From the Duchy of Moscow
To Vladimir Zhirinovsky:
Russian History and
In the 13th Century, Muscovy was just one of many independent Russian statelets --- Vladimir-Suzdal, Chernigov, Rostov, Uglich, Tver, Yaroslavl, Pereslavl, Nizhny Novgorod, etc. etc. --- although Moscow enjoyed the advantage of a central location on trade routes. Gradually, the Duchy of Moscow expanded, both by conquest and by actually purchasing neighboring statelets. By the mid-15th Century, Moscow had absorbed most of the others, but there remained to its north a large territory, even larger than Moscow's was, ruled by the Republic of Novgorod. This was a wealthy mecantile republic, comparable in some ways to medieval Venice, which was relatively cosmopolitan, at least by medieval Russian standards.
Between 1470 and 1478, the Grand Duke of Moscow, Ivan III, conquered the Republic of Novgorod. He and his courtiers justified the conquest by pointing out Novgorod's suspicious associations with the West, a sign of backsliding from the holy Russian Orthodox Church --- propositions with a certain family resemblance to those offered by the USSR in similar operations 500 years later. The conquest of Novgorod tripled the size of Ivan III's domain, and he awarded himself the title of Emperor (Tsar). His son Vasili III and grandson Ivan IV (called "Ivan the Terrible") carried on the process of imperial expansion in every direction, and took to describing themselves as Tsars of All the Russias.
The Russian Empire continued to expand through the 16th, 17th, 18th, and 19th Centuries: eastward across the steppes into Central Asia, across the Urals into Siberia, through Siberia to the Pacific Ocean; south to the Black Sea, the Caucasus, and the Caspian Sea; northwest to the Baltics and eventually all of Finland; and westward to include the Ukraine and half of Poland. Moscow's six centuries of steady aggrandizement are unique in history, longer even than the corresponding growth history of the Roman Empire in ancient times.
The conquest of all these regions demanded the subjugation of innumerable native inhabitants, from Poles and Finns in the west to the Buryats, Yakuts, and Evenks of Siberia, 6,000 miles to the east. [It was Lenin who referred to the Russian Empire as a "prison-house of nationalities."] Does the six-century growth and maintanence of such an empire have cultural consequences?
A single century of "Manifest Destiny" expansion introduced a note of jingoism, even of megalomania, into American culture. But it was always counterbalanced by a strong anti-imperialist current which rejected the verbiage of Manifest Destiny, opposed the Mexican War (as John Quincy Adams, a former President, did in the House of Representatives), the Spanish War (as did Thomas Brackett Reed, the Speaker of the House in 1898), the occupation of the Philipines, and so on. Imagine the effect on Russian culture of six centuries of Manifest Destiny, during which the perpetual expansion and the incessant frontier wars went on without any significant opposition, in Russia's strict autocratic society.
This long, unique history surely influences attitudes that are absorbed unwittingly from earliest childhood on. It creates a sense of identity based not only on Russian language, literature, and culture, but also on the sheer, enormous scale of its empire, the sense of participating in Russia's long imperial history and role as a Great Power, emphasis on the "Great." Consciousness of this sort explains why contemporary Russian political life includes characters like Vladimir Zhirinovsky. He is a public figure who openly spouts imperial pretentions that the most hawkish American right-wingers --- or the most bombastic English Colonel Blimps of 100 years ago --- would never dare to express. In this, his rhetoric reveals something that is below the surface.
Zhirinovsky is no fringe figure in Russia. He is the founder and leader of the ultra-nationalist, misleadingly named Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) . . . a significant political force. Its posture can be gauged from Zhirinovsky's vocal support for the 1991 attempted coup against Gorbachev by Communist Party dinosaurs. The LDPR currently holds 56 seats in the State Duma, Russia's rubber-stamp parliament, of which Zhirinovsky has twice been elected Deputy Speaker. He is a perennial (1991, 1996, 2000, 2008, 2012) candidate for the Presidency, and currently is also a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.
Zhirinovsky's positions quoted below, and the references for them, are taken from Wikipedia. In a characteristic statement, Zhirinovsky has said he is dreaming of a day "when Russian soldiers can wash their boots in the warm waters of the Indian Ocean and switch to year-round summer uniforms,"1 following Russia's conquest of Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey and occupation of the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean.2
Zhirinovsky is well known for boasting of his ambition to reunite countries of the ex-Soviet "near abroad" with Russia, within the imperial borders of 1900 (including Finland and Poland). He has advocated forcibly retaking Alaska from the United States (which would then become "a great place to put the Ukrainians"), turning Kazakhstan into "Russia's back yard," and provoking wars between the clans and the nations of the former Soviet Union and occupying what will remain when the wars are over.3 Zhirinovsky also endorsed the forcible re-occupation of the Baltic countries and said nuclear waste should be dumped there.3,4
On 10 August 2013, Zhirinovsky threatened Poland and the Baltic states with carpet bombing, and annihilation: "What will remain of the Baltics? Nothing will remain of them. NATO airplanes are stationed there. There's an anti-missile defense system. In Poland --- the Baltics --- they are on the whole doomed. They'll be wiped out. There will be nothing left. Let them re-think this, these leaders of these little dwarf states. How they are leaving themselves vulnerable. Nothing threatens America, it's far away. But Eastern Europe countries will place themselves under the threat of total annihilation. Only they themselves will be to blame. Because we cannot allow missiles and planes to be aimed at Russia from their territories. We have to destroy them half an hour before they launch. And then we have to do carpet bombing so that not a single launch pad remains or even one plane. So --- no Baltics, no Poland. Let NATO immediately ask for negotiations with our Foreign Ministry."5
Other similar gems of Zhirinovsky's oratory can be found in his biography in Wikipedia. Although he is regarded as something of a buffoon in the West, he is by no means beyond the pale in Russia. He has never, to my knowledge, been censured by the Duma, let alone disavowed by his own Party. Rather, he is a blabbermouth who reveals attitudes toward the outside world that are more widely but quietly held in Russia, although not so colorfully expressed.
