Richard John Neuhaus was always fond of reminding those drawn to the seductions of modern secular political faiths that they “had not read their Solzhenitsyn.” Fifteen years after Solzhenitsyn’s passing, his personal witness to the ideological and personal ravages of Communism certainly remains important reading. Today, however, as we confront a perplexing and aggressive post-Soviet Russia, there is arguably no one better equipped to help us navigate Russian history than University of London historian Orlando Figes. In his most recent book, The Story of Russia (2022), Figes reminds us that “[c]ontemporary Russian politics are too often analyzed without sufficient knowledge of Russian history. Yet, an understanding of Russia’s past is essential to make sense of the developments of Russia during the past thirty years.” This reminder is especially important as we try to decipher Vladimir Putin’s intentions vis-a-vis Ukraine.
There are two dynamics central to Figes’ telling of Russia’s story: historical memory shaped by mythological continuity, and cultural dysfunction. With respect to the former, Figes points out that Russian history is embedded in unshakable “foundation myths.” History in Russia “is always political,” Figes writes, and is “intertwined in mythical ideas – the myths of ‘Holy Russia’, the ‘holy Tsar, the ‘Russian soul,’ Moscow as the ‘Third Rome’, and so on.” Russia is “trapped” in a repeating cycle of this mythology and Figes argues that Vladimir Putin’s worldview is deeply embedded in these timeless myths. There is no better illustration of this than Putin’s 2016 dedication remarks at the unveiling of a towering monument to Grand Prince Vladimir, the 10th and 11th century ruler of Kievan Rus in the Kremlin. Putin paid tribute to “this founder of the modern Russian state” who gathered and united the three family members of Kievan Rus – Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine. These three, Putin reminded his audience, are “family… a single people, or nation, sharing the same Christian principles, the same culture and language.” They are the “Slavic bedrock” of contemporary Russia.
According to Putin, Russia’s great civilizational heritage has been undermined by pro-Western “enemies within,” a clash of civilizations with the West, and by demise of the Soviet Union. It was with respect to the latter that Putin famously stated in 2005 that the collapse of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the [twentieth] century.” In noting this, Putin was not regretting the demise of Soviet Communism per se, but rather the fracturing of the Russian mir or Russian world that left “tens of millions of our citizens . . . outside the territory of Russia.” The implication? Ukraine was and is “an inseparable part of the “Russian World.” Short of Putin’s political or personal demise, Figes’ prediction for the Ukraine War end game is bleak. He concludes that a Russian victory “of some kind” is the most likely outcome and that Ukraine will eventually be forced to negotiate a compromise with the Kremlin. “There is no other way to stop this war,” Figes concludes.
Figes’ prediction, of course, may be proven wrong. There are ample reasons to believe that Putin overestimated the capability of his own military as well as the determination of both the Ukrainian people and the West to preserve Ukrainian independence. But nearly a year after Russia’s invasion there is scant evidence that Putin’s determination to reunite the Russian mir has waned. Moving forward, two looming uncertainties are President Zelensky’s stated rejection of any compromise-based negotiations and the resolve of the West – particularly the United States – to continue to provide the military materiel that has supported Ukraine’s military successes to date. What does appear certain is that Vladimir Putin will pursue whatever it takes to maintain control of Crimea as well as the more recently Russian annexed regions of eastern Ukraine. There is little reason to believe that Putin’s promise to use “all the forces and resources” needed to liberate eastern Ukraine is a hollow threat.
A rarely-referenced historical template for how Russia’s war in Ukraine might unfold is the four-month Russo-Finnish War – or Winter War – of November 1939 to March 1940. As in Ukraine, Russia possessed a superior military and should have overwhelmed the Finns. However, the Finns tenaciously resisted the massive Russian invasion force with 126,000 Soviet troops being killed and nearly 300,000 wounded. Despite Finnish resolve, a savage Russian bombardment eventually overwhelmed them, forcing significant Finnish territorial concessions to the Soviets.
The Winter War also points to Figes’ second theme, that of Russian dysfunction. Throughout its history, Russia governance has been absolutist and characterized by pervasive and brutal violence. Early in the reign of Grand Prince Vladimir, Russian society was organized around all powerful principalities ruled by warrior princes known as boyars. By the reign of Ivan the Terrible in the 16th century, Russian absolutism and violence reached an intensity not exceeded until the time of Stalin. Writes Figes: “Ivan the Terrible became synonymous with executions, tortures, grisly massacres and a mad and monstrous tyranny that reason struggles to explain.” Sadly, this pattern would continue throughout Russian history.
