Pray for the Russians

Volodymyr Kish

The past few months have been a real eye-opener for most of the world with regards to the Russians. After the breakup of the Soviet Union and the end of some seventy years of Communist dictatorship, it appeared that Russians would finally have a chance to join most of the rest of the civilized world in enjoying the benefits of freedom, a civil society and the opportunities that free enterprise brings. Despite a somewhat turbulent first post-Soviet decade that saw uneven progress towards this end, even as late as a decade ago, most people felt that Russia was still on course to become a “European” nation where “western” values were widely accepted.

Tragically, recent events have painfully laid waste to that nave notion. Russia, under the iron thumb of Putin, the latest in a six century long unbroken string of Russian autocrats, has reverted once more into a brutal, medieval, imperialistic state reviled and feared by almost all its neighbours, not to mention the rest of the civilized world. Conquest, power, control and disdain for human life dominate Putin’s mindset as much as they did his notorious predecessors starting with Ivan the Terrible and culminating with Joseph Stalin whose name has almost become synonymous with genocide and inhumanity. Whether his behavior is due to paranoia, lunacy or just plain evil seems almost immaterial. What he is doing is just a predictable continuation of some six hundred years of Russian history.

It would be easy to attribute all this to some fatal character flaw in the Russian people themselves, but that would be succumbing to facile bigotry and emotion driven over-simplification. The average Russian is no less smart or moral than the rest of us. Russian civilization has produced more than its fair share of great thinkers, artists, authors, scientists, saints and geniuses. Given the opportunity, I have no doubt that Russia and the Russians could become a leading nation economically, politically, socially and culturally on this shrinking globe of ours.

The problem with Russia is not the Russian people but its leaders. For whatever reason, ever since its inception, the Russian state has been ruled almost exclusively by absolutist dictators, running what in modern political parlance would be termed totalitarian fascist regimes. Putin, as did Ivan the terrible, and Peter I, and Stalin, does not tolerate any opposition, executing or imprisoning anyone that dares challenge his authority. All aspects of Russian society from government, the media, business and even religion is subservient to the state and under his direct control. Like all his predecessors, Putin craftily uses war, imperialistic expansion, xenophobic propaganda and patriotism to distract the masses and maintain his rule. The pattern has not changed over the centuries.

While it is true that in the history of mankind, most of the world’s countries have experienced similar patterns of governance, in a good chunk of today’s world, countries have moved beyond these archaic and unfair practices and embraced democracy to a greater or lesser extent. Russia has not.

In a perverse way one could say that Russia has been exceptionally successful at producing extremely talented dictators. Unfortunately this has meant incalculable suffering, not only for Russia’s victims, but in an even bigger way for Russians themselves. For instance, while precise estimates are hard to come by, most historians agree that somewhere between 20 to 30 million Russians died either directly or indirectly due to Stalin’s repressions. This does not even include yet another 20 to 30 million Russians and Soviet citizens of all nationalities that died during World War II as a result of Stalin’s miscalculations and ill-fated alliance with Hitler and the Nazis. As much as Ukrainians, Tatars, Chechens, and many other ethnic nationalities have suffered at the hands of Russian dictators, Russians themselves have suffered even more. No one has suffered more as a result of Russian aggression over the centuries than have Russians themselves.

It is therefore an incomprehensible conundrum as to why Russians continue to support leaders that bring them so much death, suffering and misery. One could speculate that it is because the Russian leaders that are guilty of this have been particularly effective at shifting the blame to external real or imagined enemies. They have become experts at fostering fear and xenophobia. Our only hope lies in the fact that in our technological era, it is almost impossible to completely control the flow of information and that hopefully sooner rather than later, the majority of Russians will come to understand how badly they have been served by their leaders. Let us pray for the Russians that they too will soon free themselves from their terrible historical legacy.