Image source: Imgur

Since Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and hassling of eastern Ukraine, relations between Russia and the (rest of the) West have taken a nosedive. Mutual suspicions have poisoned diplomatic relations. Russian military maneuvers have unnerved Europe and prompted a redoubled defense effort, especially in the small Baltic countries bordering Russia. A debate rages within the West over how to respond to Russia, and whether bolstering Ukraine more would prompt Russia to back off or further inflame the situation.

One country that gets lost in these discussions is Belarus, a fairly large country in between Lithuania and Ukraine. But then again, Belarus usually gets left out of discussions. That’s partially because it’s only 27 years old.

If this section is too long and dull for you, maybe this Belarusian video is more interesting. Note: Medieval Lithuania is considered Belarusian in this version. (English subtitles available.)

Belarus may be only 27, but it exists at all because, well, the Belarusians have been around for a long time. How long exactly is a matter of debate. Their origin dates back to the Middle Ages, when the whole area around European Russia was referred to as “Rus” and was dominated by Kyiv (now in Ukraine). It was colonized by Vikings called “Varangians” and mostly developed along the long rivers that flow through this part of Europe. Given Belarusian’s close similarity with Russian and Ukrainian, it’s unlikely that the three different nationalities were well-distinguished back then; even when Kyivan Rus fragmented into minor principalities, it wasn’t really along ethnic lines.

The Mongol invasion of 1237 wiped out most of these, but the Principality of Polotsk — most of what is now Belarus — survived. It was weak and vulnerable (Belarus is mostly just forests and fields), and in the 1300s it was conquered by its northern neighbor, Lithuania. Lithuania was Europe’s last pagan holdout and spoke a completely different language from the Slavic Belarusians, but they didn’t really care as long as their underlings paid their taxes. Over the ensuing centuries, a Slavic language called Ruthenian even became the lingua franca over the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, since it was more widely understood than Lithuanian itself. (Lithuanian is a Baltic language pretty different from other European languages except Latvian.)

The Grand Duchy of Lithuania fused with its smaller western neighbor, Poland, in a dynastic union in 1386. At first it was mostly just a union of their rulers (although Lithuania converted to Catholicism), but in 1569 the union was bound into a tighter commonwealth. Lithuania and Poland became tangled together, with Belarusians still included within Lithuanian territory yet culturally closer to the Slavic Poles… except for their religion, which was Orthodox (a relic of the Kyivan Rus era). Polish became the common tongue, at least among the nobility. In addition, the whole commonwealth attracted a lot of Jews, and by the 1700s most of Belarus’s towns and cities were predominantly Jewish. They spoke either German, Yiddish (a German dialect) or Polish.

But Belarusians were coveted by Russia, which saw them as true Russians who adhered to a wayward form of Russian Orthodoxy (Greek Catholicism) under the influence of Catholic Poles.  They called the area “Belorussia,” or “White Russia,” for reasons which are much debated (there’s no consensus about this). Belorussia happens to lie between central Russia and Poland, with the result that it was overrun in a series of wars between the 2 powers in the 1600s, then suffered some more during the Great Northern War between Russia and Sweden in the first decade of the 1700s. In the 1790s, as any proud Pole will tell you, Poland-Lithuania was smothered by partition among its more powerful neighbors: Prussia, Austria and Russia. Belorussia naturally, went to Russia, which organized it as a governorate based in Minsk, a town pretty much right in the middle of the country. Its strategic location right in between Warsaw and Moscow now worked to its benefit.

While Poles chafed under Russian rule and revolted a few times, Belarusians were mostly O.K. with it and carried on much as before (although the local church was merged into Russian Orthodoxy). This was mostly because there still wasn’t much distinguishing them from Russians. The beginnings of a Belarusian national movement stirred in the 1800s, but the language — and Belorussia’s cultural identity in general — blurred into Ukrainian, and they were collectively referred to back then as “Ruthenian.” (Meanwhile, Jews had a much different experience, as the Russian Empire took a dim view of them, encouraged public persecution of them, and restricted their movement and lifestyle.)

Belarus cartoon

Poland joins with the infant Soviet Union to tear Belarus apart. Great way to recover from a long partition! (Also, both trample Ukraine.)

