Historical Russia offers insight for dealing with the new Russia


By Georgie Anne Geyer

Andrews McMeel Syndication

WASHINGTON

Now for one of my major resolutions for 2018 – putting Russia in necessary perspective. In the tormented era of Trump, a dominant theme has been the threats of ancient Muscovy. But how many Americans really know this people or this country?

So, let me introduce you to the real Russia, inexplicably lost in all of the recent rhetorical mayhem. I speak of the historical Russia, which would show us a better way of engaging this rival than our present dangerous methods based on too much hatred, or too much hope.

First, step back into the 13th century, when hordes of Mongol horsemen, wild tribal men without the simplest learning, swept out of their home deep in Central Asia, destroying everything in their path.

States like Muscovy, then a small but blossoming Russian society, fell first. Then Christian Kiev, with its growing contact with the cities of Europe, was ground into dust.

Lingering changes

There were lingering changes: After the Mongols, the Russian crown adopted the primitive practice of the Asian kowtow, in which the supplicant to the crown throws himself to the ground before the tsar and, in wanton humility, bangs his head on the ground until stupefied in submission.

And in Kiev, historians forever after invariably described the once-beautiful city that is now the capital of Ukraine in terms of the “mountains of skulls” left behind.

Later, the all-powerful Russian autocracy, in which the tsar, the “little father,” owned all the land, easily morphed into the all-powerful Communist Party, which took over in 1917 and assumed ownership of all the land.

Since the 19th century, Russia’s inner conflict has been between the individual and the collective – called the “Westernizers” and the “Slavophiles” – and that metaphysical conflict came to a head most recently in the 1950s, with Khrushchev and his now-famous 1956 speech to the 20th Party Congress dethroning Stalin. “The thaw!” the hopeful exulted.

In by far the best and most evocative book on Russia in that historic year, American journalist Marvin Kalb’s “The Year I Was Peter the Great,” Kalb writes:

“Among the elite, even among the Communist elite, one sensed impending change, as if the ground under the Soviet regime was beginning to crumble with uncertainty, doubt and questions: Was Communism, as the governing philosophy of the Soviet Union, losing its way? ... Was it now possible that Communism was heading toward a historic collapse ...?”

And in another part: “The potential for positive change was in the air. People could breathe its intoxicating power.”

Little melting

Kalb, living in Moscow during that year of supposed change, would soon come to realize that the thaw was only a little melting, and another American journalist writes about how unpredictable – and cruel – “change” in Russia has historically turned out to be.

“Many things changed after the fall of the Soviet Union,” David Satter, a Russian specialist and graceful writer, comments knowingly in his recent book, “The Less You Know, The Better You Sleep.” “But as society was rapidly transformed, it became obvious that there had been no moral revolution in Russia.”

He continues: “The new society that emerged had three outstanding characteristics: an economy dominated by a criminal oligarchy, an authoritarian political system and, perhaps most important, a moral degradation that subverted all legal and ethical standards and made real civil society impossible.”

So, here we are: a Russia locked within its own cruel, autocratic foundations and an America with values and virtues of democratic formation incalculably different from it. For our foreign policy, and especially for our attitudes toward Russia, that means:

1. There is no sense whatsoever in treating Russia as a “normal” state that will respond either to our emotional good will or to our diplomatic and military bad will. What we can do instead is simply “manage” an inevitably fraught relationship, and live with it.

2. A wise American diplomacy would always see Russia in the real terms of its complicated history and not in terms of what we hope it could be. As for Vladimir Putin, he is simply a new, somewhat modernized tsar in a new court, and tsars are friends to nobody.

3. We should never overestimate Russia’s power, as we are doing today. Despite everything, Russia remains a poor, miserable country, its GNP about equal to California’s, whose “power” is illustrated for a gullible world only in showy aggressions on its borders.

In short, were we to face Russia in this manner – understanding its history and acting upon reality instead of either hope or hate – then we would have nothing to fear. Our challenge would be to summon the patience for managing a relationship, instead of screaming at it – and then, we would truly have a Happy New Year!

Georgie Anne Geyer has been a foreign correspondent and commentator on international affairs for more than 40 years.

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