Small Wars Journal

A Look at Russian Civilization: Power, Truth, Trust, and War

Wed, 03/30/2016 - 9:22am

A Look at Russian Civilization: Power, Truth, Trust, and War

Roman Skaskiw

Is Russia Europe?

With varying degrees of urgency, history often returns to the question of whether Russia is Europe, often plunging into comparisons of European and Asian political orders.  The debate is unlikely to see resolution.  Differences exist, but determining whether they form a civilizational divide seems a matter of semantics.

Proponents of the Russia-is-Europe idea cite Russian literary and musical masterpieces, Russia's intimate involvement in European politics and wars, and the fact that three quarters of Russians live, at least geographically, in Europe.

On the other hand, those who consider the Russian sphere of influence distinct from European civilization, whether praising or criticizing it, generally point to the same set of differences related to government absolutism.

The differences are more important than the similarities for understanding modern Russia, because they tend to be underestimated.  The differences are also centuries old, pre-dating the Soviet era which is sometimes falsely described as an aberration from Russia's otherwise completely European trajectory.

In Origin of Political Order (2011), Stanford political economist Francis Fukuyama describes two and a half generations of Mongolian/Golden Horde absolutism as setting the stage for Russia's further political development in specific contrast to what took place further west where overlapping social and religious institution moderated state power.  Unlike Rome, the Russian Orthodox Church was always "caesaropapis."

19th century French writer Honoré de Balzac described Russia as "half European," and his peer, Marquis de Custine who documented his travels to Russia in La Russie en 1839, described Russia as having an Asiatic soul with a veneer of European civilization.

This view is echoed with a positive spin in contemporary Russia.  Boris Akunin, Russian essayist and author of historical fiction writes:

"It would be misleading to consider the 'Asian' component an intractable disease or a birth trauma to Russia. From the historical perspective, this, our genetic characteristic, has not only created problems, but also given us bonuses. . . . the primacy of the 'state' and this 'communal' mass consciousness [emphasis added] have repeatedly helped Russia survive grave upheavals that purely European states could not, and did not survive.  And so it was later, when Russia turned out to be stronger than two of the most powerful military empires — first Napoleon's, and then Hitler's. That ruggedness, ability to come together during times of tests, those huge reserves of strength, the willingness to sacrifice, the famous readiness to 'pay the price' — all of that is Asian, not European."

From Custine, 175 years earlier, we get a damning and more colorful assessment of the primacy of the state in Russia:  "What does surprise me is that among all the voices testifying to the glory of this single man [the Czar], not one rises above the chorus to speak for humanity against the miracles of autocracy. You can say of the Russians, both great and small, that they are intoxicated with slavery."

American firebrand general George S. Patton said near the conclusion of World War II, "The difficulty in understanding the Russian is that we do not take cognizance of the fact that he is not a European, but an Asiatic."

Radical Kremlin ideologue Alexander Dugin, proponent of a "genuine, true, radically revolutionary and consistent, fascist fascism" describes Russia as its own civilization: "[Russia] is simply a civilization, distinct, having its own system of values, its own philosophy, and that it should be compared not with France or Germany, which also differ from one another, but with all Europe, or with Asian culture."

Much of Dugin's work illustrates Russia's long standing schizophrenia between nationalism and the reality of uniting many disparate cultures and peoples under the rubric of "Russia" -- a problem that has defined Russia even before Czar Peter I choose the name "Russia," when Grand Duchy of Muskovy conquered the remarkably individualist Republic of Novgorod, then thrice massacred its residents for fear of Polish or Lithuanian influence.  Marquis de Custine's work is rife with hints of this tragic history:

"Men stay silent in Russia, but the stones speak, in pitiful accents. No wonder the Russians fear and neglect their old buildings, for these bear witness to the history that they would prefer, more often than not, to forget."

Dugin's voluminous writings follow a typical Russian tradition -- elaborately describing why disparate people and cultures are "Russian," while placing "greater Russians" the first among equals in every meaningful way.  His effort, the latest of an old tradition, attempts to unite disparate people and ideologies as enemies of "Atlanticism."