Belorussia suffered as much from the turbulent early 1900s as any other part of Europe, and arguably most of all. Its westernmost corner was mauled during World War I. Russia’s humiliating surrender to Germany in 1918 led to Germany setting up a Belarusian puppet state as part of its effort to fragment and weaken Russia. It was wiped out after only a few months by a resurgent Russia, only to be taken by a revived and ambitious/greedy (depending on your interpretation) Poland in 1919. After a short but fierce war, the region was partitioned once again between Poland and Russia. After a relaxing peacetime marked by forced collectivization, famine, and Communist purges, Germany invaded again in 1941. After a sadistic war in which a quarter of Belorussia was killed (including most of its Jews) and Minsk was utterly destroyed, the Soviet Union was triumphant, and emerged from the war with all of historic Belorussia under its control.

Belorussia went on to enjoy one of the higher degrees of industrialization among the Soviet Union’s constituent republics. Since the USSR was divided along ethnic lines, Belarusian identity also experienced a revival (even if this involved a little ethnic cleansing to make the units tidier). Of course, it still languished under a dysfunctional economic system with rudimentary consumer goods and little knowledge of the outside world. Also, the infamous nuclear meltdown in Chernobyl was just over the border from Belorussia and mostly affected Belarusians. In 1991, the Soviet Union disintegrated, and for the first time since 1918, Belarus was an independent country.

Like many newly independent countries, Belarus was fragile and hesitant. It wasn’t sure what sort of political or economic system to adopt or what sort of cultural orientation to take. Belarusian nationalism had never really taken off. Russian identity and culture had taken deep root in the country over the centuries, and most Belarusians still speak Russian instead of their “native” language.

Again like many newly independent countries, Belarus soon fell back into dictatorship. The winner of its only competitive presidential election, Aleksandr Lukashenko, has ruled with an iron fist ever since 1994. Political opponents are barred from the legislature, independent media outlets have been hounded into submission, and protesters are beaten and jailed. Lukashenko enjoys a Soviet-style personality cult with fawning songs and a nationalist youth union. The KGB, the Soviet Union’s infamous secret police, survive here. The Soviet state-run economy has been preserved as much as possible — 75% of it remains under state control, and farms are still collectively managed.

None of this really endeared Belarus to the EU. After a policy of patient disapproval and stern lecturing went nowhere, the EU slapped sanctions on the Belarusian leadership in 2006. Ties with the countries to its west are strained — tourists rarely visit, even from Poland, and Belarus is a nonentity in European affairs. Its frustrating and complex bureaucracy stifles most business ventures. Few Belarusians speak a language other than Russian or Belarusian. Sources about the country are scarce, except in Russian.


Minsk today. Image source: Sergey Nik-Menik via Pikabu

As a result, Belarus has been pushed into the arms of Mother Russia. As mentioned before, Russian is still widely used, even when ethnic minorities who don’t understand Belarusian are scarce. Society is still cast along the old Soviet model, and Belarus’s experience with many of the same disasters as Russia have given it the same sense of victimhood and unfair treatment that shape Russian nationalism. Lukashenko gets along well with Vladimir Putin, a fellow dictator with similarly earthy tastes, conservative mindsets, and an economic model of domination by a few companies with close ties to the state (meaning himself, basically) — a model usually called “oligarchy,” somewhat inappropriately, in the West. Belarus gets subsidized oil and gas from its petrostate neighbor. Belarus and Russia are so chummy, they formed a “Union State” in 1998, with the aim of a currency union and some kind of governmental fusion in the future.

So it may seem like Russia and Belarus are best buds joined at the hip with no meaningful distinctions… but in reality, it’s more complicated than that. The past decade has made it very clear that Russia sees the former Soviet republics (a region now called “Eurasia,” also somewhat inaccurately) as its rightful sphere of influence, with Putin as the modern czar of “all the Russias.” That’s a little too close for comfort for Lukashenko. Making your political opponents disappear might be fine, but when someone else does it and acts like your boss, it’s a lot less fun. Neither the Union State nor the currency union proposal have gone anywhere. Russia’s attacks on Georgia (2008) and Ukraine (2014) rattled Belarus, and Belarus sheltered Kyrgyzstan’s renegade president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, when he fled in 2010. This has led to a few spats with Russia, including threats to cut off Belarus’s critical gas supply and a refusal to host a Russian air base.

