*All of the below is covered in greater detail and fully documented in Gordon M. Hahn, The Russian Dilemma: Security, Vigilance, and Relations with the West from Ivan III to Putin (Jefferson: McFarland Publishers, 2021).
We in the West often display a condescending attitude towards Russia and use her for our own domestic political battles. One needs only to recall Obama’s insulting comments: “The Russians can’t change us or significantly weaken us. They are a smaller country, they are a weaker country, their economy doesn’t produce anything that anybody wants to buy except oil and gas and arms. They don’t innovate.”.” Regardless of any identitarian, reverse racist motives behind Obama’s ‘diplomacy’, his crude remarks fall within the universe of standard, stereotypical Western thinking about Russia as backward, uncivilized, and non-Western. The reality, however, is that Russia has been part of the West, if on its periphery, and long an object of Western actions and influence so much so that the West can be said to have made Russia and is its ‘constitutive Other.’
States, peoples, and their cultures form in contradistinction and response to others they encounter, and in some cases one state may become singularly focused on one particular ‘other’ state, people, or culture—a constitutive Other. Perhaps more than any other state, people and culture, Russia’s has had and been focused on its Other—the West. This is not a function of some Russian obsession per se or alone. The West has been focused on Russia perhaps more than any other entity. This is perhaps because Rusia has been the ‘other West,’ a Europeanizing far West for centuries like yet different from Europe and the U.S. It is Christian, but Orthodox, not Catholic or Protestant. It is ‘white’ but not Greek, ‘Latin’, or Anglo-Saxon. It experienced the European Enlightenment and other Western trends but often later and second-hand. Often, the West has wanted Russia to be like it more than Russia has wanted to emulate its often arrogant, overweaning interloper. Most importabtly, since at least the 15th century the modern ‘Muscovite’ Russian state has not only been influenced by, but actively aspired to be Europe, while at the same time falling victim to Europe’s dark side of imperialism, colonialism, and war. This is the Russian dilemma.
A result of this dilemma has been a waning and waxing of Russia’s desire to emulate the West, leading to a cycle of attraction and repulsion. Over time, Russia developed a duality – part traditionally Russian, part European – that polarized and divided Russians into those pursuing greater and greater Westernization and those who sought to halt or reverse that same Westernization. In this way, the West became a passive and sometimes consciously active threat to Russia’s ontological security (cultural and identity wholeness) and sociopolitical unity and stability. This cultural threat to the national identity was accompanied by intermittent political interference and military interventions and invasions from the West. For some traditionalist Russians, this transformed Westernizers into dangerous dissidents and even treacherous colluders with Russia’s external foes.
Change in Russian culture and identity’s dual structure has meant a continuing rise and fall of particular subcultures and values (Western/Slavophile, Orthodox/Catholic-Protestant, autocracy/constitutional monarchy, authoritarian/representative government, communalism/individualism, religiosity/secularism, Francophilism/Germanophilism, pro-Westernism/anti-Westernism, and so on). In one period, the traditional status quo might be largely replaced by or ‘dislocate’ to Westernization, such as occurred under Peter the Great or the early years of Catherine the Great’s reign, followed by a ‘reconstitution’ of a natively approximation of the previous Muscovite system little or slightly Westernized or fully de-Westernized. The next Westernizing ‘zig’ or ‘zag’ would see a reactivation of the previously dominant Western culture and values from recessive to dominant status, partially dislocating the previous normative status quo or bringing another wide-scale dislocation.
Thus, Russian history has been a battleground between nativists, Slavophiles, and statists, on the one hand and Westernizing social activists. However, the degree of Westernization was so widespread that on occasion state actors, including tsars and top commissars, promoted Westernization ‘from above’ by the state.
The vicissitudes in Russian culture and identity were often driven by relations with the West, and over the centuries, beginning especially from the Time of Troubles in the early 17th century, there formed a usually dominant anti-Western security culture or subculture and vigilance norm. The security vigilance culture or norm would become less pronounced, recessive during period of Westernization and/or comity with Western powers and a lowering of the sense of ontological and military threat. It would reactivate and return to dominance during periods of reconstitution of the Russian tradition, however perhaps newly imagined, defined, and constructed.
Russia’s security culture and vigilance norm were reinforced by three main kinds of encounters with the West: (1) key periods of Russian internal instability and ontological insecurity driven by displacements of Russian norms, values, and ideas by Western ones; (2) the West’s active meddling with its destabilizing and reactionary effect on Russia’s politics and culture; (3) and Western military invasions of and threats to Russia. Central pivot around which Russia’s security culture and vigilance norm vis-à-vis the West revolved was the danger of collusion between domestic opponents and dissidents, on the one hand, and foreign powers, competitors, and enemies, on the other hand.
Cultural Identity Displacement and Ontological Security
There were several key periods of Russian internal instability and ontological insecurity driven by more narrow dislocations of selected norms and values as well as by periods of more comprehensive displacements of Russia’s cultural orientation and self-identity. From the Muscovite state’s formation during Moscow’s struggle with Novgorod, Vladimir, Tver, even Poland-Lithuania at that time the first in a series of heresies – religious dissents – stretching through the 16th century threatened to redirect the formation of Russia’s national identity and culture – Orthodox Christanity – from the particular foundation upon wich it had developed across all the Russias since IX century baptism of Kievan prince Vladimir I or the Great. These dissident heresies of the ‘strigolniki’ (defrocked ones), Judaizers, and non-possessors or ‘nestazhateli’ all had ties with the western and somewhat westernized Russian principalities of Novogorod and Pskov. These principalities were part of the Hanseatic League, had avoided the stultifying effects of the Mongol yoke, and in the case of Novgorod especially were competitors with rising Muscovy for the leadership and unification of the Russian principalities.
