THE HISTORY OF RUSSIA

Charles E. Ziegler

 

The Greenwood Histories of the Modern Nations
Frank W. Thackeray and John E. Findling, Series Editors
Greenwood Press / Westport, Connecticut London / 1999

    

 

 

1

 

Russia and Its People

 

 

Russia is a huge, complex, and extraordinarily interesting place. Straddling Europe and Asia, it is neither European nor Asian in outlook and culture. And although Russia, as the Soviet Union, shared the super power spotlight with the United States throughout much of the twentieth century, it is very different from America. Russians themselves are today struggling with their sense of identity, a conflict that has characterized the past three centuries of Russian history. Russia is no longer an imperial power, as it was since the time of Peter the Great. Russia is no longer communist, as it was from 1918 to 1991. Russia is no longer an absolutist dictatorship, as it was under the tsars and the communists, but it is not yet fully democratic either. What then is Russia?

Physically, the Russian Federation is the largest country in the world, even after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. It occupies about 6.6 million square miles of territory, nearly twice the size of the United States. From east to west, the country stretches over 5,000 miles and occupies eleven time zones. Cities in the Russian Far East such as Khabarovsk and Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk are closer to San Francisco than they are to Moscow. Russia has a long coastline on the Pacific, but there are few ports and only a small population in this vast region. In the north Russia borders the Arctic Ocean; on the south, China, Mongolia, and Kazakh stan form its boundaries. To the west the former Baltic republics ( Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia), Ukraine, and Belarus separate Russia from the rest of Europe. Russia relinquished much of its access to the Black Sea to Ukraine after the breakup of the USSR. The fragmentation of the Soviet Union has left Russia geographically more isolated, smaller, and somewhat more landlocked.

The former Soviet Union had a population of nearly 290 million, and was the third largest country in the world. Today, the Russian Federation's population is just under 147 million, placing it no larger than sixth in the world, after China, India, the United States, Indonesia, and Brazil ( Nigeria, which has not conducted a census in forty years, may well have a larger population than Russia too). Over 80 percent of Russia's population is concentrated in the western quarter of the country; only 25 million live in the vast expanses of Siberia and the Russian Far East. As one might expect, most of the roads, railways, and air routes are concentrated in the populous areas of western Russia. Siberia is extremely rich in natural resources--oil, natural gas, gold, diamonds, furs, and timber-but much of this wealth is virtually inaccessible or very costly to extract due to the weak transportation system.

Today Russia is ethnically more homogeneous than imperial Russia and the former Soviet Union had been. Just before the collapse the Soviet Union's population was barely 51 percent ethnic Russian. The Russian Federation is about 82 percent Russian. The next largest group is the Tatars, a Moslem Turkic people concentrated along the Volga some 400 miles east of Moscow. Tatars are the descendants of the Mongols who conquered the Russian lands in the thirteenth century. They comprise just under 4 percent of Russia's population. Ukrainians, Slavic cousins of the Russians, make up another 3 percent of the population. A mix of Turkic and Caucasian peoples, together with Germans, Jews, Belorussians, and small Siberian tribes, make up the remaining 12 percent. On the whole, relations among the various ethnic groups are good, but Chechens are disliked for their purported mafia connections, and anti-Semitic outbursts by Russian nationalists are common. Siberian peoples are treated much like Native Americans in the United States and suffer from the same maladies--unemployment, marginalization, and alcoholism.

Russia as a whole lies much further north than does the United States; in this sense it is more comparable to Canada. Although Russia has much good agricultural land, its northern position means that growing seasons are short and the weather is cold; consequently, many crops do not do well. Some of the best cropland was located in Ukraine and Kazakhstan;

these areas were lost after the breakup. Typical Russian crops include winter wheat, rye, sugar beets, and potatoes. Soviet policies severely damaged agriculture, and this sector of the economy has not recovered in the post-communist period. In 1998 imports constituted nearly half of all food consumed in Russia.