This has led Western observers to come to the opposite conclusion on occasion and predict a falling-out, or even an imminent Russian intervention. The EU has softened its tone since the upheaval in Ukraine, seeing Belarus as the lesser of 2 evils and a possible wild card in its ongoing geopolitical game with Russia. But Belarus remains aloof and unpredictable. Landlocked, comparatively poor and weak, with a hazy sense of national identity to draw on, it is frankly unlikely to burn its many bridges with Russia anytime soon. (Moscow is only 300 miles away — very close by Russian standards.) For instance, it holds regular vast war games called Zapad (West) with Russia that react against a simulated EU-backed uprising in its western region bordering Poland. Relations with Lithuania are dismal due to a nuclear power plant built (again!) right by the Lithuanian border. Lukashenko sneers at the West’s high-handedness, capitalism, and tolerance for homosexuality. Memories of the Soviet Union are not nearly as bad as they are in its neighboring former Soviet republics — the Baltics were annexed unwillingly during World War II, while Ukraine was basically punished through famine in the 1930s.

So Belarus continues its delicate dance with its neighbors to the West. The EU and America were encouraged by a slight thaw in political repression and (probably more so) by Belarus hosting peace negotiations between Russia, Ukraine and the EU in 2015. As a result, most of the sanctions against Belarusian leaders and companies have been lifted. But the thaw seems to have been an illusion, and protesters are still treated like armed gangsters by the KGB. It remains hard to imagine that Lukashenko would suddenly change his mind after all these years and democratize with the Russian military breathing down his neck. Belarusians still have much in common with Russians, from a love of borscht and vodka to a cynical sense of humor and suspicion of outsiders. But the experience of Ukraine isn’t lost on Belarusians either, and Russia isn’t exactly a trustworthy ally. It may not make the dramatic headlines that its neighbors often do, but Belarus is a country that deserves more attention, and could play a more critical geopolitical role that its location and history entitle it to.



Putin Xi

Another thing Chinese and Russians have in common: they both like finishing off a meal with a round of cough-inducing liquor. Image source: ITAR-ITASS/Barcroft Media

So far, this blog has examined China’s relationship with its archrival, its emerging competitor, and its archnemesis. Although China is ringed with nations and increasingly plays a vital role all around the world, there’s 1 other country with which it has a deep and important relationship that takes some explanation to understand: its Eurasian imperial counterpart, Russia.

The historical trajectories of China and Russia share many similarities. Both are vast empires that grew from smaller (but still very big) nuclei along river valleys into 2 of the world’s biggest countries, reaching deep into the Asian continent. Both were historically dominated by warlike nomads who were able to conquer them despite their much smaller numbers; the Mongols, the greatest of these peoples, even conquered both and incorporated them into a giant continental empire. Both managed to eventually turn the tables on them and dominate the nomads in turn thanks to their numbers, their bureaucrats, and the aggressive promotion of their culture and writing systems. Both propped up their empires with absolute emperors who claimed divine backing for their rule.

Despite this, for most of Chinese history Russia was a distant concern. (Asia is BIG.) It wasn’t until the 1600s, when Russian fur traders and explorers (often the same people) headed east across the Siberian expanses, that the 2 empires really came into contact. Part of Siberia was traditionally held by the Manchus, a nomadic people in northeast China who conquered the whole country in the 1600s. Sensitive to Russian encroachments, they attacked a Russian fort on their land and established the Sino-Russian border with the Treaty of Nerchinsk (1689). Another treaty (Kyakhta, in 1727) fixed the border with Mongolia, allowed for bilateral trade, and guaranteed Chinese expansion into Xinjiang (the northwest).

Amur Acquisitions

The colored areas used to be part of Manchuria (and therefore China), but were annexed by Russia in 1858 (brown) and 1860 (pink).