Moreover, Novgorod had signed treaties with the powerful Western Polish-Lithuanian Union, the military power and Catholic identity of which posed both national and ontological threats to Moscow and other principalities. Moreover still, Poland-Lithuania also contended to unite the eastern Slavs and Russian principalities under its wing and Catholicize its own and any incorporated Orthodox Christians. The conjunction of external military and ontological threats emanating from the West established the formation of Russia’s security culture and vigilance norm as a part of the foundational experience of Muscovite Russia. The fall of Constantinople to the Muslim Turks in 1453 underscored the sense of the connection between the ontological threat and the mounting military to Orthodoxy and therefore to still young Muscovy as well. Religion was the fulcrum around which national cultures and identity organized, and the Vatican’s crusades did not just target Islam. They sought to displace Orthodoxy in northeastern Europe in what is today’s Baltic region, Belarus, and Ukrane—a clear threat to Russia’s ontological security. The effort, led by the Poles, would lead to political meddling and military invasion, as discussed further below.
From the mid-17th century there was a gradual re-opening of Russia to Western influences, especially under Mikhail I’s son, Alexei the Quiet (who reigned 1645-1676). The conduits for this passive opening brought Western influences through Kiev’s Moghyla Techological Academy and the Russian governments Posolskii prikaz, a proto-foreign ministry. Officials in the Posolskii prikaz, such as Afanasii Lavrentovich Ordin-Nashokin, brought in knowledge of Western ways and practice, especially in the arts. The Kievan academy inserted Catholic, Protestant, Greek philosophical, and other Western influences to Moscow. The impact of the academy grew as its graduates became involved in an effort ordered by Alexei’s father, Mikhail, to study the sacred texts of Eastern Orthodoxy. In the process, one intensified by the ROC’s Patriarch Nikon under Alexei, mistranslations were discovered indicating that changes to rituals and prayers needed to be made. This sparked a schism, the Great Schism or Raskol, in Russian culture; the first of two that would shake Russia in a period of a half-century and involved Western culture. Large portions of the Orthodox flock refused to accept Nikon’s changes, regarding them as evidence of the approaching apocalypse and the second coming of Christ. The rational endeavor to have Russian Orthodox practice follow Orthodox practice as laid down in the confessions’s historical sacred texts was met by an irrational response on the part of the so-called Old Believers, who clung to the old ways and prepared for the coming end by creating isolated, closed communities. The leader of the Old Believer schismatics or raskolniki, Avakuum Petrov, a priest from the Yurev Monastery in Pskov, proselytized in writings and preaching an austere way of life dedicated to cleansing the soul in preparation for Christ’s return. One of the forms of cleansing he promoted was self-immolation, leading to tens of thousands of raskolniki incinerating their bounds to the corrupt, evil earthly life. The Kievan party in the Raskol was a semi-Western element, and like other Westernizing movements sparked a schism and reconstitutive backlash from the Old Beleivers that presaged the Slavophile controversy nearly two centuries later.
Westernization was deepened and broadened by Alexei’s son Peter the Great (reign 1682-1725), who masterminded a vigorously proactive Westernization policy emulating Swedish, German, Dutch, and British ways in government, education, science, warfare, the arts indeed in every sphere of Russian life. The ROC was completely subordinated to Peter’s government under a Holy Synod and began losing some of its political and social influence. With secularization came rationalism, challenging the religious foundations of traditional Russian culture and identity. This great transformation was driven by Peter’s powerful vision and will and carried out with no great shortage of coercion and even violence. In addition to Peter’s unofficial, incognito tour of Europe to gather Western knowledge in practically all spheres from military technology to dentistry, two major wars with Sweden, and the goal of deepening Russia’s role in European geopolitics, the first Russian emperor encounter with the West had similarities with that under Ivan the Terrible and during the Smuta. Like Ivan’s Prince Kurbskii and post-Ivan’s False Dmitrii, Peter the Great’s reign would be marred by defections to the West by two important personages. The first was the defection to the Swedes during the Great Northern War by the Coassack Hetman Mazepa, who had received strong support and was able to greatly enrich himself because of patronage from Peter. Then Peter’s son and tsarevich Alexei defected to the Holy Roman Empire after a falling out with his father and supposedly sought support from Vienna and even Stockholm in organizing a force to place himself on the thrown. Alexei returned to Russia on a promise from his father that he would not be punished but upon his arrival in St. Petersburg, he was arrested, secretly tried, and executed or extrajudicially killed during interrogation possibly carried out by Peter himself. Both Mazepa and Alexei became symbols, anti-heroes of the security vigilance norm, marked as traitors and colluders with Westerners.
One of Peter the Great’s last acts was to enshrine his victories over both the dual external and internal threats he had encountered in a new Imperial ideology. He constructed parallel between his reign and that of the 13th century Novogord prince Alexander Nevskii. Nevskii’s remains were brought from Vladimir to Peter’s new European-style capitol, St. Petersburg, and interred in a new Alexander Nevskii Monastery. An elaborate ceremony on the fourth anniversary of the signing of the 1721 Nystad Treaty that ended the Great Northern War to be repeated annually sacralized Nevskii both for his military victories and his defeat of internal enemies, “malignant rebels,” paralleling Peter’s defeat of his own internal opponents—the streltsy, Mazepa, and tsarevich Alexei.
Peter’s reforms ushered in a Russian enlightenment that would last a century after his death. Russians, first the aristocracy and then by the 19th much of society would pride themselves on ‘being European.’ Attempts would be made to institute constitutions by Dmitrii Golitsyn and other aristocrats in 1830, Alexander I in the first quarter of the 19th century, and the Decembrists in 1825. Peter’s greatest imitator and devotee among his successors in the enlightenment century was Catherine II or the Great. The progress Westernization had made as a result of Peter’s great displacement of Russia’s medieval culture to European ways was more evident than ever during Catherine the Great’s reign. The German Francophile empress read and corresponded with the French philosophes – Rousseau, Voltaire, Montesquieu, and others – whose ideas sparked revolution. Her reading of Montesquieu inspired her to institute a quasi-constitutional governing document for an enlightened autocracy. The Nakazy, ‘Mandates’ or ‘Instructions’, softened the Russian punitive system and codified the rights and priviliges or lack of them for the delineated classes or ‘estates’ legally structuring Russian social, economic, and to some extent political life. Her many other reforms were based on Western models, and she even considered emancipation of the serfs, establishing a cumbersome commission to examine the state of affairs in the countryside and prepare proposals for emancipation. This initial, liberal period of Catherine II’s reign gave way to reaction in response to the French and American revolutions and the rise of what were for that time radical Westernized thinkers in Russia itself, such as the father of Russian republicanism Alexander Radishchev. Not for the last time would revolution in the West spark reaction, then revolution in Russia.
