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19th century attitudes still at work in Russia

Mark Urban | 22:40 UK time, Tuesday, 26 August 2008

For the past two weeks I have been watching events in the Caucasus from the balmy safety of a family holiday in Spain. There are times for a correspondent when missing out on the action can be a frustrating experience, but there can be others when the chance to reflect upon important happenings without reporting on them blow by blow has its own rewards.

To me one of the extraordinary things about Russia is how its nineteenth century attitudes seem to have been frozen when the Tsar was deposed and de-frosted after the Soviet empire fell apart in 1991. Reporting on the collapse of the hardliners coup in that year, and then on the failure of the rightist putsch against Boris Yeltsin in 1993, I was amazed to see so much of old Russia emerge, apparently untouched.

In the early to mid-1990s there were the "crime crackdowns" in Moscow markets that simply seemed to be an opportunity for the police to beat up traders from the Caucasus, thus venting popular anger at rising prices. Russians appeared in Cossack uniforms, and started holding curious ceremonials. The Russian church pushed for a ban on missionary or outreach activity by other denominations. Many Russians talked of national vozrozhdeniye, or revival.

As somebody who hurled himself into reporting these events, propelled to odd and often dangerous corners of the former Soviet empire by a love of the country, its history and people, I tried to keep an open mind about all these aspects of what many Russians saw as a national resurrection. But differences with Russian friends became clearer following the first Chechen War in 1994, when I discovered that even implied criticism of Russian actions brought a furious response, even from Moscow intellectuals.

With the rout of Georgian forces during this past month, these differing world views have become sharply focussed. Russia's military offensive seemed to have been designed not just to cripple Georgia's army (an objective acknowledged by some Russian officials) but, by sending Russian tanks deep into the country, to convey a message that they could do exactly what they liked with a small Caucasian pipsqueak that had got ideas above its station. The pro-Russian people of South Ossetia, attacked at the start of this by Georgia's misguided government, seem to have provided little more than a tripwire for action.

It can be argued - as some Russia specialists in the west have - that the lesson we should draw from all of this is that talk of expanding Nato to include Georgia and the Ukraine needs to be abandoned unless there is real political will among the alliance's countries to risk World War III. Quite right - expanding Nato for its own sake has been shown up to be a dangerous business when Russia is in this mood. The empty phrases and blather so common at Nato summits is going to have to give way to some serious thinking.

As for future relations with Russia, the Kremlin's decision to recognise Abkhazia and South Ossetia bodes ill for any kind of attempt to re-establish a system of collective security in the world - a common approach through the United Nations or some other body. It can be argued that the United States through presidents Clinton (the Kosovo war) and Bush (Iraq) had already shown the unilateralist way.

By trying to force the secession of disputed parts of Georgia, Russia has lost any high ground it might have held in that matter. It is one of those moments where neither appeasement nor confrontation will answer. It is only through engagement and dialogue that the message can be conveyed that a revival of Russia is a good thing, but that it requires the country to forge new relationships with its neighbours, not just to dust off those that had been in storage since the nineteenth century.

Watch my report from Tuesday's programme below:

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  • Comment number 1.

    I think Mark Urban is limiting his perspective on modern Russia by referring only to 19th century Russian values. Curiously, we are seeing elements of both Russia's 19th century and 20th century soviet values combined in the 21st century. What is interesting to analyse, however, are the omissions from the patterns of these two previous centuries, as well as the returning values.

    For example, Russians have always had a sense of both curiosity about, and an urge to control, the Caucasus region from the early part of the 19th century. This ambivence is best characterised in the works of Tolstoy and Lermontov, who both fought to control Georgia in the early 1800s.

    In other words, it is true that in the Russian psyche, fighting for, or taking control of, Georgia has been a historical and literary tradition for the best part of 2 centuries. Tolstoy also used words about bringing 'peace' to the region by defeating the 'warring' tribes. In this sense, few Russians would oppose re-absorbing Georgia and would acknowledge themselves as bringing peace to a 'troubled' region.