These early stages in the relationship might have been peaceful and subdued, but by the late 1800s the tables had turned. Russia was resurgent, powerful and expanding further east. It wanted a warm-water port on the Pacific (most of Siberia’s coastline is frozen). China was weak, technologically inferior and beset by imperialist vultures. The opportunity was ripe, and Russia seized it by annexing the easternmost territory it had long craved in 1858 and 1860. It then built a port, Vladivostok, in its southeasternmost corner near Korea, and a railroad (the famous Trans-Siberian Railway) linking it with Moscow and the rest of Russia. In order to link more conveniently with the corner Vladivostok is lodged in, Russia wrangled concessions from the beleaguered Manchu Empire to extend railways across Manchuria (northeast China). And because the Liaodong Peninsula in that part of China is so strategically situated, it extracted control of Dalian (Dalniy), the port there, and built its own naval base at nearby Port Arthur. By 1900, Manchuria was clearly part of Russia’s sphere of influence, and it began to develop industry and support Russian commerce there. In Chinese eyes, it had become another imperialist vulture — it joined the multinational expedition to suppress the Rebellion of 1900, for example.

Manchu railways

Manchuria is a strategic region bordered by Mongolia, Russia, Korea, the Yellow Sea and the Beijing region.

This was not to last, though. Another imperialist vulture, Japan, had its eyes on Manchuria, since it was beginning to take over Korea (which lies southeast of Manchuria). It felt threatened by imperial expansion so close to home and coveted Port Arthur in particular. In 1904, it started a war with Russia and beat it. Russia’s defeat helped spark an internal uprising in 1905, since the war was deeply unpopular. Burned by the whole experience, Russia retreated from China and turned its attention back toward Europe. China’s government was also deeply unpopular and discredited by this time, and inspired partly by the Russian example, revolutionaries overthrew the emperor in 1912. Russia would go on to have a successful revolution in 1917, when the Bolsheviks (radical Communists) overthrew a short-lived democratic government.

From this point on, Sino-Russian relations dramatically improved. The Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, believed that imperialism was the final form of capitalism, and denounced Europeans for preying on weaker, poorer foreign countries. They felt sympathy for the Chinese as another long-suffering peasantry undergoing a painful revolution and reckoning with the modern world. As such, the various imperialist humiliations that Russia had exacted from China were lifted in 1919 (although Mongolia was separated from the Chinese orbit and made the 1st member of the Communist Bloc, that is, a Communist regime under Russian control). Some Chinese revolutionaries looked up to Russia as an exciting, daring experiment in social reform, and as a possible “third way” between Occidental imperialism and Oriental lethargy. Sun Yat-sen, the leader of the (mostly ineffectual) Republic of China that claimed to succeed the Manchus, welcomed advice from the Comintern (a Russian-controlled organization that sought to spread Communism around the world), took his party in a much more leftward direction, and praised Lenin.

The 1920s and ’30s were a complicated time for Sino-Soviet relations (the Soviet Union being the successor to the Russian Empire). On the plus side, the Republicans managed to seize control of most of China by 1928 under Sun’s successor, the general Jiang Jieshi. On the minus side, Jiang was much more conservative than Sun, and in 1927 he turned on the Communists that had allied with his party and massacred as many as he could. While the Soviet Union remained loyal to the battered Communists, it didn’t want to alienate the Chinese regime either, and tried to placate both sides, giving military advice to the Communists while urging them to seek reconciliation with Jiang. The Communists refused and kept on fighting. They finally reconciled during the Japanese invasion (1937-45), but went right back to fighting again afterward. And this time, the Communists won, startling their Soviet patrons by pushing the Republican government out of China altogether (it remains to this day in Taiwan).

With a giant part of the Eurasian landmass under Communist control, the 1950s were a glorious time for Sino-Soviet relations. The USSR showered China with economic, military and technical aid and advice on how to carry through a Communist revolution. They teamed up to support Communism in China’s neighborhood (Korea and Vietnam). China’s new dictator, Mao Zedong, paid a visit to Moscow in 1949 and treated his Soviet counterpart, Iosif Stalin, as a wise uncle. Thousands of Chinese students followed him, visiting the USSR to study the principles of a Communist state apparatus.

But strains quickly developed. The Chinese were annoyed that Stalin had taken advantage of China’s postwar disarray to reimpose some of the old imperial Russian restrictions on Chinese sovereignty, strip Manchuria of valuable industrial assets, and occupy part of Xinjiang. Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchyov, struck Mao as a boorish, ignorant bumpkin with no right to treat him as the junior partner in the relationship. The Chinese were incensed at Khrushchyov’s denunciation of Stalin’s crimes and annoyed at Soviet reforms under his rule, seeing them as backpedaling and going soft. For their part, the Soviets were unnerved by fanatical Chinese programs like the Great Leap Forward (which ruined Chinese agriculture and industry) and China’s belligerence against Taiwan, America and India. The battle-hardened Chinese leadership was willing to risk nuclear war; the Soviet Union saw no need to jeopardize its new relationship with India over some faraway mountains.

