Readers me be forgiven for assuming that the title means I will be banging on about the Baltic weather we have been suffering most of the month. While it can indeed been difficult to find a brass monkey out and about, this blog concerns itself with brass necks more then monkeys. Brass necks and politicians are terms many consider interchangeable. But the leading exponents appear to come from dictatorships, most especially the former Soviet Union.
Before we go farther, let me state I yirld to no-one in admiration for the Russian people and their achievements from Akhmatova to Zhukhov But, be that as it may, their grasp on social politics has barely moved beyond the Middle Ages.
For the Beast from the East in question is Putin’s Russia, whose idiosyncratic politics have this week clashed with those of the West and are brewing into the worst face-off since the Cold War. For the last week, there has been media outrage over poisoning a former spy using nerve toxins developed by Russia. This compounds incidents like businessmen dying in suspicious circumstances and Litvebyenko dying horribly from radiation poisoning.
By 21st century Western standards, such incidents are barbaric and belong to another age. Without wishing to excuse any of this, an outraged eyeball–to–eyeball Mexican stand-off may not be the sensible way to come to a resolution that does not involve nuclear winter. My contention is that we are judging Putin and his Russians by our standards, not theirs.
The first and fundamental point is to realise that, at an international level, Russians are paranoid and also suffer national inferiority complex. Why the largest country in the world with 200 million people who were once the other Great Superpower should feel this way is not immediately obvious. But few in the West have been there, have come to know the people or their history. In this present flap, we are judging Putin and his Russians by our standards, not theirs.
All Europe has suffered invasions. But far fewer in the last millennium, with the exception of the great Mongol invasion of the 13th century when 500,000 people died, hit what was to become Russia harder than anywhere. Unlike Britain, Russia had few natural boundaries. On a regular basis, they would find themselves invaded by Poles, Lithuanians, Swedes, French, Turks so that the only way they saw they could stand up for themselves was as a monolithic state under an autocratic ruler. The Ivans and Peters who forged the harsh rule of the Czars also forged an inward looking Empire from empty Eastern wastes, driven by an oligarchy of nobles. European countries spanned the world, with individuals contributing and benefiting as much as any landed elite.
It took some time for those European countries to realise that the tortures of the Inquisition, the flogging of sailors, the trading of slaves, the persecution of minorities had no place in modern civilisation. Russia may have absorbed some of this, but not at the same pace, nor with the same enthusiasm. In fact, it could be argued 100 years ago that, while the West had industrialised both manufacturing and the society that ran it, Russia—while achieving the former—it was run by a mediaeval society. There was little by way of a middle-class to link peasants with mobility or to provide a path for the ambitious.
Which goes a long way to explain the success of the October revolution. While several five year plans did drag Russia into the 20th century, a party-based elite replaced a mobility-beast elite but the lot all the average Russian improved more slowly them that of workers in nowhere. More tellingly, a centuries-old habit of obedience to authority played right into authoritarian Bolshevik hands. That Stalin seized power might have been expected. But that he held it with not a glimmer of counter revolution spoke volumes for the ingrained respect the Russian people gave for decisive leadershop.
It was that stoic endurance—rather then any leadership from party or Stalin—that brought them through the worst ordeal any country has have to suffer in modern times. The British are quick to cite the Dunkirk spirit, the exploits of The Few and Alamein. But it was the Soviet Army that beat Fascism—but at the cost of 3 million soldiers, 10 million civilians and devastation of all main cities.
On top of all that, Stalin’s megalomania swallowed up a number of countries behind the Iron Curtain, provoking America into McCarthyism and an arms race whose purpose—as far as most Russians could tell—was to put them in their place and undermined their morals with capitalist materialism, amoral rock music and belittle their earlier success is space would spy satellites and a series of moon launches with which they could not compete. Taking this together with earlier history cited above, national paranoia and inferiority complex is more than understandable.
So when not just the economy but the whole Communist System broke down trying to compete with a richer capitalist West, pride as well as pocketbook took a hit. Because they had no experience developing independent lives, let alone careers, he average Russian had a little clue how to exploit opportunities presented.
But many in the party hierarchy did—which spawned the class of oligarchs no spending their millions in London. They have replaced the party , who had replaced the mobility.
Meanwhile, the bulk of Russians are trying to get by as even professional salaries devaluing by the minute so that a kilo of bananas costs a week’s wages. They witness the superpower for which they made sacrifices disintegrate, lose face and become run by drunken ex–bureaucrats like Yeltsin.
So, when someone with strongman KGB credentials calls for and enfeebled Mother Russia to be made great again, who are you going to well for? Putin stomps on Chechnya for wanting to go it alone? Send ‘em right! He cuts off gas supplies as part of negotiations? That’ll teach ‘em! He stokes up civil war in the Ukraine? They should never have split off in the first place!
So, when the military win Assad’s civil war for him or track down and polish defectors in places like Salisbury Putin is showing that you mess with Russia at your peril and Russia than call again—not to mention Putin standing tall so he will win his up coming election.
His methods maybe nasty, even brutal. What they are popular with most Russians—even the ones with more International prospective. Because Russia shares more than a common Communist past with North Korea. It has also realised that, by painting an American-led West as bent on the country’s downfall, then portraying the present leadership as the only one strong enough to prevent this is as smart a ploy four permanent premiership as you are likely to find.
This Beast in the East has far more to do with securing Putin then any real danger to the West. As long as the oligarchs continue making obscene amounts of money on the LSE, the bear may growl but will forego any use of claws or teeth. Nobody in the West believes the polls that make Putin appear unbeatable; but he is.
However, until Russian society develops its own substantial middle-class, the social conscience, political correctness and squeamishness of media so prevalent in the West will be seen as foreign and hostile in Russia—and strongarm leaders will milk that. Equally, what is regarded as tough but necessary there, we’ll see as harsh and barbaric Not just Putin and the oligarchs, but the bulk of Russians who always have thought differently will wonder what these Western milksops are on about.