Russia at a Glance
The Russians are latecomers to the fold of civilization. Until the late tenth century they worshiped Mother Earth, but their principal deity was Perun, god of thunder and lightning. The Slavs lived in southern Russia in what is now the Ukraine with its capital city, Kiev, whose Grand Prince Vladmir decided in 988, for reasons both pragmatic and spiritual, to impose the Orthodox form of Christianity on his subjects. According to one chronicle, “He directed that the idols should be overthrown and that some should be cut to pieces and others burned with fire. He thus ordered that Perun should be bound to a horse’s tail and dragged…to the river. He appointed twelve men to beat the idols with sticks.” Vladmir accepted Christianity from the Greek Orthodox empire of Byzantium, not Rome. No split had yet occurred between the two branches of the church, the Latin West and the Greek East. Only much later would it become apparent what a fateful choice Vladmir had made, one partly responsible for cutting Russia off from the dynamics of Western Christendom, in particular from the great Renaissance movement of artistic and intellectual activity. Besides, the Christianity introduced in Russia was a religion of forgiveness, not of tolerance, at least not of other religions. Orthodox Christianity taught Russia that it held the “one truth,” for truth, like God, could only be one. The Renaissance of Western Europe eroded a similar doctrine held by the Roman Catholic church, but nothing of the sort took place in Russia.
Russia’s political organization, in addition to being of recent origin, was not organized by the Russians themselves but by Scandinavians, who, in the middle of the ninth century, were invited to rule the major Russian city of the north, Novgorod. The very notion of a “Russian state” appeared only in the fifteenth or sixteenth century. The Scandinavian-Slav rule revolved around the combination of war and commerce that was the hallmark of the first few centuries of Russia’s history. In the centuries that followed, Russia failed to create a society where order resulted from the self-governing behavior of its own citizens. Russia’s rulers were absolute monarchs, particularly after 1547 when Ivan the Terrible was crowned tsar. Ivan’s new position corresponded with a belief that Moscow, after the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1543, was the Third Rome and the last. This belief enabled the tsar to make himself still more absolute by concentrating religious and secular power. In Russia only a few hundred aristocratic families (the boyars), reputedly of foreign origin, dominated the rest of the people, with no middle class in between. Before the advent of the Scandinavians, the Russians were divided into freemen and slaves; After the Scandinavians arrived, the slaves remained as the dregs of society. Slaves were originally prisoners of war; later anyone could become so by birth or voluntary agreement. Warfare was the most important form of commerce, and the principal product was slaves.
The tsar ruled in absolute fashion with the help of his secret police, organized as early as 1565. This period followed the Mongol Yoke, an interim of about two and a half centuries (1240-1480) in which the Golden Horde Mongols mastered Russia after they had ended its flourishing period that had begun after its baptism. Russia’s pyramidal society was reformed for the first time in 1861, when about forty million serfs were legally freed from bondage by an edict of the tsar following Russia’s defeat in the Crimean War in 1854. The serfs were neither efficient tillers of land nor efficient soldiers in battle. Why should they work hard and die for others? More significant was the reform when the tsar, after Russia’s defeat by Japan in 1904-5, introduced a parliamentary democracy that lasted until 1917. In February 1917 the tsar abdicated because of the insurmountable pressures generated by Russia’s inability to cope with the problems resulting from her participation in World War I; the liberal government that then assumed power was ousted in October 1917 by the Bolsheviks.
In the period before the end of tsardom, Russia had excelled in cultural, not political, achievements; under the Bolsheviks, it was set on the path toward communism, a new experiment in history. But the idea behind the society’s reorganization was old. The communist idea was monolithic (as opposed to pluralist): it emphasized the validity of only one truth, that is, communism. The idea was the same as that of Orthodox Christianity, which Vladmir had chosen for Russia over nine hundred years earlier. However, whereas Russian Orthodox Christianity was a religion of forgiveness, not of tolerance, communism was a creed neither of forgiveness nor of tolerance. Besides, not only the groups ordering the society but every individual in it had to believe in the truth and act on it. The Soviet state, which was the most totalitarian state ever devised, was assigned the task of translating the truth into reality. To achieve this end, this totalitarian state applied all the persuasive and coercive means that it could muster. Among the means was the secret police (first Cheka and later the KGB), which soon became virtually omnipotent and ubiquitous. On the road to the unapproachable goal, it committed many crimes, among which was the genocide of the 1930s; no other state in history has ever perpetrated violence against its own people on such a scale. It also tried to implant abroad by deceit and violence the “truth” of communism, of which Afghanistan is the most recent example.