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.



Image source: ArezzoCasa

Like it or not, some countries are inevitably more popular than others, and Italy tends to rank pretty highly in these country popularity lists. It’s one of the world’s premier tourist destinations, and has been since the 1700s, when travel first opened up as a viable opportunity for the upper classes. Immensely satisfying food, a garrulous attitude, an easygoing way of life, mild weather, a rich history, peerless artwork, picturesque scenery… Italy has a lot to recommend it. But just because it’s high on tourist itineraries doesn’t necessarily make it a crucial player in international, or even regional, politics.

Why does Italy consistently punch below its weight? It’s a tough question to answer (I’m not sure if I answered this question with Canada to my satisfaction). But let me give it a shot anyway.

Italy definitely has a rich history, and you need a book (or 2) to adequately summarize it. It burst onto the pages of history as the seat of Rome, one of the most important empires in world history and the wellspring of Europe. By the beginning of the Common Era (AD), Italy governed, directly or indirectly, the whole Mediterranean basin, plus Western Europe up to Scotland. Its military tactics and organization were way more than most other people could handle, its infrastructure and engineering ability are still extremely impressive, and it brought peace, good government, and a decent standard of living by ancient standards for a good 200 years or so.

Then came The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, a slow but steady process that eroded most of these achievements. By the time the Roman Empire had died off, Italy was a much poorer and less populous place than it used to be, but its central location in the Mediterranean and long coastline made it a crucial area still. Throughout the Middle Ages its trading heritage, commercial prowess, and geography continued to make it one of the most important parts of Europe, although the Muslim conquest of North Africa cut back some of its trade and the unity Rome had imposed collapsed, leaving the peninsula a collection of mostly small city-states &#8212 plus a belt of territory in the middle controlled by the pope in Rome.

The Renaissance saw Italy’s fortunes revive again. Learning made a comeback thanks to universities in Bologna (in the north) and Salerno (in the south). Coastal city-states, especially Genoa (in the west) and Venice (in the east), grew rich from trade and from the Crusades. Modern European literature and art developed here; a refined courtly culture put the rough-edged militaristic attitudes up north to shame; and governments and the Church funneled their wealth into amazing public works and monuments.

Yet once again, Italy fell into decline. Partly this is a result of the repeated invasions from the north that Italy suffered during the Renaissance; French, Spanish and German armies treated Italy as a cockpit for their own squabbles and tried to grab territory while they were at it. Partly this is because the Mediterranean declined as an important geopolitical area; Islam had cut off Africa from Europe, and now the Age of Exploration had made the Atlantic way more important since it linked to the Americas and the rest of Africa. In the long run, Italy failed to develop the military and political power to compete with the rest of Europe (it’s hard to do when you’re fragmented), and its mostly rural economy made it a few steps behind the industrial giants in the north.

Most of these problems don’t have easy answers. The easiest one to fix was probably disunity. As a result, Italians made a concerted effort in the 1800s to unite. Through the concerted efforts of Piedmont-Sardinia (a kingdom in the northwest), some idealistic nationalists, and France (which was eager to weaken its rival Austria), it did so, first uniting the small city-states in the north, then toppling the “Kingdom of the Two Sicilies” (never mind the name) in the south, and then finally crushing the Papal States in the middle. Rome became Italy’s capital again, and Italians looked forward to a new future as a Great Power.

But Italy was usually considered the least of the Great Powers. It had little overseas influence and no colonies. Its military was smaller than Britain’s or Germany’s. Almost 2/3 of its people were illiterate. There wasn’t much of an industrial base. Agriculture was dominated by smallholdings; transport infrastructure was decrepit; it was dependent on imported coal for energy. Opera was in vogue around Europe, but its cultural influence had waned since the glory days of the 1500s. Italy made a determined effort to catch up, building railroads, fostering a steel and manufacturing industry, building up its navy with modern warships, and grabbing colonies in Libya and Somalia. Yet it remained an afterthought in the confusing tangle that was European power politics at the turn of the century, and its performance in World War I wasn’t anything great (by the standards of that war, at least).

So Italy tried something a little bit different after the war: Fascism. This political philosophy originated in Italy and was spawned from the postwar malaise and sense of inferiority it felt. It mostly involved a lot of pompous posturing, a militarized reworking of society, and aggressive imperialism in the Mediterranean (Italy’s dictator, Benito Mussolini, hoped to rebuild a Roman Empire). Italy also made economic advances and modernized its military (especially the navy and air force), and for a time Fascism was in vogue around Europe and Latin America. But Fascism also led Italy into another world war, where its military record was basically laughable. Mussolini’s ambitions were exposed as a farce, and Italy was first occupied by its ally Germany and then by the victorious Allied Powers.

Like other parts of war-torn Europe, Italy in 1945 was devastated and its ruling class badly discredited. The Piedmontese monarchy that had ruled over it since unification was wiped out. The local Communist party fed off of discontent and Soviet support to gain acceptance among the population. But again like other parts of war-torn Europe, Italy rebuilt itself as a modern, democratic nation with lots of help from America. GDP doubled between 1950 and 1962; farmers migrated to the cities en masse; unemployment and inflation receded. The ill will it had generated during the Fascist years evaporated, thanks to Germany’s far worse crimes and Italy’s switching sides in 1943.

