How Do You Comprehend Russia's Turbulent History?

I can’t even begin to formulate this question properly. In short, how does one begin to understand how the Russian power continually changed hands without anything ever really changing. Did their leaders write the book on cruelty, or did the Russians simply have no other model? How does one begin to understand 20th century Russia?

Real simple. “Russia,” at any time in its history, consisted of Russians…and a whole bunch of other nations that were less than thrilled to have been conquered/assimilated/dominated/slaughtered by the Russians. Thus, there will always be internal conflicts–and just because Russia has temporarily released its subject peoples doesn’t mean that its leaders aren’t thirsting for a regained Eurasian empire (plus, the Soviet legacy lingers on in the newly created states, with ethnic imbalances and Russians still holding positions of power).

The primary reason why the place has always been a crapsack totalitarian nightmare is that its people have never had any experience of democracy and like children, they don’t know how to behave under its greater freedoms–polls consistently show millions of people longing for the “good old days” of Stalin, who was at least a “strong leader.” Of course, the current kleptocracy isn’t much of an improvement over Stalin. The bottom line is that Russia will never be a democratic state.

One might start by dropping the racist assumptions, then by making clear what span of history you are talking about. If you are talking about 20th century Russia, as you imply at the end, your remark about power “continually” changing hands has little basis. Two major shifts in a political system within a century is a long way from “continual” change, and each of the shifts is far from inexplicable (of course there were also generational changes of leader, but so there were everywhere else). If you are talking about the turbulence of Russian history over the centuries, well, I doubt that it has been remarkably much more turbulent than that of most other areas of comparable size over a similar span, certainly not notably more so than western Europe, say.

They’re like children because they don’t subscribe to Western notions of governance? Are you serious? Have you any idea how condescending that sounds?

It’s not that they “don’t subscribe” to such notions, it’s that they’ve never even understood them. Don’t forget, the country was a giant prison camp for decades, and no information from the outside world was allowed to leak in. Thus, the people’s conceptions of democracy were what the government told them. Then, after the 1991 revolution, any opportunity for the people to experience democracy was snuffed out by Putin & Co. and the various oligarchs of the Mafia-style state that exists now.

The fact that many Russian people desire “order at any price” is a reflection of political immaturity, as is the fact that democracy had such a short, pitiful life there. Perhaps the greatest indication is the continuing popularity of that raving hyper-nationalist nutjob, Zhirinovsky. So yes, I am condescending, if you like, to a people who have never seized their own destiny (and I certain include the 1917 “Revolution” which was nothing more than a power-grab by Lenin and his gang, not an actual popular revolution), being content instead to follow whatever thug seizes power.

Anyone who watched the Winter Olympic opening ceremony will have got a rather different picture of emerging Russian democracy. They certainly skipped a few of the bits they’d rather forget.

Putin has to tread a fine line between hard-liners and reformers (sound familiar?) He may not have so much of a problem with his legislature as true democracies do, but he does not have a free hand.

Any country that emerges from a long period a stability by repression, will have these problems. At least, unlike China, the population has full access to outside sources of information.

RE: "Real simple. “Russia,” at any time in its history, consisted of Russians…and a whole bunch of other nations that were less than thrilled to have been conquered/assimilated/dominated/slaughtered by the Russians. "

Sounds like the Roman Empire…

Read history and put Russia in perspective. There’s nothing unusual happening in Russia. What’s unusual is that there have recently been some countries where the government doesn’t act like this. It’s the western world, not Russia, that’s atypical.

Democracy, freedom and respect for rights tend to correlate with societies that have an economy based strongly on commerce- “bourgeois” values if you will. In the age of sail Russia was too land-locked to have much overseas trade; and before the Revolution Russia had only the thinnest veneer of an industrial market economy over a mostly peasant-agricultural society. Then you had the command-economy of the Soviet Union, and since 1990 only modest economic growth mostly in extraction industries like petroleum. It’s a self-perpetuating conundrum because would-be entrepeneurs face entry barriers of corruption, cronyism and capricious actions by the government.

Given the open-ended nature of this question, it’s probably better suited to Great Debates than GQ.

General Questions Moderator

Comprehend it?

