We like to pretend that the Soviet Union is gone. Looking at history there are plenty of events that might support this theory: the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of Soviet economy, the breaking wars and revolutions in formerly controlled nations–even Mikhail Gorbachev’s Perestroika, leveling the international tensions with a lightening of the load, and an inkling of the idea of fairness. But the collapse of the Berlin Wall has had some unforeseen (or at least unexpected in the West) consequences. We have always been naive when it comes to the motives of other leaders, either thinking the best or imagining the worst, without any realization of what is truly going on. The fall of the Berlin Wall may have destroyed a political system–an ideology on the verge of secular religion–but it has also unleashed the potential of this acquisitive nation to the rest of the world, all those spaces that the Cold War blocked.
Let’s take a cursory look at Russian history and look for some constants, both Communist as well as before and after:
The Age of Rurik:
Not too much is known about this 9th Century ruler, other than the fact that he was a conqueror who rampaged across Scandinavia until he arrived in a gigantic frozen wasteland to set up his empire. Throughout his time Rurik forced the submission of many of the tribes who wandered the land, banding them into an army that drove the rival Varangians, the former rulers of the land (an early version of Vikings) into the sea, killing as many of them as possible. Once they fled back to their homeland (Greenland), the king of this tribe demanded ‘tribute’ to prevent more Vikings being sent to invade the land. Rurik refused and established his own government, declaring independence, as well as an ambition to conquer the entire world. Rurik started the first eventual Russian dynasty, his family’s influence lasting all the way into the 17th Century.
Oleg of Novgorod:
A brilliant general, Oleg conquered a great part of the unexplored wasteland further to the north, and all the way into Asia in the late 9th and early 10th centuries. Constantly at war with outside nations (certain historical accounts, taking the perspective of these other nations, debase the legend of Oleg of Novgorod, claiming that his rule was not as influential and his success far slighter than Russians give him credit for.) Oleg was the first ruler of this still establishing nation who had married into the Rurik family, not a child by birthright; he was a warrior who through sheer brutal force rose to the height of power. As time went by and the land became settled, Oleg began being worshiped by many within the growing population. He started being called “Oleg the Prophet,” or “Oleg the Priest.” The man’s ideas became increasingly religious as he aged and his empire continued to grow. He became so famous that the legends of his accomplishments became fairy tales, best memorialized in the great Alexander Puskin’s “The Song of the Wise Oleg:”
Oleg, the wise Prince, roused to arm,
Cried: “Vengeance on the ruthless horde
Of raiding Chosars! Field and farm
My men shall put to fire and sword!”
And when his faithful horse was brought,
He rode out with his knights and men,
In damascened, gold armor, wrought,
By some deceitful Saracen-
Before his men he rode in pride,
Their hero-prince and nothing feared;
But, ere he reached the forest-side;
From out its darkling deeps appeared
Dread Perun’s prophet, old and wise,
Who studied in the secret shrine
That he might in each man’s own eyes
His destiny and doom divine.
The brave Prince rode towards him, and cried:
“O Wizard, favored of the gods,
What woe or weal shall me betide?
How soon shall I, beneath the sods,
Lie buried, while my foes rejoice?
Fear naught; nor speak with faltering words-
Whate’ er my doom, be thine the choice
Of all the horses in my herds!”
“No wizard dreads an earthly lord!”
The old man scornful answer flung:
“And naught availeth bribe or sword
To loose or bind the prophet’s tongue.
Heaven’s secrets are not bought and sold:
The future’s veiled in mist and gloom:
Yet, as a tale already told,
On thy bright brows I read thy doom.”
“Mark well this day the words I speak,
For, ever, to the warrior fame
Brings solace, when he waxes weak
With years and wounds. Know thou, thy name
Is victory! The nations yield
Before thine army’s dread advance:
Envied of all, thy golden shield
Hangs o’er the gate of proud Byzance.”
The blue sea’s treacherous waves to thee,
Though lashed to storm, no scathe shall bring:
They know thee, Lord of Victory!
Nor dread the arrow or the sling,
Or traitorous dagger; for thy life
To all is sacred; and no blow
Shall pierce thine armor in the strife
With thee an unseen guard doth go.”
