When Russia seized Crimea in 2014, Secretary of State John Kerry declared the action passé. “You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th-century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped-up pretext,” he explained in the tone of a popular high schooler dismissing the clueless behavior of a social wannabe. Among Russians, though, his reaction provoked mirth, much as Hillary Clinton’s “reset” button did five years earlier. Did American leaders really imagine they could stop tanks with trendy words? Are armies ever out of date? And why go back to the “19th century,” as if the 20th had not been an era of especially widespread warfare?
Americans all too often presume that everyone else aspires to live and think as we do. Others must share our values, if only in secret, or at least be eager to learn them. This is a dangerous attitude to take with any nation or culture, but perhaps especially so with Russians—and never more so than when the topic is war. Russians simply do not think about war in the way Americans do.
As Gregory Carleton observes in his superb 2017 study Russia: The Story of War, war is an indispensable part of how Russians see the world and their place in it. The extent to which World War II and all previous wars extending back a thousand years define Russian national identity is truly astonishing. Unless we grasp the Russian way of thinking, our policies are bound to be ineffective, if not counterproductive. While some of our responses to the attempted subjugation and submersion of Ukraine make sense, others may heighten the determination of Russians to continue fighting regardless of cost or sacrifice.
Reminders of war are everywhere in Russia. Newlyweds ritually place flowers on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Moscow. I don’t know any American who can identify the day May 9, the anniversary of Nazi Germany’s surrender, but in Russia it is the most important holiday of the year, consecrated by the Russian Orthodox Church. The sun always shines in Moscow on May 9, a day of parades, because Russian aircraft disperse the clouds. People carry photographs of relatives who fought in the war and thereby join “the Eternal Regiment.” May 9 defines what Carleton calls Russia’s “civic religion,” which, even more than Russian Orthodox holidays, unites Russians of all social classes, believers and atheists alike. They sense their kinship with the mystical body of the people, past and present. By contrast, few Americans still commemorate December 7, save for an annual newspaper article in the local paper and maybe an item on the morning news.
Wars figure in American history, of course, but they do not define what it is to be an American. (A partial exception may once have been the Civil War in the imagination of some Southerners.) The military in the United States may be respected, but it is not sacred, and criticism of it does not constitute blasphemy, as criticism of the Russian military often does. Of course, the United States has never been occupied by a foreign power.
To appreciate the Russian perspective, we should consider some basic historical facts. Americans were profoundly shocked by our loss of more than 50,000 soldiers in the Vietnam War; in World War II, the toll was approximately 450,000. Now contrast that with historical memory in Russia. It is impossible to know the Soviet death toll from 1941 to 1945, but it was surely greater than 20 million—about 1 in 7 of all people, adults and children. Only 3 percent of Russian men born between 1923 and 1924 survived the war. Now go back a few more decades. During World War I, the revolutions of 1917, and the civil war that followed it, more than 10 million lost their lives, not just from violence but, even more so, from hunger. In 1812, Napoleon’s Grand Army, the largest in European history up to that point, reached Moscow, which burned to the ground. In 1898, Nikolai Sukhotin, director of the General Staff Academy (the Russian equivalent of West Point), calculated that Russia had spent 353 of the previous 525 years—two-thirds of its history as a nation—waging war.
Is it any wonder, then, that war means something different to Russians? In their conquest of the Russian lands in the 1230s, the Mongols wiped out whole cities and then ruled for more than two centuries. Even after their defeat, the Mongols’ successors in Crimea continued to raid Russia, burning Moscow twice, in pursuit of slaves to sell in the Middle East. “Crimea” is not just the name of a geographical space seized by Putin’s Russia in 2014. It is also a constant reminder of horrific battles, such as the raid on the Sevastopol fortress by the British and French during the Crimean War (1853–1856) and by the Nazis in World War II.