Much of Russia is flat, and the absence of natural barriers is often cited to account for the historical Russian preoccupation with secure borders. The Ural Mountains, running north to south, separate European Russia from Siberia and the Far East. The Urals are geologically old and not very high--they might be compared to the Appalachian Mountains in the United States. West of the Urals is the large European Russian plain. Directly eastward is the central Siberian plain, followed by the higher Siberian plateau. Much of this area is covered with forest; bear, elk, and deer are common, and a few Siberian tigers have survived. The northern sixth of Russia is ecologically fragile arctic tundra. A large area of northern Russia is permafrost--the ground below a few meters in depth is perpetually frozen. During the summer the top layer becomes swampy, making construction difficult and costly, and causing buildings to list drunkenly. Russia's huge land mass makes its climate vary. Some areas of the south can be quite hot in the summer, while north-central Russia is brutally cold in the winter. Temperatures in Moscow often drop to -40 Fahrenheit; in the Siberian town of Verkhoyansk temperatures can reach -90!

The Russian Far East is ruggedly mountainous, and on the Kamchatka peninsula there are active volcanoes and hot springs. Russian geography is also distinguished by the huge rivers that flow northward, emptying into the Arctic Ocean--the Lena, Ob, and Enesei. The mighty Volga meanders through much of western Russia, and in the Far East the Amur River forms a long stretch of the Russo-Chinese border. Traditionally, Russian rivers have provided a wealth of fish, including the huge sturgeon (some of these grow to 2,000 pounds!), which yield the world's best caviar. Sadly, pollution has ruined much of the Russian fishing industry. Russia is also home to many inland lakes and seas, including magnificent Lake Baikal, the largest body of fresh water in the world. During the Soviet era courageous writers and intellectuals lobbied hard against cellulose plants operating on Baikal's shores; they did manage to spare the "blue heart of Siberia" from serious ecological damage.

Overall, Russia is an urban nation, with about 70 percent of the population living in cities. Moscow, the capital, is, at 9 million, the largest and most dynamic city. Close to three-fourths of Western investment has been concentrated in the capital alone, and it shows. A drab and boring place in Soviet times, Moscow now boasts exotic restaurants and nightclubs, posh (and exorbitantly expensive) hotels, refurbished roads, traffic jams, and a bustling economy. Mayor Yurii Luzhkov, who is also one of Russia's new millionaires, touts Moscow's success as evidence of his suitability for higher office. St. Petersburg (Leningrad under the Soviets) is the second city, at about 4 million. Its network of canals and bridges, stately Italian architecture, and green parks make Petersburg a favorite tourist destination and a source of great pride for its Russian inhabitants. The fabulous collection of artwork in the Hermitage museum, the former Winter Palace of the tsars, is by itself worth a trip to Russia.

Most other Russian cities, unfortunately, are rather bleak settings where old Soviet industries limp along and the new market economy has yet to take off. Water and gas supplies are often sporadic in the concrete high-rise blocks of apartment buildings that date to the Khrushchev era. Factory workers, railway employees, and teachers often are owed months of back wages; they teach English, engage in small-scale trade, or find some other way to get by. There are a few success stories. Nizhnii Novgorod, an ancient city east of Moscow, developed a reputation as Russia's Silicon Valley under the innovative leadership of its youthful governor, Boris Nemtsov. President Yeltsin later tapped him to be a financial advisor. But many cities are heavily polluted, such as those in southern Russia and northern Siberia, or they are dominated by mafia gangs and authoritarian governors, like the port city of Vladivostok in the Russian Far East.

Life in the Russian countryside was and still is far removed from the relatively cultured existence of the major cities. Russian villages are far poorer than the cities. Some rural Russian homes still do not have indoor plumbing, and there are few if any cultural amenities in the villages. The countryside is backward; picturesque (but inefficient) horse-drawn carts are common. Agricultural production was mechanized under the Soviets, and peasants were forced onto huge collective and state farms, many of which still are operating today. But productivity is low and there are few opportunities for young people in the country. As a result, they leave for the cities in droves. This migration occurred on a large scale even with the residency restrictions of the Soviet period (urban residents had to have a propiska, or residence permit); now the Russian Constitution guarantees freedom of movement, and there is no way to keep them down on the farm.

Russians are a highly literate, well-educated people. When the Soviet government took power in 1917, about 55 percent of the population was illiterate. Now literacy stands at about 97 percent, and Russian students routinely outperform Americans in math and the natural sciences. Under the Soviet regime all schools were operated by the state. In the postcommunist period, education has come to resemble that in the West, with private and religious schools supplementing state education. The new Russian elite often send their children abroad to expensive boarding schools and universities in France, Switzerland, or the United States. Young, entrepreneurial Russians quickly master English or German, languages needed in the international business world.