Recently, the Heritage Foundation's analysis and policy recommendation described Russia as oscillating back and forth from European civilization.

I would argue that Western perception has oscillated much more than Russian reality.  They ray of hope is that the Russian people (a slight majority of whom had never used the internet according to a 2009 poll), are increasingly exposed to the West's higher standard of justice, accountability, property rights, and resulting quality of life, and may not be as enduring of needless economic hardship and abusive governance as the Kremlin relies on them being.  As Marquis de Cusine speculated in his 1838 book, "the political regime here would not survive 20 years of free communication with Western Europe.


Whether a part of European civilization or not, there seem to be three characteristics distinguishing Russia from Europe (or from the rest of Europe), all tied closely to the primacy of the state: a higher regard for raw power, a lower regard for truth telling, and, perhaps consequently, pervasive distrust.

When nostalgia is expressed by Russians (or Ukrainians) who lament the collapse of the Soviet Union, it is often expressed as "the whole world feared us."  I've encountered this personally.

During the unveiling of a monument to Stalin in Russian-proxy-controlled Eastern Ukraine, television reports showed pensioners praising him: "he restored order."  This phrase defines the stereotype of Soviet-era pensioners turned neo-Russian imperialists.  Russians commenting on the annexation of Crimea also demonstrated this bias: "it shows the world that Russia is still strong."

This exact impulse was described by Custine in 1838 with a dark sarcasm: "Officially, such brutal tyranny is called respect for unity and love of order; and this bitter fruit of despotism appears so precious to the methodical mind that you are told it cannot be purchased at too high a price."

Alexandra Feodorovna, the last Empress of Russia advised her husband "Dear One, be firm, show a strong hand, which is what Russians need. Let them feel your fist. They beg for it themselves -- so many people have said to me not long ago -- we need the whip. This is strange, but that is the Slavic nature."

A handful of novels published in Russia since the turn of the millennium imagine Russia being drawn into a World World, ultimately triumphing, and dominating the globe.

Their regard for power is evident in the cynical joking of Russian diplomats Igor Chubarov of Eritrea, and Sergey Baharev of Zimbabwe in 2014 as the Crimea annexation was underway:

". . . we've taken Crimea but it's not the end . . . we'll take away your f***ing Catalonia, Venice, as well as Scotland, and Alaska.  And we'll never rest content with that . . .   Latvia, Estonia, and other Europeans as well as Romanians and Bulgarians, we'll kick their butts . . ."

"It'll be better for us to disturb California-land, Miami-land . . . . [where] we have a full right to hold a referendum."

Of course, these were private jokes intercepted and made public without their knowledge, but can you imagine the theme of world domination entering the jokes of Western diplomats?

The need to appear powerful is deeply ingrained, and should be kept in mind when assessing both Russia's foreign policy bluster which regularly includes implicit and explicit threats nuclear war, and the recklessness with which they conduct war.

I heard this uncorroborated account of the Soviet-Afghan war from a Ukrainian who'd fought in it:  During the Soviet's final withdrawal, they had negotiated with a tribal chief / warlord for safe passage through his territory.  After the last Soviet soldier had safely withdrawn, wave after wave of Soviet bombers flew in to wipe him and his village off the face of the earth.

This corroborated anecdote is eerily similar to how they bombed at least five medical facilities in Syria just days after agreeing to a cease fire.

They cannot countenance their own weakness.  Faced with sanctions for their annexation of Crimea, Russia immediately announced counter sanctions and their professional cadre of trolls set the internet abuzz with stories of hardship for Polish apple growers.  The fact that shipments were rerouted through Belorussian black markets (no doubt enriching a Kremlin-connected oligarch), or quietly reduced in severity by subsequent legislation was unimportant.  The impression of power is more important than the truth.


Just as significant as the primacy of raw power is the low regard for truth.  In Russia, shame goes not to the liar, but to the naive fool who believed the lie.  This is a subtle, but enormous difference.