Imagine the reaction here if an influential Congressman announced that he was dreaming of the day when the USA would take over Mexico; or proposed the carpet bombing of those "little dwarf states" Cuba and Venezuela. But such statements by any US public figure would of course be inconceivable. Anything even hinting at such an attitude would cause an apoplectic fit at the Nation Magazine, for one.
Yet, frequent statements of this kind by the leader of a major Russian faction elicit no concern, in fact no mention, from the Nation and similar media. These media rarely mention the USA without adding the word "empire," but have never noticed Zhirinovsky's open, unapologetic calls for Russian empire. All we ever hear from this quarter is tenderness for the delicate sensitivities of Russia --- which is to say of Russian ultra-nationalists like Zhirinovsky: poor little Russia, burdened as it is with neighbors like the Baltic states and Poland, which for some reason do not love it sufficiently, and have gone so far as to join evil NATO, which is thus "right at Russia's borders."
The pop-Left animus against NATO goes back many years. In the mid 1990s, when NATO air-strikes forced Serb militias to stop bombarding the civilians of Sarajevo, representatives of a pop-Left groupuscule insisted that NATO's very existence was a "war crime." And before that, of course, NATO's offense was its opposition to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, which in its time claimed to be the progressive vanguard of all mankind. That charade, which was already ludicrous by the early 1930s, collapsed entirely a generation or two ago, a fact that the pop-Left has never fully assimilated. The pop-Left also does not understand something that Vladimir Zhirinovsky understands all too well: that it is Holy Mother Russia, before, during, and after its period dressed up as the USSR, that is the world's great exemplar of Manifest Destiny.A psychology akin to Manifest Destiny must be common among a sizeable part of the Russian public, to account for the popularity of the current government's policy of grabbing (should one perhaps say RE-possessing?) pieces of Georgia and pieces of the Ukraine. But the more important question is: how common is this psychology amongst the actual bosses of Russia? The bosses, members of what has been aptly characterized as a "spookocracy," were described in detail in an Economist article of 20076 which is even more relevant today:
Over the two terms of Mr Putin's presidency, that group of FSB [the successor to the KGB] operatives has consolidated its political power and built a new sort of corporate state in the process. Men from the FSB and its sister organisations control the Kremlin, the government, the media and large parts of the economy --- as well as the military and security forces. According to research by Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a sociologist at the Russian Academy of Sciences, a quarter of the country's senior bureaucrats are 'siloviki' --- a Russian word meaning, roughly, power guys, which includes members of the armed forces and other security services, not just the FSB. The proportion rises to three-quarters if people simply affiliated to the security services are included.
The article goes on6 to report on the psychology of the 'siloviki' at some length. There are no surprises here, but their psychology is worth considering, particularly while keeping in mind Zhirinovsky's more candid outbursts:
These people represent a psychologically homogeneous group, loyal to roots that go back to the Bolsheviks' first political police, the Cheka. As Mr Putin says repeatedly, 'There is no such thing as a former Chekist.'
. . . As well as invoking secular patriotism, Russia's security bosses can readily find allies among the priesthood. Next to the FSB building in Lubyanka Square stands the 17th-century church of the Holy Wisdom, 'restored in August 2001 with zealous help from the FSB,' says a plaque. Inside, freshly painted icons gleam with gold. 'Thank God there is the FSB. All power is from God and so is theirs,' says Father Alexander, who leads the service. A former KGB general agrees: 'They really believe that they were chosen and are guided by God and that even the high oil prices they have benefited from are God's will.'
Sergei Grigoryants, who has often been interrogated and twice imprisoned (for anti-Soviet propaganda) by the KGB, says the security chiefs believe 'that they are the only ones who have the real picture and understanding of the world.' At the centre of this picture is an exaggerated sense of the enemy, which justifies their very existence: without enemies, what are they for? 'They believe they can see enemies where ordinary people can't,' says Ms Kryshtanovskaya.
'A few years ago, we succumbed to the illusion that we don't have enemies and we have paid dearly for that,' Mr Putin told the FSB in 1999. It is a view shared by most KGB veterans and their successors. The greatest danger comes from the West, whose aim is supposedly to weaken Russia and create disorder. 'They want to make Russia dependent on their technologies,' says a current FSB staffer. 'They have flooded our market with their goods. Thank God we still have nuclear arms.' . . . 'In Gorbachev's time Russia was liked by the West and what did we get for it? We have surrendered everything: eastern Europe, Ukraine, Georgia.'
The Mr. Putin referred to is, of course, Vladimir Putin, formerly a Lieutenant Colonel in the KGB and now the President of Russia and grandmaster of the 'siloviki'. He made himself clear enough in a speech in 1999 when he first assumed the Presidency: "Russia has been a great power for centuries, and remains so. It has always had and still has legitimate zones of interest . . . We should not drop our guard in this respect, neither should we allow our opinion to be ignored."7Footnotes1Ultra-right gains in poll ---The Age, 9 December 2003
2Zhirinovsky is Russia's big bad wolf; success of Vladimir Wolfovich Zhirinovsky in recent Russian elections.Column. Findarticles.com (24 January 1994).
3Vladimir Zhirinovsky Information Technology Services at SUNY Brockport
4Russia threatens Baltic missile build-up ---The Baltic Times, 5 July 2007
7Quoted in "Vladimir Putin: The rebuilding of 'Soviet' Russia" in BBC News Magazine: http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-26769481