Alexander I made three attempts – the last almost immediately abandoned – to install a constitutional monarchy with considerable republican elements, a system that would have resembled the monarchy with a parliamentary State Duma established a century later under Nicholas II. In addition, he also intended to abolish serfdom, and once his reforms were implemented to abdicate the throne and find rest and a simple life in some small corner of Europe, as he confided in a letter to one of his many Western and Westernized teachers and advisors. In 1818, Alexander I traveled to Warsaw to open the Polish Sejm, which operated a republican constitution for the conquered Poles within the Russian imperial system. In his speech, he declared that he was preparing to introduce the same for Russia herself, but within a few years this plan had been abandoned by Alexander for the third and last time. The two other attempts to install a Russian constitution were interrupted because of Napoleon’s war-making. First Alexander was diverted to lead Russia against Napoleon’s march east and attempt to replace monarchies with ‘fraternity, liberty’ and equality’ under a pseudo-republican autocracy and imperial system. In 1812, the invasion of Russia itself by Napoleon and a ‘Grand Army’, representing some thirty European states, again interrupted Alexander’s constitutional and other reforms. After Napoleon’s defeat, Alexander’s short-lived third attempt was abandoned as he began to get word in 1820 from his secret police that a revolutionary republican movement with European ties had taken root in the army among the young officers, who had marched to Paris in liberating Europe from the Napoleonic yoke and helped establish a constitutional monarchy in France under Alexander I’s leadership. Thus, in all three scuttlings of republican constitutional reform under Alexander I, Western and Western-tied factors forced postponement and then abandonment of the very kinds of reforms many in Europe had hoped for decades might be instituted by their eastern neighbor.
The Westernizing, ‘Decembrist’ movement, sparked among military officers returning from Europe after Russia’s leading the rollback of Napoleon’s European GrandArmy and the establishment of a liberal monarchical European concord under the Holy Alliance. Their European education in Westernized ‘gymnasiums’ and European encounter on march from Prussia to Paris created a passion to make history and a republican form of rule at home. The collapse of the Decembrist revolt and Nicholas I’s crackdown on secret societies, freedom of expression, and Western influences under his ‘Official Nationality’ – a reconstituting state ideology of Autocracy, Orthodoxy, and Nationality’ – put a brief, partial freeze on Russia’s century-long displacement and civilizational march west.
Nicholas I’s successor, Alexander II, reactivated Westernization and returned to his grandfather’s constitutional project. On the eve of signing a pre-constitutional document he was assassinated by a young Russian engineer who sought to bind Russia to Europe by railroad, then revolution. Abandoning his constructive dream, Nicholas Kibalchich turned to revolutionary terrorism. Like thousands of other revolutionaries raised during the stultifying Nicholaevan decades and educated during Alexander II’s glasnost’ and great dislocation of the Great Reforms, he had imbibed revolutionary socialism from European texts. The entire iconography of Russia’s pre-revolutionary saints as determined in Soviet ideology, for example, was a list of profoundly Westernized socialist thinkers who preceded the coming of the equally Westernized V.I. Lenin: Alexander Herzen, Vissarion Belinskii, Dmitrii Pisarev, Nicholas Chernyshevskii, Nicholas Dobrolyubov, Peter Lavrov, and George Plekhanov. No less Westernized, less mentioned, but far more influential pre-revolutionary prophets usually not part of the official Soviet hagiography include: Nicholas Mikhailovskii, Sergei Nechaev, Peter Tkachev, Mikhail Bakunin, and Peter Kropotkin among others. As Grigorii Gershuni, a leader of the Socialist Revlutionary Party’s (SRP) clandestine terrorist unit, the Combat Organization (CO), put it when asked about his “career” as a revolutionary while traveling across the United States raising funds for revolution in Russia: “It is like the career of many another revolutionist. You begin with a book, and you wind up with a revolver.” Lev Tikhomirov, main theorist of the People’s Will (Narodnaya volya) organization that succeeded in carrying out hundreds of assassinations, including that of Alexander II, took the same Western-revelatory path from book to revolver that so many of his comrades had traveled and knew Russia’s revolutionary milieu. He noted in his late semi-autobiographical book, The Beginning and the End – in which he described his disenchantment with revolution – that the revolutionary idea that embedded itself in Russia’s educated class came from Europe: “This faith in revolution was created with us again not by any conspirators, emigrants, or professional revolutionaries. This was the old ‘Westernist’ (zapadnicheskaya) idea, which came from France and quite logically took root in our educated class. That the world is developed by revolutions was in my era of education an axiom, it was a law. Like it or not, it (revolution) is coming to Russia… and people waited the arrival with joy.”