Rather than garnering scorn for his lies, Vladimir Putin is praised.  For much of Russian society, effective lying is commendable, especially in the paranoid world portrayed by the Russian media where everyone is lying and conspiring.

Yes, Western politicians lie too.  Russia's professional cadre of internet trolls constantly draw moral equivalences, regardless of proportionality.  This strategy was so pervasive earlier in Russia's history, it had a name: Whataboutism.

But there is no moral equivalence between the magnitude of the lie "we are not invading Ukraine," and, say, the distortions that ultimately enabled a U.S. invasion of Iraq.  The latter also haunted the Bush Administration for its entire tenure.  In Russia, there was no audible opposition to President Putin's much bigger and more flagrant lie.

In dealing with Russia, Westerners, again and again, are slow to realize that for the "Power Civilization," words are just sounds you make to distract enemies while maneuvering to defeat them.  They are just another weapon.

As observed by the Heritage Foundation:  "Russia has rarely, if ever, signed an arms control treaty that it did not violate. Russia is in violation of the Helsinki Final Act, the Istanbul Commitments of 1999, the Presidential Nuclear Initiatives, an agreement to remove its military from Georgia and Moldova, the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty, the Budapest Memorandum (in which Russia promised to "respect the independence and sovereignty and existing borders of Ukraine" and "refrain from the threat or use of force," among other things), the Chemical Weapons Convention, and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). Russia is possibly in violation of the Biological Weapons Convention and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty as interpreted by the United States."

Disregard for truth in the Power Civilization also has a long history.  It did not start with the Soviet Union:

In 1839, the Marquis de Custine recorded a Russian civil servant boasting: “Russia lies, denies the facts, makes war on the evidence, and wins!”  The civil servant was proud of this.

Otto Von Bismark is believed to have advised, "When Russians come . . . do not rely on a signed agreement . . . it is not worth the paper it is written on."

George F Kennan, an American diplomat in Moscow in 1944 observed, "Here, men determine what is true and what is false."

Contemporary Russian writer, Dmitry Bykov has stated, "The role of Russian literature is not to reflect reality but create reality. It's our national religion."

And Ukrainian historians lament the long, catastrophic history of broken promises: from the Treaty of Pereyaslav (1721) where the Grand Duchy of Muskovy apparently made promises of autonomy, to Catherine's broken promises of independence to the Kozaks, by which she gradually usurped their freedom and imposed feudalism where it had not been previously known, to Moscow's guarantees of autonomy to Ukrainian communists which preceded their displacement, deportations, and executions in the name of one "Communist International," run, as always, from "greater Russia," the first among equals, to the 1994 Budapest Memorandum by which Ukraine gave up approximately 1,200 nuclear weapons in exchange for Russia's promise of respect for Ukraine's borders, among other guarantees.

Their capacity for lies seems indifferent to the absurdity of their statements.  Regarding the Budapest Memorandum, Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov recently said ". . . we have not violated it. It contains only one obligation—i.e., not to use nuclear weapons against Ukraine."  This is patently and absurdly false.  It's as if they're advertising their strength and recklessness by disregarding the most obvious realities.

Other contemporary examples of Russia's disregard for truth telling could not be more glaring: from denying they were invading Ukraine, to the half-dozen wildly contradictory narratives about the MH-17 disaster, to completely fabricated stories about civilian massacres in Eastern Ukraine -- even using footage from other conflicts or even movies and claiming it was Ukraine.

The point is not that Western politicians don't also lie.  The point is that in the West, lying is stigmatized.  They are ashamed of it, they hide it, deny it, get confronted by journalists, evade, and occasionally apologize.  Getting caught in a lie more often marks the end of a political career, rather than the beginning.

In Western Civilization, words, whether written or spoken, are like surveying markers from which to interpret future action.  We are slow to realize that this is not a universal standard.

Westerners must appreciate the abandon with which the Kremlin lies and stop being surprised by it.  From the perspective of the Power Civilization, words are another weapon, and the tenancy to believe them and, even more so, act on them, is an exploitable weakness.


Rampant disregard for truth telling leads to a third distinguishing characteristic: distrust.

