Understanding Russia 101: Easy! No ‘Riddle Wrapped in Mystery inside Enigma’

A view of Moscow with the State Historical Museum and the Manezhnaya Square. Photo: Wikipedia

Russia has been especially perplexing to almost everybody in the West, with US Presidents often featuring prominently on the “misunderstanding Russia” list…

Here is the basic model of hundreds of years of imperial history squeezed into a single essay.


Cliché Opening: a Winston Churchill Quote

If I had a dime for every article or paper that’s ever started with a Winson Churchill quote…

But there is, of course, a blunt reason for that – the insightful wittiness of his quotes – so this article, too, will be a cliché, and start with one of Churchill’s finest:

“Russia is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”

At least that’s the quote most often gets cited, and is all over the Internet.

The actual quote reads,

“I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.”

And it could very well be construed to conclude that the “riddle – mystery – enigma” part actually refers to “forecasting the action of Russia”, not to Russia itself.

Regardless of how your interpret it, however, the quote does justice to an abysmal failure in the West to understand a mighty, at times the mightiest, non-Western, at times semi-Western, power that the free world has had to deal with for the past 300-400 years: Russia.

Russia has been especially perplexing to almost everybody in the West – from common folk all the way to intellectuals, businesspeople, and top-level government officials – with US Presidents often featuring prominently on the “misunderstanding Russia” list.

Unsurprisingly, the part of the West which knows Russia best is the part that is closest to it, and has been conquered several times by Moscow in the last couple of hundred years.

But, as the Cold War and other petrifying episodes of world history taught everyone, not having Russia as your immediate neighbor doesn’t mean the rest of the West doesn’t need to know it. Because it nonetheless has to deal with Russia one way or another.

(Sarah Palin’s once hilarious argument that you can see Russia from Alaska doesn’t count here, either. It didn’t make sense in any context, really. The part of the West that’s closest and therefore knows Russia best is Eastern Europe, while the west coast of North America is actually as far as it gets because it does not have a common history with Moscow regardless of the so called colonization of Alaska by a few hundred Russians in the 1700s-1800s.)

Russia is especially confusing to Americans and even to Western Europeans because it is technically “northern” in the global North-South divide, it resembles other European countries on the outside, and most of its population is “Caucasian”.

(To clarify: Caucasian meaning “white”, “native European”, etc. because in Russia “Caucasian” would mean a person from the Russian republics in the Caucasus Mountains or the Caucasus countries – Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia.)

The Power of Ideas

Yet, in spite of seeming in many ways similar to the West, the ways of doing things and seeing the world in Russia often seem fundamentally different. Why?

Because everybody tends to underestimate ideas, the set of ideas upon which a said society is built. The content and power of ideas is the single most defining feature of any society.

“Ideas” refer to political tradition, societal organization, economic models, cultural creativity – all those spiritual-level things that make a society what it is. “Ideas” can be taken to mean “models”, “patterns”, “traditions”, “values”.

Of course, ideas are not all that matters – there is the physical environment in which a society develops. But if you compare the impact of the two, to the extent that they mutually influence, and often reinforce one another, it is probably safe to say ideas have the upper hand.

While ideas originally might spring up as a result of the specific geographic environment of the population that came up with them, they can be moved around and transferred to other societies that could adopt them regardless of their geography.

Today’s Russia is what it is party based on geography, and partly based on the “imports” of political organization ideas – a lot more so from the East, rather than from the West.

Billions of books, pages, huge amounts of web content, university courses and programs in the West are dedicated to trying to understand Russia.

Sure, the more one delves into the detail, the better, but the basics for understanding Russia can be – and should be – summarized even in a an essay as the one you are reading. It is often overlooked and/or forgotten just how simple they are. But they are the foundations to build upon.

Russia’s Current Resurgence: Playing Out

The West had learned a lot of lessons about Russia during the Cold War – because it had to. And now they seem to be forgotten.

After a brief impasse of some 15-20 years, when Russia was temporarily knocked out by the collapse of the Soviet Union, today the West, and the entire world, by implication, have had to deal with a somewhat resurgent and somewhat more assertive Russia.