Lenin himself read Marx, Engels, and other Western literature as if they contained secret keys to the future of historical development. The leftist Russian journalist Ariadna Tyrkova – whose three closest friends ‘dislocated’ by falling in love with Lenin, Pyotr Struve, and Mikhail Tugan-Baranovskii, respectively – relays the strength of Russian Marxists’ revolutionary faith; they held “every letter in the works of Marx and Engels…sacred” with the “obedient insistence of a Muslim who professes the Koran.” The new religion that the prophet Lenin discerned from scientific socialism’s sacred texts would give birth to a new state, whose ideology and social experiments would leave half the world’s population, most of all Russia’s, drenched in blood. That religion was born in the West. With the social experiment’s extinction at the end of the 20th century, Russia underwent a reverse ontological displacement from socialism and the dictatorship of the proletariat to capitalism and republican governance. Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika and Boris Yeltsin’s revolution from above began a more promising but in some ways a no less failed experiment as far as Russia is currently concerned. However, it was not Russian culture that contaminated the experiment as much as the West’s attempt to maximize its hegemony and expand world history’s most powerful military alliance and other Western ‘institutional infrastructure’ to Russia’s borders regardless of how Russians’s security concerns and residual vigilance norm resisted the Western overreach.
Western Political Meddling and Russian Instability and State Collapse
There is a rich history of the West actively interfering in Russia’s domestic political struggles, developed and backed opposition to the ruling group or regime itself, and recruited and provided refuge to colluders, subverting Russian political stability, redirecting its foreign and domestic policies, and and often affecting sometimes with delayed realization an anti-Western reaction in Russian culture and politics. This subversive activity was often undertaken with Russian colluders and preceded Western invasions. The earlierst examples are the Polish invasions and Vatican crusades against Orthodoxy, including Polish King Stefan Batory’s military attacks on Russia and the Vatican-backed, Polish-organized military incursion into Russia leading to the Time of Troubles or Smuta. Rome was seeking to extend Catholicism into the Russian lands, using the rising Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth as its vanguard in the east, repressing Orthodoxy in its realm just west of Novogord and Smolensk.
Ivan the Terrible or ‘Grozny’ (1440-1505) established an increasingly harsh and centralized regime in response to the Polish threat, which sparked his close associate Prince Andrei Kurbskii to defect to the poles after a stinging military defeat he had commended. Kurbskii’s act most surely crossed over into treason, as he joined the Polish army and served as a commander in battle against Russian forces for years to come. Kurbskii became the first Russian dissident émigré` to seek and find refuge in the West and from there collude with Russia’s foreign enemies against her existing order. Consequently, he became an enduring symbol of dissent as treason and Western collusion in Russian culture. This can be seen in modern references to Boris Berezovskii and Mikhail Khodorkovskii as modern-day Kurbskies.
The rule of Ivan the Terrible’s first successor, the regent tsar Boris Godunov, began well enough, promising significant Western-style reforms, but the promise was left unfulfilled by virtue of Boris’s increasing paranoia because of rumors of boyar-Polish machinations against him followed by the apparent murder of the last successor in Ivan’s lineage, the tsarevich Dmitrii, and his own unexpected, early death soon after. That a Westernizing ruler seemed to usher in the disaster to come was not lost on some Russians of generations to follow, no matter how unconnected the impulse to reform and subsequent events were. The security vigilance norm was already robust enough to prompt blaming the West for things it had no hand in.
A person claiming to be the surviving Dmitrii, the False Dmitrii, appeared in Poland and received at least implicit backing from both Polish king Sigismund III Vasa and the Vatican for a venture to seize the Muscovite throne. Members of the Polish and Lithuanian gentry and Jesuit order would help this grand colluder to organize and man an invasion force, which crossed the border into Russia in autumn 1604 and marched north gaining Cossack and Russian volunteers along the way. Dmitriii had promised to convert himself and Russia to Catholicism and thus make Russia a de facto vassal of Warsaw and the Vatican. Seizing Moscow, False Dmitrii promised Western reforms, but the influx of so many Catholic foreigners quickly alienated the population, and he was soon assassinated in a boyar plot. This ushered in the Smuta—an era of chaos, civil war, Cossack bandit warlords and gangs partitioning and maraudering across the country, Polish and Swedish invasions and interventions, and the the brief taking of the Muscow throne by Sigisumund’s son Vladislav. In 1612 a second Russian partisan movement rose up liberated Moscow and began expelling the Poles and other interlopers from the country. This process took a decade to complete, with occasion Polish intervientions occurring in an effort to overturn the Romanov dynasty installed under Mikhail I in 1613. It took several decades for Russia to return to its pre-1604 population level.
With Peter’s great ontological displacement and entry of Russia into European geopolitics a century later, the country became the target of a new form of Western meddling. Throughout the rest of Russia’s Petrine, enlightenment century, Western powers repeatedly interfered in Russian power struggles, backing palace coups in attempts to shape Russia’s leadership and policies to be more conducive to the Western powers’ own interests. The accession to the throne by Peter the Great’s third successor, Anna Ioanovna, successor to Peter’s grandson and Alexei’s son Peter II, in 1730 was accompanied by an attempt to institute or at least begin instituting a constitutional monarchy along the lines of the system in Sweden, Russia’s main military foe at the time. A group of Westernized aristocrats, led by Dmitrii Golitsyin and Vasilii Tatishchev, drafted a set of ‘Conditions’ or ‘Punkty’ upon offering her the throne.
Golitsyn (1663-1737) was the cousin of Vasilii Golitsyn, the convinced Westernizer whose home was a center of Western cultural activity in Moscow and who ran the Posolskii prikaz under Tsar Alexei Mihailovich and had proposed wide-ranging political and social reforms. Dmitrii was one of thousands sent to the West by Peter to study. In 1697, at the age of 34, he studied naval affairs in Italy, then followed Vasilii’s steps into diplomacy. In 1707-1718, Golitsyn was appointed voevoda of Kiev. With the victory at Poltava over Sweden and the end of fighting in Ukraine (Little Russia, as it was then called), he was able to introduced some of the governmental reforms he hoped for the country as a whole. He had a library of 6,000 books and organized students of the Kiev Academy to translate from Latin numerous European works on history, politics and philosophy by Puffendorf, Hugo, Machiavelli, Grotius, Locke and others. Upon Peter II’s death, Golitsyn proposed the adoption of the Swedish 1719-20 constitutional reforms not just for administration but for the overall political system. This was the first salvo in a wathershed political battle during what Russian historian Yakov Goldin regards as the most pivotal five weeks in Russian history from 19 January – 25 February 1730, during which Russia sttod on the brink of a possible transition to a republican constitutional monarchy.
