Russia before the Communist Revolution in 1917 had conflicting cultural characteristics: a relatively small educated class and aristocracy undergoing a European-style renaissance; and the vast peasant and village population, dirt-poor, superstitious, and ignorant. Geography plays a role in shaping a culture. Russia’s vast size and wide-open plains left it vulnerable to invasions by such brutes as the Mongols and later the Nazis. Violence, characterized by the whip (the Russian knout, a knotted rope) ruled supreme. It was used by alcohol-fueled peasants on their women and children, and by government thugs on the same peasants.
But just as European cultural values were beginning to take hold among the Russian elites, including their civil service, the Revolution forced a new culture on Russia. It adopted the already prevalent village egalitarianism (villagers were equally miserable and resented anyone better off) and revived the brutality endemic to Russia’s past. The only new thing was that the Communists had a good hold on enforcing this new culture on everyone, using a modern system of intimidation, spying, and propaganda. The USSR was a decidedly ugly civilization, only moderated by universal literacy and over time, national pride in their equity with the West in nuclear power. They became, as a Finish friend of mine once said,”The Ottoman Empire with Missiles.”
The USSR collapsed in 1991, with great enthusiasm for a modern civil society of law, economic liberty, and the acquisition of the good material life of the west. Unfortunately, instead of a civil society, the Russians got anarchy, the old Communist brutes morphing into modern criminal cartels, and eventually a leader, Putin, who was an old KGB hand. Several elections have come and gone, and the old Russia is beginning to reemerge. Putin is looking like a permanent president (dictator), and he is making certain that the new civil society cannot dethrone him.
More journalists have been murdered or imprisoned by the Russian State than anywhere else in the modern world. Their vibrant free press after the fall of Communism is increasingly intimidated now. You cannot have a liberal democracy without a free press. The courts have reverted to obedience to Putin as well, as could be seen in the harsh prison sentence for a group of mouthy women rock singers.
He can get away with this for the moment because Russia’s great bounty of energy resources (gas and oil) funds his largesse. But as a supposedly industrial power, Russia produces nothing that anyone wants (much like the oil-rich Muslim world). But can he get away with reviving all the old Soviet brutal intimidations? The Soviets used to murder dissidents who escaped to the west, and the treatment of those who offended the state in Russian prisons was horrific then, and is worse today. One Russian lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, a whistleblower who exposed major government malfeasance (theft and abuse of power) was arrested, tortured every day for one year, and finally beaten to death by a squad of government-authorized thugs.
Happily, the US is close to passing a needed new human rights law that names the 60 Russian government officials responsible for the false arrest, torture, and death of this 37-year old lawyer. The act would freeze the foreign assets of those named individuals and deny them visas to the US. See the Financial Times of July 27, 2012: “The Magnitsky Law,” by John Thornhill and Geoff Dyer. The story reads like a crime caper, which it is.
Putin’s unchallenged position today is not unassailable. Russia’s population numbers are in meltdown, and their population is half they had at the beginning of World War II. Russia has a booming economy now, but what happens when we no longer need their energy resources? That time is coming.
Down the road, China, which needs more agricultural land, will take Siberia, and Russia will not be able to do much about it. In the interim, Russia’s large Muslim population is asserting itself in Islamism and Russia is trying to brutally suppress it. Population numbers are working against Russian success here. Evil goes around and comes around.
Dr. Laina Farhat-Holzman is a historian, lecturer, and author of How Do You Know That? You may contact her at Lfarhat102@aol.com or www.globalthink.net.