The Russian church has often elevated military leaders, not for dying for the faith, but simply for their military prowess in defense of the Motherland. In 1988, the church canonized Dmitry Donskoy, the first Russian leader to defeat the Mongols in battle. Alexander Nevsky, generally considered by Russians to be the greatest countryman in their history, was proclaimed a saint for his victories over the Swedes and Teutonic knights in the 13th century. He is now the patron saint of the FSB (Putin’s successor to the KGB). Admiral Fyodor Ushakov, who fought the Turks in the 18th century, has become the patron saint (I am not making this up) of nuclear bombers.
President Putin chose May 7 for his inauguration in 2000 so it would lead directly into the May 9 holiday. An honor guard wore uniforms recalling those of the Napoleonic Wars. Imagine the mockery if an American president’s inauguration featured uniforms from the war of 1812. To us, 1812 was another world, and I know no one who, when visiting Washington, recalls how the British burned it. For Russians, on the other hand, history, especially military history, is not something in the past. Kerry’s comment about Russians behaving as if it were the 19th century presumes a linear view of history, in which later is better (or at least more sophisticated). But for Russians, history is cyclical. As Carleton astutely observes, “national identity . . . assumes that history . . . repeats itself, extending back for centuries through a pattern of confrontation in which the actors’ names may change but not the primary action.” So understood, all wars become the same war, “a single paradigmatic one that pits Russians against an implacable foe, where they are always the victims but never the vanquished.” Hitler really did plan to exterminate or enslave the Russians, and the Nazi thousand-day siege of Leningrad was designed to lead not to the occupation of the city but its elimination from the face of the earth. Seeing all wars as one war, many Russians read such intentions anachronistically into all earlier conflicts and presume them in all present conflicts. Whoever is Russia’s enemy means to destroy it utterly. No special evidence is required to characterize Ukrainians resisting Russia as “fascists” or “Nazis,” and NATO support of Ukraine can be meant only to destroy Russia. Only recently, many Russians maintain, the massive influx of Western economic and cultural influences after the fall of the USSR almost destroyed Russia “spiritually.”
In his May 9, 2007, address, Putin warned that even though Nazi Germany no longer existed, “such threats are not decreasing today. They merely transform themselves by changing colors, and in these new threats . . . we see the same disregard for human life and the same pretensions to global hegemony.” In the Commentary podcast Giving Tanks, Frederick Kagan observed that even when Russian soldiers send home photos contradicting official accounts, their parents say they are lying—a response Kagan attributes to the effectiveness of Putin’s propaganda. True enough, but what makes that propaganda so effective is a lifetime of seeing history as an eternal existential conflict.
According to the myth, Russia does not just defend itself, it saves civilization. The reason the Mongols did not proceed to conquer Western Europe, the story goes, is that they did not dare to leave “the indomitable Russians” in their rear. For this reason, the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko declared, the Eiffel Tower’s roots grew out of soil watered with Russian blood. But in point of fact, the Mongols defeated the “indomitable” Russians as easily as every other army they encountered.
The 18th-century poet Gavriil Derzhavin enthused:
What an honor from generation to generation
For Russia, its glory indelible.
The universe saved by her,
From the new hordes.
And there are always new hordes. The victory over Napoleon only reinforced this self-image. During the 19th century, Carlton explains, the idea that “Russian suffering was of another order, both in terms of scale and purpose,” took hold among conservatives such as Dostoevsky as well as radicals such as Nicholas Chernyshevsky. “It’s not as conquerors or pillagers that Russians appear in history,” wrote Chernyshevsky, “but as saviors.” Needless to say, Poles and Chechens did not see matters this way.
And how have Europeans repaid Russia? Not just with ingratitude, the myth goes, but with knives in the back. Even as Russia, suffering under Mongol rule, was saving Europe, the Swedes and Teutonic knights took advantage of its apparent weakness to attack, thereby inspiring the greatness of Alexander Nevsky. To a Russian, the West’s irrational “Russophobia” seems eternal.
