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.
18 thoughts on “USA and Russia – Part I: The Common Foundation”
“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?”
Unfortunately the author shows a marked ‘American exceptionalism’ bias in this article. The paragraph above implies that Russia made a choice to become a “potential adversary” after the revolution but the West and the US played no role in this. He also makes this statement:
“Unlike Americans, Russians will accept an authoritarian government…”
After the accretion of power that we have seen under our last two presidents which includes the trashing of Habeas Corpus, our privacy with NSA listening to all private conversations, the Patriot act virtually outlawing any questioning of government policy, the “Kill list where we can kill American citizens if the President deems it in the national interest, where torture is acceptable, etc. Is the author blind to the fact that the police and intelligence agencies harass and arrest people, like Code Pink, when they exercise their right to protest. Do the politicians who lied to the American people to get us into war suffer anything for their abrogation of the Constitution? Have the American people as a whole risen up against our authoritarian government? No!
I would suggest to the author he read the biography, Stalin by Stephen Kotkin to see how the Russian people rose up against the Tsar just as our founders rose up against King George. The book is sourced by the author’s access to all of the ‘Russian archives of that period.
One begins to see in this well sourced biography that the Western capitalist states saw the Russian revolution with its slow nationalization of private property a direct threat to their ( the West’s) interests. The Communists didn’t help by their efforts to influence the working classes in the West to follow their example.
I look forward to Part II of the authors article and hope it presents a less biased view of American-Russian relations.
Yes, the U.S. as well as other Western powers had great fear of the contagion of socialism and the Russian Revolution. Few Americans will recall that U.S. troops were sent to Russia in 1918-19 to fight against that revolution. It was, of course, a revolution that in its ideology was antithetical to capitalism and the ruling class. And of course to the hereditary power exercised by so many of Europe’s monarchs and aristocracy.
What would have happened if the American republic had shown more sympathy to the Soviet republics in the early stages of the Russian Revolution and its consolidation under Lenin? Could the rise of Stalin and his perversions have been prevented by a West that was less suspicious of, and less hostile to, the USSR? An interesting question, if unanswerable.
Bill A.–Your comment only materialized on my monitor after I’d replied to “traven”! Crazy damned computer stuff!!
“traven,” you’re getting sharper by the day!! I came here to comment on exactly what you did already! It was the Capitali$t “West,” of course, that chose to designate the young USSR an enemy. Indeed, something like 19 different nations contributed troops and saboteurs to try to overthrow the regime from the outset. I won’t take exception to the statement that the Soviets sought to spread revolution globally. That, after all, is what the Third International was established for. Nevertheless, “traven” and I are emphasizing that hostility did NOT have to arise between Soviet Russia and the USA right from the outset. That was a choice made entirely by the likes of Woodrow Wilson.
A moral principle does not equate to exceptionalism. The ideals set in the Declaration of Independence embody a universal moral imperative – even though its application to black slaves and ex-slaves was long in coming. The same is true, in a different way, of the concept of “holy Mother Russia”.
Exeptionalism, by contrast, is an attitude common to peoples who, after attaining well-earned historical greatness, substitute an arbitrary sense of innate superiority for the virtues, hard work and sacrifices that got them there in the first place. There has been French exceptionalism (18th century); British exceptionalism (19th century); Russian (after 1812); German (after 1870); and Japanese (after 1905), In each case exceptionalism has led to complacency, overreach, upheaval, and in the last two cases, disaster.
What is the gist, the essence, of the claim of a nation’s “exceptionalism”? Very simple: “We will not be hindered by trivial matters like international law concerning the launching of aggression, treatment of prisoners, use of torture or even our own national laws. Habeas corpus? Nonsense! These people we’re holding indefinitely are evil terrorists!…What’s that? ‘Prove it,’ you say? Fella, there’s an orange jumpsuit with your name on it just waiting for you.”
Sorry to say, my nation lost any claim to moral conduct on the world stage many, many years ago.
If parts II and III are as disjointed and bizarre as part I, spare me.
This article is rife with points of contention, but I’m not in the mood for quibble. The thought of an American moral imperative from which we derive “greatness” is something I just can’t pass on right now, however. I suppose hospitals are meant to be bombed, and leadership is meant to prevaricate, and servile “journalists” are meant to twist themselves up in pretzels of rationalizations that defy any semblance of sense. Moral imperative indeed.
About that professional prevarication perennially practiced by America’s political/corporate/military “leadership,” I just finished reading Ron Suskind’s book about Deputy Dubya’s first Treasury secretary, Paul O’Neil. It seems he got fired after only two years on the job because he violated official Washington’s number one dictum: “Never use the English language to convey meaning.” Surely, an American government so openly dedicated to falsehood, fabrication, fiction, fable and fraud can have only the trashcan of history for a future.
