Editor’s Introduction: Russia has been much in the news lately, with Vladimir Putin described as equal parts Machiavellian dictator and strategic chess master, especially with regards to his moves in Syria and the greater Middle East. Is the Cold War, in a word, back? Enmity between the U.S. and Russia is hardly inevitable, writes Jacek Popiel. Indeed, our two peoples have much in common, historically and culturally. Can these commonalities serve as a bridge between us? This is a question Jacek addresses in this article, and in two future articles to come. W.J. Astore
The Russian military intervention in Syria has raised, in some quarters, talk of World War III – a direct confrontation between the two nuclear superpowers. Others have spoken – in connection with the Ukraine situation – of a return to the Cold War.
Beyond current events and the associated risks a fundamental question arises – the answer to which is key to future policy: Are the U.S. and Russia “born enemies” destined for unending struggle, or complementary powers having more to gain from cooperation than from enmity and possible war?
A complete answer to the question would have three parts. First, the historical development of both nations and the resulting national characters; second, how the traits formed by this heritage meshed or collided after Russia became the Soviet Union; third, what course – adversarial or cooperative – is most likely to shape their future.
In this article, I will cover a shared historical experience. Subsequent articles will address the second and third parts above.
With respect to historical commonalities, both nations are continental-scale powers, grown through the expansion of originally small states (the Thirteen Colonies, the Duchy of Muscovy) into a huge, rich and diverse continent (the American “West”, the Eurasian landmass). In both cases this expansion was done primarily by private interests served by men on horseback, rather than by organized conquest.
Both also are young nations. Even though Russia has a history going back to the eighth and ninth centuries, the continuity was broken by the Mongol invasion of 1230. The modern Russian state starts with the election of Tsar Mikhail Romanov in 1612 – roughly the time of the first colonial landings on the U.S. East Coast.
The vast expansion of both states gave their citizens a “can do” attitude and a sense that they were somehow special. But whereas America – safely tucked between two vast oceans – never feared foreign attack, Russia had no defensible borders. Invasion was a constant threat: Vikings (8th century), Mongols (1230), Germans (1242), Poles (1605), Swedes (ca. 1700), French (1812), and again Germans (1914; 1941). Each invasion involved war, death and destruction – such as the U.S. has never known (other than its own Civil War).
And to invasion one must add famine. Much of Russia arable land is marginal and crops are always at risk. So if America is the Land of Plenty, Russia is a nation of survivors.
This historical experience has shaped the Russian attitude towards government: unlike Americans, Russians will readily accept an authoritarian government because such is needed when national survival is at stake – which, in Russia’s history, has been a recurring situation.
But Russian acceptance of powerful central authority also includes a check on it. This is the concept of Pravda. The literal translation of this word is “truth”, but it has a deeper and wider significance – something like “justice” or “the right order of things”. This means that while accepting authority and its demands, Russians nevertheless require that such authority be guided by a moral principle. If authority fails to demonstrate this they will, in time, rise against it or remove it.
The Russian concept of Pravda mirrors the American love of liberty and individual rights. Both peoples see, at their core, a moral imperative and a form of national mission. Should this be lost they will cease to be themselves, and lose the internal motivation from which they derive their greatness.
This may well be what Alexis de Tocqueville perceived when he wrote, in Democracy in America: “There are now two great nations in the world, which starting from different points, seem to be advancing towards the same goal: the Russians and the Anglo-Americans… Each seems called by some secret design of Providence one day to hold in its hands the destinies of half the world.”
Surprisingly for countries of such “high destiny” both nations, since their founding, lived in long peace with one another – being content with the arrangement and exploitation of their vast domains. The one possible cause of territorial rivalry – Russia’s addition of Alaska to its Siberian possessions – was eliminated by the Alaska Purchase of 1867, which completed U.S. domination of North America and relieved Russia of a distant and indefensible province.
Relations remained good for the next half-century, punctuated by Teddy Roosevelt’s mediation of the end of the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905. In 1917 Russia and America were on the same side in World War I. But here their destinies diverged. The U.S. was on its way to victory and global influence. Russia was a defeated power headed for revolution and civil war. These resulted in the rise of the Soviet Union, a state dedicated to the implementation and global spread of Marxist ideology.
The adoption of Marxism as the foundation of Soviet government turned the two great nations into enemies. Thus the main question governing the relations between America and Russia today is: Did Marxism fundamentally alter Russia’s national character, making it a potential adversary – or did its passing still leave Russians free to pursue whatever destiny they choose?
More on this question in Part II of my survey on U.S. – Russian relations. Stay tuned.
Jacek Popiel was born in Poland and educated in Africa, Canada, and the United States. He speaks five languages. His career spans military and international business development in the Soviet Union, Eastern and Western Europe, North America, and Japan. He is currently a freelance writer and political consultant. His book “Viable Energy Now,” grew out of his military and international business experience and his professional involvement with energy issues.