In an ensuing series of machinations and maneuverings between the constitutionalist faction and an oppositing traditional autocratic faction, various draft constitutions were prepared and circulated at court. The constitutionalists eventually lost to the traditionalists (now Petrine, not Muscovite) in a showdown between the parties that included various Guards’ units – the main weapon in the 18th century’s numerous succession struggles and coup lots. Goldin concludes that the tactical problems were complicated by the strategic one: the rift or “split consciousness” of Russia’s “pre-intelligentsia.” The inability of the pro-Western intelligentsia to unite and organize their efforts effectively in their struggle against authoritarianism would continue to plague Russia up to the present day.
Anna’s investigation into the constitutionalist plot brought a decade-long rule was a stultifying and oppressive time for the Russian aristocracy, gentry nobility, merchant class, and peasantry alike. Given later accusations against Anna of incorporating too many Germans into the Russian government and court – herself a German foreigner from Courland – investigators did not raise a charge of collusion with foreigners against Golitsyn and the others, though they could have. Golitsyn was not shy about consulting Westerners in designing his reform program and relied particularly on advice from German Holsteinian Henrich von Fik (1679-1750/1), who was at the time serving the Russian government. The “intelligent free-thinker” Fik was regarded as an expert on Sweden, having been sent there as a secret agent during the Great Northern War. He took from Stockholm a store of documents on Swedish internal politics, and during the succession crisis he and Golitsyn consulted with Swedish representatives. Although the constitutionalists were never charged with treason for colluding with foreigners, they were all charged with other alleged crimes as part of a campaign to quash constitutionalism. Fik was arrested and exiled to Siberia in January 1732 for supporting Golitsyn’s Conditions but was released by Empress Elizabeth I in 1743. An old and frail Dmitrii Golitsyn, who like Tatischev had also consulted with the Swedish ambassador, would be charged with intentionally misinterpreting imperial and governmental decrees and was hauled before the Senate for trial in December 1736. Convicted in January 1737, he was imprisoned in the Shlusselberg Fortress.
More assertive Western meddling emerged during subsequent succession struggles in the 18th century. Both the French and Swedes played key roles in Empress Elizabeth I’s accession to the Russian throne in a 1741 coup. Paris had dispatched in 1739 its experienced diplomatic agent Joachim Jacques Trotti Marquis de la Chetardy to St. Petersburg as ambassador to monitior and influence the Russian court, improve very strained Franco-Russian relations, and most importantly break Russia’s alliance with Austria. Moving forward the three parties coordinated coup preparations and actions, with the French providing financial, political, and emotional support to the young princess under Chetardy’s guidance and Paris’s Swedish allies making a military incursion into Russia to rally the public, elite, and Guards Regiments around Elizabeth. The French were primarily interested in getting Elizabeth to jettison Germans dominating the Russian court – the Baltic German Ernst Johann von Biron was running a regency for underage Ivan VI – and thereby facilitate Russia’s withdrawal from the Austrian-led coalition opposed to France’s own in the wars for the Polish succession (1733-1738) and then the Austrian succession (1740-1748). As the former war drew to a close, news of Anna’s grave health created potential for confusion and chaos in the Russian capitol as the succession struggle ensued. By 1740, France’s policy was to contain St. Petersburg from supporting Vienna by inciting Sweden to war with Russia, thereby diverting Russian power north.
Chetardy repeatedly urged Elizabeth, who had pledged her friendship with France and loyalty in policy to King Louis, to undertake a coup. After long hesitation even after Anna had passed away, Elizabeth finally pulled the trigger on the night of 24-25 November 1741, the Preobrazhenskii Regiment easily seized power for Elizabeth, arresting key German-Russian and other Russian officials favored by the deceased Anna. They were tried, sentenced to hangng, but had their death sentences commuted on the scaffold and were exiled to Siberia. In Chetardy’s letter reporting to a Swedish commnder the coup’s results, he announced that the “foreigners” (that is, Germans), “who were in the service in this court and for so many years gave Sweden so many just reasons for complaints,” had been arrested in the coup. Russia was still a second-rate, if rapidly rising European power, still easily used and abused by greater powers.
Another European power, Great Britain, was deeply involved in Catherine the Great’s succession to the throne in a coup that led to the death of a Russian emperor, Peter III, who by all appearances was accidentally killed in the process. European involvement was less extensive in this 28 June 1762 coup. Putting aside Catherine II’s German origins and Petrine-like collusive reliance on Western, in particular French ideas, she utilized British subsidies specifically provided for the coup that would put her on the throne. London’s subsidies were most likely used to buy pivotal support from Guards’ officers and other key court actors. Catherine kept the British ambassador to Petersburg, Sir Charles Williams, misinformed on the progress of the planning, padding her reporting to keep the funds flowing before she even began plotting.
Catherine the Great’s successor, her estranged son Paul I, was more reactionary than reformer. His guiding principle was the reversal of his mother’s policies, whether reformst or reactionary. Where mother was a Francophile, son was a Germanophile. Where Catherine imagined herself an intellectual, Paul was a militarist. The new emperor’s profound unpopularity, driven by his arbitrariness, cruelty, and love affair with things Prussian, alienated his son. Alexander I soon replaced his father on the throne in yet another British-backed coup that led to the death of another Russian emperor. Great Britain’s ambassador to St. Petersburg, Charles Whitworth, who despised Paul I even more than Alexander, led London’s operational and financial support for Alexander I’s coup, which the tsarevich did not envision leading to his father’s death. The evidence suggests that outgoing ambassador Whitworth, stationed in St. Petersburg from 1788 to 1800 and hated the arrogant emperor, played a central role in backing the coup morally, organizationally, and financially.