    What is missing today, it seems to me, compared with the 19th century, is a strong Russian intelligentsia; ie clusters of prominent critical thinkers and thought leaders who feel strong enough to oppose and criticise Russian government policy with counter-balancing ideas. In the 19th century, there was no credible political opposition to the Tsarist regime (apart from a few anarchists) - and certainly no democracy, so the intelligentsia became the effective tribune of the people.

    The intelligentsia were largely silenced in the soviet 20th century. Criticism under Stalin meant your disappearance and the incarceration of your friends and family. Under later soviet rulers the intelligentsia survived, but were largely muzzled and lost their job prospects.

    The Russian media in the 21st century seems more and more to be returning to the uncritical days of 20th century Russia. Russian politicans tend to speak uncritically of government policy and, with one voice, support the government, largely thanks to Putin's landslide. Voting in the Duma on Georgia, for example, is now sadly reminiscient of soviet voting practices with 100% in favour and 0% against.

    On the external 'front', for example, the terminology of the ancien soviet regime seems to be back again with fears of 'capitalist encirclement' being replaced with fear of 'Nato encirclement'.

    The Soviet Union also always had a more aggressive foreign policy towards 2 countries: the UK and USA (perceived to be more 'capitalist' than the rest of the West, leading to a divide and rule approach to western countries). Some might argue we are witnessing a return to the same attitude in Russia's 21st century. We have seen, for example, such phenomena as the closure of the British Council in Russia (ie censureship of foreign ideas), the return of Russian bombers to UK airspace and allegedly a Georgi Markov-style state-sponsored assassination of a Russian critic (member of the 21st century Russian intelligentsia) on British soil.

    For the US, in parallel, a conflict has been unleashed on the territory of one of its allies, Georgia, and its land annexed. And Estonia (a strong member of Nato) has been subjected to a cyber attack.

    The question on everyone's mind is: will it now take a 21st century version of the 1960s Cuban missile crisis before we can find a 21st modus operandi with Russia?

    The thought of this - which is where we may now be heading - is a seriously dangerous prospect for world peace. Yet it is the legacy of Russia's 20th century stand-down over Cuban missiles that may lead Russia to go for broke in the 21st century and test its ability, and its newfound oil wealth, to confront the West again.

    There is, worryingly, something reminiscient here about mid-20th century conflicts and how their origin arose in a major power losing face after WW1.

    In this respect, I hope Mark Urban is right and I am wrong. I feel more reassured with a Russia espousing values from the 19th century than one perhaps seeking to redress the wrongs of the 20th century in the 21st.

  • Comment number 2.

    Hi Mark

    The sad thing is all the signals have been flashing for a number of years now.
    I suppose no one wants to think the worst, but reality can produce the worst for you sometimes.

    I will not say what I think will happen and what really concerns me about all this, as I am sure our news will be being monitored now.Whats the saying "The walls have ears !".

    Still from a amateur analysts point of view, its going to be fun seeing what parts of my conclusions will come true or not.

    In your NewsNight piece tonight you showed some 19 century Russian Bear drawings , are they downloadable ?


  • Comment number 3.

    Hi Mark:

    i hope you and your family had a nice
    vacation in spain!

  • Comment number 4.

    Hi Mark:

    19th Century attitudes are at work in Russia and it will continued for a very long time.

  • Comment number 5.

    1 - Jacob1685

    Interesting that Russian imperialism in the 19th century is almost indistinguishable from Soviet imperialism in the 20th. Lenin presided czar like over his administration, Stalin was so much in that mold that he would have given Ivan the Terrible a good name, Breznev gave his name to the doctrine which Kissinger called domino theory and the Andropov and Cherneko administrations were so short lived as to barely be worthy of mention.

    The changes in Russian attitudes were very much temporary and short lived. Rather than seeing modern Russia as a combination of Czarist imperialism and Soviet hegemony, it is actually a continuation of the same thing under another name.

