“A nation’s culture resides in the hearts and in the soul of its people.” Mahatma Gandhi
Culture 5: Russia, A Mostly –∑ Culture
To try to understand how Russia predominantly thinks (its culture), one must go back several hundreds of years to get a feel of what and how she thinks about herself. For that, we’ll take a short look at
6 Pertinent History Lessons You (and the media) Never Learned in School.
1. Size: Russia is the largest country in the world by land area with 17,000,000 km2. It’s European portion (west of the Ural mountains) makes it the largest country in Europe, and its Asian portion (east of the Urals) makes it the largest country in Asia. Consequently, she has reason enough to long consider herself an Empire (Mother Russia) and expect to be suitably recognized as such by everyone else.
2. Serfdom: After the 51-year reign of Tsar Ivan The Terrible (1533-1584) and in an attempt to control extensive famine, Tsar Boris Godunov (1585-1605) decreed a permanent bondage of peasants to the land, designed to curb the nomadic instincts of uneducated Russian peasants, many of whom simply walked away from work they did not like (the Russian Orthodox church has never develop or promoted a work ethic). By the mid-18th century, most Russian serfs had become chattel, in fact slaves.1 When Catherine The Great ascended the throne (1762), Russia had a population of about 20,000,000 people, of whom 50%! (10,000,000) were serfs bonded to the land,2 roughly distributed as follows: the crown (500,000), the state (2,800,000), the church (1,000,000), and private owners including nobility, (5,500,000).1
Similar to slavery in America, Russian serfs were considered a subspecies by their owners, a state of existence seen as “sanctioned by God.” However, there was no color barrier and the serfs were not aliens in a foreign land but descendants of impoverished, uneducated people of the same race.3
It is not difficult to conceive that a majority of the people living in the harsh northern latitudes under these conditions were primarily focused simply on survival by any means possible. That focus typically leads to 0∑ behavior (fight to distribute what little is available) or –∑ behavior (take for self first before distribution is attempted).
As a consequence, there was great disparity of wealth, which primarily resided with the sovereignty and the nobility. The result was a populace that, while they did not like the disparity, took solace in two concepts: first, while it was their lot to be poor uneducated serfs or merchants, they recognized they were a part of the Great Russian Empire (Mother Russia), the head of which were sovereigns as rich as any in the rest of the world. And second, while they did not like brutal and heavy-handed sovereigns, they took comfort that that was what they needed and deserved living in the social and environmental climate they did. These both tended to reinforce the same 0∑ to –∑ attitudes, which manifested themselves in common social behaviors which were characterized in 1648 by Peter Gordon (a foreigner who served in the Tsar’s army for ~4 decades) as follows, “Russians are morose, avaricious, niggard, deceitful, false, insolent, tyrannous, where they have command; and being under command, submissive and even slavish, sloven and base, and yet overweening and valuing themselves above all other nations.”5
In the early months of Catherine’s reign (1762), she had to confront a crisis involving serfdom, which was now a basic but chronically unstable institution in the social and economic life of the empire. While she was intellectually opposed to serfdom and desired to free the serfs, recent upheavals convinced her that she would be unable simply to legally declare free half of the population that had been oppressed for ~200 years and cure a long-established injustice without subjecting the entire empire to chaos.1 Ultimately, serfs would not be freed until their emancipation in 1861, but only six years after a decree signed by Tsar Alexander II.8
This long period of servitude, injustice, and focus on survival particularly in a harsh climate and social environment led to a Cultural Mean of oppression and discontent,9 and it is easy to conceive of –∑ behaviors (anything to survive) becoming the norm.
3. Perceived Backwardness: Europe’s general attitude toward Russia for centuries was that of a culturally backward semi-Asian state. Peter The Great’s (reigned 1682-1725) response to this and to the effects of The Enlightenment in Europe was to attempt to westernize Russia by building a new, heavily European influenced capital in St. Petersburg, import western technology and skills, and to transform the image of the Tsar from a representative of the divinity to a secular role as “first servant of the state.”4
This top-down attempt to change the culture of a nation, while dutifully pursued during Peter’s lifetime, was ultimately an almost total failure. The people considered Moscow the repository of Mother Russia’s national heritage, the holy city where every Tsar and Empress had been crowned. Moscow was considered Russia’s capital, and St. Petersburg merely the artificial, forcibly built capital of Peter The Great.6 This imbedded resistance to change is consistent with a –∑ attitude.
Interestingly, when we lived in The Netherlands in the late 1980s, we discovered to much surprise that the local dialect of the village of Vriezenveen near us was about 30% Russian. The reason is that Peter The Great brought in textile experts from this region to introduce textile expertise to Russia. There was apparently sufficient “cross-cultural exchange” because we later learned while traveling in Russia, that the most common foreign language spoken by Russian (KGB) tour guides was Dutch. So, perhaps, Peter The Great’s experiment had at least some veneer of success.
