The Russian Phoenix

Russian President Vladimir Poutine carrying his father’s picture during the March of Immortal Regiment that is held every year on the occasion of Victory Day (source: TASS News Agency).

“Russia is like a phoenix: it repeatedly turns to ashes only to be reborn in some new guise”. In itself, this quote from Dmitri Trenin’s recent book encapsulates why we need to continually learn more about the history of this country, which is, whether we like it or not, one of the great powers jockeying for influence in today’s world.

There has been a tendency, after the dismantling of the USSR in the early 1990s, to assume that the Soviet régime has been a failure and that its architects had failed, automatically sending their statecraft experiment to the dustbin of history. Dmitri Trenin gives plenty of material to those who do not subscribe to that school of thought.

RussiaDmitriTreninI will always be amazed at how Lenin succeeded in carrying the day in the Fall of 1917, with only a handful of followers. But one of the main characteristics of the first Soviet leader, according to the author, who is also Director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, was that “Lenin’s political genius lay in his uncanny ability to adapt to fast-changing circumstances.” In a nutshell, he was a pragmatist who knew how to fill the void of leadership at a crucial time. The same could be said about his successor, Stalin, who “[…] reversed his stance on the Russian Orthodox Church” during the Great Patriotic War, when he realized that religion was a glue that could mobilize the people behind the war effort.

As a fan of Mikhail Gorbachev since my youth, I therefore found it hard to read Dmitri Trenin’s assessment of the last leader of the USSR. Between the lines, one can understand that the chief proponent of Perestroika was not a pragmatist and a student of Realpolitik because the country “[…] was by no means doomed, but it required a leader who could act decisively, albeit thoughtfully, professionally, and very carefully. What it got instead was a dreamer.” Ouch.

In the darkest hours of its history, Russia needs “strong leadership and discipline [to keep] the country together.”

Some people and observers might have forgotten it, but Russia during the reign of Boris Yeltsin was not the most successful experiment. Savage capitalism, rampant criminality, lack of standing on the world scene were only a few hallmarks of what any keen student of the country could see or read in the daily news. If you add the Russian president’s dire health condition to the picture, you realize that the country was living another of its turning point. Everything was in the balance. And then came Vladimir Putin.

For all his shortcomings – tons of trees have been felled to please the intellect of his detractors – Yeltsin’s successor has met the challenge of Russian statecraft. “Russians have never had it so good”, according to Dmitri Trenin. Aside from being a strong leader, “the secret of Putin’s staying power at the top of the Russian system […] is his ability to reach out to millions of ordinary people, and to feel their needs.”

One of those needs is to know that their country is recognized as a great power. While not responding to any material, concrete and day-to-day basic need, Russians are aware that the successful battle they waged at Stalingrad to defeat the German troops was “the turning point in the war”, after which “the frontline started moving westward”. Academics and armchair generals can argue for days trying to decide if Stalingrad really was the true turning point, but it doesn’t matter what outsiders think. What matters is what Russian people think. And, on that score, President Putin has always shown that he is on the same page as them, a feeling that can be observed when he strolls down the streets of Moscow at the same time as millions of his countrymen and countrywomen who sacrificed their lives to stand in the way of the Nazi hordes. And when we can observe the growing presence of Russia, notably with boots on the ground, in the Middle East. Russian are very proud of and attached to their brand of exceptionalism.

And for those who might underestimate the resilience of the Russian people in front of adversity, the author points out that Russian troops did not wave the white flag of surrender in front of advancing Germans tanks and infantrymen, contrary to what happened on the Western Front. In itself, the evocation of this attitude is at the same time a warning to all those who think that the Russian spirit can be vanquished with sanctions, confrontation or underestimation.

History attests to the fact that the Russian phoenix has always risen to the occasion. In many instances, whether it was with “Orthodox monarchy, Soviet Communism, or crony capitalism”, the country mastered the art of transforming adversity in opportunity. In itself, that should be a sufficient reason to be fascinated with its history.

And Dmitri Trenin’s insightful book is an excellent starting point for anyone wanting to understand this fascinating country.


Dmitri Trenin, Russia, Cambridge, Polity, 2019, 212 pages.

I would like to express all my gratitude to Mr. Lucas Jones, publicist for Polity Books in North America for his generous assistance in providing me with a review copy of Dr. Trenin’s books.

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