The communist authorities clearly failed in their attempts to eradicate religion. Recent years have witnessed the resurgence of Russian Orthodoxy, the state church of the tsars. Church buildings have been restored, and services are packed with believers of all ages. About four-fifths of the population are nominally Russian Orthodox; about 9 percent-mostly Tatars, Chechens, Ingush, and other peoples of the Caucasus Mountains--are Moslems; and about 3 percent are Jewish. There are also large numbers of Baptists, some Catholics and Buddhists, and a smattering of fringe religions like Hare Krishnas and members of the Japanese Aum Shinrikyo cult. Many government functions are now sanctioned by the presence of Russian Orthodox priests, as in pre-communist times, leading civil libertarians to worry about the reestablishment of an official state religion.

For centuries, Russia's government was a centralized, absolutist monarchy headed by the tsar (after the Roman caesars) and organized on principles of rank and privilege. In the Soviet period, a more pervasive dictatorship was organized through the Communist Party. Vladimir Lenin established the Soviet system and laid the foundations for a totalitarian dictatorship, which his successor Joseph Stalin developed into one of the most thoroughly repressive governments known to history. Subsequent leaders of the Communist Party-- Nikita Khrushchev ( 19531964) and Leonid Brezhnev ( 1964- 1982)--tempered the most oppressive aspects of Stalinism, but preserved the basics of the Party-state system. Mikhail Gorbachev ( 1985- 1991), the first Soviet leader to undertake serious reform, set in motion a series of events that brought about the collapse of the USSR, leaving fifteen newly independent states in its place.

The present Russian government is a mixed presidential-parliamentary system, patterned after the French government. It is federal, with political authority divided between Moscow and eighty-nine regional gov- ernments. According to the 1993 Constitution, the President, since 1991 Boris Yeltsin, is elected for a maximum of two four-year terms. The Russian President has sweeping powers in foreign policy and domestic politics. He appoints the Prime Minister, who is largely responsible for running the economy. Except for a brief hiatus, the Prime Minister from December 1992 to August 1998 was Viktor Chernomyrdin, a former top executive of the gas industry. In August 1998 Yeltsin appointed his Foreign Minister, Yevgeny Primakov, to this powerful office. The President also appoints his Cabinet, a National Security Council, and one-third of the justices to a nineteen-member Constitutional Court, which has the power of judicial review. Only a few of the President's nominees, including the Prime Minister, are subject to approval by the Parliament. The Russian Parliament, like the United States Congress, has the power to impeach the President. In the late 1990s communist and nationalist members of Parliament frequently proposed impeachment motions against President Yeltsin, often on frivolous grounds.

Russia's legislature, the Federal Assembly, is divided into two chambers: the larger and more significant lower house, the Duma (450 deputies), and a smaller (178 member) Federal Council. Duma deputies must stand for election every four years. Half are elected from districts, and half are elected by party list, in a type of proportional representation system very similar to Germany's. The Duma has been controlled by parties vigorously critical of the Yeltsin administration; in 1993 this competition drew blood as the President used tanks to shell rebels in the Russian White House (the white marble edifice on the banks of the Moscow River) into submission. Members of the upper house are chosen by and represent the eighty-nine territorial units of the Russian Federation. There are two from each ethnic republic or region--one representative from each regional legislature, and one from each regional executive. In this sense, the Federal Council embodies a principle of representation similar to that of the United States Senate.

Russians are very suspicious of and cynical about their government. Years of broken promises under communism and by Boris Yeltsin's postcommunist government have engendered skepticism about all things political. Russians read the many daily or weekly newspapers and watch the state and private television stations, but they believe little of what they hear. Rumor networks supplemented the censored press under communism, and Russians today are willing to give more credence to a neighbor's gossip than to a reporter's story. And with good reason. Russian newspapers and magazines are owned by rival corporate moguls who routinely distort the truth to serve their political or economic interests. And government officials, including President Yeltsin, have not been distinguished by their regard for either consistency or accuracy.

