Image: Russian soldiers in Moscow / Vitaly V. Kuzmin / Wikimedia Commons
Russia has been described by the likes of Winston Churchill as “riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” Make no mistake: understanding the complicated past of the world’s largest nation – and the intentions of its incredibly enigmatic leader – is no easy task.
Villainesse explains how Russia got to where it is today – and why we all need to pay attention to what is going on there.
So what’s the deal with Russia?
Although Russia has been inhabited by humans for thousands of years, the idea of a united Russia is a fairly recent development. Much of this has to do with the sheer size of the place – at 17,075,200 square kilometres, it is almost twice as large as the next-largest country, Canada (and more than 63 times larger than New Zealand), and contains no fewer than 11 time zones in a nation that stretches from the Baltic Sea all the way to the Pacific Ocean. In other words, the vastness of the country meant, until the advent of modern transport methods, governance was all but impossible.
Spanning two continents, the European part of Russia has long been the more politically and economically important, as it is where most Russians live (the Asian part of Russia is – second perhaps only to Antarctica – among the least-inhabited places on earth). Ties to other European nations were strong, and like many of those countries Russia developed a monarchy that had absolute control over the nation’s affairs.
But the lavish lifestyles of the Russian royalty as compared to the poverty of their subjects led to a growing discontent, which led to a civil war. A group of communists led by a highly charismatic man named Vladimir Lenin eventually came to power, and Russia – which had been renamed the Russian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic – soon joined with other communist-friendly nations to form what became known as the Soviet Union (officially called the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or USSR).
The Soviet Union quickly became one of the most important countries in world affairs, largely because of its robust military and the view that it was the “motherland” of the communist idea (though communism originally came from Germany). It also played a critical role in helping end World War II (known as the “Great Patriotic War” in Russia): more people in the Soviet Union died in the war (between 26 and 27 million, though perhaps even more) than any other country. Despite the astronomically high cost, the Soviets eventually succeeded in driving the Nazis all the way back from just a few hundred kilometres from Moscow to Berlin; almost every historian agrees that the Nazis stood a very good chance of winning the war had Hitler not made what proved to be a disastrous decision to invade the USSR.
But despite the USSR and the rest of the Allies working together to stop the Nazis, their cooperation did not last. A fierce rivalry soon developed, leading to a prolonged arms race and period of political and military brinksmanship known as the Cold War. As both the United States and Soviet Union possessed nuclear weapons, there was an ever-present fear of Armageddon breaking out at any moment. Many argue that the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 (when US reconnaissance planes spotted the Soviet military installing silos capable of launching nuclear missiles in its ally Cuba, which the USSR said was in response to the US doing the same in Italy and Turkey) is the closest humanity has ever come to extinction.
As the technological and arms race of the Cold War heated up, a series of disastrous economic and foreign policy decisions (such as invading Afghanistan in 1979, sparking a decade-long conflict that killed hundreds of thousands) ultimately made it clear the USSR could not keep up with its Western rivals. Discontent grew, and the various countries that were part of the USSR began to declare independence. Finally, on December 26, 1991, the USSR was dissolved and ceased to exist entirely.
The fall of the Soviet Union brought a great period of uncertainty to the newly-independent Russia. The economy plummeted. Unemployment skyrocketed. Millions of people emigrated out of the country in search of a better life elsewhere.
Promising more stability and better living conditions, a relatively unknown former officer of the KGB (the much-feared Soviet intelligence agency) named Vladimir Putin was elected president. In the first few years of his presidency, the economy did indeed flourish, and living standards rose dramatically, to the point where they were nearly on par with those in the West. Having served the maximum two consecutive terms under the Russian Constitution, Putin stepped down in 2008 in favour of his hand-picked successor, Dmitry Medvedev. However, Putin ran again for president in 2012, and won in an election decried by outside observers as rigged.
The controversial election of a man who had already served as president did not sit well with many Russians, and thousands took to the streets to protest. The demonstrations, the largest in Russia since the downfall of the Soviet Union, ultimately achieved little, but convinced Putin of a need to distract his people so they would not take his anger out on him. Less than two years after he was re-elected, Putin ordered Russian troops to invade the Crimea region in neighbouring Ukraine when that country overthrew its president amid massive unrest. This caused outrage worldwide, especially as Putin lied by first saying there were no Russian soldiers in Crimea until a few weeks later admitting they were there all along. Russia also began supporting groups of rebels in Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine, providing weapons and intelligence, as Russian soldiers and tanks sneaked across the porous border. This resulted in actions such as the shoot-down of the passenger airliner MH17 in July 2014 (which killed nearly 300 civilians flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur) – an action for which Russia is yet to accept responsibility (the government claims it was the Ukrainian military that shot it down, but numerous international reports and evidence suggests otherwise).