By the ’60s, the new Communist giants were enemies. The rift widened as China tried to pry other Communist countries away from the Soviet orbit (it only got 1 taker, Albania, although other Eastern European countries took advantage of the dispute to extract concessions). Chinese rhetoric only grew more heated during the Cultural Revolution, which fired up Chinese society behind a Mao personality cult and slavish adherence to his doctrine. The Soviet Union moved troops to its long border with China, sparking a battle along the Amur River in Manchuria. China began to fear the Soviet Union as the expansionist power other countries saw it as. To knock it off balance somewhat, Mao met with America’s president, Richard Nixon, and mended China’s frosty relations with America (and, thereafter, America’s allies like Japan). It worked: the Soviets backed away from their confrontational posture and rhetoric.

Thereafter, Sino-Soviet relations settled to a cool, guarded state. After Mao died in 1976, China undertook its own reforms carrying it away from rigid adherence to Communist orthodoxy. Both countries lost interest in exporting revolution. The Soviet Union’s reforming dictator, Mikhail Gorbachyov, was interested in mending relations and paid a visit to Beijing in 1989. He was received warmly, but the Chinese thought he was going way too far with his reforms, which combined economic restructuring (good) with liberalization of the political climate (bad). They showed him what they thought of the demonstrators in Beijing that marred his visit by murdering them. Gorbachyov refused to take similar ruthless measures, and as a result, the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

The collapse of the Soviet Union ultimately led to a dramatic improvement in Sino-Russian relations. The new Russia is a much smaller, weaker, and politically less important country. Meanwhile, China has left behind the era when it depended on foreign aid and has steadily accumulated power and influence. The tables have turned: China is now the emerging superpower, while Russia is a Great Power that sees China as a source of economic vitality.

Neither country is Communist anymore, China having altered its economy to a freewheeling capitalism with heavy state influence. The Cold War is over. Yet the outlines of the Cold War dynamic are still visible in international politics. Both China and Russia resent the West for winning the conflict and spreading its world order everywhere. Both see it (and America especially) as arrogant and cocky and see a need for a counter-balance to keep it from growing too powerful and confident. This has had the discernible effect of driving the 2 countries back into each other’s arms, and they regularly block Western initiatives at the UN that they see as hindering dictatorship or enabling imperialism.

That being said, China and Russia have taken different approaches to the post-Cold War world. China has opened itself up, welcoming foreign investment and becoming a growing investor abroad in turn. It has a major role in international institutions and global supply chains. It is challenging America for supremacy in East Asia but is so far a minor player elsewhere. Russia seemed to be taking a similar path at first, although its energy-based economy and clientelist networks kept it from being as dynamic as China. But under its secret-agent-turned-dictator Vladimir Putin, it is much more suspicious and contemptuous of the West. It defied Western objections in 2014 by annexing Crimea, a part of Ukraine, and harassing that country with a separatist insurgency, and it still works against American interests in Syria by propping up its dictatorship. It antagonizes its western neighbors by holding war games on their borders and flying planes unnervingly close to NATO’s. Its propaganda is much more overtly anti-Western and portrays America as a corrupt, hypocritical wannabe imperialist and Europe as its spineless has-been lackey.

China isn’t quite willing to go this far, but it has historic resentments against the West as well. It has always seen itself as the center of the world (the Chinese term for China is “middle country”), but is acutely aware that it doesn’t always have international affairs under control. It’s nervous about Western countries and their allies like Japan who emphasize democracy, human rights and a free media and tends to see the masses as a fearsome, threatening force for chaos. (Both China and Russia have seen their fair share of revolutions.) It’s much more comfortable with dictatorship and a controlled political environment in general. This means it is much more likely to trust Russia than the West.