Italy is doing well. It joined the European Economic Community (which later became the EU) at the very beginning in 1957 and was also present at NATO’s birth in 1949. Its politics has been dominated by “Christian Democracy,” a moderate, uncontroversial blend of social democracy and Catholic values, much like what Germany is used to. It has been a member of the G-7/G-8, the most powerful Western democracies (plus Japan), since its inception in 1975. Its population is pretty much equal to Britain’s and France’s. In most ways it is an integral part of modern Europe and one of its (and the world’s) biggest economies.

And yet… in a way Italians are familiar with, Italy is still not quiiiite considered in the same league as Britain, France, and Germany, the “big boys” who shape European politics and international affairs.

Mussolini’s dream of reviving the Roman Empire and making Italy a regional hegemon is dead. Although Italy is indisputably the key country in the Mediterranean (except perhaps Turkey), its independent ambitions have been sapped. Partly this is because it’s in the EU, which restrains dreams of individual glory among its member states. Partly it’s a result of pure lack of interest among the Italians; Italy isn’t a particularly martial culture, and despite its sizeable military, it hasn’t exerted much force overseas. The only time it’s led a military operation since World War 2 was Operation Alba, when it intervened in Albania in 1997 to ensure peace when that country (a former Italian puppet) briefly fell into chaos. It supported the intervention in Libya (its former colony) in 2011 and continues to press for more European involvement there, but it’s largely shrugged off involvement in foreign entanglements.

Italian politics — to put it mildly — is a bit of a mess. It’s had 63 governments in the 71 years since World War II. Its politics have involved fractious coalition-building and chronic instability. Its main political figure since the collapse of Christian Democracy in 1994, Silvio Berlusconi, was not taken seriously internationally due to his easygoing, party-loving, and sleazy attitude. (He once interrupted a tense euro crisis meeting to suggest talking about soccer instead.) The second-largest political party, the Five Star Movement, was founded by Beppe Grillo, a comedian (who’s now gone back to stand-up) whose claim to fame was organizing “Vaffanculo Day” (F**k Off Day) to ridicule the many politicians with criminal records. To be fair, though, the current government, headed by Matteo Renzi, the former mayor of Florence, is capable and serious about pushing through reforms.

These reforms are much-needed. Italy’s civil service sector is bloated and overly bureaucratic. Regulations impede start-ups and make it hard for businesses to fire their employees. The public debt, thanks to generous pensions and social spending in general, is 130% of GDP (worse than any other EU country besides Greece). An overly balanced parliament stifles reform by allowing laws to shuffle back and forth without getting passed. He’s staking his political career on passing a constitutional referendum that will reduce the Senate’s powers, but most of his reforms have faced serious resistance from Italy’s vested interests and sclerotic public sector.

Italy has become an industrial power and boasts a number of world-famous firms: Ferrari, Maserati, Gucci, Prada. Milan, the engine of the north, is a bustling, industrious city and one of the world’s fashion capitals. Italian design and craftsmanship is widely admired. Italy sets the standard in coffee brewing and pasta. But Italy lacks an effective work ethic, and rules are constantly broken. It joined the eurozone mostly because of its popularity among the EU’s leaders; in 2011, it briefly threatened to collapse the whole thing when its borrowing costs almost reached the point beyond which it couldn’t pay off its debt. The economy grew by a mere .8% last year. With unemployment at 11.4%, Italian youth often head elsewhere for good jobs.

Italy also has a chronic and deep-rooted regional divide. The south — the former 2 Sicilies — is a lot poorer than the rest of the country. All of the big firms listed above are based in the north. The south (often poetically called the “Mezzogiorno,” or “Mid-day”) remains mostly agricultural and parochial. Old semi-feudal patronage networks dominate southern society, most famously organized crime groups like the Cosa Nostra in Sicily and the Camorra in Naples. Government is ineffectual and usually corrupt. Prolonged financial attention from the capital in Rome hasn’t produced many results; in exasperation, a group called the Northern League called for northern Italy to declare independence in 1996 as “Padania.” Like much else in Italy, their platform ended up being show without substance, and the party is now a right-wing party hostile to the EU, but its significant support shows how disillusioned northerners are with their laggard southern cousins.

Italy’s regional divide is a good metaphor for the country’s various contradictions. On one side, it has a fundamentally strong economy with proud institutions and close ties to the rest of Europe. Its current government, at least, is proudly committed to the EU ideal. It has a staunchly nationalist attitude without being obnoxious about it. It continues to make great contributions to the arts and culture thanks to figures like Paolo Sorrentino and the late Umberto Eco. But on the other side, the economy is beset with chronic weaknesses; its people remain self-focused (often on their native cities, not even the country per se); its international voice is often weak, distracted, or inconsequential; and its fixation with the past makes it seem antiquated and last millennium’s news.

Italy is far from Europe’s most problematic country. As mentioned before, it still dominates the Mediterranean; Spain, Greece and Portugal have much more severe economic crises and fragile banks. Eastern Europe still lags behind (except maybe the Mezzogiorno). But as a Great Power, Italy was lumped in with the powerhouses of western and northern Europe, and it still struggles to be taken seriously in that context. Despite an Italian (Federica Mogherini) serving as the EU’s foreign minister and despite Renzi’s popularity in Brussels (the EU capital), France and Germany, Italy’s ongoing political volatility and its timid foreign policy mean it will keep getting overlooked. At present it’s hard to consider Italy anything more than a Middle Power.

But there are worse things than being a Middle Power. Italy could act as a bridge between the EU’s inner core and the indebted periphery in its south and east. And as the historical background section shows, Italy has had its epochs of glory in the past. It is a land with great potential, and one always worth keeping an eye on.