Back in March 2014, while I was sojourning in Moscow for the second time, I visited the Museum of the Great Patriotic War, the Borodino Battle Museum, and the Museum of the Patriotic War of 1812. I also took the time to drive to Zhukovo to visit the Museum dedicated to the famous Marshal – Georgy Zhukov – who vanquished the Nazis on the Eastern Front. Any serious student of history couldn’t help but note how attached the Russians are to their military heritage. It was an amazing trip for a military enthusiast like me!
To a degree that might seem astonishing to a Western mind, war occupies a fundamental place in the history of Russia. And it is imperative to fully grasp that reality, if one wants to ascertain what has been happening since February 24 in Ukraine. In that perspective, I was extremely happy to dig into Russia: Myths and Realities (Pegasus Books) by Sir Rodric Braithwaite.
I could detail all the qualities and insights of this book, but its main merit is to brush the portrait of a nation and people forged in war. “More than a thousand years ago a people arose on the territory of today’s Russia whose origins are disputed”, writes the author. “But Kievan Rus was invaded and destroyed in the thirteenth century by the Mongols.” The tone was set and even after the “Mongol yoke” was removed from Russia’s neck, the pugilistic character was well ingrained into the nation’s DNA.
To that effect, Sir Rodric evokes the development and strengthening of Russian military capabilities over the centuries. Under Ivan III (the Great, not to be confused with Ivan the Terrible), “[…] the Russian artillery acquired a formidable reputation which it never lost.” On his part, Peter the Great wanted his country to be seated among the great powers and gave it the tools to reach that goal, notably with the creation of a navy and beefing up the army.
But the military tool is to be used cautiously. Very cautiously. During World War I, Tsar “Nicholas had made the stupid mistake of taking over direct command of the army, a job for which he had no qualifications, in the belief that his presence would restore the morale of the troops.” He was therefore associated to the retreats and disasters that were to come and his fate was sealed. Don’t expect to see Vladimir Putin walking in the trenches with his soldiers anytime soon.
There is another omnipresent theme in the book: the tragic and bloody relationship between Russia and Ukraine. Peter the Great crushed its pretensions to autonomy. This attitude would remain the modus operandi of the masters of the Kremlin up to now, a notable example being Stalin’s desire to make the Ukrainian people disappear with the Holodomor. One thing the tsars and other rulers were never able to achieve was “extinguishing the Ukrainian national spirit”.
There is something schizophrenic in Moscow’s attitude towards Kyiv. Through war, starvation, annexation and repression, Russia has never been able to tame the Ukrainian spirit and its quest for independence. What made Vladimir Putin think he would succeed where Peter the Great, Catherine the Great and Stalin didn’t? The answer probably lies in that he and his generals thought their army could deliver a swift and unquestionable victory. Could it be that the Russian military ethos has become an artifact from the past? Only time will tell…
I was shocked by the number of Tsars that were deposed or left to die – of course, I think about The Death of Stalin for the latter category –by their praetorian guard. In that regard, the overthrow of Peter III by a group of officers led by Catherine’s lover is only one of the episodes evoked by the author and attesting that régime change in Russia is rarely a smooth process in Russia.
On several occasions, Sir Rodric’s content seems to be directly extracted from the script of Game of Thrones. At one point, a rival of the boyars “[…] was narrowly saved by Ivan’s [who was to become the Terrible] urgent pleas. Three months later, to general surprise, Ivan wreaked an act of terrible revenge. He arrested the Shuisky leader, Andrei, and had him torn to pieces by hounds. Other boyars were summarily executed.” Hard not to draw comparisons between that and Ramsay Bolton getting eaten by his dogs in season 6 of Game of Thrones.
To borrow the words of Sir Winston Churchill, power in Russia is “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” It would be hazardous to predict what will happen to Vladimir Putin, for as Sir Rodric wrote me, “I don’t think one can speculate profitably about how exactly he will go, or who will replace him. After all, we’re not much good at predicting the twists of our own politics. Even our own contenders for power have no idea which of them will emerge triumphant. We know even less about what goes on in Moscow.”
Sir Rodric is an engaging author and a first-class historian. But what is most pertinent in the current context is that he also walked the halls of the Kremlin during his tenure as Her Majesty’s Ambassador in Moscow between 1988 and 1992. He witnessed the fall of the Soviet Union, the demise of Mikhail Gorbachev and the rise of the new Russia. A consequential chapter in the contemporary history of the country.
Any student of Russia should be extremely grateful to count on a keen observer like this author to help decipher not only the meaning of its past but also its impact in world affairs.
Sir Rodric Braithwaite, Russia: Myths and Realities, New York, Pegasus Books, 252 pages.
I would like to express my gratitude to Harmeen Pannu of Simon & Schuster Canada for sending me a copy of this excellent book and Jessica Case and Meghan Jusczak of Pegasus Books for their precious collaboration with this blog.