“Thy horse, that dreads no furious fray,
Hath borne thee well in many lands;
And like a rock amid the spray
Among the whistling shafts he stands,
Or bears thee through the brunt of spears,
Obedient to thy lightest breath:
Nor frost, nor fight, with thee he fears:
Yet, even he shall be thy death.”
The brave prince beard the strange discourse,
With smiling lips, but gloomy brow:
Then, sadly, lighting from his horse,
He spake: “And must we two part now?”
(Caressing with a kindly touch,
His servant’s silky neck) “Old friend,
Together, we have weathered much
Victoriously: but all things end;
And we must part. Thou, who did’st bear
Thy lord to triumph, East and West,
Shall bear none other now, and ne’er
Shall foot in your gold stirrup rest.
For me, still waits the field of strife;
But thou in peaceful meads shalt dwell.
Until death end thy loyal life,
Forget me not, old friend. Farewell!”
Then turning to his grooms: “My steed
To pleasant river-pastures bring;
And bathe him daily there; and feed
Him ever on choice oats; and fling
A soft wool rug about his flanks
To keep him warm. “The horse boys led
The wondering beast back through the ranks;
And brought another horse instead.
Years passed. Oleg, with all his lords,
Grown old with him in fray and fight,
Feasted one summer day-their swords
Sheathed after victory; and white
As snow upon the mountain’s peak,
Their hair-as of the old deeds done
In valiant youth they yet did speak,
And victories together won.
“And where is now my comrade? Where
My faithful horse?” Oleg then asked;
Doth he on light, fleet foot still fare-
He whom no journey e’er o’ertasked-
He who never stayed for strife or steep?”
One answered: By the river-shore,
On a high hill-top, sound asleep
He lies; and will awake no more.”
Musing, Oleg bent low his head,
Remembering the days of old;
And sadly to himself he said:
“Had I not feared the doom foretold
By that old fashioner of lies,
My old friend had been with me still!”
And then he bade his lords arise;
And seek with him the burial hill.
Full-mournfully the Prince rode out
Towards the river, with his son,
The gallant Igor, thronged about
By his old warriors, till they won
Unto the Dneipr’s shore, where strewn
On a high hill, ‘mid sand and stones,
‘Neath waving grass, in glare of noon
Lay bare the old rain-whitened bones.
With gentle foot, and bowed with grief,
Touching the skull, Oleg then said:
“Sleep well, my friend! Our day is brief;
Though I live; thou art with the dead:
Nor, at my funeral feast, full nigh,
Sword-spilt shall thy warm life-blood fall
Upon me dead, when even I
Drop to the dust that ends us all.”
And, even as these words he spake,
From out the eyeless skull there shot
A ribbon-like black deadly snake,
Which stung his foot. ” Is this my lot
By that old wizard prophesied?
Death ambushed in a lifeless bone!
Then, welcome death!” the brave Prince cried:
And sank to earth without a moan.
Full-sadly as the cups went round
At the high funeral-festival,
When, Igor, on the burial mound
With Olga sat, his warriors all
Around them sitting, talked of days
When ‘neath Oleg’s flag they had fought
The world, and won; and sang the praise
Of him whom death had brought to naught.
This Shakespearean-style mythology is, of course, entirely fabricated in its historical context, granting a true barbarian the nobility of a saint. And yet, to give a broader example, Alexander Puskin, one of the great poets of the world, managed to transform people’s ideas of the past with this mini-epic. For a land that has experienced such misery for a thousand plus years, is it any wonder that many of the greatest artists have emerged from Russia?
The next two hundred years are consumed by battles for the throne, vicious civil wars and coups, brothers versus brothers, cousins versus cousins–even fathers versus sons. The rulers throughout this time were inconsistent: one guy advances to the throne, gets overthrown, then his soldiers retake the capital, placing the former king back in charge until the next civil war. It was Kiev that really mattered to these rulers, a rising city filled with primitive cathedrals and palaces which would crumble into the snow. This non-stop warfare finally paused when Andrei I took over in 1174, moving the capital city to Moscow.
A religious fanatic, Andrei did not last very long. His primary influence on his native land (regardless of the wonderful historical icons still on display in Russian museums, including a silver ax with a cross on top), was the development of more and more churches, and increasingly oppressive religious laws, including the outlawing of music. Within a few months of the start of Andrei’s reign, several of his chief advisers burst into his room and hacked him apart in his bed.