In 2007 came Putin’s allegedly crucial speech at the Munich Security Conference warning the West – which was neither that crucial, nor was it correct in many of its assertions.

In 2008, post-Soviet Russia actually went to a conventional international war with its neighbor Georgia.

2008-2012 saw the extremely weird from a Western viewpoint switching back and forth between President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev – all for the sake of formally observing a constitution in a country in which the rule of law has a secondary role at best to the leader’s power.

In 2014, Putin’s Russia first occupied “secretly” – by sending troops with unmarked uniforms – Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, and then annexed it following a “referendum” among the residents of Crimea – breaking a taboo in European politics where annexation had been virtually unknown since the Second World War, and breaking the 1995 Budapest Memorandum in which Russia itself, alongside the US and the UK, had guaranteed Ukraine’s territorial integrity in exchange for the Ukrainians’ agreement to give up their Soviet Era nuclear weapon stockpile.

Shortly after that an armed pro-Russian insurgency began in the Russian-speaking region of Donbass in Eastern Ukraine, a modern-day European war with the Ukrainians which has been going on ever since, and has claimed over 10,000 lives.

Moscow’s denial of its involvement in the Donbass insurgency can probably be believed as much as Putin’s original denial that the troops occupying the Crimean Peninsula were Russian.

In 2015, Putin’s Russia intervened directly in the Syrian Civil War, which had been going on since 2011 as part of the Arab Spring unrest.

Russia’s military effort in Syria has saved the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from collapsing, and has cracked down on the rebels from the “moderate” and “not-so-moderate” opposition, all the while giving Russians the self-confidence that they are a global (or wider regional) military power as in the Soviet days.

And to top it all off, since 2014, Russia appears to be waging a fierce propaganda war, part of a hybrid war, against the West using all the amenities of the Global Era – fake news on social media, fake news on mainstream media, international ignorance, and hacking / cybercrime – allowing previously unimaginable things such as meddling in the US elections (the thing that will likely define historically the Presidency of Donald Trump).

That has been coupled with a military buildup, and a revival of the public cult for war and military power in the Russian society.

Russia’s Current Resurgence: Underlying Causes

There have been two main factors behind what appears as Russia’s resurgence on the international stage.

First, the fact that it could afford to pay for it thanks to the steep rise in oil prices – oil and natural gas being Russia’s main export commodities – which grew from USD 25 per barrel in 2003 to over USD 100 per barrel in 2013. This has now changed to some extent after oil prices went down to under USD 30 per barrel in 2014-2016, and then began to recover.

Second, and more important: the fear of regime change (yes, George W. Bush’s blunder in the Iraq War in 2003 has had far wider repercussions than anyone would have thought at the time!).

In the Soviet Union, under Soviet communism, there was no private property (although the senior functionaries and apparatchiks of the communist party and the intelligence and secret police agents enjoyed a luxurious lifestyle unimaginable for the populace.

When the Soviet Union and “communism” broke down in the late 1980s and early 1990s, former communist officials and intelligence officers, and often common criminals grew fabulously rich at the expense of the common folk through murky deals with state property, and other presumably illegal, or at least immoral ways.

The Russian ruling class of oligarchs and securocrats (siloviks) has been enjoying tremendous privileges but since the origin of its wealth was not exactly based on the rule of law, it has had to be in power just to keep their wealth (and to keep increasing it, of course).

Any movement for greater accountability, less corruption, more rule of law, and greater democracy is thus in essence a death threat for this ruling class.

In spite of Putin’s urges, in the 2000s, the West did not exactly accept Russia as one of its own thus legitimizing the wealth and power of the ruling oligarchy class.

Actually, since the mid-1990s, the West hadn’t exactly felt like dealing with Russia since it was no longer the overarching military and ideological threat.

What is more, in the mid-2000s, there were the so called Color Revolutions in other former Soviet Union republics (Georgia in 2003, Ukraine in 2004, and Kyrgyzstan in 2005), in which former communist apparatchiks still clinging to power long after the collapse of the Soviet Union were brought down, and replaced with more accountable governments with varying success.

Then there came the Arab Spring revolutions in 2010-2011 which knocking over long-standing corrupt dictatorships and their cronies like domino blocks.

