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October 2010 - After arriving at the Domodedovo Airport in Moscow before sunrise, I knew I had to dip myself into the history of this country and get to to understand, if not all, most of the notions about Russia. Few years of studying, working in and writing about the 'great planet' has dragged me into her orbit. Speaking Russian fluently, I have been digging deep in it's history, which has been pretty successful. Up until today, I keep being amazed by the details and dramatic nature of Russia's history. I have spent numerous hours in museums, squares, etc in St. Petersburg, Moscow, Voronezh and other cities within the country, just in order to learn more, before I even begin to make conclusions about the Russian people and their government.
Buddies! If we want to have a clear understanding of the processes at work in the last two decades, we need a proper awareness of Russia's thousand year history. Russia has never been 'like us', if by that we mean a liberal, market-oriented democracy where the wielders of power are there at the will of the people and can be replaced through a law governed process.
Those who regard Russia as a proto-European nation miss the point. Russia looks both ways: to the democratic, law-governed traditions of the West, but at the same time and with more of this inherited DNA in her make-up - to the Asiatic forms of governance she imbibed in the early years of her history, what Russians refer to as the silnaya ruka, the iron fist of centralised power. If proof were needed of Russians' ingrained identification with the autocratic model, the Levada Public Opinion Research Center in Moscow has for the past 20 years carried out an annual poll. To the question 'Does Russia need to be ruled by a silnaya ruka?' the average of positive responses has been between 40 and 45 percent, with an additional 20 - 30 percent agreeing that 'there are times at which Russia needs all power concentrated in a single set of hands'.
There is a school of Russian history, which speculates that Russia is forever bound to be ruled by the fist of autocracy; that it's in her nature, and Western-style democracy will never work for her. It was a view commonly held by the British and American conservatives during the Cold War years and has almost recently enjoyed some sort of resurgence. That diagnosis is perhaps too categorical, too redolent of the discredited 'historical inevitability' of Hegel and Marx.
But I can't help noticing how often it has been articulated over the course of Russian history. From the earliest rulers, Rurik and Oleg, to Ivan the Terrible, the argument was that Russia was too huge and too disorderly ever to be suited to devolved power; only the silnaya ruka of centralised autocracy could hold together her centripetal empire and maintain order among her people. The same rationale would be used by the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century tsars, by the Communist regime in the twentieth century and - mutatis mutandis - by Vladimir Putin in the twenty-first.
My aim has been to put my studies, and indeed my experiences in Russia into their historical context, to highlight the previous turning points in Russia's history, those 'moments of unruly destiny' when she could have gone either way - down the path of reform that might have made her a liberal democracy , or down the continuing path of autocracy, at times totalitarian, repressive and dictatorial. In doing this, I have not sought to make value judgements. I do not assume that one path was better or more suited to the Russian condition.
1696 - Peter the Great was a giant, both physically (he was 6 feet 7 inches tall) and intellectually. His relentless energy and zeal would surely make him the most influential ruler in Russian history; only Lenin would come close to him in the impact he had on society and power. Peter changed the way Russia was governed, creating its first civil service, building a new capital city and bringing the Russian calendar in tune with the rest of the world. Peter the Great has traditionally been credited with Europeanising Russia; he's remembered as the one who 'opened a window on the West' and turned the country away from its old Asiatic leanings. In reality, this is only partially true. What is clear is that his formative years and early education were dominated by progressive, largely civilising European influences.
Nothing could be clearer - Russia was becoming a European state, with all the implications that would have for the way it was governed and how its people were treated. Now there would be an end to autocracy and repression, that came to stay right from the Mongol yoke, if not democracy, then justice and the rule of law. Or would there?
Peter, unsurprisingly, encountered vehement opposition from those who had prospered under the old system. One of the biggest bones of contention was his programme of Westernisation. Ironically, when there resistance to his reforms, he was quick and cruel in crushing it. After a rebellion of his elite guards, Peter had a thousand of them tortured and executed, personally engaging in the slaughter and hanging their corpses on street corners. He ordered his own son to be beaten and eventually beheaded, and he locked up his wife, his sister and his mistress in nunneries.
Discontent with Peter's Westernising, and with his disregard towards the Orthodox Church, reached the peak in 1708. A peasant revolt, suggested strongly that the people still clung to an older, more conservative image of Russianness based on Christian Orthodoxy and the divine nature of the monarchy, which Peter had betrayed. Peter had the insurgents massacred. Rather than address their legitimate concerns, he moved to making their conditions even harsher. Serfdom would be a millstone around Russia's neck for another century and half!
In many respects, Peter was both a despot and reformer. He introduced Western standards of behaviours , but he used very un-Western methods to do so. He rejected notions of parliamentary involvement. He actually pursued efficiency, not democracy.
Indeed, Peter's reign saw the foundation of some of the most powerful justifications of autocracy as a system of governance. The 'Spiritual Regulations', written in 1721 by Peter's reforming Archbishop Feofan Prokopovich, state unequivocally that human beings are naturally selfish and disputatious. As a result, the firm hand of autocracy is vital to restrain their inborn inclination towards conflict and prodigality. The argument, Feofan says, is applicable to Russia because 'the nature of the Russian people is such that the country can be safeguarded only by autocratic rule. If another principle of government is adopted, it will be completely impossible to maintain its unity and wellbeing'. Another Petrine thinker, Vasily Tatishchev, concurs. He advances the contention we first heard in the time of Kievan Rus - that Russia's borders are long and porous; that she is threatened by outside enemies; and that she therefore needs the unifying force of autocracy to prevent internal divisions leading to a weakening of national defences. These are the arguments that would form the ideological justification for autocracy for generations to come.
To make a long story short, for nearly a millennuim, Russia had been an expanding empire ruled by autocratic monarchs, then by an autocratic party. It's size and power were a challenge and a warning to its neighbors. Its rulers demanded, and received, obedience from its people, who, in turn, took solace from the vastness of their land and richness of their culture. Then the empire collapsed, Russia was left shrunken and broken, its leaders exposed as weak men unable to understand, let alone dominate events. People smarter than me have said, that 'The popular revolution of 1991 did not lead to liberty. Latter-day boyars stole the country's riches and used them to prop up a buffon president'. It's a new time of troubles, ended by a small but terrifying man. Vladimir Putin offered his country not the restoration of great power status, but the illusion of that restoration; not the restoration of peace and security at home, but the illusion of that security.
The Kremlin was as powerful, as distant and as corrupt as under the Romanovs, and, knowing no other form of rule, Russians in the first decade of the twenty-first century bowed willingly to its command.
The suggestions in 1991 that Russia will now be 'like us' seemed misguided at the time and seems so today.
By: Joseph Mensah, Emmanuel Emenyo