If all that wasn’t enough, Russian forces poured into Syria – a traditional ally of Russia and where important Russian military bases are located – beginning in 2015. Although Russia claimed its actions have been to fight ISIS, the majority of its airstrikes and missile attacks have targeted groups fighting against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, who is a strong supporter of Russia. Many schools and hospitals have been hit in the ongoing Russian offensive (killing thousands of people), and the idea of charging Russian government and military leaders with war crimes has been floated. However, since Russia is one of the five veto-wielding members of the United Nations – and thus can overrule any action by the international body – the odds of such charges ever being officially brought are about as close to zero as possible.
But the Cold War is over, right?
Technically, but relations are still frosty. Since the West and Russia have long been ideological rivals, much of the interaction between the two is still seen through a Cold War lens. Further, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) – a military alliance of 28 nations all pledging to come to each other’s aid if any of them are attacked – is seen by Russia as a major threat, especially because thousands of NATO soldiers are stationed in countries along Russia’s borders. On the other hand, NATO nations see Russia as a major threat, as thousands of Russian troops are stationed along NATO member state borders and Putin has long been rumoured to have his eye on a military operation in the Baltics (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – who coincidentally are all members of NATO).
There is also much concern about the erosion of civil rights in Russia and elimination of dissent in Russia since Putin was re-elected. Numerous journalists, opposition leaders, and others have either gone missing or been found to have either been murdered or died under mysteries circumstances, and suspicion often falls on Putin whenever such people die. Also, a cult of personality Putin has created for himself – nurtured by a strong propaganda apparatus and pressure put on any media that depicts him unfavourably – has led to more than a few people calling him a modern-day dictator. The accumulation of individual power – and the constant infighting among those in his inner circle to gain favour with him in order to stay in power – does little to dispel such comparisons.
What about human rights?
Since Putin’s return to power in 2012, human rights in Russia have been greatly eroded. In 2013, Putin signed the “For the Purpose of Protecting Children from Information Advocating for a Denial of Traditional Family Values” law, popularly known as the “Gay Propaganda Law”. The law – which has sparked outrage around the world – allows authorities to freely discriminate against someone because of their sexual orientation, or alleged sexual orientation. It’s also far from the only way in which LGBT+ people in Russia are discriminated against: although in theory they have rights, in practice they have none.
Racism is also a major problem in Russia. Although the country helped save the world from the Nazis, ironically it has the largest population of neo-nazis in the world. Immigrants – especially those who are not white or don’t speak fluent Russian – are sometimes beaten or even stabbed to death simply for walking down the street and being in Russia. Worse, when such crimes do occur, the perpetrators are often not punished with any meaningful jail time or anything more than a small fine.
Why all the talk about “meddling”?
A lot of media outlets have spent a significant amount of time discussing the Russian government’s efforts to influence events overseas, with the most recent example being the US Presidential Election. Often, Russia will seek to influence events to help people who might be more favourable in their policies towards Russia get elected. Although Russia has provided assistance to several far-right groups in Europe and the US, mostly because they usually have a positive view of Moscow, it has also supported far-left groups for the very same reason.
The role of propaganda cannot be discounted, either. The government pours hundreds of millions of dollars every year into state-run media outlets to influence opinion both within Russia and overseas. Particularly overseas, the goal of outlets such as RT (formerly known as Russia Today) is not so much to convince other people that the Russian government’s opinion is right, but to sow discord and distrust in Western leaders and institutions. This is clearly evident in RT’s programming: very little of it is actually about Russia, and what it does cover almost always portrays Putin and the government heroically. It is also important to note that propaganda is considered a key part of actual Russian military doctrine, and is a key facet of a type of asymmetric “hybrid warfare” outlined in what is known as the Gerasimov Doctrine (so-named after Valery Gerasimov, the current Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Russia, one of the most powerful positions in the Russian government).
So why does Putin seem to love Trump?
Much has been made of Putin’s apparent affection for Donald Trump. While it has not been definitely proven that Russia interfered in the US election to help Trump win (though it seems highly likely), the “bromance” between the two leaders – whose personalities could not be more different – has surprised, and alarmed, many. The easiest explanation for it all: Putin – a trained KGB officer who sees much of the world through a Cold War lens – thinks that he can manipulate Trump more easily than Hillary Clinton.