Alexander I’s liberal reign, aborted constitutionalism, and march to Paris after chasing Napoleon’s Grand Army out f Russia all helped spark the Decembrist revolt. When Nicholas succeed in suppressing the revolt, he ordered investigators to investigate whether Western embassies might have supported the Decembrists’ secret societies and their attempted revolution from above in December 1825. This was a direct result of a century of Russian collusion from above with Western powers in Petersburg succession struggles. The rest of the 19th century’s zigs and zags between traditionalist reconstitution (Nicholas I) and Westernizing displacement (Alexander II’s Great Reforms) back to traditionalist retrenchment (Alexander III and Nicholas II) provoked frustration within the liberal wing of the artistiocracy, the radicalizing intelligentsia, and educated raznochintsy, sparking revolutionary movements that were aided and abetted by Europe governments and revolutionaries alike.
Anarchists and socialists informed by French socialism, philosophical materialism, and Marxism provided the intellectual firepower for Russia’s superfluous men, nihilists, anarchists, socialists, and terrorists emerging from the disgruntled and alienated among the Russian aristocracy, landed gentry, intelligentsia, and raznochintsy. The resulting revolutionaries were able to avoid the Russian secret police in Europe once deprived of the thin cover of liberalization after Alexander II’s assassination. In the West, Russian revolutionaries came to enjoy political, financial, and other forms of support for making revolution back home from governments and radical parties. Almost of all of Russia’s anarchist and socialist revolutionaries spent many years, even decades in Europe. Since the 1880s the terrorist parties Land and Freedom (Zemlya i volya), Black Repartition (Chernyi Peredel), and the notorious People’s Will (Narodnaya volya), the SRP as well as the radical revolutionary Russian Social Democratic Workers Party and its offshoots Lenin’s Bolsheviks and Plekhanov’s Mensheviks, and other Russian socialist and anarchist parties had been based and held their conferences and congresses in Europe. Lenin himself spent most of his twenty years before ‘October’ in self-exile in the West.
Like the aforementioned Gershuni, Russian terrorists who had just mounted terrorist attacks at home fled abroad to the West and received protection from the Russian police there. For example, after carrying out the failed 19 November (1 December) 1880 attempt on Tsar Alexander II’s life by blowing up his train, People’s Will organizer Sofya Perovskaya fled to Paris with her co-plotter Lev Gartman. When Russian Foreign Minister Alexander Gorchakov demanded their extradition, the French government refused, despite being informed that Russian emigres close to Russian socialist ideologist and French resident Pyotr Lavrov were involved in bomb-making. Victor Chernov, the ideologist of SRP, a People’s Will successor party, noted, citing radical lawyer I. Rubanovich’s book The Foreign Press and the Russian Movement: “The French radical press noisily expressed approval of the Russian revolutionaries, in which they saw worthy successors of the Great French Revolution’s heroes.” The press campaign featured a series of pieces by Russian émigré-revolutionaries such as Lavrov and ‘father of Russian socialism’ Plekhanov as well as by France’s Victor Hugo condemning the autocracy’s ‘imperial terrorism.’ A prominent Frenchman “had the happiness to shake the hand of Vera Zasulich and called the tsar nothing other than the ‘All-Russian Hangman,’” and president of the French chamber of deputies granted Lavrov an audience.
A Russian Third Department archival document drafted by then Russian ambassador to France, future State Comptroller and financial reformer Valerian Tatarinov describes concrete forms of assistance given to Russian revolutionaries in France,” indicating that the French government was intentionally providing refuge to revolutionaries and terrorists in order to assist their cause and clear “collusion between the instigators of these sentiments and the machinations of nihilists in Russia, the socialists in Germany and anarchists of all stripes in Italy, Spain and other places.” Tatarinov ended his memorandum proposing Russia make alliance with Bismarckian Germany against France. Ironically, German Kaiser Wilhelm was warning Alexander II not to establish a constitutional monarchy under any circumstances. Thus, the Russian tsar was caught between two European flames. Some from Russia’s constitutive Other were supported revolution against autocracy; others were resisting the best alternative to revolution—liberalization and democratization.
Opportunities to weaken the post-1905 second wave of SRP CO terrorism were lost because of the refuge terrorists found in Europe. The Gershuni episode was repeated in the case of his close CO associate Mikhail Gots. In March 1903, Gots was arrested in Naples where he was to meet his family for a cruise to the Riviera. St. Petersburg requested Gots’ extradition to Russia. Gots’ arrest was a golden opportunity for Okhrana police to uncover and neutralize the SRP and CO infrastructures before the terror campaign gained momentum. The SRs, as Chernov notes, “immediately raised the alarm” with their allies in Europe. A groundswell of support from socialists in Italy and across Europe, led by French Socialist Party leader Jean Georges and future prime minister George Clemenceau, forced Rome to refuse Russia’s request.
War, Revolution, Lenin, and Collusion
In the end, the burden of participation in another European war and direct German logistical and financial support for Lenin and the Bolsheviks brought down the Imperial regime in Russia only to deliver a harsh blowback against the very West that had escorted them into power. Russia was not the main proponent or instigator of World War I, and it was the war that gave Europe’s Russian demons the opportunity to make revolution. Parvus wrote: “Prussian guns played a larger role in it than Bolshevik leaflets….Russian émigrés would still be wandering in emigration and stewing in their own juice if German regiments had not reached the Vistula.” Almost all historians agree that German, Austro-Hungary were the main protagonists in sparking the war. Russia hesitated to fight, informed by recent prime ministers’ insistence on peace for the sake of domestic development and the lesson regarding its limited ability to project power taught by the war with Japan. The war proved the fatal blow to the regime’s capacity to stave off revolution. It put an unbearable burden on Russia’s economy, army, and peasantry, and Russia’s revolutionaries were well-positioned to take advantage of the resulting disorder and discord. Indeed, Western powers had been sponsoring and stepped up the sponsoring of the worst of the devils, helping them make and hijack by coup the February Revolution.
