Russian Paranoia and Xenophobia Did Not Begin with the USSR
The sense of being surrounded by lies; the underlying anxiety that someone might be listening or reporting on you; the constant, screaming, inescapable propaganda; the sullenness of the crowds on the Metro; the memories of mass terror just below the surface; the useful idiots and the cynical sycophants who supported the whole thing, both in Russia and abroad; __
The Great Forgetting of Russia
In the quote above, Anne Applebaum recounts her experience as a college student in 1985 Leningrad, studying Russia at the “height” of the USSR. Applebaum now fears that too many people in positions of responsibility have forgotten the unutterable awfulness of life in the USSR for all but the elite inner circle.
Unfortunately, the USSR was not so much more stifling and claustrophobic than Russia under a number of tsars and their secret police.
It may be helpful to remember the origins of Russian xenophobia and its longstanding hatred of Europe and the west:
… one should remember that Mongols and Tatars ruled Russia from the thirteenth to the fifteenth century. These warriors of the steppe brought despotism, backwardness and ignorance to Russia. And it was this painful experience that caused Russia’s traditional adherence to the curbing of freedom and also Kremlin’s hostile attitude towards neighboring states.
The effects of the Mongol rule over Russian lands were profound and it influenced greatly the political, social, and religious facets of Russia. The very Mongolian cultural impacts are still evident today in Russia from on the language to on the form of the government ….
… The most important [redemptive _ ed.] idea for Russians from the fall of Byzantium until today is the idea of empire and they think they are an imperial nation with a holy mission to realize. Russian history is an unbroken chain of endless territorial expansion, bloody annexation, suffering and tragedies of conquered ethnic groups. The idea of empire has been always one of the most precious ones in Russian ideological lore and it is this that Russians proudly proclaim to other nations, especially their European and Caucasian neighbors, who had suffered for a long time under the Kremlin’s totalitarian rule.
… Apart from the Russian expansionist agenda, a paranoid “besieged by the West” mentality has characterized the foreign policy and strategic thinking of the Kremlin for centuries. This anti-western dimension of Russia has a deeper layer. We have to keep in mind that Russia’s national identity has historically been shaped in opposition to its traditional military enemies – its European neighbors. The specific root of this phenomenon is linked to Catholicism that was historically perceived by the Russians as an obstacle to their Orthodox Messianic mission.
__ Eternal Enemy of Europe
Paranoia, xenophobia, and a grandiose sense of messianic eurasianist expansionism have been potent inbred traits of Russia and many Russians since the first legitimate tsars. Russian leaders have successfully tapped into these simple-minded instincts for centuries, and continue to do so.
Former Leningrad traveler Anne Applebaum believes that Russia’s new leaders represent a revival of the paranoid xenophobia of the USSR:
My concern is the revival, with amazing speed, of a belligerent Russian state, one led by men who were taught and trained by the Soviet state and are thus prepared to use a familiar blend of terror, deception, and military force to stay in power. One might argue, of course, that such men never really went away. But their level of aggression is rising just as our once formidable ability to counter them seems to have vanished altogether. Instead, we have trouble simply recognizing them for what they are.
__ The Great Forgetting
But the USSR was just one iteration of Russia’s endless cycle of fear, mistrust, and desire to conquer “the other.” The leader who knows how to pull the people’s strings of unthinking instinct is the leader who can claim legitimacy “from the people.”
Russia today is a land of propaganda — a propaganda that taps deeply into the Russian soul of paranoid xenophobic messianism.
So what is the main objective of Russian deceptive propaganda? It is the method of the aggressor playing the victim by using the classic “the West wants to dismember Russia and control her resources” motto. And such methods are enough to turn the tables by turning the invaders into victims in the eyes of the public. This kind of rhetoric enables effectively the Russian elites to officially justify their aggressive foreign policy by presenting it as defense-through-attack. __ Eternal Enemy of Europe
It has worked many times in the past for Russia, including the insidious stealth conquest and parasitism of Eastern Europe in the post-WWII years. The same methods were used successfully in Crimea, and besides in east Ukraine they are likely to be employed in other Eastern European states before Putin meets his end.
Russia attempted straight conquest of Eastern Europe under the early Bolsheviks, but was decisively turned back in the 1920 Battle of Warsaw.
But Putin — the eternal tactician — is beginning to suffer blowback from his own forgetting that 2015 Russia is not the same power that the 1970s — 1980s USSR once was.