Reasons for Putin’s hatred of Clinton are numerous (including his belief that it was Clinton who helped organise the protests against him, during her time as US Secretary of State), but one of the chief reasons is that people who have worked closely with Putin say he absolutely despises having to treat strong women as equals, much less be told what he should or shouldn’t do by a woman. In one famous story, his black Labrador Konni ran into the room while he was having a meeting with German chancellor Angela Merkel. It was well-known that Merkel was afraid of large dogs, and whether or not Putin deliberately had his dog run into the room (which, according to accounts, “gave Merkel visible discomfort”) in order to intimidate her and gain the upper hand in their discussions remains a mystery.
Putin also possibly favoured Trump in the US election because of statements Trump has made about how the US might reduce its commitment to NATO nations if they did not “pull their own weight” in terms of troop or financial commitments. Trump, in turn, has spoken favourably of Putin – which naturally has alarmed foreign policy experts. A great fear shared by many is that during Trump’s presidency, Putin will press his luck with another massive military offensive, such as an invasion of the Baltics. If that happens, it’s feared Trump could either: A) do nothing (in which millions of people would suffer), or B) overreact by either attacking Russia with direct military action or even launching a nuclear missile (in which millions would also suffer). We can only hope such a thing does not happen.
How are New Zealand-Russian relations?
Despite its close ties to the UK and US, New Zealand’s relations with Russia are surprisingly good considering the current political climate. When Russia passed counter-sanctions on food imports from numerous countries in response to Western sanctions following its 2014 invasion of Crimea, New Zealand was not included on the list. The countries maintain full diplomatic ties, and Russian media portrayals of Aotearoa are not as biased as its portrayals are of other Western countries, including Australia (which has poor relations with Russia). During World War II, a large number of Kiwi sailors served in Arctic convoys that helped bring essential supplies to the Soviet Union after it was invaded by the Nazis. In the modern day, New Zealand’s Russian community numbers about 15,000. Both countries are also members of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), an organisation of 21 countries with borders in the Pacific Ocean.
What about women in Russia?
As with many things in Russia, the situation of women is full of contradictions. While there are large percentages that work in traditionally “masculine” industries (such as the military and in heavy industry), Russian society remains highly gendered because of the influence of the deeply conservative Russian Orthodox Church and a patriarchal power structure that promotes “traditional values” like “strong” men and “nurturing” women. International Women’s Day is a major holiday in Russia, but it glorifies “traditional” depictions of femininity such as motherhood.
Those aren’t the only contradictions. Although sexual harassment at work can be punished by up to three years in prison, the law is hardly ever enforced. Women are also forbidden from working in 456 different positions, for such reasons as alleged risk of harm to reproductive health. Not only that, but many private companies will list “physical attractiveness” as a job requirement in public advertisements – even though hiring someone based on how they look is illegal for governmental organisations.
Although some of the most famous leaders in Russian history have been women (such as Catherine the Great, who may be the most famous Russian ever, full stop), a woman has never led modern Russia. There are a few women in Russia’s parliament (known as the Duma), but they are typically “appointed” to their roles by Putin as a way to create the illusion of equality; further, since the Duma is largely a rubber-stamp parliament that automatically passes whatever legislation Putin proposes, the women in it have little real power or agency of their own.
Russia has one of the highest rates of alcoholism in the world, and also one of the highest rates of sexual violence on earth. Unfortunately, an extremely strong victim-blaming culture means the vast majority of such crimes are not reported, and even if they are, perpetrators can often escape punishment if they are connected to the ruling class or Putin. Getting an abortion is only legal up until the 12th week of pregnancy, and there is a serious debate taking place about making abortion illegal in all circumstances except where the life of the mother is at risk.
Another issue is the fact that men in Russia die far earlier than women. While this is the case in every country, in Russia the problem is particularly severe because the average life expectancy for men is less than 65 years old (it’s 80 in New Zealand) – as opposed to more than 76 for women. With a very weak social support system following the fall of the Soviet Union, many of these women struggle financially and are forced to move in with their children, as Russia is very ageist when it comes to hiring women for jobs (younger women are almost always preferred, for the aforementioned reason of “physical attractiveness”).
The oppression of women in Russia is highly ironic, because overall (especially due to the devastating effects of World War II and mass emigration following the fall of the Soviet Union), there are far more women in the country than men. Russia has the sixth-highest female gender imbalance in the world; for every 100 men in Russia, there are 114 women.
What comes next?
Cliché as it sounds, it’s difficult to say. With relations between Russia and the West at their worst since the Cold War, there’s plenty of concern that a new conflict (“Cold War II”) could already be underway. Others are more optimistic, pointing out that another presidential election is scheduled for 2018 and Putin may not run again (though most people think he will, in which case he would not have to run for office again until 2024 at the earliest).
One thing seems somewhat more certain, as cliché as it also sounds: understanding the intentions of the Russian government – and getting an accurate read as to what the nation’s future might hold and what its influence on the world will be – will likely remain as difficult as ever.