Andrei was succeeded by his half-brother Mikhail I, who had been exiled by Andrei because he resented Mikhail’s mother.
A failed ruler, Mikhail first lasted for two months, overthrown by Andrei’s nephew, Yaropolk III, another meaningless figment of the past. Yaropolk was apparently a cruel heathen, and the increasingly religious nation eventually pleaded with Mikhail to return. He did, reconquering the land, resuming his reign for five days more than one year, before mysteriously dying, likely at the hands of his younger brother, Vsevolod III.
The above image of Vsevolod cannot possibly be an accurate representation of the man, because he was a true monster. Known as a brilliant warrior, those under his charge were promptly executed if they disagreed with him, usually by the man himself. Another religious fanatic, Vsevolod also murdered people less faithful than himself, sometimes even in the middle of church services. If he heard anything he perceived as blasphemy, the speaker was killed with passionate rage. Vsevolod’s death count in times of peace were much larger than those in war.
He had fourteen children with several different women, some with his subsequently sainted wife Maria Shvarnovna, herself a very religious woman whose job, apparently, was to spread the gospel to the heathen Cassocks, mitigating some of the known evils of her husband, and altering the narrative into one of true faith. It was Vsevolod who insisted that Maria be named a saint after her death.
Following Vsevolod’s death (he was not murdered), more than three hundred years of warfare broke out between the many descendants of the late king. The brothers switched back and forth in charge of the nation, sometimes killing each other, imprisoning and torturing one another, finally collapsing in the 1533, when the man who came to be known as Ivan the Terrible emerged.
Ivan the Terrible:
This man reigned for thirty-seven years. He was the first Russian leader to go by the title of Czar. The sobriquet Warlord is appropriate to describe Ivan. Another religious fanatic, he took his beliefs a step much further than anyone who preceded him, and than anyone who followed until Joseph Stalin. Prone to paranoia and rage, anything that did not go exactly the way he claimed his holy visions told him they would must be the fault of demons among his advisers secretly trying to undermine him in order to help Satan. He began pogroms designed to slaughter Jews, Catholics, certainly atheists, and any other person with a belief outside the rigidity of his own. It is estimated that he butchered more than a million people over his reign, giving him the right to be the nightmare ruler of his time, the man who parents threatened naughty children with. Kings of other nations feared him, tried to appease him, and occasionally went to war with him, where they almost always lost, the Czar uncorking the violent rage of his soldiers and encouraging them to use it on civilians.
Interestingly, Ivan was also considered a brilliant literary stylist, composing numerous odes to saints, and writing his own propaganda to convince the Russian people that his divine mission was the only way forward.
The above is an image of something that actually happened. Ivan got into a fight with his son, also named Ivan. Apparently the Czar was so angry with his heir that he grabbed a pointed staff and jabbed it into the his head, killing him instantly. Ivan memorialized his son after this with a hymn, one of great classical beauty, that seemed to assuage his guilt. He is reported to have said, “Now the boy will live on forever. He will be remembered as being greater than he ever was in life.”
In 1584 Ivan was playing chess with one of his few intimates and had a stroke, dying shortly thereafter. Upon his death an even worse period of Russian history was ushered in, ominously known as “The Time of Troubles.”
After Ivan’s son Feodor I bumbled through the next fourteen years, a hapless playboy, producing no heirs, Boris Godunov took over, the first ruler of Russia not to be of the Rurik bloodline.
Another monster later memorialized by Pushkin, Godunov was a sinister figure, named by Ivan the Terrible on his deathbed as one of the regents to help his son Feodor rule. Godunov essentially took over the government in 1584 (although his official reign did not begin until 1598). It is highly rumored that Boris murdered the ten year old younger brother of Feodor–the unquestionable heir to the throne, Dmitry, in 1591. The official reason given for the boy’s death was that he “cut his own throat with a razor during an epileptic fit.”
The only true accomplishment of Godunov was the establishment of the Russian Orthodox Church as the official church of the nation. A life of cruelty and vicious rule are his legacy, best summarized three hundred and seventy-five years later in the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, as the main villain, Boris Badenov
is an intentional play on his name.