While Paris, Zurich, Geneva, London, and Berlin provided cover for Russia’s revolutionaries, the Germans – both its government and the Social Democratic Party – rendered invaluable financial assistance to the SRP and Lenin’s Bolsheviks before the war in addition to logistical assistance during World War I. The aforementioned ASFRF and British elements also helped to fund and otherwise propmote the revolution at home and among Russians themselves. By the early 1900s, the ASFRF had become one of the SRP’s main sources of funding. In addition to raising funds, the ASFRF also played a leading role in a propagandizing in the West the need for revolution in Russia. During the 1905 Russo-Japanese war it facilitated propaganda by journalist George Kennan to Russian prisoners of war, creating an army of revolutionaries for the decade leading to 1917.
But it was the German financial and logistical support rendered to the SRP and Lenin’s Bolsheviks that not just contributed to February’s revolution but to Lenin’s ability to seize power from the potentially republican Provisional Government in the October coup. Lenin had been a German beneficiary for many years. The importance of the Germans’ support for Lenin as a cause of the Bolsheviks’ rise to power in October goes only so far as the centrality of Lenin’s role in the successful coup. In this regard, even those historians whose work argues against an overemphasis on personalities, leadership, and ‘top-down’ political approaches and emphasize instead sociological and discursive approaches to the 1917 revolution acknowledge the pivotal role played by Lenin in the Bolsheviks’ seizure of power. Eminent social historian Ronald Grigor Suny acknowledges that “Lenin was instrumental in preparing the armed uprising,” despite his conclusion that “the actual constellation of social and political forces on October 24—most importantly the provocation by Kerensky—was responsible for the move into the streets.”
The central figure in the transfer of German funds to the Bolsheviks was the Westernized Russian social democrat, ‘German businessman,’ and self-described ‘German social-democrat’ Alexander Parvus, born Israel Helphand (1867-1924). Parvus was born in Russian Pale of Settlement in Western Russia in the Jewish shtetl of Berezino located in today’s Belarus. But he would study in the West and come to identify as German social democrat. His only interest in revolution in Russia was, as it was for Lenin, his belief that it would spark revolution globally and hence in Germany. The 1890s saw Parvus become deeply involved in the social democratic movement and Russian revolutionary émigré circles in Germany and Switzerland as a journalist, opinion maker, and social democratic theorist, writing for a series of social democratic journals and newspapers. He also made the acquaintance of Lenin and his cosest associates, spearheading in many ways the founding of the RSDLP’s Iskra, which Lenin edited and typically is credited with founding. Parvus financially and logistically supported the paper and various Russian revolutionary émigrés in Munich and Schwabing.
Parvus helped to transform Lenin into Berlin’s Trojan horse inside Russia. They first crossed paths around the time of the outbreak of World War I. Prior to the war, the Austria Foreign Ministry had sponsored the Union for the Liberation of Ukraine (ULU) to mobilize Ukrainian national separatism against the Russian Empire. At the same time, Lenin spent the last several years before the war’s outbreak in Cracow and developed ties to the ULU. Lenin’s support for Ukrainian nationalism was part of his strategy of forming a temporary alliance with ethno-nationalist movements against the regime during the ‘destructive phase’ of the revolution in order to facilitate the proletariat’s seizure of power. Parvus worked with the ULU in laundering Austrian and German governmental funds to Lenin in return for his support of Ukrainian aspirations. Lenin championed neither Ukrainian autonomy nor independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. When arrested along with his close associate Grigorii Zinoviev by the Austrian police in summer 1914, Lenin’s ties with Parvus greased their release, as Austrian and Polish socialists, including Parvus employee and Lenin associate Jacob Ganetskii (Haniecki, aka Furstenberg), lobbied for their freedom. Vienna ordered Lvov’s viceroy to release the Bolsheviks but not simply because Lenin was “an enemy of tsarism,” as Richard Pipes cites. Lenin’s backing for Ukrainian independence from Russia had secured the support of Austrian military authorities who pushed for his release. Lenin and his common law wife Nadezhda Krupskaya were transported on an Austrian military train to Switzerland.
When the war broke out, Parvus had moved to Constantinople and contacted the German ambassador to convince him that Germany should support Lenin’s revolutionary designs on Russia, because they would weaken the Germans’ enemy. Approaching Lenin, he was initially rebuffed perhaps because Lenin already had made common cause with the Germans through Bolshevik-turned-Estonian nationalist Alexander Keskula, who similarly viewed the German army as the best facilitator of revolution in Russia. Operating out of Switzerland and Sweden, he met with Lenin in October 1914. Subsidized by the Germans, Keskula subsidized the Bolsheviks’ publications, helped smuggle them into Russia, and contributed at least indirectly if not directly to Bolshevik treasury.
When news of Nicholas II’s abdication reached Lenin, he sought German government assistance in garnering safe passage through Germany to Stockholm in exchange for German and Austrian prisoners. The timing was propitious, since the Kaiser was already supporting a strategy of splitting the Entente by way of a separate peace on one or the other front. Operating an import-export company and a research institute that doubled as a base for espionage in Copenhagen with Lenin associate Jacob Ganetskii, Parvus convinced the German government to assist Lenin in his return to Russia and goal of revolution there. The deal reached between Berlin and the Bolsheviks provided for the clandestine transport to Russia of some 32 Bolsheviks and family members, including Lenin’s lover Inessa Armand. General Ludendorff provided a military transport train with the status of a supposed “extraterritorial entity.” Upon reaching the Baltic sea, the German assets embarked on a Swedish ship for Trallerborg, where they were greeted by Ganetskii and the mayor of Stockholm. He, along with three socialist deputies from the Swedish parliament, accompanied Lenin on the more than 1,000-kilometer journey to the Swedish capitol, where among those who met him was Parvus. Lenin refused to meet with Parvus individually and had him sent to Austrian subject and Bolshevik Karl Radek, who could not be charged with treason in any untoward turn of events.