(There is actually one line of thought maintaining that Putin only decided to come back as President in 2012 only out of fear of a revolution against the oligarchy regime that his successor Dmitry Medvedev wouldn’t prove tough enough to stop.)

The last drop in this Russian resurgence narrative is the 2013-2014 Euromaidan Revolution in Ukraine which ousted pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych partly because he reneged on his promise to sign Ukraine’s long-sought after association agreement with the European Union.

This was what prompted Russia to annex Crimea, and possibly stir up an insurgency in Donbass, effectively declaring a hybrid war on the West: a revolution in Ukraine without any reaction by Moscow that could be followed by successful economic and political development would sound the death bell of Russia’s ruling oligarchy – the Russian capital had already seen mass protesters in 2011 and 2012.

Of course, Russia is beset with certain underlying weaknesses such as its harsh climate, economic inefficiency, dependence on raw materials and energy resources for exports, declining or stagnating population.

Yet, it is this resurgence of Russia in the past 3-4 years, in which top international news headlines have had to become truly focused on it for the first time since the Cold War that makes it crucial for the West to revisit the efforts to understand this country.

Russia’s Geography & Geopolitics

This, too, has become somewhat of a cliché when explaining Russia but it is true nonetheless: Russia is one vast plain, with few or no mountains as natural defenses, and rivers often flowing “in the wrong direction”, i.e. the frozen Artic Ocean, with little access to the world ocean and the international trade that comes with it.

With few mountains to serve as natural barriers, historically, the Russians have been both tempted and forced to expand by conquering more and more of their immediate neighbors.

Moscow’s apologists have argued that Russia’s only way of preventing a major invasion of its borders – such as those by Napoleon in 1812 and Hitler in 1941 – would be to conquer pretty much everybody it can in Northern European plain, among other spots.

In addition to being a giant steppe – this refers mostly to European Russia, the country’s heartland, but to a certain extent to Siberia as well – Russia other most defining geographic feature is its harsh northern climate, with permafrost covering a large portion of its territory (although global warming is toiling to change that).

In spite of being the size of the planet Pluto in terms of territory, because of its harsh climate, Russia actually has less arable land than India or the US, and slightly more than China or the European Union.

While, when looking at the world map, many people think of Russia as being on par with the United States, Russia is actually more comparable to Canada – it occupies the same spot in the Eurasian continent that Canada does in the Americas.

This is a simple fact that often overlooks how much more privileged the United States is with respect to geography and climate.

The vast steppe and the really harsh climate in themselves have had all sorts of implications for Russia as a political entity subject to various interpretations. The one thing that is certain is that they appear to have made the Russians extremely resilient to harsh living conditions.

Another point in hand would be that the harsh conditions might tend to favor sticking together in order to survive, a group mentality at the expense of individualism and individual rights.

Of course, the physical environment and geography explanations can paint only part of the picture.

After all, Canada and the Nordic countries, Norway, Sweden, and Finland, have roughly the same climate as Russia but they are the epitomes of Western liberal democracy and market economy, they are the “best Western”, as Western as a country can get.

Going back to my previous point above about the power of ideas – philosophy, organization modes, cultural traditions – this is where the power of ideas makes all the difference.

Russia’s Political Model & Mentality

Modern-day Russia has emerged since the 16th century, and really took shape as an empire in the late 17th and early 18th century under Peter I the Great (r. 1682-1725).

It was based upon the expansion of the Grand Duchy of Moscow, also known in English as Muscovy.

Even though it was populated with “Caucasian” Europeans, and even though it keeps claiming its roots to the model of the Byzantine Empire and its emperors in Constantinople, the Muscovy actually inherited and adopted the political model of Mongols, the only power in history to successful invade, conquer, and dominate Russia for some 200 years – a period known in Russian history as “the Mongol Yoke”.

Everybody all over the world has heard of the might of Genghis Khan and his Mongol Empire which wiped everybody off the Eurasian map – from China to India to Iran to Hungary to Bulgaria, oftentimes literary.