Over the next ten years numerous men became Czar, everyone one of them either murdered after a short time, or deposed by political rivals. This went on until the rise of Michael Romanov, the first of his name of the dynasty that overtook Russia until the Communist Revolution in 1917.
Michael’s ascension to the throne ended the Time of Troubles, giving a modicum of peace to the exhausted and terrified nation. Michael’s chief interest was further expansion of his empire, using the Cassocks to help him claim Siberia as yet another province in what was already the largest nation in the world.
When Michael became Czar much of Russia had been burned to the ground by the wars and rivalries that had wracked the nation. And still, there were rulers-in-exile trying to reestablish their control and retake the land they believed to be their own.
Michael had an artistic sensibility, and was modestly less religious than those that came before him. And while he ordered the construction of some of the greatest cathedrals ever built, he also overruled numerous holy dictates, including those that banned music, painting, and other forms of expressive art. For this he is remembered, and has been memorialized like so many others in poems and songs.
His death was precipitated by family and religious crisis. Having agreed to wed his daughter Irina to the son of the King of Denmark, the Prince, Count Vladimir Christian (best known for later leading his nation into the Thirty Years War), refused to convert to the Orthodox church, thus ending the royal agreement. Michael was so affected by this that he finally collapsed, dying shortly thereafter without ever regaining consciousness.
The Romanov’s remained in power, highlighted by a few notable rulers, all of them seeking to expand the nation’s boundaries, using both military might and propaganda; they used threats, manipulation, spies and rumors to bend the will of others to their own desire. Peter the Great appears in this timeline, as does his wife, who followed him as ruler of the nation, Catherine I.
Peter the Great and Catherine I:
These two reigned for less than six years combined (although Peter had been named co-ruler at the age of 14, dominated by his older brother who ran the nation until his death). Peter was involved in various wars, most notably a disastrous one with Sweden. Peter’s rule led to the next hundred and fifty or so years of Russian fascination with French culture. There in the 1720s, France was of course one of the great world powers, and the unquestioned center of culture. Peter loved the place, spent much of his time (including his youth, going to school) in Paris. He was friendly with the King, and with many in the ruling family. It was thought, by some of the more nationalistic factions at home, that he wanted to be French, and so he was at first considered a traitor.
Today thought to be one of the great leaders in Russian history, Peter is most noted for both his liberalism in modernizing social classes and the economy, as well as his rigid control over the Orthodox Church, demanding from it less partisan warfare and a return to the teachings of Christ as he interpreted them.
All of Peter and Catherine’s male children died before their eligibility to take the throne, including their eldest, Alexei (the only one to survive past childhood), who took part in a plot to assassinate his father. He was sentenced to die, but his father hesitated on signing the papers. The royal guards took the decision out of his hands by torturing Alexei to death in prison. This left Peter to name Catherine co-Empress, and she became the absolute ruler upon Peter’s death from gangrene in his bladder.
Catherine, who had been a child of Polish royalty, was a brilliant woman. When she took over the nation the standard gender bias outraged many of the higher members of Peter’s family. But Catherine proved popular with the army and so she was generally protected, allowed to attempt the further liberalization of her nation, promoting herself as queen of “the common people.” (The family from which Catherine came had been broke for hundreds of years, basically hangers-on to their richer relatives.) Dead at the age of 43 from an abscess in her lungs, Catherine’s chief contribution was the beginning a nearly hundred year reign of female Empresses in Russia, ultimately proving to the world that women could be every bit as cruel as men.
Thirty-one of the next thirty-five years of Russian history were ruled by women, until 1762 when Catherine the Great, wife of Czar Peter III (who was murdered after seven months on the throne), came to power. She reigned for thirty-four years.
Catherine the Great:
Catherine was Peter the Great and Catherine I’s granddaughter. Her husband, Peter III, was a man entirely enamored with his cousin King Frederick of Prussia (with whom it was believed he was having a homosexual affair). Catherine, being a great diplomat and social reformer had developed numerous close relationships throughout Europe, each of which collapsed as Peter sided with Prussia at the start of and throughout the seven year’s war. Catherine, appalled along with nearly everyone else in the royal court, plotted to murder her husband. One of her co-conspirators was captured, tortured and executed, having given the Czar Catherine’s name. Catherine jumped into action, asking the military to protect her from her husband. They complied. Peter was arrested upon his return to the nation he ruled. He was tortured himself and forced to sign a document verifying his abandonment of the throne, giving all power to Catherine. Shortly thereafter Peter died in prison.
