Blog Post

On Russia's Invincibility

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Images Wikimedia ( I, II )

Like all myths, the myth of Russia's invincibility does not stand scrutiny. The record is mixed or worse. The Mongol-Tatar Yoke hung over the neck of Ancient Rus for over 200 years before the hordes were either vanquished or, as evidence suggests, decamped to deal with their own internal problems (1480). During the Time of Troubles (1598-1613), Polish forces, even though eventually chased away, occupied Moscow. True, the Russians defeated Napoleon, eventually and not before he occupied and burned down Moscow in 1812. Russia lost the Crimean War (1856) and, by all accounts, it was a loser in WWI, her defeat overshadowed by the Russian Revolution. Soviet Russia lost territory in its war with Poland in 1920. The war with Finland in 1939, given the Soviet's catastrophically disproportionate losses, looks more like a pyrrhic victory if not a defeat. The celebrated victory in WWII came at the mind-boggling cost in life, treasure, and near-complete devastation of the Soviet territory west of Moscow. In the nuclear age, when wars between major powers became unthinkable, Russia competed with the West in the so-called Cold War. It was sure to win because History, pace Karl Marx, was on its side. Khrushchev thought Soviet Russia to be, like the proletariate, the proverbial "gravedigger of history" and promised to the West in 1956: "We will bury you." Russia lost that war, too.

Foreign conflicts aside, Russia has been fighting what seems like an endless war with itself. In the 16th century Ivan the Terrible pretty much exterminated the Russian high nobility, laying waste to the whole country. Following Peter's Reforms, the Russian educated elite fought, mostly with the pen and printing press but sometimes also with arms, against the autocratic state, until it rose and overthrew the old regime in the 1917 Revolution. What happened next was a withering civil war, 1918-21. Then again, before the wounds had the time to heal, Russians resumed their "civil war" during the Stalin collectivization of agriculture in 1929-33 and later in the Great Terror with devastating consequences for the nation. Whatever the exact math, the numbers of victims of Bolshevism and the Nazi Wehmacht appear to be comparable (see, e.g., The Black Book of Communism).

Fast-forward to August 1991, the Russians, it seemed, won against their Communist party-state, the machine that Stalin had built. Yet, with all the fits and starts under Yeltsin, the silent civil war proceeded apace, at times spilling into violence, as in the anti-Yeltsin revolt in 1993 or the well-publicized government raids on misbehaving oligarchs. Today, it is increasingly clear that the party-state—now morphed into the state-church Leviathan (pace Andrey Zvyagintsev's brilliant film)—has gained the upper hand over the opposition in Russia's educated society. This "Leviathan" state, flaunting the quasi-divine sanction granted it by the Russian Orthodox Church, now refers to its internal opposition as the "Fifth column" (Vladimir Putin's March 18, 2014, "Crimea Speech"). Wielding this archetype of war-time rhetoric, President Putin held an explicit threat over the heads of the dissenting professional classes. In effect, he was theatening to unleash the "people's wrath" against them should they continue questioning the legitimacy of what is by all accounts a monumentally corrupt, even worse, incompetent state.

Today's Russia is a house divided. The war between the Russian state and its own Russian elite goes on unabated while the "silent majority," whose brain is wired to the state-controlled Channel 1, continues to support the new tsar, grumbling under its breath at the "national traitors" (Putin's own coinage from the same March 18 "Crimea Speech"). How long this "civil war" will last and how it will end—time will tell. In the meantime, dissenting voices continue to be heard even as Putin's trick war with Ukraine has unleashed forces so dark that the Russian Leviathan, puffed up as it is, may be too unstable to handle.

Gregory Freidin's picture
Professor Emeritus, Stanford University
Gregory Freidin has written and taught extensively on Russian culture, literature, politics and society. His long-standing project on the Russian Jewish writer Isaac Babel includes a series of essays, the Norton Critical Edition of Babel's writings, letters, reminiscences and critical reception Isaac Babel's Selected Writings, W.W. Norton, 2009); a collection of essays on Babel's works and days, The Enigma of Isaac Babel, Stanford UP, 2009); his own critical biography of the writer, A Jew on Horseback: The Worlds of Isaac Babel, is forthcoming.  Freidin’s first critical biography, Coat of Many Colors (1987), a study of the life and oeuvre of the poet Osip Mandelstam, was reissued in paperback in 2010.  In 2004, Freidin organized an International Isaac Babel Conference and Workshop at Stanford, producing the U.S. premiere of Isaac Babel's play "Maria" (directed by Carl Weber) and curating an exhibition on Babel at the Hoover Libraries and Archives. These Babel-related events have received a permanent lease on life in “Babel in California,” by Elif Batuman, the events’ participant observer, who opens with it her critically acclaimed collection Possessed (FSG, 2010). Freidin's interest in contemporary Russian politics and culture found its venue in the US and Russian Press, as well as in the major conference held at Stanford University in 1998 - Russia at the End of the Twentieth Century - that brought together scholars, journalists, editors, and government officials from Russia and the US, including the Undersecretary of State Strobe Talbott, with who he translated the second volume of Nikita Khrushchev's memoirs Khrushchev Remembers: The Last Testament (1974). The First Russian edition of The Federalist Papers came out in Freidin's translation and with his introduction in 1990. Freidin grew up in Moscow and emigrated to the US in 1971. He attended Brandeis University in 1972 and University of California at Berkeley in 1972-78 (M.A. and Ph.D.). Freidin career at Sanford spans 1985-2014. Professor Emeritus, he now resides in Berkeley, California, where he continues his writings and research. A contributor to Arcade, Freidin maintains a personal blog on culture and politics The Noise of Time.