Putin’s Syrian adventure has already resulted in loss of multiple aircraft — military and civilian — and ground forces personnel dead. Just as in Ukraine, it is becoming more difficult for many Russians to understand why Russia is bleeding for a Syrian despot. Putin’s grand imperial ambitions are more and more difficult to translate into ordinary Russian “emotionalese” the farther from home the battles are fought and the Russian blood is spilled.
Syria was meant as quick in, quick out display of Russian power for primitive muslims and for European rubes such as Hollande. Now, things are getting a bit complicated.
In the background, Russian pensions and wages are going into arrears, inflation is biting the non-elite, monetary reserves are shrinking, more government departments are forced to cut budgets in painful manner, and the loss of Ukrainian weapons systems suppliers is beginning to tell on Russia’s massively ambitious plans to upgrade its military.
Frenemy China, just across the long border, is having its own problems, and cannot build advanced and reliable military turbine engines itself. China’s desperate need for resources, pristine farmland, and lebensraum are pushing more and more Han immigrants into what was once thought to be Russia.
Putin may have decided that concessions to Beijing are the price that Moscow must pay to continue its war against its neighbors to the west. If so, his actual hold on power vis a vis the Russian elite that could displace him, may be much more tenuous than believed by most outside observers.
If not for Moscow’s incessant nuclear sabre-rattling none of this would be important. Those who refuse to forget will understand that the appetite of the bear for foreign conquest is insatiable. The fresher the meat in its mouth, the stronger the urge for more. Sacrificing Eastern Europe to Putin on the altar of appeasement will be as effective in preventing a wider war as were concessions by the Chamberlain government to Hitler.
Just as strength alone could have stopped Hitler in his early plans of conquest, so can strength alone stop Putin’s opportunistic use of the Russian instinct for messianic conquest to expand forever at the cost of the self-determination of others. Former slaves do not generally concern themselves with the nastier aspects of enslaving others.
Putin’s government has done nothing to relax its iron grip on business or eradicate high-level corruption. It hasn’t even pretended to be more welcoming to investors: The rhetoric coming out of the Kremlin is mainly grim survival and hostility.
Some oil exporters — Venezuela and Nigeria, for example — are inept when it comes to economic policy. That isn’t the case with Russia: It just has a leader who doesn’t prioritize the economy or care too much about living standards as long as the population is enthusiastic about his quest for a bigger geopolitical role. Russia is unique among oil exporters as a nation that is being milked for the sake of one man’s grand vision.
There is no perfect world, no one best way to deal with power-mongering thugs such as Putin and his circle.
Hope for the best. Prepare for the worst. It is never too late to have a Dangerous Childhood.
Will Turkey Invade Russia?
Turkey has been warning Russia to respect Turkey’s airspace, and Putin has simply ignored the warnings. Now, Erdogan seems to be signalling that Russia has gone too far. The consequences are difficult to predict.
Syria is Turkey’s “near abroad,” and Russia is bombing villages and killing more civilians than militants, killing more western allies than it is killing ISIS.
“Greater Turkey” includes all the Turkic peoples scattered across Central and Western Asia. Putin angers Ankara at the peril of large parts of Russia, and “allies” of Russia.
A quick look at the GDP chart above (in $USD) reveals that Russia’s GDP in dollar terms is shrinking toward the GDP of Turkey, while Turkey’s GDP has much potential for growth.
Turkey is much younger than Russia in demographic terms, and can call on legions of youth from “greater Turkey” if needed, to fight a larger scale war. Turkey’s birthrate is higher and its deathrate is lower than Russia’s. Source
In many ways, Turkey can be seen once more as a “rising power” while Russia must be increasingly seen as a “declining power” by virtue of demographic decline, significant brain drain and capital flight, a rapid decline of internal infrastructures, and an ongoing and accelerating displacement of ethnic Russians by ethnic Chinese in the Far East.
The current leadership of Russia has a better understanding of tactics than it does of strategy. It is finding it ever easier to get into problems that it is unable to resolve.
NATO would never have done to Russia, what Putin is doing to his own country. Perhaps it was instinct, or fate, that led Putin into accelerating the downfall and coming fragmentation of Russia.
Russia’s rotting infrastructures of transportation, education, science and engineering, public health, power transmission, oil & gas pipelines, oil & gas production facilities, policing, regional governments, industrial production (including military production), etc. etc. are not a sign of a healthy country or a healthy people. And they are not. Russians are sick, ageing quickly, addicted to a wide range of destructive habits, angry, bitter, and largely thrown to the dogs by their fearless leader.
The lucky ones get out.