Yes, what exactly was the role played by the U.S. during and shortly thereafter the revolution? Why would hostility arise in the first place and why would it continue? I suppose I can understand the concept of competing ideologies, but the realities on the ground throughout the last century when it comes to superpower “meddling” to produce geopolitical effects deserves a fairer comparison than to suggest that something about Russia’s “national character” is the governing factor.
“Medding” aside, it is an interesting question as to whether relations could have been of a markedly different character or caliber. Surely the American “reaction” to “Marxism” in general, and specifically to the pre-Stalin era of the Soviet republics is significant.
As time passed, it might be optimistic to suggest that Kennedy, along with Khrushchev, may have produced positive developments; a reading of the recent James Douglass book on Kennedy supports the idea. I am personally of that view. It also seems to me that Gorbachev provided an opportunity (missed) for the Americans to cultivate a better working relationship.
Thanks, Michael, for the “Never use the English language to convey meaning” reference. I needed a smile, however ironic.
Wasn’t Churchill an instrumental player against the revolution?
I believe (I post this without using the Internet for research, and having mostly read of the Bolshevik Revolution from the Marxist side of history-writing) Churchill was already a significant figure in the British Admiralty with influence in Conservative circles nationally. Or one might need to flip-flop that chronology. My point is ol’ Winston didn’t come to prominence as a representative of some backwoods sleepy hamlet in the English countryside. He wanted to maintain the power of the Empire, which would soon be waning drastically. In speaking of the early period of USSR, we must bear in mind how backwards–essentially still semi-feudal in the year 1917–Russia was, still ruled by the Romanov dynasty. Marx had foreseen the working classes of the most advanced capitalist countries as the best candidates for successful revolution. (And anti-communist historians to this day will tell you the failure of this “prophecy” to come about makes all of Marxist thought worthless!) Instead, as Lenin explained, capitalism broke at its weakest link, Czarist Russia, where the peasantry vastly outnumbered the urban working class. This hobbled Soviet modernization from Day One…yet by the time the Red Army had to fend off Hitler’s advances vast enterprises had arisen to manufacture the needed tanks, aircraft, artillery pieces, etc. Those Russian tanks racing toward Berlin in spring of 1945 gave the establishments in Washington D.C. and London one hell of a fright! One of the most remarkable military achievements of the 20th Century!
My major was English, but I took all the History electives I could because of my admiration for the 3 history professors fortune granted me the opportunity to know. They were wonderful men with remarkable troves of knowledge they could extemporaneously convey with depth, wit, and an abiding sense of humanity. Whenever your posts delve into History I am reminded of them.
My poor recollection notwithstanding, the subject of the West’s reaction to the Russian revolution brought about (as a vague afterthought) a meager “recollection” that Churchill had in some capacity fought against the revolution. I thank you for your post…I did just find a very well-written essay you may find interesting:
By Jove, I believe I have “suffered” a compliment! Thank you, kind sir! Oh, and of course we should remember it was Lord Churchill who brought us the phrase “the Iron Curtain” in a speech delivered on US soil, if memory serves (at Truman’s invitation, maybe even somewhere in Missouri). That was three decades after the “Ten Days That Shook The World”–the Bolshevik seizure of power in Petrograd and Moscow.
Very quickly — Most people know of the Red Scare — McCarthyism — that followed World War II. But a Red Scare also followed World War I. And men made their reputation, then and now, by fighting “disorder” and “anarchy” attributed to communism. Calvin Coolidge comes to mind. For the scaremongers, today’s version of communism is radical Islam as represented in American minds by ISIS and Al Qaeda and similar organizations. Fortunes are made by stoking fear of a foreign peril to American shores. It’s also a good way to distract Americans — focus on the “enemy” without in order that corruption within is given free rein.
Of course, the Red Scare that began around 1919 in the U.S. was also connected to the fear of immigrants, at that time mostly from Eastern Europe. Nowadays, we’re supposed to fear Muslim immigrants in addition to those coming from south of the border.
Yes, US Attorney General Palmer was in charge of rounding up “reds,” with the FBI soon to be created and the decades-long abuse of power by John Edgar Hoover birthed. Among the “dangerous” immigrants who would be put to death were Sacco and Vanzetti, and a Swedish (extra-dangerous, those damned Swedes !!) labor agitator who’d Americanized his name to Joe Hill. The latter had deeply offended the copper mining bosses in Utah. Such sensitive folks, these bosses, tsk-tsk!!…And now we turn to today’s Funny Papers and find that ‘The Donald’ has proclaimed he will be The Great Unifier as POTUS!! You can’t make this stuff up, folks, as they say.
…and speaking of “the Donald,” he plans to “shut down the mosques” in America when he becomes President. Might be a little tricky with the Constitution and all…well, maybe not.
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