Where does Russia Fit?

Last week, I mentioned that the last natural (i.e. caused by crop failure from weather as opposed to warfare or political intervention) famine in Europe was in 1846-47. Rich Rostrom said I’d forgotten Russia. But is Russia Europe? Or is Russia Russia?

There are arguments many ways, some saying that Russia really is part of Europe historically and culturally, some that argue that Russia is Asian but with a slight Western cultural overlay, and others that say “Yes,” “No,” and “Try Again Later,” (aka the Magic Eight Ball school of cultural studies). I’m not a Russian specialist. I tried to learn some basics of the language and bounced, hard. But based on my reading and observations, I tend to think of Russia, meaning modern Russia and the Muscovite core, as being Russian, not European. Ukraine, Poland, Novgorod, those are or were European, but Russia is Russia, neither quite European nor Asian.

Russia is Christian, Orthodox Christian brought up from Byzantium and centered first on Kiev and Novgorod, then later (the 1300s and especially 1400s on) centered on Moscow. This had some very deep cultural effects, many good, some possibly not so good, certainly different from Catholic and Protestant-dominated culture. There are shared beliefs and a shared theological foundation. However, Orthodoxy in general, and Russian Orthodoxy in particular went a different way from the western church, in some ways turning more inward and spiritual, less concerned with life-in-society and more with life-of-the-spirit. This was in part a defensive move: Orthodoxy survived under conditions that were often mind-bogglingly bad. However, the tradition of intellectual curiosity and theological argument that arose in Western Europe and that eventually encouraged mass literacy remained more limited in Russia, in part because it was not encouraged by the Church. It was not discouraged, either, in general. After the 1850s things began changing, but I’m looking at the long span of history, not the most recent 175 years or so.

One source I’ve read pointed out that the strenuous system of fast days, when one was supposed to abstain from certain foods as well as from marital relations, may have contributed to Russia having a far lower birth rate than lands farther to the west. I’m not entirely certain about that, given the limited demographic data we have for Russia prior to the 1800s, but it is an interesting supposition that feeds into a later point. The argument that developed in the late 1400s that Moscow was the successor to Rome and Byzantium, the Third Rome and the new center of the true Christian Church certainly has no equivalent in western Christianity, for obvious reasons. The relationship of the czar and the Church also had no parallels once Constantinople fell to the Ottomans. The positions of Holy Roman Emperor and Pope were always separate, and that separation was always understood and acknowledged, even as arguments raged over exactly where did the emperor’s power end and the Church’s power begin.

Since the rise of Muscovy in the 1300s on, politically Russia has been controlled by princes and autocrats. Interestingly, in Martin Sixsmith’s survey history of Russia, he notes that a number of the people he interviewed argued that “Russia is too big to be a democracy. Russia needs an autocrat, a single man to manage things.” That is rather different from how Western and Central Europe thinks about government, much of Eastern Europe as well. Is this a legacy of the Mongols, as I was told many, many years ago? Or is it because Russia developed into a monarchy without the leavening of feudalism? From what I have read, the sense of reciprocity and chivalry in the western European feudal idea is far, far weaker in Russia, although there is the idea that the weak are to follow and accept the guidance of the strong, and the strong are not to oppress the weak. Or did Sixsmith’s contacts prefer autocracy because after so long with autocrats, it just feels better? An autocrat is more likely to be distant and to leave you alone, at least in theory. And there is also the legacy of the brief period in the early 1990s where “democracy” was unleashed on the former Soviet Union, leading to the rise of the oligarchs, the Russian mafia, and Vladimir Putin.

A different argument, and one that I tend to agree with but with strong reservations because environmental determination is always fraught, to put it mildly, is that Russia’s chronic underpopulation encouraged the warrior class, and later the nobility, to keep the peasants in some form of unfree servitude so that they would be forced to remain in place and provide labor. The poor climate and remoteness of Russia slowed development even further because you never had centers of population that would support a Renaissance after the demise of Kiev and Novgorod. The part about relative underpopulation is true, compared to places west of Kiev and Novgorod. The double whammy of the Mongols and the Black Death seriously cut down the population of large chunks of European Russia. From the 1250s-1700s the Golden Horde more or less confining Russia to the northern forest zone instead of allowing expansion into the fertile agricultural steppe to the south kept Russian agriculture from having a good climate to work with in some ways. Conversely, it was not until Peter the Great eliminated slavery and instead ordered the peasants and serfs into villages and made taxes based on a per-village basis rather than a per-capita basis that serfdom became what later outside observers thought of. Why did he do that? Because slaves did not pay taxes and he needed money and conscripts for his wars of expansion and his large military.

A similar process of enserfment developed in Poland, Prussia, Brandenburg, and parts of the Habsburg Empire after the Thirty Years War as a response to the enormous population loss some regions suffered. The slave raids carried out by the Tatars/Golden Horde into the 1700s didn’t help – some years tens of thousands of people disappeared into the slave markets of the Ottoman Empire.