  • Comment number 6.

    Dear Mark,

    I think any reference to 19th Century Russian policy towards the Caucasus needs to be carried out with care and not just as a means of portraying Russia as the aggressor, especially as the British Empire at the time hand a hand in allowing Russian expansion there by not responding to Caucasian appeals to intervene.

    An understanding of that period of history is vital to appreciating the position of all Caucasian peoples; an example being that one result of the Russian conquest of the Black Sea coast was that 500,000 Abkhazians were forced by the Russians to abandon their homeland for Turkey (where they and their descendants remained), having a disastrous consequence on the demography and future of Abkhazia.

    Furthermore, the focus in nearly all the reports on Newsnight (and other news outlets) appears to be 19th/20th Century geopolitics rather than the reality in South Ossetia and Abkhazia as locals, politicians and members of civil society there see it.

    It is a complicated region, and surely it would help everyone if voices from these regions repeatedly referred to as 'rebel' and 'separatist' simply because they do not wish to adhere to old Soviet republican borders, could be heard in order that your viewers can understand the position of this much-misunderstood region.

  • Comment number 7.

    Hi Mark

    I do think your analysis is right in terms of the historical and cultural attitudes of the russian elites who drive forward Russian foreign policy. However, I do believe it is important to look at the wider picture of the international system and the role Russia sees itself playing within it. I believe the incursion of Russia into georgia highlights the dawn of the 'multi-polar moment' a world which is characterized by several great powers all with spheres of influence - The unipolar moment is well and truly over - America has indeed squandered its time of unrivalled super power status - Fareed zakarias - post american world is upon us.

    The American response to the Georgian incursion highlights the limitations of American power both (hard and soft). It also highlights the redundant concept of the 'west' which is an intellectually lazy analysis of the relationship between Europe and America. Russia is behaving like all great powers must when the international system changes course. Europe must do the same and develop a defense capability to protect its interest abroad.

  • Comment number 8.

    #2 continued

    After some sleep , I have given it another think -

    Russia's relations with the west have gone down hill since the breakup of Yugoslavia , their protests at the time(over intervention) leading to some hi-tech Russian defensive equipment being found in Iraq in 2003 , arming of states that were called the axis of evil and so on.

    Over this same period of time the EU has expanded , the EU is evolving from a economic zone in 1991 to something that has a EU Army, common defense procurement ,2 million service people in uniform (in 27 states) with plans for 40% deployable outside their respective borders, a European defense command and control HQ and also in the latest Treaty ,an attack on one member state is an attack on all member states.

    Strangely the Americans have also voiced concerns about this, duplication of NATO structures etc.

    Now it might seem strange, but given Europe's history of instability this could be of concern to Russia and the USA.

    Many people in the UK also have concerns as our previous history has been to avoid mainland European politics like the plague if at all possible, because of its historical repetitive instabilities.

    I have to admit I am one of those people that are unsure about the headlong rush to become a EU Super State, I guess it boils down to trust.

    I am not saying this new aggressive stance by Russia is all the EU fault , but maybe we should consider it as part of the mix of reasons.

  • Comment number 9.

    No Western politician has stressed regret or sympathy to the Russians for the large loss of life caused by an ally.

    If the UK lost say an entire village to a deliberate artillery bombardment and then the allies of the perpetrator announced they were going to install a missile system that probably breaks the 1972 ABM treaty on our borders how would we react? Korea has no weapon nor Iran. We would send a stiff diplomatic note?

    I think in Chechnya there is "imperialism" and human rights abuses by Russia. There I think they are the ones who should pull out. The Russians must be spending a lot and not really gaining anything back.

    But if South Ossetia and Abkhazia want independence I can't see any practical, moral or strategic reason to oppose it.

    In the Ukraine I think President Yushchenko has good reaon to dislike the Russians due to the suspected poisoning. Today he announced they may up the price for the bases in the Crimea. But then they still get partially subsidised gas from Russia. The Crimea is also largely ethnic Russian.