Sooner or later, the countries that Russia saves turn on it, in the Russian mind. It has recently become common in Moscow to quote the quip of Czar Alexander III that “Russia has only two allies—its army and its navy.” Russia is most itself, and most noble, when it is utterly isolated, alone against the world. At such moments, Russian patriotism reaches its apogee.
Of course, not everyone believes this. Although Tolstoy’s novel War and Peace is routinely forced by rulers into the mythic mode, the book repeatedly debunks mythic thinking, simplistic historical narratives, the celebration of war, the division of people into us and them, and the cult of heroism. Its central character, Prince Andrei, begins believing in “glory” and eventually comes to realize the emptiness of this ideal. General Kutuzov, the book’s wisest character (and a real-life figure out of the Napoleonic Wars), despises not only simplistic narratives and facile pretensions to knowledge but also “patriotic feeling”—not, as Tolstoy explains, because of any knowledge of his own, “but because of something else. He despised them because of his age and experience of life.” Other Russian writers, from Vsevolod Garshin in the 19th century to Vasily Grossman in the 20th, have also questioned the myth.
During the period of glasnost in the 1980s and shortly after, some novelists and memoirists painted a wholly different picture of the war against the Germans. To begin with, they acknowledged that for the first third of the war, the USSR was Nazi Germany’s ally after having signed a treaty that divided up Eastern Europe. Supplying the Third Reich with raw materials for two years, Russia joined the allies only after it was attacked. Having done away with 90 percent of its generals and admirals during Stalin’s systematic elimination of all potential opposition in the Great Purges of the 1930s, the USSR was in no position to respond adequately to invasion—all the more so because Stalin, who trusted Hitler, had left the country virtually defenseless.
The Soviet government had already grown used to squandering millions of lives in class warfare, industrialization, the collectivization of agriculture, slave labor, and the frozen camps of Siberia, and it could hardly have been more profligate with human life during the war. There is no doubt that much loss of life was self-inflicted. Even in besieged and starving Leningrad, the secret police continued their relentless arrests. Soldiers were treated as an infinite, essentially inanimate resource, so mine fields were cleared by having soldiers walk over them. To prevent men from retreating, “blocking detachments” of machine gunners were placed behind them. Defective equipment, lack of shelter, inadequate clothing, poor sanitary conditions, and worse medical treatment defined the soldier’s experience. “What united recruits,” Carleton summarizes the memoirists, “besides diarrhea and lice, was constant, irrepressible hunger.” Some soldiers received adequate food only in 1945 from captured German food stocks. Officers stole soldiers’ food and treated their underlings with shocking brutality. Soldiers recalled fearing their own superiors more than the Germans.
After the war, the Russian army was celebrated, but injured veterans were utterly neglected. Russian soldiers who had been freed from Nazi prison camps were immediately dispatched to Soviet ones, since anyone who had seen the West was regarded as dangerous. Well aware of what awaited them, countless Russian soldiers did anything to avoid going home. I remember my Russian history teacher observing that more people after the war claimed to be Serbs than the entire male population of Serbia. Eventually, the Allies, naively fulfilling their obligation to return citizens to their homeland, forced Russians into transport vehicles at bayonet point.
The Red Army had supposedly liberated Eastern Europe, but their treatment of it could hardly be more shocking. Not just Germany was subjected to mass pillage and rape; so were allies, such as Poland. As Anne Applebaum points out in Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944–1956, when the Yugoslavian Communist intellectual Milovan Djilas objected to Red Army behavior, Stalin asked how, as a writer, Djilas could not “understand it if a soldier who has crossed thousands of kilometers through blood and fire and death has fun with a woman or takes a trifle.” In January 1946, Hungary’s social-welfare minister responded to the consequences of mass rape with an evasive decree: “As an effect of the front and the chaos following it, there were a lot of children born whose families did not want to take care of them. I ask thereby the bureau of orphanage to qualify all babies as abandoned whose date of births is from 9 to 18 months after the liberation.”
