Understanding Russian Hearts and Minds

Russia is the place both invading armies and preconceived notions come to die. Although generally included in the figurative West by its legalities and customs it is in many ways a unique entity. Never has this proved truer than during the ongoing conflict with Ukraine.

Few dissertations have thus far bothered to concern themselves with the realpolitik preoccupying the Kremlin due two decades of broken promises from liberal Western leaders culminating in relentless encroachment of NATO upon former Soviet territories. Lamentably, even less time has been devoted to the national psychology; for one cannot understand the politics unless one first understands the people.

In this, primary among aspects of the Russian psyche is its capacity for creativity. Whether painting silk in St. Petersburg or weaving rugs on the Steppes, most Slavs exhibit inventive talents; a collective passion remarked upon as early as Gogol. Essential in modern artistry are literacy and innovation, characteristics lending themselves to defining a self-reliant, adaptable and intuitive population.

Refining these traits was a crucial point of Russian divergence from the traditional West. While Western youngsters of the past century were taught the glories of competition, Russian children were inculcated in collaborative problem-solving. As the U.S. extolled individual accomplishment, Russian counterparts admonished it selfish and socially unproductive to place personhood above the common welfare.

Following the recent years of kleptocracy and its Age of Oligarchs these may seem dubious propositions, however all but the most recent generation had them ingrained from infancy. Pervasive empathy and strong public spirit among Russians for Russians can be largely attributed to this inclusive learning environment. Whatever the future, at present it will remain a pronounced facet of the popular mind.

Consequent of that valuation education has historically been esteemed for its own sake aside from personal gain, often at terrible risk. Much is now made of relative relaxing of restrictions from the late-Khrushchev period onward but it remains possession of inappropriate literature was a serious offense unto nearly the end of the Soviet era; evincing a wide strain of defiance over any cause deemed worthy.

Likewise, repression of faith was a well-documented occurrence during the first half of the Twentieth Century. Although this became progressively less reported upon (with certain exceptions) as Americans became less God-fearing folk, nonetheless inside the Soviet sphere Christianity was still identified as a dangerous counter-influence until quite recently. As de facto alternative to state authority and abuse, common people were increasingly drawn to identify with the Orthodoxy.

By this function of tacit opposition the Church gained tremendous respect among the populace, even those not particularly religious. (Putin himself was secretly baptized.) Similarly millions of Russians today who seldom or never attend services maintain a comparable reverence for the institution; markedly unlike many Western contemporaries either indifferent or hostile to Christianity.

An additional aspect of the Russian sensibility is reminiscent of that found on another fringe of the European continent; a nearly paranoiac cultural pride somewhat akin the Irish. This may be attributable to persistent impecunity while bordered by wealthier neighbors or from self-perceived loss of international status. Whatever the cause, it is a phenomenon quite real and highly significant.

Mundane examples of its execution are acute sensitivity by ordinary Russians to negative references concerning propensity for Vodka or what is taken as overly critical outsider commentary on Lenin and Stalin. Lesser traits of Russian behavior or history (though not necessarily policies or personages) frequently find ready defenders; one explanation of otherwise paradoxical support among elderly for Communism. More grave is when such hypersensitivity to appearance of weakness acts upon statecraft, as may have been the case in the Georgian conflict.

Perhaps the most explanatory feature of the national soul is often incorrectly described as an endless capacity for suffering; but better defined as a near-inexhaustible reserve of stoic optimism. In this, one need only review Russian experiences with capitalism. Two times since 1989 the economy imploded in ways no American can fathom. These dual crises erased or vastly reduced most life savings.

Whenever there is word of a particularly severe snowstorm US grocery shelves are stripped bare. If tomorrow the dollar lost 25% of its value? And next week 75%? Anarchy. Thus when President Obama threatens "sanctions" it can hardly frighten as he intends. Russians have endured a 1930s-style Great Depression of at least double the magnitude within living memory of most of the population…twice.

Is this mosaic a depiction of every Russian? Obviously not. There are innumerable varieties of citizen as exist anywhere else. Still a generally applicable overview of the domestic character is essential to anticipating foreign relations.

Justin Raimondo has defined his concept of "Libertarian Realism" as the act of a nation’s external policies being largely determined by its internal politics. If this theory is correct, understanding its function in practice necessitates comprehension of a country’s social dogmas.

Indeed, the crisis in Ukraine in many ways has less to do with physical territory than psychological terrain. Russians are in the process of determining how they see themselves and by extension how they want to be seen by the world. Whether and to what extent Ukraine or "Little Russia," the mythical Slavic homeland, should be restored within their sphere of influence is predominant in that discourse.

As Yulia Tymoshenko and other Kiev statesmen advocate killing "all those (Russian) a**holes" Americans are gradually drawn into this fray; already our mercenaries may be present while some lawmakers call for open military intervention. Whatever policy Washington ultimately embarks upon it should at least be cognizant as viewed from the Russian street this entire matter is less a practical conflict than what many in that faraway and largely misunderstood society consider a righteous cause.

Guy Somerset writes from somewhere in America. He is a lawyer by profession.

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