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.




Image source: AP

Pakistan lies at the fault line between “West Asia” (the Turkish, Arab and Persian-dominated areas in the southwestern part of the continent) and “South Asia” (the Indian subcontinent, which begins roughly at the Indus Valley which forms Pakistan’s heart). It’s an unstable, unpredictable country, one which has given policymakers, diplomats and businessmen migraines for decades at least (if not its entire existence). Newsweek magazine even called Pakistan “the most dangerous country” in the world a decade ago, and the evaluation has caught on. While it’s a little hard to stay perpetually terrified of a country for that long, the sad fact is not much has changed.

So what’s the problem? Pakistan isn’t a war zone or a failed state or a criminal hotbed. What makes it so dangerous?

Pakistan was born out of a violent partition of the old colonial Indian Empire in 1947. It originally included what is now Bangladesh because both areas are mostly Muslim (almost all Muslim now). It had numerous defects right from the get-go: a big refugee population, multiple languages, a divide between the dry, dusty mountainous and desert regions to the west and the fertile river valley in the east, a lack of a real political precedent within its borders, hostile and dangerous neighbors, and the usual Third World problems (poverty, illiteracy, superstition, overcrowding, etc.). And that’s not even counting the huge split (the size of India!) with its eastern section.

Pakistan did have a substantial cohort of British-trained and educated professionals to make up a decent governing and business class, something that it still benefits from today. It had a visionary founding father, Muhammad Ali Jinnah. But these benefits only went so far; Jinnah died within a year of independence and his prime minister was assassinated. Pakistan’s leaders proved to be feckless, squabbling, incompetent and corrupt. Its internal divisions, especially between its western and eastern wings, grew wider and wider.

About the only institution in Pakistan that was widely respected was the army (and even then, not so much in the eastern wing), which was also trained along the British model but much more tightly disciplined than the government. It chafed under civilian control, so in 1958, after a period of 4 prime ministers in 2 years, the military took power, following the lead of other chaotic, artificial postcolonial states. The Pakistani military would go on to launch coups again in 1977 and 1999, and military dictatorship has come to characterize Pakistan. Even when the military isn’t in charge, it still wields enormous power from behind the scenes. Elected officials are too scared to run afoul of it, given what happened to the Bhutto political family (father Zulfikar was hanged, daugher Benazir was assassinated).

Tight military control was justified in part by Pakistan’s hostile international environment. To its southeast looms India, a mortal enemy that Pakistan has always regarded with fear and misgivings. To its north is Afghanistan, a turbulent, poor and unpredictable country. Beyond Afghanistan was the Soviet Union, a Communist superpower. Fearing a squeeze from both sides by the infidel menace, Pakistan made 2 strategic alliances to ensure its security: America and China. America was interested in containing the Soviet Union and also distrusted India. Sino-Indian relations went sour after a 1962 war, and relations with the Soviet Union weren’t too great either. China may also be Communist and infidel, but it was more distant than the USSR and less expansionist.

Pakistan may have a big, powerful army, but it pales in comparison to the Soviet Union’s or India’s. (This was demonstrated in a series of wars with India, none of which Pakistan won, some of which it definitely lost.) To compensate, Pakistan has relied on espionage; its spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), became one of the world’s most active, weakening Pakistan’s enemies with propaganda and boosting its clients with government funds. It played a crucial role in the long war in Afghanistan by channeling monetary and military aid to the mujahidin fighting the Soviet Union there in the 1980s. In the ’90s (but also earlier), it did the same to insurgents in Kashmir, a territory split between Pakistan and India that Pakistan has always claimed and that has been a perpetual thorn in India’s armor.

Just to shake things up a little, Pakistan has not been immune to the current of Islamic radicalism coursing through Muslim countries. It had been founded as a secular country with Islam interpreted more as a cultural unifying force. But the bloody ethnic cleansing that accompanied Partition purged it of most minorities, and ordinary Pakistanis are mostly devout. Zia ul-Haq, Pakistan’s dictator during the ’80s, believed that Islam needed to be encouraged more to give the country a stronger unifying force and fighting spirit. He built Muslim schools (madrassas) across the country and encouraged the development of Muslim political parties and Quranic education. Saudi Arabia, the Muslim world’s biggest and most pious spender, became a patron, with Saudi preachers imported to spread its puritanical Wahhabi doctrine. The Afghan fighters both countries favored — first Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, then the Taliban — were Islamist (which means that they want Islam to play a role in national politics).

There are several reasons for this. Many Pakistani officers, generals, politicians and spies are personally pious and see Islam as the only true bond across cultural and ethnic lines (especially in the Afghan war’s original context as an anti-Communist jihad). Pakistan explained to its American sponsors that jihadists fight harder and with more conviction (although Hekmatyar challenged this interpretation with his deadlocked struggle to take Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, in the early ’90s). From a strategic point of view, Pakistan wants a friendly government in Kabul to keep Afghanistan’s unruly and problematic warlords in line and to stem the flow of opium out of that country. Its clients have been Pashtun, an ethnic group along the Pakistani border. They have assumed they will be more pliable and easier to work with — and more likely to rein in the Pashtuns within Pakistan, who also tend to be unruly.