Despite the esteem they give to power, pervasive distrust in Russian society hinders their economic development, and leaves them weaker because of their inability to cooperate.  It's a sort of prisoner's dilemma in which everyone must cheat, if only to avoid being at a disadvantage among other cheaters.

A heart-breaking present day example of this is the appearance of anti-theft devices in Russian supermarkets on mundane wares like cheese and sausage.

By most estimates, including the World Bank's, Russia's economy is smaller than Italy's, $1.86T GDP versus $2.14T GDP as of 2014 -- a gap that likely expanded after Russia's economic contraction in 2015).  Some people, including on alleged former Russian intelligence officer regard Russia as "a giant with clay feet."  Though underestimating the resilience of the regime in Moscow is another theme which repeats throughout history -- with the notable exception of the Soviet Union's collapse.

Russian distrust is also long standing, pre-dating the Soviet Union.  In 1893, Russian theologian Vladimir Solovyov observed:

"Let us imagine a person healthy in body and strong, talented and not unkind — for such is quite justly the general view of the Russian people. We know that this person (or people) is now in a very sorry state. If we want to help him, we have first to understand what is wrong with him. Thus we learn that he is not really mad; his mind is merely afflicted to a considerable extent by false ideas approaching folie de grandeur and a hostility towards everyone and everything. Indifferent to his real advantage, indifferent to damage likely to be caused, he imagines dangers that do not exist, and builds upon them the most absurd propositions. It seems to him that all his neighbours offend him, that they insufficiently bow to his greatness and in every way want to harm him. He accuses everyone in his family of damaging and deserting him, of crossing over to the enemy camp. He imagines that his neighbours want to undermine his house and even to launch an armed attack. Therefore he will spend enormous sums on the purchase of arms, revolvers and iron locks. If he has any time left, he will turn against his family."

Russian distrust even makes an appearance in the character of its scientific inquiry, which includes enough pseudo science to warrant campaigns against it by the Russian Academy of Sciences.  The pseudo science seems biased toward narratives of revealing a rightful abundance being maliciously hidden by nature.

Paranoia, seemingly already seeded in the Russian psyche, is bolstered by Russia's state-controlled media.  As is typical of autocracies, they constantly feed Russians stories of enemies, both internal and external.  After Ukraine's revolution, nominally volunteer "citizen's groups" formed in Russia to report on and prevent protests, which are tireless portrayed as fifth columns of Russia's enemies.

Under a siege mentality, dissent is easily kept in check by accusations of treason.  The Russians who do protest under a banner of corruption are remarkably courageous, especially because the authorities frequently resort to lethal force when threats and slander alone fail to work.  More often they leave the country, as did Ilya Ponomarev, the only member of Russia's lower house of parliament to vote against Russia's annexation of Crimea.


War is viewed through the lens of one's culture.  Westerners see war, as least in part, as an extension of Socratic debate.  It is a means of resolving conflict.  Wars start and end.  When they end, nations rebuild.  There is a tradition, ableit seldom observed, of openly declaring wars.  Because wars are expensive and destructive, they should be resolved quickly.

The Russian conception of war is informed by their low trust.  Everybody is conspiring to hurt them all the time.  Conflicts never end, though there may be breaks in the shooting.  Foreign statements of peace, like evocation of universal principles, are either the feeble gestures of naive people, or clever ploys designed to trick Russia.  The Russian perspective is much closer to that of Sun Tzu -- "All warfare is based on deception."

The difference is far from exact, but evident by almost any vector of comparison.  The Principles of War taught to Russian military officers include "information warfare" and "exploitation of moral-political factors" (as interpreted by the US Army in the Field Manual 100-61).  By contrast, all nine principles of war taught to officers in the U.S. military are strictly tactical: Objective, Offensive, Mass, Economy of Force, Maneuver, Unity of Command, Security, Surprise, Simplicity.

The endless boundless nature of conflict in the Russian idea is evident in the emblem of Dugin's Eurasianism -- outward pointing arrows, and in Putin's frequent suggestions that Ukraine and/or the Baltics aren't really countries.

