THINKING ABOUT RUSSIA
We are now near the end of the third week of Vladimir Putin’s attempt to place himself among Russia’s historic leaders by adding Ukraine back into Russia by military conquest. It is, as we know, not going well. An invading force made up principally of conscripts who thought they were on a training exercise, driving impressive looking but very cut-rate weapons (cheap Chinese tires), is hardly a formula for military success.
The conscripts brought with them into Ukraine their dress uniforms because they were told they would be welcomed as liberators and victory parades through Ukraine’s major cities would be in order. That turned out to be profoundly wrong. It goes without saying that homesick eighteen year olds, far from home, getting shot at by people who in fact may be relatives, provides little of the motivation needed for a successful invasion.
Let us think about Russia: Russia is a vast land covering eleven time zones but much of it is too far north to grow even scrubby trees (that means that, for agriculture, it is not exactly Iowa). A vast land does not mean a vast population. The last Tsar, Nicholas II, presided over a population of one hundred and forty million before he was forced to abdicate the throne in 1917. Today, Vladimir Putin presides over a country with a population of one hundred and forty five million. Only five million more than Nicholas ruled more than a hundred years ago.
And, just as it was more than a hundred years ago, Russia’s population is concentrated in a few large urban areas at the European end of the country. The rest of the population is very thinly scattered across endless miles of wilderness just as it was for Nicholas. In fact his government had no connection with most people beyond the cities. They were known as “the dark people”.
If you watch snips of Russia on our newscasts during this invasion of Ukraine the people will look “just like us”. And they will, but you are only seeing a very small portion of Russians. They are part of the tiny proportion of urbanized elites. Go a short distance out of town and people will appear profoundly less modern.
During World War II, Russian soldiers were often viewed by others as wantonly destructive. Many of them, for instance, had never seen a toilet. Toilets in Russia were just a hole in the floor (the Russians were squatters). Russian soldiers back then sometimes appeared to be destructive because they were dealing with things they had never seen. Even in the sixties hole in the floor toilets were still widely used.
When I went to Russia myself for the first time in the sixties much of Moscow was still filled with log cabins. People in those log cabins still lowered their buckets into wells to get water. The government had begun to build high rises filled with very small apartments. The apartments were surrounded by log cabins still in use. And, that was in the capital.
If one wanted to travel from Moscow the five hundred miles up to Leningrad (now once again St. Petersburg) there was a two lane highway. In the winter when the buses were stopped for a bathroom break there would be two twenty-hole outhouses (very cold in winter when the tail winds blew). The drivers would build big fires under the buses to keep the oil from freezing. Now there is a high speed train but the highway is still there.
That was the world in which the people the age of Vladimir Putin grew up. It was a world where people like Putin didn’t strive for wealth as much as for power. Because everyone in theory worked for the government (even shoe shine boys turned in their money and were paid by the government) wealth only came with power. That is one of the things that made the KGB so attractive to someone like Putin.
It certainly did not mean that there was no cheating. Being in a position of power meant that one finally had the ability to use that advantage to gain wealth. That is why Marxist systems seem to create levels of corruption seen almost nowhere else. Vladimir Putin’s presidency rests on a mountain of fraud. To him it is critical that the people who gained wealth from that fraud remain with him.
A second problem he has with the broader population is that this war is profoundly generational. Vladimir Putin is sixty nine. The KGB veterans that he made wealthy (they were to share that wealth with him), are of similar age or older. They all grew up under the old Communist system. Their newly found wealth has allowed them to skate above the world inhabited by other Russians. They are reflexively authoritarian. If Putin can no longer deliver they will turn to someone else.
The sharp looking young people that you see in the television pictures are from a very different generation (think of them as being in the cell phone generation). Putin has been in power for a bit over twenty years. Because of a rise in oil and gas prices at the beginning of his time in office those young people are used to prosperous times (unlike many of their age-mates in the far hinterland). The thought of people their age dying in Ukraine while western business closures cause their unemployment in Russia is hardly likely to make them great supporters of Vladimir Putin.
It appears that the invasion of Ukraine is turning out to be a bogged down military failure. If that is true there are simply no good options for Russia. Continuing will simply mean more years of fighting a hostile population. More young Russians will die. As it becomes increasingly clear that fellow Slavs were simply victims of Putin’s desire to turn back the clock and recreate an empire. There can be no graceful exit.
What that really means is that Putin will have to go. That will mean that ultimately the economic sanctions can be lifted. The Russian economy, with sanctions removed can slowly heal. The Ukrainians can mourn their dead and once again begin to rebuild. With Vladimir Putin out of office and his great Russian Empire finally laid to rest, we can, with time, all finally move on.
H.J. Rishel 3/17/2022