Forest and Steppe and History

I tended to avoid Russian history until recently. Like the region it covers, the field is vast, with a tangled historiography and (until a brief archive window opened, then snapped shut) a paucity of really good, recent books in English. And most books tended to focus on 1) the Revolution, 2) the Great Patriotic War (aka WWII) or 3) what little about the Soviet Union was available to western writers. Good books about pre 1917 Russia were rather sparse if you were not a specialist. But I read enough to sense that historians of Russia had a similar Sonderweg discussion to historians of modern Germany. Why wasn’t Russia/ the USSR like Western Europe?

The first teacher I studied any history of Russia with, in the mid 1980s, said that the Russians he’d talked to blamed the Mongols. Yes, the Mongol invasion of the 1100s-1200s and the occupation/domination by the various Hordes had bent Russia onto a different path than the other Slavic countries, and certainly farther away from the west. Since then I’ve read a few nationalist historians who say that Slavs are deeper and more mystical/ more earthy/ more physical and far less philosophical than Westerners, and the Slavic Soul tends towards autocracy and a single, father-like leader. I can hear the snorts of my readers in Poland, the Czech Republic, and other places already, so I think we can let that theory slide past. It does raise the chicken-egg problem – were Russians morose and soulful because of centuries under autocracy, or did the autocracies rise from that soulfulness?

Another, more persuasive argument, is that the Black Death and Mongols combined pushed Russia onto a different developmental path, one that Orthodox Christianity reinforced to an extent. The Mongols brought about the end of the outward (west and south) looking Kieven Rus and that period of cultural glory. Because of the long-term population drop that followed both the Mongols and the Black Death, labor became a real problem, leading to the expansion of serfdom that had started developing in Rus before 1100.While wages rose in the west and serfdom faded away in the 1300s, it grew stronger in the east, reinforced by later waves of plague and the gradual then rapid expansion of Russian governance into new lands. Serfdom centered on the land and the communities tied to it. Mongol autocracy and demands encouraged the formation of community-centered government and management, while the Orthodox Church’s focus on communal worship and belief reinforced the pattern.

The communal and mystical, not exactly passive but more accepting of suffering, strain in Eastern Orthodoxy provided comfort for many Russians, but it also inadvertently discouraged individual achievement in favor of group survival and community bonds. Russian culture shifted north, away from the remains of Kiev and into the forests. It was from the forests that the Dukes of Muscovy would begin pushing the Mongols out of Russia, then turning their attention east toward the wealth of Siberia and west to Poland-Lithuania and then south toward the rich black lands of the steppes. The forests, the ax and the icon, formed the foundation of the culture that developed.

Interestingly, an argument can be made the the forests also shaped early German culture, before the large dose of Roman ideas and the Roman Church began exerting influence.  However, German history includes an element of struggling with the forest, of winning land from it, as compared to the sense I get of Russians adapting and blending into the birch wilds.

In Russian history, at least until the late 1500s, danger came from the east far more than from the west. Yes, the Poles and Teutonic knights threatened the country, and the Swedes got busy once Peter the Great tried to expand into the Baltic, but the Mongols and their descendants, and the Ottomans, posed a much longer threat. And at times the Poles paid the Mongols/Tatars to attack Russians (and vice versa). The forest became a refuge, and the plains, the rich-soiled steppe, the dangerous edge, the frontier where a man could disappear and be reborn as a Cossack or bandit leader, or find himself sold into slavery, disappearing into the markets of Constantinople/Istanbul never to see his home again. Western ideas became a threat as Russia began contesting with Poland and Sweden, and later Germany, for territory.

Russian history is also expansive in a sense familiar to Americans and Canadians, but odd to Europeans. Russia sprawls, draped across the Eurasian landmass from the Baltic to the Pacific. It touches the Arctic and the Black Sea. Russians talk about their opening up of the Wild East and taming the pagan tribes of Siberia in a way that Americans (used to) talk about the Wild West. In contrast, German history is penned in, with the Alps to the south, Slavs to the east, and the Dutch and French blocking the western edge.  Germany came to define itself as “not Slav” under Bismarck. Russians kept their attention inwards, or looked more to the east, at least until Napoleon broke everything open.

In his overview of Russian history, Martin Sixsmith argues that many Russian believe their country is too large to thrive without an autocrat or at least a very strong single leader. For an American, this is counter to everything we (those of us of a certain age)  grew up learning. Looking from Central Europe, as I tend to do, it makes a bit more sense, but only a bit.

With all this lurking in the back of my head, I’ve started reading Russian history and culture, going back to Kieven Rus (the 800s). It’s fascinating and difficult in a way, because I have to get used to a forest world and mindset. I can sympathize with Peter the Great, breaking out of the old Kremlin palace and building a new, airy, open city at St. Petersburg. For all its enormous span and huge sprawl of time, place, and peoples, Russian history feels closed in a way that German and US history does not. Perhaps it is just the periods that I read and the authors I focus on that give me that impression. I’m not, and will never be, a Russianist or Sovietologist. Slavic languages and my brain have not gotten along well, thus far. But it will be an interesting excursion from my customary fields of focus.


2 thoughts on “Forest and Steppe and History

  1. You also have to factor in the Little Ice Age, that was harder on Russia than most people imagine. Famine has ALWAYS been a threat to Russia, far beyond what it was to the Europeans. As for eastern Russia, there is ONE rail link (the BAM provides a secondary path, but doesn’t cover all of Russia to the East), and few highways. Towns are few and far apart over most of the area. Trying to run an entire nation that covers twelve time zones on Moscow time doesn’t help. Russia is indeed complex. While only comprising about 40% of the country, the land west of the Urals contain 90% of the population. A lot of the land east of the Urals is either tundra or forest, and a hardship post for anything but the locals.

    • The hard, late (and early) frosts in the late 1590s are part of what kicked off the Time of Troubles – three years without a crop, and the first ruler NOT descended directly from Rurik the Founder. Obviously G-d was not happy with something (or so the popular sentiment seems to have been.)

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