The historical record demonstrating this horrific behavior toward “liberated” people is routinely denied, of course, but the myth has no trouble in making use of the phenomenal death rate of Soviet soldiers. Here we come across what, to Americans, must be the strangest aspect of Russian thinking about war: the cult of death. In our war movies, the true heroes (or most of them) survive. By contrast, countless Russian war movies and novels feature as much death as possible. The story is not complete if anyone beside the one reporting the events survives. The more death, the greater the heroism.
Stories of mass death redeem Russia’s defeats, whether in World War I, Chechnya, or Afghanistan. The standard plot is that, against all odds, Russian defenders continue fighting even when defeat is certain and there is no hope of escape. They die gloriously, rather than surrender. Consider the mythified story of the Brest Fortress. Located near the border between the Soviet Union and Poland, the fortress was rapidly surrounded by the Germans in 1941, but Soviet forces, remarkably, continued resisting for two weeks. Those too injured to fight supposedly killed themselves so as not to waste food. A last stand took place in underground tunnels amid fetid corpses. According to the legend inspiring Boris Vasiliev’s 1974 novel His Name Was Not Listed, one hero survived underground and continued to harass the Germans for months until his eyesight failed. This novel repeats the myth’s formulae: “Die, but don’t give up,” “defeat death with death,” and “you can’t conquer a real man even if you kill him.” The fact that today the fortress is within the borders of the nation of Belarus only feeds the belief that Russian lands extend beyond the present Russian federation. Geography is not just physical but spiritual, so any place where Russians fought a heroic battle—in Belarus, in Crimea, in Kiev—belongs to Russia.
The story of the Brest Fortress illustrates the distinctively Russian virtue of stoikost. Derived from the verb “to stand,” it means the ability to absorb endless suffering and casualties without giving in. General Mikhail Dragomirov, head of the Russian General Staff Academy at the turn of the 20th century, took this doctrine so seriously that he scorned using the latest weaponry, such as the machine gun, lest it compromise Russian stoikost. He even opposed digging trenches or keeping one’s head down. “The Russian dies simply,” Dragomirov explained, “as if performing a rite.” The result was thorough defeat in the Russo–Japanese war in 1905—and then, of course, a new mythic story of how the ship Verlag continued to fight the Japanese navy on its own.
Russia as the savior, the suffering hero, the eternally betrayed victim; Russia as always isolated and fighting for its very existence: This way of thinking may inspire Russians, but it understandably frightens their neighbors. From their point of view, the most impressive feature of Russia’s history is its continual expansion. Beginning with the conquest of Kazan in 1552, Russia acquired land about the size of Belgium every year for 400 years. In 1864, Foreign Minister Alexander Gorchakov explained that, to secure its borders, Russia had to conquer the territory just beyond them, which in turn created a new border dictating yet another expansion, and so on. In this way, Russia advanced to the Pacific Ocean in the 17th century; in the 18th, it reached the Black Sea while adding western Ukraine and most of Poland; and during the 19th, it occupied the Caucasus, annexed Finland, and completed the conquest of central Asia. With the adoption of Communism in the 20th century, Soviet Russia created puppet states in Eastern Europe while spreading its ideology to China, North Korea, Indochina, Ethiopia, and Cuba. So brutal has Russian and Communist rule been that one understands why Poles sometimes present themselves as Europe’s bulwark against barbarism, so that every time Poland loses territory to Russia, the civilized world grows that much smaller.
And how could Russia’s neighbors not be afraid? If Russians are willing to burn their own cities to the ground, as Ivan the Terrible did in the 16th century, or deliberately starve millions of their own peasants to collectivize agriculture, as Ivan’s admirer Stalin did, what would they do to others? And if the Russians are willing to treat Ukrainians, whom they claim to regard as the same people as themselves, as they do today, what would they do to Moldovans, Estonians, or Poles?
No less disturbing has been the authoritarianism fostered by Russian mythmaking. It is routine for Russians to observe that whenever power has been decentralized, Russia has been subject to invasion. From this perspective, the “invasion” of Western ideologies and capital in the 1990s repeated the pattern set in the 13th and early-17th centuries. Only if state power is absolute and unquestioned, such thinking goes, can Russia survive. Democracy and decentralized power may be fine for Westerners, but for Russia they spell annihilation.