Harbin Cathedral

Harbin Cathedral, the grandest legacy of Russian influence in Manchuria

… But bilateral tensions remain. Lingering resentments about Russia’s imperial role, stinginess after the 1949 Revolution, and its “betrayal” within a decade continue to shape Chinese perceptions. Russian architecture throughout Manchuria is a visible reminder of Russia’s role in shaping that region. China also isn’t quite ready to antagonize the West as blatantly as Russia is. Annexing parts of other countries is the kind of old-fashioned imperialism China hates; intervening in foreign wars isn’t much different. For Russia’s part, it is perennially nervous about the massive population disparity between Manchuria (109 million) and Siberia (36 million; note that Manchuria is much smaller too). Buffer countries like Mongolia and the ‘stans of Central Asia have already shifted from Russian control to Chinese patronage; there is a worry that southeast Siberia might be next. Its history as part of Manchuria long ago doesn’t help.

The future of Sino-Russian relations remains uncertain, but by and large China is friendly with Russia, certainly more so than with any of the other countries I’ve covered so far. With Western sanctions biting into Russia’s economy, China is a vital market for its gas — the 2 countries reached a $400 billion deal right after the Crimea annexation in 2014 — and its most important trading partner ($95 billion in 2014). There is plenty of room for Sino-Russian cooperation: they oppose global freedom of information over the Internet, NGO activity, and Western meddling in general. State-sponsored hackers may have different methods (China cares more about industrial espionage, while Russia focuses on sowing discord and confusion), but the 2 countries share the goal of undermining Western dominance. They held a joint naval exercise in the Baltic Sea, in European waters, a month ago. China is a major market for Russian weapons and military technology. Given the similarities in China’s and Russia’s pasts, their shared national interests, and China’s growing power and confidence, it seems unlikely to expect another Sino-Russian rift anytime soon.



Russia is usually considered part of Europe. (I certainly do so, and categorize this post accordingly on this blog.) It borders other European countries, shares a Christian culture and European language with them, is mostly settled with white people, and mimics Western European culture (which is also influenced by Russia in turn). But throughout its history, Russia has suffered an identity crisis and considers itself a realm apart. It has never fully accepted itself as part of Europe and even views the lands to its west with suspicion.

This is a complex subject worthy of a whole book, but it continues to play out in Russia’s behavior to the present day. That’s why it’s worth a closer look, even in abbreviated form, on this blog.

Russia coalesced in the 800s as Slavic tribes pushed northward and eastward from the Balkans and built a kingdom in what is now Ukraine (which is significant in itself, although that’s a subject for another post). It was a big country, even then, but it has numerous drawbacks: it’s on the edge of Europe and borders mostly empty steppe to the east. To the north is the frigid, ice-bound Arctic; to the south is the Black Sea, which is warm, but cut off from the outside world by the Bosphorus, the narrow passageway between Europe and Asia (in Turkey). It’s crossed by several major rivers which made for convenient trade routes (the Dnepr, the Don, the Volga, etc.), but early Russia was isolated from the cultural and social influences of western Europe. Instead, it imbibed Greek culture from the Byzantine Empire, the nearest major power. Even then, its kings didn’t convert to Christianity until 989 — long after the rest of Europe.

Russia’s quasi-European status was confirmed in 1240, when its capital, Kyiv, was conquered by the Mongol Empire. It was now part of an entity that stretched across Asia, and once again it was peripheral since the center of Mongol power was China. It became even more isolated from events in Europe, and grew used to absolute power thanks partly to Byzantine influence and partly to Mongol rule. Its reputation as a mysterious, barbarian country also grew.

Russia eventually asserted itself as an independent duchy again in 1480, this time with a new capital (Moscow), and it gained recognition as a major European country. But it was still very behind the times, and it missed the crucial trends sweeping through Europe: the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Scientific Revolution. The emperor (czar) was all-powerful; the nobility had considerable influence; most Russians were poor, uneducated serfs. The Russian Orthodox Church dominated national art, architecture and learning. It remained unknown to most Europeans. It mostly concentrated on expanding further east and diminishing Mongol power, putting it out of the concern of French or Germans, although it did fight with the Livonians (Estonia/Latvia) and Poles.

But Russia knew that Europe was more advanced than itself. Czars hungered for a portal to the Mediterranean or at least the Baltic. European literature, theater, and philosophy began to trickle in in the 1600s. Russians grew interested in European ideas beyond religious ones. The notion that Westerners were misguided, dangerous infidels seemed more and more hokey.