4. Foreigners: Russia’s attitude toward foreigners was not much better. Catherine (herself a foreigner attempting to adapt) in 1755 revealed her view as follows, “Russia is a stumbling block for foreigners, … for nowhere are people quicker to notice weakness, absurdity, or defects in a foreigner than in Russia. One can be assured that nothing will be overlooked because, fundamentally, no Russian really likes a foreigner.”7
5. Insulation: From 1789 to 1791 news of the French Revolution (in part triggered by the American Revolution from 1776 onwards) was freely available in Russia. Catherine The Great recognized that these events would directly threaten all European monarchies. This included Poland, which had always been a threat to Russia and which had also been notorious for its unstable monarchy. Russia and Prussia (a German kingdom until post-WW I with its capital in Berlin) made a treaty to partition Poland (this for the 2nd time). In this action Russia regained Kiev (and large parts of the Ukraine), “lands still inhabited by people of the Russian faith and race.”10 In one swift move Catherine established the Buffer State concept: first, with an intellectual buffer between Russia and European ideas dangerous to the monarchy, and second, with a geographical buffer between Russia and her potential enemies. This can be seen as a cultural –∑ reaction predicated on survival.
6. Religious Foundation: Peter The Great, being more concerned over the excessive material wealth of the church (and the lack of wealth of the state) than he was for the spiritual, had dissolved the office of the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church (which was then on a par in power with the Tsar), and created an 11 to 12 member Holy Synod (his appointments) for church governance, effectively making the church subservient to the state. In 1762, Peter III (Catherine’s husband) secularized all church property and made all church dignitaries salaried employees paid by the state. In 1764, by imperial manifesto, Catherine The Great (now Empress) completed this transition and claimed all ecclesiastical lands and property (serfs) as the state’s, making the church a state institution with priests now becoming salaried state employees. At the same time, the church serfs were upgraded to peasants.11 (“Gosh, dear, what an amazing day! We’ve been promoted to peasants!” “What’s that mean?”) In Russia as elsewhere in Europe, lay people tended to see strict observance of traditional church practices as their pathway to salvation.12 In particular, in Russia there was little influence exerted by the church over their daily lives (e.g., the lack of a work ethic). One Russian noble of the time expressed it thusly, “… the priest is incapable of arguing or preaching and his flock thinks they have done their duty when they made the sign of the cross.”13
One can picture a number of longstanding forces contributing to the creation and embedding of an overall –∑ culture in the populace, in both attitude, behavior, and world view, that was transferred to the nation overall: it was survival or bare sustenance (–∑ behavior of take whatever you can get) or self-preservation (0∑ behavior at best, particularly in the nobility who had a large base of serfs to meet their expected “needs”).
This is not to say that there were no voices outside of this, but this overall –∑ attitude appears to be the result of a Regression to the Cultural Mean extending over 450+ years.
As a consequence, when the revolution Catherine feared finally came in 1917, some 50+ years after the serfs were emancipated, the resulting change was not to replace an elite and corrupt crown, nobility and merchants with fair governance by the people (Serfs), but to replace the corrupt crown, nobility and merchants with a small cadre of elite and corrupt peasants (Thugs; the Communist Secretaries). The root –∑ culture did not change, but manifested itself with only the more strongly –∑, self-serving, bullying elite running the government.
Not only did this 450+ year-old root culture not possess a fundamental work ethic (thanks to the Russian Orthodox church), it also did not admire, encourage, or value entrepreneurship. There was little or no encouragement to develop or create something larger and better (added value) that could benefit others. While merchants were needed, too great a success or accumulation of wealth created jealousy (a General –∑ Attitude, below) that could result in punishment anytime (Coercion to the Cultural Mean). Jews, for instance, because of their business acumen (and the fact they were not Russian Orthodox), often fell into this category (pogroms in 1821, 1881-4, and later).14
A general –∑ attitude, broadly applicable both here and elsewhere and both for individuals and cultures, derives from the need for a justification for a habitual involvement in -∑ games, and should well be recognized as Fundamental Principle 16e and described as follows,
The General –∑ Attitude
“You have something; and I don’t;
Therefore, you must have Taken It before I had a chance to;
Consequently, I can take steps to recover from you what I would have taken, and
Take more in order to punish you.”
Seen through this lens, different more current events should make more sense:
– Stalin’s establishing multiple countries as Buffer States between Russia and the west after WW II, and the frequent heavy-handed actions to retain them in this capacity and to prevent ‘western influence and freedoms’ from developing (Hungary, 1956);
– Russia had never encouraged nor developed an entrepreneurial culture, thus it severely lagged behind the west from the Industrial Revolution onwards. Despite Peter The Great’s attempts to import and implant western ideas that included these skills, they did not sufficiently stick. Consequently, when Russia, as part of the Allies in WW II, found herself on the winning side but bereft of technological prowess (other than sheer brute force and always plenty of bodies to throw at the enemy), Stalin extended his General –∑ actions. Russia moved fast to capture as much of German technology (and scientists) as possible, and then established ongoing spying methodology to continue to steal as much western technology and information as possible. They needed it for the prestige they felt had always been due them, but they also recognized they did not have the capacity to create the technology, nor did they have the cultural DNA to develop the needed skills or to understand the concept of quality. What they could do was copy or replicate.