Once one grasps how Russians think, one understands why Putin declares that Russia is now fighting not the Ukrainian people but fascists, and why he pictures Russia as the underdog in a struggle with NATO. Also clear is his confidence that Russia can outlast its foes and that Western powers will tire of paying for a war before Russians tire of dying in it.
In this light, one might reconsider American responses to Putin’s invasion. Military aid to Ukraine may be necessary to prevent subsequent invasions of Moldova or other neighboring countries and then to forestall the conquest of those neighbors’ neighbors. Success, as Kagan insisted on the January 25 Commentary podcast, requires real commitment on our part, not just a burst of sympathy that lasts until the next morally inspiring cause presents itself. The president must explain clearly and forcefully what is at stake and why. On the other hand, some Western sanctions seem counterproductive. It is one thing to prevent the Russian army from accessing needed parts and technology, but it is folly to imagine that Russians will respond to a lower standard of living (the purpose of imposing sanctions) as we would; quite the contrary.
By the same token, widespread attempts to “cancel” all of Russian culture are particularly ill-advised, as well as just plain silly. In 2022, a concert featuring the compositions of Stravinsky was canceled in Belgium, while the Cardiff Philharmonic in Wales scratched a Tchaikovsky program. The Haarlem Philharmonic in the Netherlands decided it “would be inappropriate to celebrate Russian music” and killed off a festival featuring both Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky. Closer to home, the Vancouver Recital Society cancelled pianist Alexander Malofeev, the winner of an International Tchaikovsky Prize for Young Musicians. Columbia University Press curtailed a series of translations of Russian literary classics. A colleague objected to my own university’s fledgling center to study the history of Russian philosophy; one even hears calls to “decolonize” the curriculum by ending the teaching of War and Peace.
Even when the Soviet Union posed a much greater threat to the United States, no one tried to cancel Tchaikovsky concerts or lectures on Dostoevsky. To the contrary, that was when the study of Russian culture first took off in American universities and Russian language began to be taught in high schools. In contrast to today, Americans reasoned that it made sense to know more, not less, about one’s rival.
Such actions not only make our students more ignorant, they validate Russian accusations that the West is fighting not to preserve Ukrainian borders but to destroy Russian culture. Why else would one hold Stravinsky or Tolstoy (who eventually rejected all war) responsible? By the same token, making Russians, including those who have fled Putin’s Russia, feel like pariahs can only strengthen their will to resist. And does it make sense to prevent Russians who disagree with Putin from accessing assets they need to escape the country?
Far from fighting a war against Russian culture, we should be encouraging Russians to define it differently. In the Russian imagination, only one thing competes in importance with war, and that is Russian literature. As I explain in my forthcoming book,1 no country in the world has valued literature more than Russia, and Russians consider this fact essential to who they are. In a review of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Dostoevsky himself suggested that at last the existence of the Russian people had been justified by its publication. It is hard to imagine a Frenchman or an American thinking his existence required justification, but, if he did, surely he would not find it in a work of literature!
Westerners take for granted that literature exists to reflect life, but Russians often speak as if life exists to be made into literature. Literature is Russian scripture. The very phrase “Russian literature” carries a sacred aura and resonates entirely differently from the way “American literature” sounds to Americans. In their attitude to their canon, Russians can perhaps best be compared to the ancient Hebrews when the scriptural canon was open and books could still be added to it.
Far from canceling Russian literature and other great Russian cultural achievements, we should be encouraging Russians to take pride in them instead of in war. Not Nevsky but Chekhov, not tanks but Turgenev, not the patron saint of nuclear bombers but the author of Anna Karenina. Only in that way can Putin’s Russia become Pushkin’s Russia.
1 Wonder Confronts Certainty: Russian Writers on the Timeless Questions and Why Their Answers Matter (Harvard UP, 2023).
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