    I think Paul Reynolds piece identifies the ethnic issues/border issues very well.

    The key problem in my view is though that the rapid expansion of Nato to the borders of Russia is going to create a powder keg as with the Crimea.

    If an ethnically distinct area wants independence they will get it in the end anyway. Both Russia and the West should consider that.

  • Comment number 10.

    Hi Mark, Maybe you should look at your history...the Russians lost twenty six million in the last war, three years into the revolution we (UK) had an 'expeditionary' force into Russia to defeat the revolution, it took the west three years to get a second front while Russia bled to death, NATO countries to the south of it's borders, remember 1962 and the Cuban missile crisis and now you know how 'they' feel, or is all that history lost on you?

  • Comment number 11.

    #9 - thegangofone

    The problem is that the west has fallen into the Liberty trap:-

    "Give me your tired, your poor,
    Your huddled masses . . ."

    We are the champions of freedom and democracy. So, if a democratically elected government in a young and ambitious country announces that it wants to join the western club, who are we to say 'No'? That was all well and good when the expansion was logical with genuinely European countries who had only been frozen out because of the Soviets. But this is a whole different ballgame - a high risk strategy involving countries on the south eastern fringes of the continent far removed from the north Atlantic. There must come a point when the risk of regional instability outweighs ideological factors. If Russia is returning to the imperialism of the 19th century as some have suggested, perhaps we in the west need once more to embrace pragmatism as the core of foreign policy.

  • Comment number 12.

    a lucid essay - I think you probably allowed yourself more words than I did, so I hope you'll forgive me for limiting my perspective. I agree that 'New Russia' does not seem to have revived its nineteenth century intelligensia - including the novelists, composers and artists who gave so much to the wider world. But maybe in its emphasis on money and discarding of even many Soviet-era cultural institutions Russia is truly 'modern'.

    Those images you asked about came from old copies of Punch (the bears) and Illustrated London News. The Cartoon Museum has them, but we do not in downloadable form. You may be able to find some elsewhere on the net...

    Brilliant ! thank you :-)

    was not the quotation attributed to Lenin: "scratch many a Bolshevik and underneath the surface you will find a Great Russian chauvinist" ? Perhaps you or someone else can shed some light on this...

    certainly the Georgians committed a violent blunder. Perhaps you are right about western governments being tepid in their condemnation of it. I am at a disadvantage because I didn't look in detail at the time at what they said - 'I was on holiday at the time, your honour'.

    well, I hoped from the above that it was apparent that I come to the study of Russia from a sympathetic position, nautrally in regard to events like Hitler's invasion. Those who forget history may be condemmed to repeat it, but equally those who cannot look beyond their history will find it very hard to build a future.

  • Comment number 13.

    Mark talked about 19th century Russia, yet the accompanying cartoons of a 'Russian' bear had 'USSR' on its cap. Was this deliberate, or a mistake?

  • Comment number 14.

    What I notice about this article, most of the responses to it, yesterday and today's Newsnight is how the debate is largely confined to the 19th century framework determined by Cheney and the US over a week ago. Last night produced a minor variation from the US spokesman, with his talk of nostalga for the Soviet Union. At no point has the BBC questioned the assumptions and parameters for debate as effectively created by the US and its sidekick the UK. On the other hand, when it comes to Georgia, we see that the magic attribute known as 'democracy', no matter how defective or corrupt, makes it unquestionable.

    I think it would be worthwhile to consider the precedents already set in respect of Afghanistan, Iraq, Kosovo and Israel, to consider that Russia took the only practical moral course available to it and that all of this is in the context of the forthcoming nuclear first-strike threat, with no fear of retaliation, by the US against Russia.

    Perhaps the media, we in the West in general, have become too smug, complacent and/or unthinking to feel the need to look beyond the agenda as laid down for us by those in power?

  • Comment number 15.

