Michael Cherniavsky: ‘The greater the power of the government, the more extreme was the myth required to justify it . . . the great the misery of the Russian people, the more extreme was the eschatological jump the myth had to provide so as to justify the misery and transcend it.’

The argument of Figes’s book is that ‘Russia is a country held together by ideas rooted in its distant past, histories continuously reconfigured.’ As its empire grew in the 18th century, the cult of the Grand Prince Vladimir became a symbol of the Empire’s sacred origins and of its united ‘family’. To western readers, such a misuse of the word ‘family’ may sound cynical.

Russia’s enormous size is open to different explanations: with no natural boundaries (the Urals are hardly a mountain range) and a perceived need to defend its frontiers, the country developed a policy of territorial aggression from the 17th century onwards. Figes observes that ‘Russia tends to advance its security by keeping its neighbouring countries weak and by fighting wars beyond its borders to keep hostile powers at arm’s length.’ It could be argued that this has been a defensive reaction, ‘stemming from its perceived need for buffer states to protect it on the open steppe’.

As to autocracy, from the time of Ivan the Terrible in the 16th century, the person of the tsar and the state were seen as one entity. Just as there has been no division of church and state, there has been no division of ruler and state in Russia. This made it easy after the Revolution for Lenin and Stalin to assume leader cults and it is what Putin’s regime means in speaking of ‘Russian traditions’ when it claims civic stability requires a strong leader.

Twice in the 20th century, in 1917 and in 1991, the autocratic state visibly broke down. Tragically, as Figes comments, it was then ‘reborn in a different form. The public forces unleashed in the State’s collapse have turned out to be too weak and divided to sustain a democratic government’. Thirty years after the collapse of Communism, the country clearly still lacks the institutions needed for a functioning democracy: authentic opposition parties, independent trade unions, civic groups, residents’ associations and so on.

And Putin himself? He was manoeuvred into power by his colleagues in the FSB (formerly the KGB) to save the state from the chaos following the end of Communism, and to replace a weak leader, Boris Yeltsin, with a stronger one.  Putin experienced the collapse of the Soviet Union ‘as a humiliation for his motherland and took from it the lesson that uncontrolled democracy could only end in chaos and the weakening of the state’. Such thoughts will only have been reinforced as he observes the democratic process currently at work in the US and the UK. He is statist, conservative and nationalist and his ‘traditional values’ include patriotism and obedience to the state.

The West bears some responsibility for Russia’s present aggression and sense of grievance. In Putin’s first term in office, he looked towards increasing links with the West – but also wanted the West to treat Russia with respect, to acknowledge properly the enormous sacrifices the country had made during the Second World War which it was instrumental in winning, and to recognise it as a Great Power. Figes states that Nato and the EU ‘missed an opportunity to end this historical cycle’, acting as if the Cold War had been ‘won’ by them and that Russia was the ‘defeated’ power.

What of the current war in Ukraine? Ignorant or dismissive of the Russian interpretation of their history and their view of the wider Russian ‘family’ and unaware of their centuries-old insistence on safeguarding their borders, the West has adopted a simplistic narrative of the West as ‘good’ and Russia as ‘bad’, thereby justifying its support for Ukraine.

Figes’s book went to print on April 20 this year. At that stage he saw Russia’s complete military defeat in Ukraine as unlikely, with the probability of a stalemate between the two countries: neither side winning and neither being prepared to lose. He writes, ‘There will have to be a compromise’ – in other words, a diplomatic settlement. This cannot come too soon. Yet I see no signs of serious Western statesmanship towards this end in the conflict so far; it has been left to Elon Musk, of all people, to tweet a reasonable peace plan. There has been too much grandstanding and virtue-signalling (such as the nauseous spectacle of Boris Johnson seeking photo opportunities in Kiev); too little determination to stop the loss of lives on both sides and to insist that President Zelensky ceases his more unrealistic hopes and demands.

Figes explains with clarity and sympathy why Russia is as it is; it is not a defence or justification of its methods of government or its foreign policies. Reading his book reminds one that diplomacy means realpolitik, which is always complex and often messy.

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Francis Phillips
Francis Phillips
Francis Phillips is a mother, grandmother and occasional book reviewer living in Buckinghamshire.

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