So, is Russia part of Europe? Geographically it is, at least until you get to the Ural Mountains. Its religious tradition is, sort of. The language is written like a western language, although it has some aspects that make it feel a bit like a cross between the languages of Germany and Poland and Chinese. It had a feudal system, almost. It endured the same plagues, literal and metaphorical, as large swathes of the lands to the west: the Black Death, the Mongols, the Magyars, the Avars, the Huns. At least in pockets you had the influence of the French Enlightenment, and later of ideas about nationalism and Marx’s philosophy, plus other intellectual trends. The industrial revolution arrived, albeit a little later than in Great Britain and the Rhineland. Russian music influenced others and spread around western Europe and the US and elsewhere. Russia and Britain bumped shoulders over Central and South Asia. Russia and France did a great deal of business and cultural exchange, at least on the surface.

In my opinion, Russia is Russian. It’s not quite Europe-west-of-Kiev, it’s certainly not Asian. It leans closer to Europe than to China or South Asia in many ways, but there are ideas and deep cultural tendencies that go their own way. You may differ, based on your experience and reading. You may feel that Russia is how Europe should have been, if it had stayed with true Christianity instead of falling into heresy. I say Russia is Russian.




17 thoughts on “Where does Russia Fit?

    • No, theologically it started with the fall of Constantinople in 1453, and then the Patriarch of Moscow picked it up and added it to the continuity of the Rurik Dynasty that lasted through Ivan IV (Ivan the Terrible). That was one reason why Boris Goudonov’s accession was seen as problematic: he wasn’t part of the family, and how could the new Rome be led by someone who was not in the (semi-sacred) bloodline. It was played up far more in the 1800s, you’re right, with the rise of Russian nationalism and Pan-Slavism, but the roots go back to the 1400s-1500s.

  1. I’ve been moving in the direction of ‘Russia is a plague on Mankind’. Mostly because the insane Russophobia in the news is not being applied evenhandedly. We can be reasonably certain that Putin would not like the complete extermination of the Russian people. Therefore, anyone not willing to go all in on missile defense (a traditional target of Russian propaganda) with the ultimate end of exterminating Russians must be a Russian spy!

      • It does seem like “Today the Ukraine, tomorrow the world” is Vladimir Putin’s new theme song. The EU and NATO haven’t exactly been producing a convincing counter-argument.

        • One argument (by someone who took Russia’s side) I’ve seen is that Putin cannot afford to have Ukraine and Poland join NATO because that puts US missile defenses within a few hundred kilometers of Moscow. He has to keep a neutral or allied buffer strip. No, I did not point out to the individual that Stalin used the same justification for the Iron Curtain and for stripping every movable asset he could find out of Eastern Europe.

      • He has an interesting method of recruiting allies.

        Of course the US has a history of abandoning allies whenever political power changes hands in Washington, so we’re not exactly a reliable counterbalance. And NATO and the EU are a toothless poodle.

      • The “buffer” argument has been popular with Russia’s apologists for a long time. More recently I’ve also seen a resurgence of people making arguments about Great Powers and spheres of influence. However, the people I’ve noticed making those arguments are typically hypocrites. Most seem to believe its wrong for the United States to act in its own backyard, but fine for Russia to march into other countries and redefine their borders at will.

      • We need to depopulate Russia, Canada, Mexico, South America, Europe, Asia and might as well include Africa to secure our border with Australia and Antarctica.

      • The buffer argument makes logical sense and is in at least some respects true. Doesn’t mean I approve of it, but I’m pretty sure Putin doesn’t want US missile defenses that close to Moscow. Of course if he has the Ukraine he won’t want US missile defenses close Kiev either.
        Buffers have always been a reason, and usually a logical one, for expansion. Problem is if the “buffer” actually becomes a part of the original, then it in turn needs a buffer, because now it is on the border and vulnerable.

      • If we’re going to accept a buffer argument as valid, then from a NATO perspective surely we need to seize Belorussia as a buffer between Poland and Russia, to provide added strategic depth.

        • From the last I’ve heard from Belorussia, that would be an improvement. Their president is trying to out-Putin Putin in order to stay in Russia’s good graces. What the ordinary people think about this is uncharitable (at best.)

  2. Russia is definitely Russian, like everywhere it is influenced to an extent by its neighbors, but you are talking about a country as big as some continents, that has been an independent country for a very, very, long time. Yes the borders have grown and shrunk at times, but the country is big enough that the core of the country, the “heart” of Russia has been under Russian control for a LONG time, and has historically had very little cultural influence from its neighbors. Yes there is influence at the borders, and politically Russia has at times dealt and traded with other countries. But historically (and to a lesser extent, probably still true today) your average rural citizen in the country anywhere away from the borders, and even your average citizen in what cities there are in norhtern and eastern Russia have never met a foriegner, in fact they very likely do not personally know anyone who has met a foriegner. Remember Russia is so big that even Russians view Siberia as practically a different country, and Siberia alone is over half the size of the US, the second largest country in the world.

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