The Russian economy also provides grounds for cynicism, and even despair. The country continues to suffer the pains of the transition from a centrally planned to a market economy. Russia in the 1990s has experienced hyperinflation, unemployment and underemployment, capital flight, and growing income inequality. A burdensome and irrational tax system leads most businesses to keep two sets of books, forcing the government to operate on a deficit. Most wealthy entrepreneurs have connections to the criminal mafia, which consists of hundreds of heavily armed gangs, and the great majority of Russian businesses pay protection money. Once a relatively safe place, Russia now has one of the highest murder rates in the world--32 per 100,000 population. Robbery, rape, and assault have also ballooned in recent years.

In public, Russians can often seem abrupt and unfriendly, like New Yorkers. In actuality, Russians are extraordinarily hospitable, taking time out of a busy schedule to escort guests around town or inviting them home for a lavish feast. Many Russians are sports enthusiasts. Soccer is the most popular professional sport, and Russia has generally taken more than its share of medals in Olympic gymnastics, weightlifting, and track. For recreation, skiing, skating, hiking, and chess are popular, as are trips to the forest to gather mushrooms. City dwellers often have a dacha, or country home, where they can escape the crowded and noisy urban life and tend their vegetable or flower gardens. Occasionally a luxurious second home, more likely just a tiny cottage, the dacha provides a welcome summer getaway from the city's pollution and crowds.

As in most countries, men in Russia occupy more privileged positions than do women. Russia is sexist, more so than the United States, but much less so than Japan. The Soviet government did at least educate women, ensure they received equal pay for equal work, and mandate certain percentages of women in public positions. But men monopolized the higher-paying and more prestigious jobs. Moreover, men generally refused to do the shopping or housework, so women had a double burden of holding down full-time jobs while taking care of the family. Now women make up 70 percent of the unemployed; they were the first fired during the economic reform process. Businesses blatantly favor attractive young women for secretarial positions. Prostitution, underground during the Soviet era, has soared. A women's movement has emerged in Russia, but it is fairly small and not particularly radical by Western standards.

One current, which political scientist Norma Noonan has called "Russofeminism," endorses the Soviet traditional role for women as mothers and workers.

Artistic and cultural life in Russia, especially in the big cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg, is exceptional. The Soviet regime supported traditional forms of culture--ballet, opera, symphonies, museums--as long as they promoted socialist values. Of course, the authorities frowned on the more avant-garde pursuits, such as jazz and rock music, postmodernist theater, and abstract art. Now that cultural repression has ceased, Russians are free to experiment. But Russia's young writers and artists are more interested in making money than in being creative. Movie theaters and video stores, for example, are stocked with gangster films and pornography. Cheap detective and romance novels fill the bookstores. Talented painters produce schlock for the tourist markets. Happily, there are still Russia's magnificent museums: the Hermitage collection, which rivals New York's Metropolitan or the British Museum; Moscow's Pushkin Museum, with its excellent Impressionist exhibit; and the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg. After years of renovation, the Tretiakov Gallery in Moscow reopened in 1996. Financed by one of Russia's great nineteenth-century merchants, the Tretyakov boasts a superb collection of native Russian icons and paintings by such masters as Andrei Rublev and Ilya Repin.

Russia's present, like its past, is troubled, violent, and utterly fascinating. It is only beginning to emerge from long decades of brutal repression and is experiencing great difficulty building a viable and respected democracy. Russia's political and economic leadership has frequently behaved irresponsibly, enriching itself with only minimal regard for the welfare of the people. And yet the country has tremendous unrealized potential. Russia encompasses the world's largest reserves of natural resources, and Russians are one of the most highly educated and most creative people anywhere. Russia is not a captive of its history, as some suggest, doomed to reenact its authoritarian past. With some responsible leadership, and a little luck, Russia could become an affluent democracy. It would be a distinctly Russian democracy, however, quite unlike those in the West. This brief survey should help us understand, and appreciate, Russia's distinctiveness, its absorbing past, and its turbulent present.

 


CHARLES E. ZIEGLER is Professor and Chair of the Political Science Department at the University of Louisville. He is the author of Foreign Policy and East Asia ( 1993), Environmental Policy in the USSR ( 1987), and dozens of scholarly articles and book chapters.