    Difficult for me to see the connect between current Ossetian crisis to 19th century Russian attitudes.

    In the 19th Century, any European power, (who can be anybody) with a decent navy or army were in the business of "land grabs". There was Napleon's Grandee Armee in the earlier part of the century. They made do with all opportunities available. And in the later part of the century, opportunities availed with the Ottoman Empire's decline. Definely no interest in territorial integrity by all parties.

    The only familiarity was the 'ganging up' of Western Eropeans against Russia. In 1812, Napoleon with a polyglot army of Frenchmen, Poles, Germans, Italians and others invaded Russia. During the Crimean War (1854-56), the British and the French allied with Ottomans, fought Russia.

    Whereas 20th Century Soviet Russia described clearly the Russians' ability to adhere steadfastly to their own established and prevailing orthodoxies. Two of the USSR leaders were from subject and minority races: Stalin (Georgian) and Krushchev(Ukrainean). Apparently their positions were attained mainly based on their "hammer and sickle" credentials.

    It took 140 years after the American Civil War to see USA's first serious black candidate for presidency, Obama. Reckon the minority races in the USA are rather slow learners.

    At the onset of the Cold War, Soviet Russia's sphere of influence was clearly demarcated with Churchil's eloquent description of the "Iron Curtain". It took the arms race with Reagan's USA to bankrupt the old Soviet Union leading to its inevitable break-up. As it was in 1917, old orthodoxies of Tsardom, serdom,etc were discarded for the more the more egalitarian communist creeds. In 1991, communism was discarded and replaced with what?

    What we have now is the world's largest country with common borders to some 16 countries, including China. And over small straits, borders two richest nations in the world: USA and Japan. Russia is an immediate neighbour to more than half the world's population and wealth-production.

    Are we now saying that centuries old baggage of national animosities are better managed or surpressed under Communist Russian rule?

    During the Cold War, Iron Curtain was oxymoronic impregnable. At best we have got was a defence shield: NATO against the Warsaw Pact. Today no Warsaw Pact, but, NATO becomes provocatively offensive to Russia.

    It is the West and Russia's Georgia-alike neighbours, who are tied to 19th Century orthodoxies as they viewed Russia in the same old way. Russia with many new neighbours need some border security to go forward not a ganging up of the neighbourhood opposing her.

    For Georgia-alike neighbours of Russia, there is the more serious business of economic development of its committed citizenry not the pursuit of dominance over peoples who wants to be Russians.

  • Comment number 16.


    who's the dozy doris in the arctic. is it the same susan watts who told us one million people in the uk would die of bse.

    Does she not understand that the nw passage is called that becuase ships used to sail through.

    You and the rest of the political team are being brought into disrupute by the no nothing environmental correspondants.

    Anyway why should I pay a licensce fee for a biased service.

    Take care and keep up the good work and by the way whats the worse that can happen is the polar bears become brown bears.

  • Comment number 17.

    Finding Communist sites on the web is getting harder these days perhaps because the worlds moved on, as they say, and the terror of the Cold War was easing until Russia invaded Georgia like some Imperialist power of the past.
    Even worse was Putin darting that tiger and having all his cronies gather around it like those great white hunter photographs of yore.
    One could almost forget that Russia maintains a technically modern army, a formidable air force, and a navy re-arming itself from the shambles it was in the 1990s. This 19th Century tag confuses the military facts from the Marxist/Leninist idealogy and rhetoric.
    I've never thought for one moment that the Cold War had cooled of sufficiently for "peace" to break out, and the smaller Russia gets the more it seems to struggle with the present.

  • Comment number 18.

    thegangofone (#9): "If an ethnically distinct area wants independence they will get it in the end anyway"

    I can't see Putin rushing to grant Chechnya or independence... strange that, considering his sudden zeal for breakaway republics in his neighbour's states.

  • Comment number 19.

    #12 - Mark_Urban

    I cannot find the reference but you may well be right. Sorry for the delay - I had a holiday too.


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