In 1990 we had the opportunity to travel in Russia after the Berlin Wall came down, and at one location saw an example of a memorial honoring Yuri Gagarin as the first man into space. Based upon seeing the engineering of that rocket close up, I would have to agree with certain skeptics who claimed that Yuri Gagarin was not the first man into space. He was merely the first to return alive.
– A current area where some level of entrepreneurship appears to be developing is with the Internet. However, despite the presence of legitimate Russian Internet security firms (Kaspersky Labs), there is a far stronger practice of the General –∑ Attitude in the massive illegitimate activity of common Russian and East European hackers (as opposed to state organized hacking by China and North Korea).
Attempts by western enterprises to invest in Russia and establish affiliates to develop resources or a viable business run into considerable resistance, primarily due to the fact that a +∑ (added value) concept does not exist, and therefore if “worth” or wealth is seen to be generated, then the General –∑ Attitude takes effect: westerners must be taking something and steps must be taken to keep it for Mother Russia, e.g. British Petroleum’s investment in Russia;
– The Crimea was first annexed by Russia in 1783 after Russia defeated the Turks in 1774. This gave Russia year-round access to the Black Sea and through that to the Mediterranean and the world for its new Navy. It also brought back more native Russian people into the fold of Mother Russia (as with the annexation of eastern Poland). When Khrushchev gave the Crimea to Ukraine in the mid-1950s, it was not well received by Crimeans, but the Ukraine at that point was within Russia, had significant Russian people, and was serving as part of the Buffer State between Russia and the west.
In recent years, the Ukraine has begun (or expressed the desire) to lean politically and economically toward Europe and the European Union. Apply the General –∑ Attitude above and Putin and Russia’s recent and continuing actions make sense: prevent Ukraine from leaving a Buffer State status; prevent Ukraine from achieving closer economic and political ties to foreign Europe; blame the US for a conspiracy of falling oil prices that threaten the Russian economy; act to preserve “relationship” with native Russians in eastern Ukraine and the Crimea; act to preserve Russia’s access to the Black Sea (Crimea); prevent further loss of face to the west; and further build up the esteem, if not fear, that Europe (and the world) should have for Mother Russia. Putin has a greater than 80% approval rating by the Russian people for the actions he is taking.
(A sampling of recent news reports:
– Is Putin Bent on Reshaping the World Order? (2015.02.08)
– US and Russia clash over Ukraine’s sovereignty (2015.02.07)
– Putin Rejects Attempts to Contain Russia After Peace Talks Fail (2015.02.07)
– Obama and Putin: From Frosty to Frozen (2014.12.19)
– Putin Gambled on Russia’s Economy, Ukraine Policy, and Lost (2014.12.18)
– Here’s Why the Russian Ruble is Collapsing (2014.12.16)
– Putin Says Russia Not Isolated Over Ukraine (2014.11.23)
– Why Vladimir Putin Thinks It’s Still 1985 (2014.11.21)
– Russia Delivers a New Shock to Crimean Business (2014.11.18)
– All’s Quiet on the Eastern Front – For Now (2014.11.06)
– Putin’s Response to EU Sanctions: See You in Court (2014.11.03) )
Her (historical) behaviors give the appearance that Russia (from individuals through leaders) views herself and the world through polarizing sunglasses that only permit every internal and external action to be seen as –∑ and a threat.
Current events are like Romeo and Juliet, with the Ukraine as Juliet, Europe as Romeo, and Putin as head of the Capulet (Russian) family. Prevent the embarrassing marriage; save face for the family. And no reconciliation permitted.
Russia not only feels she needs to be held highly in esteem, but to regain the esteem (fear) that she had during and after WW II. And she wants to have a seat at the head of the table to achieve this.
I suspect that the more probable outcome is the partitioning of Ukraine with a no-man’s land (patrolled by Russia) separating western Ukraine from the pro-Russian eastern region. Exactly what was done with the pro-Russian Transnistria region in Moldova in 1992.
Tough to claim that a National Culture does not exist in the form of an observable Cultural Mean, or that it does not matter.
Next: A Look at Ourselves
1 Catherine The Great, 302-3.
2 Catherine The Great, 297.
3 Catherine The Great, 308.
4 Catherine The Great, 281.
5 Global Crisis, 161.
6 Catherine The Great, 285-6.
7 Catherine The Great, 175.
8 Catherine The Great, 313.
9 Catherine The Great, 392.
10 Catherine The Great, 557.
11 Catherine The Great, 301.
12 Global Crisis, 180.
13 Catherine The Great, 321.
14 The Reformation, A History, 8.