Pyotr the Great (1682-1725) finally knocked down the barriers between Russia and Europe. He undertook an 18-month study trip in the Netherlands, England, Germany and Austria to learn European technical skills, political institutions, and military innovations. He encouraged commerce and urbanization. Western-style education was brought to Russia and the Church’s monopoly on learning (and a lot of its influence on the state) was broken. Even Western cultural influences like smoking, coffee and shaving became trendy in society’s upper echelons. And of course, Pyotr beat Poland and Sweden, annexed Livonia and built Russia a new capital on the Baltic Sea, St. Petersburg. Not only was Russia now a Great Power, it was oriented firmly westward.

Over the next 2 centuries, Russia’s westward orientation continued. Math and science was imported and by the 1800s Russia was producing important scientists like Dmitriy Mendeleyev. Russian choral music was supplemented with classical music that could hold its own against Germany’s. The Bolshoi and Mariinsky Ballets competed with dance companies in France. Literature by the likes of Pushkin, Chekhov, Tolstoy and Dostoyevskiy introduced Russian life to the West. The Russian military became a force to be reckoned with in European wars (and in Asia, too). Serfdom was abolished in 1863; contact with Western nations became regular. The upper classes learned French and German, which influenced the Russian language’s vocabulary, syntax and diction. Some intellectuals even grew to loathe their own country; as the philosopher Pyotr Chaadayev wrote, “Alone in the world, we have given nothing to the world, learned nothing from the world and bestowed not a single idea upon the fund of human ideas… we have not contributed in any way to the progress of the human spirit and whatever has come to us from that progress we have disfigured.”

On the other hand, the vast bulk of Russians continued to live in poverty, ignorance and far away from cities. It can be hard to modernize a country with as much territory as Russia has; by the 1800s, it stretched to the Pacific and deep into Central Asia. Foreigners were regarded with suspicion as infidels and invaders (a perception not helped by the French invasion of 1812). The emperor’s power remained absolute; although the Enlightenment ideas of liberty and self-determination had influence in Russia, any political dissent was crushed before it bloomed. Some intellectuals looked back longingly to the pre-Pyotr days. Although Russia was accepted as a European power, most Westerners didn’t really accept it, and its size and intimidating power made it feared by the West. Britain, France and Austria ganged up on Russia in the Crimean War (1854-1856) and most Europeans cheered on the Osmanli Empire and Japan in their wars with Russia.

Complicating the situation, Russia has an affinity with most of Eastern Europe, which is dominated by Slavs (Poles, Serbs, Bulgarians, etc.). Sharing an attachment to medieval Greek culture, similar languages, and (in the Balkans) a script and Orthodox faith, Russia became interested in promoting Slavs with smaller populations, territories and political clout than itself. This led to Russian support for anti-Osmanli rebels in Serbia, Greece and Bulgaria. It dovetailed nicely with Russia’s antagonism against Turkey and fired up “Slavophile” intellectuals, who countered conservative nationalists by arguing that Russia could safely look to Europe for inspiration — just not Western Europe. In the end, Russia’s policy of supporting weaker Slavs led to World War I.

The war destroyed the Russian Empire, and out of its shell grew a new, even more frightening Russia: the Communist Soviet Union. But the process was long, arduous and bloody; civil war raged until 1922, forcing Russia to turn inward, especially in its deep interior, where most of the White (conservative) armies were. The capital reverted back to Moscow, originally as insurance against German attack. Even after this period, the new Russia was isolated from the outside world, devoted primarily to a complete reconstruction of its society to conform to Marxist ideals. Stalin’s massive purges and collectivization campaigns ensured that Russia was in no state to engage with the outside world. Not that the outside world wanted it to; aside from a friendship with Germany and the occupation of Mongolia, Russia was spurned by foreign lands. Indeed, Poland took advantage of Russia’s weakness by invading it in 1920, and contingents of British, French, American and Japanese soldiers landed in Russia to support the Whites.

But the world wouldn’t let Russia stay isolated for long. World War II brought it back onto the international stage, and with the defeat of Germany and the exhaustion of Britain and France, it was a superpower. As an insurance policy against another German invasion, the USSR occupied most of Eastern Europe. Stalin also revived Lenin’s old dream of spreading Communism around the world, encouraging Communist parties in Europe and Latin America and guerrilla movements in Africa and Asia. Moscow became the educational destination of choice for Czechs, East Germans, Ethiopians, North Koreans, Vietnamese, Cubans, and random radical leftists everywhere. Russia thought of itself as at the forefront again — in science and technology, with wonders like the atomic bomb and artificial satellite, and in art, with the very modern Socialist Realist style.