Catherine’s reign saw the largest acquisition of land in Russian history. She conquered lands, made deals for lands, purchased lands, enslaved lands and founded new nations within the territories of other lands. A genius politician, Catherine was able to see the trends of the world often before events happened. During the American Revolution she remained neutral, offending the British crown and raising suspicions in the new land. She served as a mediator in the War of Bavarian Succession, which saw the beginnings of the splitting apart of Prussia, Germany and Austria. She made Russia the ‘protectorate’ of Poland, essentially conquering the land then being ruled by one of her former lovers. During the French Revolution Catherine mostly watched from the sidelines, and then rejected the ideas of Enlightenment, waiting for the new laws of France to collapse into the bloody reign of terror. She even opened a highly profitable fur-trading industry with Japan, expanding Russian influence to nearly every corner of the world. No one was respected more than Catherine the Great in her day. No one, perhaps enhanced among the other monarchies by the fact that she was the largest slave-holder in the history of the world, counting more than 2.8 million serfs as property of the Russian state.
We can continue through the next one hundred twenty years with a series of abdications, coups and assassinations, with holy wars and self-righteous attacks on protest movements (notably the growing Socialist movement), but this history looks the same as two hundred years before. There has been a seemingly never-ending trend of acquisition, cruelty, and final political collapse throughout the history of Russia. And so much of it is dependent on the greed and arrogance of the single ruler. Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko, everyone one of these men ruled over a nation not unlike the Czars and Czarinas. Many of them elevated themselves into newfangled secular gods, transforming Communism into a new state religion, and reforming churches into party headquarters. The same wars raged from the abandonment of World War I by the new Communist government, up until the beginning of the end when Muslim fundamentalists destroyed the Soviet forces in Afghanistan. The people remained oppressed, the paranoid suspicions at the top bled down into the population, the godless world created gave the people an unreal sense of guilt, or fear beyond the merely physical. And while plenty of Russian people struggled, and tried to get by, and attempted to live happy lives free from controversy, hoping to escape most of the state demands on how they were meant to live their lives, there were always lingering shadows and portents of doom. Nothing and nobody could really be trusted. This has been the gift of the Soviet Union to the world. This lack of trust is what modern Russia has capitalized upon.
Let’s end with a brief look at Vladimir Putin in the light of all those other names mentioned earlier in this rather long piece (I hope that a least a few of you have gotten this far.) Putin is a leftover remnant of both the Monarchy and the early days of Communist rule. His world outlook is purely acquisitive: selfish, greedy, indifferent to the fate of humanity. It is rumored that Putin is secretly the richest person in the world, having claimed nearly the entire Russian economy as his own personal fortune. And let us not forget, this man was known as one of the craftiest KGB agents in the late years of the Soviet Empire. He was raised to be this, a spy, a master manipulator, a world conqueror. And he is using the tools of his trade, and teaching numerous young agents in these tactics, seeking to undermine every democracy not by eliminating the system as in days of old, but, as Khrushchev said, “We don’t have to invade you! We will destroy you from within without firing a shot! We will bury you by the billions! We spoon feed you socialism until your Communists and don’t even know it! We assist your elected leaders in giving you small doses of Socialism until you suddenly awake to find you have Communism. The day will come when your grandchildren will live under communism.” Change the communism (this is not profitable, and that is the model for today’s world) into simple oligarchy, the fascism of big business making all of the decisions for society.
If people cannot trust their elected leaders, if they cannot trust the news, or their neighbors, or anything they see or hear or read (until they finally stop reading altogether and language becomes easier to manipulate), then there is no government. There is no foundation of society. And there definitely is no Democracy. When people refuse to believe the outcome of the vote, when they hear about tyrants getting 99% of the electorate, why even bother? What can we do about it? we ask ourselves. And we slowly but surely sink into a murky swamp of hopelessness, of every-man-for-himself civil war. We transform society into Russia when families went to war with one another over who gets to rule a small piece of the land. Russia is the most dangerous place on earth today.
©2019 Lance Polin