I was told by a Ukrainian politician who'd been a Soviet official that there was a cynical saying in his time: "If you beat a Polish man long enough, he becomes a Russian."

It is evident when Russian diplomats joke with one another about world domination, and in the Russian pop novels about wars for global domination.

General Patton observed at the conclusion of World War II, "Russia knows what she wants, world domination, and she is laying her plans accordingly."

Perhaps a consequence of their conception of war as never ending, Russian is extremely opportunistic.  The Heritage Foundation, among many, many others, has described the conflict in Ukraine as Russia exploiting Western indifference.

This characteristic is best described by mid-19th Century British Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston: "The policy and practice of the Russian Government has always been to push forward its encroachments as fast and as far as the apathy or want of firmness of other Governments would allow it to go, but always to stop and retire when it met with decided resistance and then to wait for the next favorable opportunity."

Few Westerns who aren't students of history know that the Soviet Union invaded Japanese-held Manchuria on August 8, 1948, two days after Hiroshima.  Notably, many historians argue that it would have happened anyway, as Stalin had agreed to open a front against Japan at the Yalta conference in February and had been building up forces for some time.  However it parallels an earlier opportunistic offensive in the east.

Exactly one hundred years earlier, Russia had been settling and building up a military presence near Vladivostock, then the Chinese city of Yongmingcheng.  The military build up went on for more than a decade, but only when China was losing the Second Opium War in 1858 to Britain and France did Russian threats force the Chinese into ceding 600,000 square kilometers, including the prized warm water port.

As many have observed, including me, and a NATO soldier who fought with one of Ukraine's volunteer battalions, the Russian military only pretends to have a modern maneuvering military.  The reality is quite different.  They seem to struggle with the trust problem -- the prisoner's dilemma faced by every combatant.  Stories of Russian backed units fighting each other, of desertions, and of men being coerced into service have been rampant in Eastern Ukraine.

As they've done for centuries, they mitigate their trust problem by massing firepower and by opportunism.

In their view, as well as their doctrine, conflicts are permanent, only oscillating between violence and preparation, and everything is fair game.  Their frantic desire to appear powerful also gives the Russian way of war a barbarity that is shunned by the West.  Aside from the examples cited earlier, the conflict in Ukraine has seen the official, sanctioned, televised torture of Ukrainian prisoners of war.  Seven years earlier, the conflict in Georgia involved the bombing of Georgian towns far outside the conflict zone.

All of this is in stark contrast to the more European idea, and certainly the post-WWII order, that borders are sacred and wars are intended to resolve conflict with a minimum of damage to non-military targets.  Yes, the West often fails to live up to this standard.  The point is that it is seen as a failure.  Civilian deaths or mistreatment of POWs is horrifying and scandalous.  Protesters take to the streets.  Politicians get confronted.  That's the point.  In Russia, the only limiting principle is what you can get away with, and any nascent opposition is murdered, exiled, or silent.  As Marquis de Custine wrote in the 1830s, "Russia is a nation of mutes," and as Ronald Regan joked in the 1980s, "What is bark?"

The differences between the West and Russia are both ancient and deep, and the West needs to stop being surprised by them.

About the Author(s)

Roman Skaskiw served six years an infantry officer which included combat deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq with the 82nd Airborne Division, and another deployment to Afghanistan with the Kunar Provincial Reconstruction Team.  He has lived in Ukraine since 2012. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, the New York Times' Homefires blog, the Daily Beast, Stanford Magazine, the Des Moines Register, in Fire and Forget and Home of the Brave -- anthologies of military fiction, and elsewhere.  He has appeared on NPR's Talk of the Nation, the John Batchelor Show, Iowa Public Radio, and elsewhere.



Sat, 04/02/2016 - 4:48am

This is one of the better articles that puts paid to the old Europe/Asia debate. I have always thought of the Russian character as being hillbilly. Uncouth, devious, fierce in a fight, able to do miracles with crude materials. street smart, and does really stupid stuff when they drink too much so they land in jail.