Yet this Russia was still very isolated. It regarded the outside world with suspicion, either because it feared attack or because its ideas were dangerously attractive (or both). Information was strictly limited; travel was heavily restricted. Russian language and culture was promoted over the multitudes of minorities in the Union. Foreign writings and film had to be smuggled in. Censorship disguised Russia’s lag behind the West.

As I’m sure you know, this state of affairs did not last. The Communist edifice crumbled in a few short years (1989-91); the Marxist model had failed. Once again Russia turned to the outside world for help and guidance. The “Washington consensus” of trade liberalization, monetary austerity, and mass privatization was used as shock therapy to cure the post-Communist hangover; it failed, leading to a sharp drop in real income and credit and a steep rise in life expectancy and alcoholism. The IMF had to bail Russia out in 1998. On the other hand, the victorious West extended a hand of friendship to its defeated adversary, welcoming it into the G-8 (a club of major democracies that holds summits yearly), the Council of Europe (a pan-European organization devoted to protecting human rights and the rule of law), and the World Trade Organization. The antagonism of the Cold War era ebbed, and Russia was treated as a partner — if an inferior one — by America, Britain, France, Germany, and so on.

This treatment only fed into Russia’s inferiority complex, however. After a lifetime of being told that they are a superpower destined to rule the world, begging for help from capitalist overlords was a bitter pill to swallow for Russians. It couldn’t even do much to support its old client, Serbia, in its wars of the 1990s. It also grew exasperated at Western hypocrisy in human rights and democracy, pointing to interventions in Iraq and Libya as evidence that the West wasn’t purely dedicated to high moral standards, whatever it might claim.

This brings us to the present day, when Russia, under its dictator Vladimir Putin, has finally decided (as of 2014) not to bother with pretending to be Western anymore (although it remains part of the Council of Europe). In open defiance of Western norms, it has annexed Crimea and harassed Ukraine by sponsoring an insurgency in its eastern region. It regularly denounces the West, and America in particular, for its quest for world domination, punitive economic sanctions, lack of regard for human rights, and general arrogance and hypocrisy. Putin has promoted a new ideology and sense of Russian identity to replace discredited Communism; it draws a lot from Old Russia, following what would be considered conservative Christianity in the West and frowning on what are perceived as immoral, perverse and dangerous customs. Although nowhere near as harsh as the police states of the czars and Communists, dictatorship is back, with political opposition quelled and secret police keeping a stern watch on society.

As this overview of Russian history should make clear, Russian identity is a complex issue. Even after a millennium, Russians haven’t quite figured it out. Russia’s European heritage should be indisputable; besides all that Mongol history, a substantial Muslim population, and all those Russians living along the Chinese border, Russians are culturally part of Europe. As before, Western cultural forms like Hollywood movies and rock music are trendy; Western thinkers are widely read. Russians look much like their white brethren. Slovaks, Croats and Ukrainians can understand a lot of what Russians say.

But Russia still has an uneasy relationship with its western neighbors. Getting invaded over and over again by Mongols, Poles, Swedes, French and Germans (and menaced by Turkey, Japan, America, etc.) doesn’t help. A tough climate and brutal history has encouraged a might-makes-right mentality. Democracy never really took root in Russia; Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s only unarguably democratically elected president*, is remembered today as a clownish, ineffectual loser. Whatever the failures and horrors that Communism wrought, Russians never really got over the loss of their empire. Superpower status is not conceded easily.

And so it is hardly surprising for those with a long view that Russia is currently engaged in a propaganda war and covert campaign against the West and its allies. From its perspective, the slow encroachment of the EU and NATO eastward seem like a gradual takeover threatening national identity. But a long view also shows that it doesn’t have to be this way, and that Russia has a history of accommodating Western values and accepting Western norms too. Putin, after all, once welcomed the spread of the EU and NATO early in his presidency. It probably helps to be patient with Russia. Some day the tide will again turn.


There was also Aleksandr Kerenskiy, leader of a short-lived provisional government in 1917 that ran on liberal principles.