An earlier book of Figes’ – The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia (2008) – is extremely helpful in understanding the depth of Russian dysfunction characterized by, among other things, complete subservience and violence. The Whisperers is only one of two books that I’ve ever read that have been so emotionally jolting that I had to put it down from time to time, the other being Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking. Unlike other histories of Stalin’s rule of terror, The Whisperers focuses on the impact of Stalinism on the daily lives of private Soviet citizens. This is a mesmerizing and impressive piece of scholarship based on never before explored personal diaries and interviews. Figes’ vignettes begin during the early Bolshevik years and continue through the early 2000s. The word “totalitarian” is not strong enough to describe the society Stalinism malformed in 20th century Russia. Individual identify was completely destroyed and swallowed up in the violence-saturated quest to create the New Soviet Man. Twenty years after the Bolshevik revolution, Figes notes, virtually every Soviet family “had lost a relative or knew of someone with imprisoned relatives.” People lived in continual fear “of the knock on the door in the middle of the night.” As a result, people concealed their true selves from family – and everyone else – knowing that a single off-handed conversation could result in being sent to a remote labor camp or a bullet to the head. Rezada Taisina, whose father was arrested in 1936, recalls that “we were brought up to keep our mouths shut.” Consequently, everyone in the Soviet Union entered into “a conspiracy of silence.” Stalin’s Soviet Union became “a society of whisperers.”
Figes points out that “the bond between parent and child was usually the first social tie to unravel. Beginning in the 1930s on, “there were millions of children who spent their lives in Soviet institutions – the orphanage, the army, and the labor camp – without ever knowing family life.” Recounting just one of many heart-breaking stories, Figes quotes from “Marina’s” letter: “Hello Mama, how are you? Mama, write to me, just one letter, so I know you have got mine. I have written to you seven letters but maybe you have not got one of them. Mama, come for me or send for me soon, I am sick of being here.” Figes concludes that Marina never knew “what it would mean to be with a mother.”
In another moving recollection, Figes relates the story of the mother of “Elena” who returned to Moscow in 1937 from the labor camps where she had been tortured and beaten heavily. Writes Figes: “Her daughter Elena never knew about these beatings, until her mother’s death in 1960, when doctors questioned her about [her mother’s] scars and bruises. They had never seen a body so damaged. ‘Was your mother in a labor camp?’ they asked. They could not imagine how my mother could have survived in such a state.” Elena went to recount that she used to ask her mother if she had been beaten but her mother refused to say. “‘There are things one cannot talk about,’” her mother would reply.
These are not isolated stories and the depth of social and cultural dysfunction that Figes describes is mind=boggling, even to those familiar with other histories of the Stalinist era. The result of this dysfunction was, in Figes’ words, “to create a whole society in which stoicism and passivity were social norms.” This explains in large measure “the cult of sacrifice” that allowed Soviet citizens to accept the massive death and devastation of World War Two: 26 million Soviet lives lost (two-thirds of them civilians); 18 million soldiers wounded; 70,000 villages destroyed along with 32,000 factories and 40,000 miles of railroad track. Only 3 percent of Soviet eighteen-year-olds mobilized in 1941 were still alive in 1945. Figes summarizes: “There was almost no limit to the number of lives that the Stalinist regime was willing to expend to achieve its military goals.”
It is not hard to see the relevance of all of this for understanding what is unfolding in Ukraine. Since Putin came to power there has been a heightening of nostalgia for the Soviet Union. According to a 2020 poll cited by Figes, seventy-five percent of Russians “believe that the Soviet era was the ‘greatest era’ in their country’s history.” Figes continues: “Such nostalgia is more broadly linked to the long afterlife of Soviet mentalities which have been passed down to the young.” Multiple surveys show that attitudes which are associated with the “Soviet personality” have not declined among Russian youth and have even become more pronounced. In a sobering conclusion, Figes observes that “Homo Sovieticus” has not died; he has been reborn.
Needless to say, none of this portends well for a Russian surrender in Ukraine, nor for Ukraine’s demand for unconditional victory. For Vladimir Putin this war is about the restoration of the Russian mir and the restoration of Russia as a great civilization. A good bet is that the Ukraine War will rage on in 2023 with Ukraine experiencing more and more death and devastation. We need to hope that leaders in Kiev, Europe, Washington – and Moscow – get it right. The outcome of not getting it right is frightening to contemplate. A good place for everyone to begin is to read our Orlando Figes.