As anyone who’s been paying attention to world affairs for the last few decades can tell you, this strategy has created problems. The Taliban proved to be much more zealous and puritanical than Pakistan was comfortable with, banning music, soccer, toothpaste, TVs, and Western clothing, among various other things deemed non-Islamic. It hosted terrorists in Afghanistan who operated on an international scale. When they attacked America in 2001, it brought a 2nd superpower crashing into Afghanistan, with Pakistan roped in as a base for the American invasion. Pakistanis now found themselves fighting against the very government they had installed.

The Taliban have since lost power, as has Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s dictator during the ’00s. America, after a brief surge in 2009-11, has withdrawn from Afghanistan, preferring to use drones to nail unfriendly mujahidin from the sky.

But less has changed than meets the eye. The military, as ever before, wields enormous power within Pakistan, and despite what its civilian government says, it is still sponsoring the Taliban, guided by the same strategic assumptions as before. Russia (although influential once more) is no longer the key force within Afghanistan that it once was, but India has renewed good relations with Afghanistan. This only exacerbates Pakistan’s fear of encirclement and keeps its supply lines to Islamists and terrorists flowing.

The results are plain to see. In 2008, terrorists supported by ISI attacked a major hotel in Mumbai, India’s biggest city, and went on a bloody rampage in the city. In 2011, it was revealed that Usama bin Ladin, the mastermind behind 9/11, had been living in Abbottabad, Pakistan (home of Pakistan’s military academy) for 5 years. In 2015, it was revealed that Mullah Umar, the Taliban’s deposed leader, had died — in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city. In all cases, Pakistan vehemently denied that it was involved in any way, despite the substantial evidence saying otherwise.

As a result, Pakistan’s relations with America are in decline. Evidence of covert Pakistani support for the Taliban was obvious from the beginning of America’s invasion in 2001 (particularly since America’s intelligence agency, the CIA, had cooperated with ISI on covert support in the ’80s). Repeated American requests to stop have been ignored. Instead, Pakistan has grown testier and testier with the US, since Pakistani civilians occasionally die in American drone strikes. Conspiracy theories and exaggerated atrocity stories circulate freely within Pakistan, leading to an 11% approval rating for America. Americans weren’t a big fan of the bin Ladin thing, either. The result is that America is showing more interest in a cooperative relationship with India. Relations with China remain strong, and may even be improving thanks to China’s famed engineering and development capacity. On the other hand, China is worried about Islamic militancy too, since it has a Muslim population in its west and its workers in Pakistan have to worry about getting shot or captured.

While the turmoil in Afghanistan remains a distant problem for most Pakistanis, who live in the Indus Valley, it is hitting closer and closer to home. Peshawar, a major Pashtun city and a focal point for fighters slipping in and out of Afghanistan over the Khyber Pass, is pretty close to Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad. A home-grown Taliban offshoot, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, along with various other terrorist groups inspired by militant religious rhetoric, attacks targets inside Pakistan — a public school in Peshawar, Christians celebrating Easter in a park in Lahore, a police academy in Quetta. Muslim sects like Shi’ites and Ahmadis are routinely attacked and persecuted. A climate of fear and intolerance is oppressing Pakistan’s urban centers, and anyone known to be spreading un-Islamic ideas or practices is in danger of assassination.

The final unpredictable element in Pakistan is its nuclear arsenal. Rattled by India’s nuclear test in 1974, Pakistan has secretly been developing and stockpiling nuclear weapons as deterrence. Although the world freaked out during the Kargil War with India in 1999, Pakistan has not used them yet (and hasn’t fought an open war with India since, even though the insurgency in Kashmir boils on). But Pakistan is guilty of passing nuclear technology on to other interested countries like Iran and North Korea. With Peshawar such a short distance from Islamabad, the prospect of Taliban fighters or their brethren getting their hands on nukes is definitely a prospect that makes diplomats break out into sweat.

This, then, is the dilemma of present-day Pakistan. It has an elected and generally respected civilian government, but the military runs the show and subverts the government’s will when it feels the national interest is at stake. It relies on passionately Muslim mujahedin to keep Afghanistan weak and divided, even if this means an increasing threat of an Islamic insurgency within itself. It condemns America’s drone-centered policy but basically relies on it to deal with insurgents it’s too scared of taking on itself. It relies on its huge military, nuclear stockpile, and network of informants, insurgents and terrorists to keep India distracted and reactive, thereby increasing its own security, even though it provokes continued mistrust and hostility from India.

Pakistan still has several strengths. It has one of the world’s biggest populations, a substantial professional class, some manufacturing, and a military disciplined and unified enough to hold the country together. It is not as extremely Islamic as Afghanistan used to be and Iran and Saudi Arabia still are. It cooperates with America on counter-terrorism (when it suits its own interests) and occasionally shows interest in peace talks with India. But its growing network of zealously Islamic political groups, ethnic divisions, and ongoing lack of economic development continue to hold it back and inspire concern. Calling Pakistan the “world’s most dangerous country” might be up for debate, but it’s certainly one that has frustrated and confused outsiders for a long time.




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.