Russia is simply too large to be a single country and the constant attempts to maintain the fiction of a large and united nation are the source of the constant levels of turmoil which exist. You see similar issues in China and India and without the illusion of American exceptionalism and a strong constitution, you might see the same thing here in the United States.

Brazil and Canada seem to have avoided this so far by concentrating their populations in along their fringes and by having vast areas which are lightly or completely unpopulated. As they both nations grow wealthier and more populous, this may change.

Frankly a cursory exploration of Russian history has never shown it to be a viable long-term entity. It’s held together more the threat of military force than intrinsic desire for it to be a cohesive nation. This can especially be observed in the Trans-Caucasus where a civil war has been raging at varying levels of intensity for almost 100 years.

Whether Russia remains as it is in the future is debatable. Democracy there was largely a failure and its return to yet another autocracy isn’t being well-received by its populace. Failing a series of progressive political movements in the near future, I can see Russia imploding within the next 10-20 years.

After many years of looking at Russia, IMHO it has a lot to with geography and the culture. For me Russia is a country where great ideas in governing are **suddenly **adopted… but then they are not properly applied, they are corrupted and eventually dumped. At least Russia becomes an example of what not to do.

When the political structure comes tumbling down a new idea that is adopted is altered to fit them. That should not be a problem as I think that no solution should fit all; but in Russia, like in France after the revolution, the danger for me is that the version of democracy and free enterprise that they have now is being subjected to similar corruption treatments like what they gave to the monarchy and even to their version of socialism that they got after the Tzar.

In the case of the monarchy, the corruption to me comes from how different the Tzar was from the other rulers in Europe by the beginning of the 20th century, while other nations had already democratic bodies in place to overrule the kings, Russia had virtually none and everyone noticed how ridiculous that situation was when they saw how the ruling family was open to manipulation like the one Rasputin did.

I think the danger now is to see generations of Russians that will conclude that their growing with corruption version of “democracy” and “free enterprise” should be dumped too and then your guess is as good as mine as to what system they would try to implement in the future. But if it goes like the French after the revolution, I can picture a return of some of the elements of the former soviet union to come back.

I agree that sounds pretty condescending, and I would add that democracy is not merely something that simply needs to be “learned” the way children learn to say “please” and “thank you.” Other important conditions must be met for it to take hold.

I know quite a few Iraqis who long for the days of Saddam, and these are not Ba’athists. It’s not just Russia that has this problem.

I’d recommend picking up a great book called Land of the Firebird, which chronicled Russia up to the Russian Revolution.

Jinx The real mystery isn’t why Russians aren’t liberal democrats. (They really aren’t: Putin’s main meaningful opposition is the Communists, who are as authoritarian from the left as he is from the right). The real mystery is why Americans and to some extent* Western Europeans are liberal democrats. Most people, most places in the world and at most times in history, did not subscribe to modern American liberal values. You are really the outlier here, not the Russians.

*Some parts of Europe are fairly new to the liberal-democracy thing, and it remains to be seen how long it will last. Greece, Spain and Portugal were only democratized in the mid-1970s, and the current political order in Greece is looking increasingly shaky.

They’re jerks.

You need enlightened leaders to set the foundation for liberal democracy.

Lenin, Stalin, and Putin are not such inidividuals.

The thread title implied you had a very different and broader question in mind.

Is Russia really that much worse than other low/middle income nations? The period between WW1 and 1953 was really, really bad. A lot of death, suffering, war, oppression, etc. But since Stalin’s death has it really been that bad?

I was under the impression that Putin helped lead Russia from the corrupt oligarchy in the 90s into them being a middle income nation now. He brought stability and wealth to Russia (or at least presided while those things came about). So I can understand some of the appeal. Its not like he took a happy, functioning nation and just started robbing and dominating it.

Wesley Clark Russia’s more middle to high income than low income. certainly the UN considers it a ‘high human development’ country, well above places like China for example.

Russia is immeasurably better off today than in Yeltsin’s era- what happened in the 1990s was one of the most spectacular economic, demographic and social collapses in recent history. As you rightly point out, it wasn’t a terrible place to live in the late Soviet era (e.g. Post-1960 or so). People had the basic necessities of life (though quality of consumer goods was low), education levels and health standards were high, etc… In the 1980s they actually had a smaller percent of their population imprisoned than we did.