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The Character of Russia

David Satter

For centuries, the Russian traveler, crossing the border, felt an inexplicable lightness, as if an unseen burden had been lifted from his shoulders. In 1839, the Marquis de Custine recorded the comments of a German innkeeper in Travemunde who remarked that when Russians arrived on their way to Europe, they had a “gay, free, happy air.” When they returned, the same people had “long, gloomy tormented faces.” Their conversation was brief, “their speech abrupt.” The innkeeper concluded that a country that “one leaves with so much joy and returns to with such regret” must be a “bad country.”

The reason for the Russian travelers’ relief on reaching the West was that, in Russia, the individual is expendable. On crossing the border, he acquires rights, security and the protection of law. Napoleon said that in Europe, there were really only two countries, Russia and everyone else. In the West, the individual is an end in himself. In Russia, he is the means to an end. He can be used for any purpose, his life has little value and his individual personality is not taken seriously.

This condition exists because in Russia, the state is sacred. This mentality is difficult for an outsider to comprehend so the intentions of the Russian regime are constantly misunderstood. When they are deciphered, they seem too bizarre to be real, which prevents the outsider from grasping their seriousness. In Russia, the regime is less a government than a religious crusade crystallized in the institutions of a state. Its preferred field of action is the whole world. The regime does not guarantee the welfare of its citizens because it does not aspire to. It exists for a “higher” purpose and does not recognize moral limits on the pursuit of its goals.

The tsars explained the Russian system on the basis of the “Russian Idea,” which was a defense against the notion that Russia differed from the West only its backwardness. According to this idea, Russia’s supposedly spiritual culture was actually superior to the materialism of the West. The Russian state was holy and it was the state’s mission to bring godliness in the form of (the Russian) religion to the rest of humanity.

The Russian Idea, though developed to defend Tsarism, came to characterize Russian thought generally. The supporters of the regime saw the state’s mission in terms of religion, the opponents in terms of socialism but both believed that it was the role of the Russian state to save the world on the basis of a totalitarian ideology that combined “philosophy with life” and “theory with practice.”

The durability of this state mentality was such that when the Tsarist autocracy fell, the communist regime which succeeded it not only incorporated all of its repressive features but radically intensified them. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the notion of the priority of state goals guided the reform process whose lawlessness led to the complete criminalization of the country. When Russia began to experience economic growth and relative prosperity under Putin, the result was not the development of democracy but, again, the glorification of the state and a new policy of repression.

In a speech given in April, 2008, Putin expressed his philosophy in terms that have been traditional in Russia for hundreds of years. He said that “maintaining the governance of a vast territory, preserving a unique commonwealth of peoples while occupying a major place in world affairs calls for enormous sacrifices and privations on the part of our people.” This, he said, has been “the story of Russia’s thousand year history.” The Russian people “do not have the right to forget this.” In other words, Russians should support the regime’s ambitions, at the cost of “enormous sacrifices and privations” until the end of time.

In the interest of preserving Russia’s status as a great power, millions of people were put to death deliberately during the communist era but there is no desire in Russia to commemorate their fate. The official view is that there were dark chapters in the country’s history and also glorious deeds and it does not pay to dwell on the dark chapters. Russia was great in the past and will be great in the future. As for the need to change the state mentality that justified the murder of millions in order to guarantee Russia’s supposed “greatness,” the question is given little thought.

Recent weeks have seen signs of change in Russia. After twenty years of post-Soviet corruption and abuse, Russians have begun to protest against the ruling regime. They have, in effect, given themselves a second chance to gain the democracy they sought but did not achieve after the fall of the Soviet Union. The attempt will lead nowhere, however, without a change in the low value attributed to the individual in Russia, an attitude that, to a distressing degree, the people share with the regime. But for such a change to take place, Russia must discard its pretensions and honor its dead. Such a break with the past will not be easy. But it is within the capacity of a nation that tried to create heaven on earth and it is the only path to a better future.

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