Why is Russia So Scary?
Have you ever seen Vladimir Putin, Russia’s leader, smile?
Probably not. Whenever he appears on the Western news, the report is that Russia has done something sinister, and he certainly looks capable of whatever it is. Invading Ukraine? Check. Tampering in the US election? Check. When someone threw antiseptic in the face of Alexei Navalny, Putin’s leading critic at home, and stained it green, you could almost imagine Putin having done it himself.
Of course, the news distorts our view of Russia. We don’t see families eating together, or friends attending a concert, or happy toddlers. I have had numerous Russian friends and they were every bit as pleasant as everyone else.
Yet there’s something right in our sense that Russia is different. And even ominous. To understand why, you have to go back at least a thousand years and look at Russia as a country that has always been different from neighbours such as Germany and France.
Religion and Invaders
The first big difference has to do with religion. Russians trace their country back to the 900s, and it was then that a prince named Vladimir decided that his kingdom would follow Eastern Orthodox Christianity, rather than the Roman Catholic church that dominated the rest of Europe. It meant Russia was outside the Europe that read and wrote Latin. That was a big deal. Russia would miss out on some of the revolutionary movements of Western European history including the Renaissance and the Reformation.
Worse yet, the Mongols conquered Russia and ruled it for a hundred years. This wasn’t all bad: the Mongols were more advanced than the Russians, so there were improvements in education, technology, and city planning. Nevertheless, it’s rarely good to be ruled by foreigners, and many inside and outside the country have said that Russia learned about ruthless government from the Mongols. What’s certain is that the Mongol occupation drove another wedge between Russia and its neighbours to the west.
An Empire Close to Home
The next big difference is the one that is still the most obvious one today: the country’s size. The tundra of Siberia was lightly populated and easy for Russia to conquer. Why did they do it? Because then as now Siberia had a lot of very valuable raw materials. Back then, they moved: foxes, bears, stoats, and mink. Russian hunters shot them and turned the skins into coats and hats for people freezing in Paris and Stockholm.
In some ways, there was nothing odd here. The English, French and others were also quite happy to conquer other places and peoples. But only the Russians established such a huge empire in their own backyard. This made Russia more diverse than almost any other country on earth, with hundreds of different languages. This would make it harder to introduce the education and elections that helped other countries to develop.
Russia Becoming Like the West?
There were a few tantalizing decades around 1900 when it looked as though Russians could reform their oppressive monarchy. Serfdom—the system that tied peasants to their land in semi-slavery—ended. Russia built railways and factories. They even had an elected parliament.
But we will never know if Russia would have become a modern democracy. The First World War intervened and one of its casualties was Russia’s monarchy. In 1917, Lenin and Russia’s communists seized power and turned the Russian empire into the Soviet Union. The communist experience is a major reason why Russia still seems so different.
The Communist Experiment
Millions died even before Stalin came to power. Then it got much worse. There was famine. There was the horrific fight to the death with Nazi Germany, in which 25 million Russians died. There were the ghoulish prison camps, used by the Soviet authorities to exploit the resources of the frozen north, where few wanted to live. Perhaps worst of all, the paranoid purges of enemies of the state, real and imagined, shattered the bonds of trust that hold human society together.
The Soviet Union breathed its last in 1991. As it did so, it splintered into fifteen countries. Russia was by far the largest, and still tends to see the other fourteen countries as severed limbs. Russia tried democracy, but before long the old ways and indeed the old people returned—Putin used to be an agent for the Soviet secret police.
Why Democracy is Hard in Russia
Why? For one, building a democracy is hard, something that people who speak English and live in countries with long traditions of representative government often forget. If you live in Russia, democracy feels foreign, and your country was always greatest when it had a single strong leader at the helm.
Russia used to be the second most powerful country in the world. Now, it’s not even close. But Russians want their country to be great again, and many like Putin because that’s his primary goal. Who cares if his government is corrupt and the media is tightly controlled? At least he has the guts to intervene in Ukraine and preserve Russian influence close to home.
Some have said that after the fall of the Soviet Union, Western powers could have smoothed a way for Russia to become a friendly participant in the liberal democratic circle of nations. But they did little to support Russia’s transition from a communist economy to a capitalist one. They also threatened and insulted Russia by refusing to respect Russia’s traditional sphere of influence in eastern Europe.
There’s truth to that. However, it’s likely that whatever the West did, Russia’s leaders would have concluded what their predecessors had for centuries: that their big, diverse, resource-rich country is easier to exploit and rule if you don’t give everyone a say. These days it’s enormous reserves of oil and gas not fur. But Russia is still an empire and it shouldn’t be a surprise if it’s run like one. If Vladimir Putin sometimes seems like a menacing emperor in a suit, that’s because he is.