It is the idea, the political model of the undisputed, unquestioned, omnipotent leader, and the masses that follow him and his immediate kin (yes, in that model it is “him” even though Russia has had powerful queens) ungrudgingly in war or in toiling to ensure his wellbeing. In this model, there is little place for the individual and their rights, except as part of the mass.

Coupled and in fact reinforced by the harsh realities of the Russian climate, this political model of autocracy has persisted throughout Russian history.

In imperial Russia, it was the Tsar aided by the aristocracy, while the ordinary population were all serfs, property of the aristocracy, whose main job was to cater to the tsarist elite – up until serfdom was finally abolished in 1861.

In communist Russia, the Soviet Union, this model persisted as the Secretary General of the Communist Party became the new Tsar, and the Politburo and senior apparatchiks and securocrats became the new aristocracy. The giant masses of workers (in mostly inefficient industries) took the place of the serfs.

In post-communist Russia, this model seems to have persisted as well – the power of the President is pretty much unbridled – regardless of the existence of modern institutions, it is only limited by power play in the “imperial court”.

The Russian President almost has the power of an absolute monarch, and the indecently wealthy post-communist oligarchy is the new aristocracy.

In this societal model, the ordinary people take pride in the strength of the leadership, which means unrestricted power for the head of state.

They are overjoyed by their country’s display of military might regardless of the condition of their personal wellbeing and/or their human rights.

Surveys have found that today’s Russians are satisfied when other countries are afraid of Russia.

In essence under this idea, this societal model, the vast majority of the Russian people are willing to go through great sacrifice for their state, regardless of the morality, honesty, and capabilities of the leader and the elite backing him.

This societal model is fundamentally different from the Western / Anglo-Saxon model of “it’s none of the government’s business: civil society, human rights, civil rights, entrepreneurship, ownership, private property. These are actual values, not just empty phrases as a leader like Putin might view them.

Probably the best and most concise summary that I have seen of the persistence of this government model in Russia’s history has been this quote by American satirist Dave Barry, from his incredible book “Dave Barry Slept Here”:

“Somewhere along in here the Russians overthrew the corrupt murdering scumball ruling aristocrats who for centuries had lived like kings while brutally oppressing the masses, and replaced them with the communists, who did the same thing but at least had the decency to wear ill-fitting suits. Ultimately, of course, this event was to have a major impact on the United States, but for right now, the hell with it.”


Understanding Russia, and understanding today’s Russia is hardly a “riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma” when you take into account that country’s natural environment and geography, and the established political model that has functioned largely the same way for centuries regardless of the nature of the system of government.

In today’s Russia, all seems to be about allowing the oligarchs and the siloviks to enjoy the benefits of the country’s oil, natural gas, and mineral wealth.

With some exceptions, most of the common people in Russia seem satisfied with having this “strong leadership” regardless of the toll it might take on them or their country.

Even though it seems to be widely known that today’s Russian oligarchs grew rich in illegal or at least immoral ways, they seem to be envied, rather than resented.

Under this narrative, Russia’s troubles, if any are even admitted, are always the fault of foreign aggressors and maybe some domestic saboteurs but never of the supreme leader or the governance model.

Under this narrative, anybody offering even well-meaning and fair criticism of Russia stands a fair chance of being declared a Russophobe, and that’s that.

To the extent that any rivaling model – that of the West, the EU and the US with its human rights, rule of law, civil society, and placing great value on human life – can be construed as an alternative to the legitimacy and survival of the ruling Russian oligarchy under Putin, casting the shadow of a possible regime change, the Russian state is always going to view the united West as a threat, and, therefore, so will the majority of the Russian people.

Recently, Russia has seen somewhat surprising anti-corruption protests, mostly by very young people across the country organized by opposition figure Alexey Navalny.

Given the persistence of the autocratic model throughout the country’s history, however, these occurrence seem to remain an anomaly, at least for the time being.

As the Western model, and in particular that of the EU which is situated in close proximity to Russia, are seen as a legitimacy and regime change threat by Moscow, Russian President Putin and his future successor are likely to keep acting out against the West.

The extent to which they will do that will depend on how much they will be able to afford it – both literally (financially) and figuratively (politically).


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*Note: An earlier version of this article appeared on intelligencer post . com.


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