With Lenin arrived in the Russian capitol, he was met a “grandiose” and “expensive show” of great “theatricality” that Parvus through Ganetskii had organized and included an orchestra, military guard, and fireworks. The orchestra played the ‘Marseilaise’ as Lenin stepped off the train, and he issued a lackluster speech atop an armored car bathed in the rays of a beaming spotlight. Lenin then was marched through the streets by a growing crowd from the station to the former mansion of the princess, ballerina, and mistress of Nicholas II, Mathilda Kshesinskaya, where he set up his headquarters and delivered a famous speech calling for ‘all power to the Soviets’ and an end to the war. Parvus and German intelligence were involved behind the scenes in each step of Lenin’s ‘appearance before the people.’ On April 4/17, German intelligence in Petrograd reported back to Berlin on Lenin’s successful arrival and first speeches, noting: “He is working exactly as we wish.” The February revolution’s and October coup’s other most important leader, Leon Trotskii, also received Western support for his return and making revolution in Russia. U.S. president Woodrow Wilson helped Leon Trotskii acquire an American passport, enabling him to re-enter Russia in 1917, and the Germans sent funds his way.
The assistance of Europe’s Central Powers under Parvus’s plan, however, had only just begun. On the road to October throughout 1917 and the civil war, Lenin and Trotsky were showered with money. From April 1917 through 1918, the German government furnished the Bolsheviks usually through Parvus more than 60 million deutsch marks in gold (approximately 100 million dollars in today’s currency). Perhaps some 30 million went to other Russian revolutionaries, including SR leader Chernov. The Germans’ enormous funding of the Bolsheviks helped them survive and prevail in the upheavals of 1917-1918, financing their propaganda and the October coup, including large sums for an enormous agitprop campaign among Russia’s troops througout 1917. The Bolsheviks now flourished, gaining pluralities in the Petrograd and Moscow Soviets of Workers’, Soldiers’ and Peasants’ deputies by September. Lenin’s penultimate role in the Bolsheviks’ rise to power was his superb planning and organizing of the Bolshevik party propaganda machine, the Bolshevik Military Organization, and the October coup. Funding continued through October and the civil war. An October letter from Ganetskii to Anton Antonov-Ovseenko, a key coup operation planner and commander, reveals continuing German also directly funding in October itself, noting that “Trotsky’s request has been fulfilled” and 400,000 crowns would soon be delivered to Antonov.
The Red victory in the civil war and the Western intervention’s attempt to keep Bolshevik Russia in the war and Germans on the eastern front soon led to a new reign of terror against those suspected of sympathizing with the capitalist bourgeois West as well as fellow revolituionaries, such as the SRP leadership, much of which was arrested, tried, and executed. The history of Western meddling and corresponding Russian, including Bolshevik collusion with Western foes helped to create the hyper-vigilance and paranoia that drove much of Stalin’s Great Terror. Indeed, Stalin had read a report from Cheka chief Felix Dzerzhinskii detailing German financing of Lenin and the Bolsheviks based on a book by German commander-in-chief Ludendorff. Both Lenin’s trial of the SRs and Stalin’s show trials consistently included usually completely fabricated charges of cooperating with Western spies in the official indictments. The Stalinist police state and its post-Stalinist successor organization, the KGB, were sustained by the fear of communists’ collusion with Western capitalist intelligence services. Although this fear was often exaggerated and instrumentalized for purposes of domestic societal mobilization and political power struggles, there is no doubt that the capitalist West did deploy its spies and funds to develop and utilize assets in the USSR throughout the Cold War. In this way, not just Soviet totalitarianism’s very nature but the Cold War, which really began from October 1917 since communism was dedicated to the destruction of capitalism, intensified the ‘Russian’ security culture and vigilance norm.
Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika began to see the security vigilance norm regarding collusion with the West recede into the sediment overtaken by increasingly cooperative, even friendly U.S.-Soviet summits, arms treaties, the fall of the Berlin wall and communism. In the post-Soviet era, Lenin’s treasonous collusion with Russia’s war time enemy – collusion that brought Russia revolution, civil war, terror, and totalitarianism for seven decades – has not been missed. Putin himself has been outspoken in criticizing Lenin, Bolsheviks, communism, and the revolution. The genius of October is becoming in today’s Russia another symbol of collusion with Western foes for Russia’s reviving security vigilance norm.
At the same time, Putin’s also has characterized pro-Western Russian republicans as ‘fifth columnists’ and the like—a predictable revival of vigilance against opposition and dissidents resulting from Western policies of NATO expansion and color revolutionism in and around Russia. The security vigilance norm remained in recessive status through much of the 1990s, outside a few Russian subcultures among siloviki, communists, and radical nationalists. However, NATO expansion in the late 1990s led more and more Russians to perceive Western democracy promotion and the color revolutions it wrought as the revival of Western efforts and successes in recruiting Russian colluders. The events of 2013-2104 in Ukraine and the recent Western support for the nascent but seemingly failing color revolution in Belarus have only consolidated the security vigilance norm’s dominant position in both state and society.
Western Military Invasion and the Maintenance of Russia’s Security Vigilance Norm
Western military invasions of and threats to Russia have been the main drivers of the security vigilance norm’s sedimentation and persistent reactivation in Russia’s political and especially strategic culture. Russia’s geographical position has made it a target for military conquest. The modern Russian state’s predecessor was similarly vulnerable, standing at the crossroads of a central north-south trade route running from Scandinavia to Constantinople and on an east-west thoroughfare separating Asia and the Silk Road, on the one hand, from European markets, on the other hand. Both Kiev and Moscow fell victim to the Mongols. The wellspring of Russia’s security vigilance culture perhaps goes as far as back as the fall of Kievan Rus` to Mongol hordes in 1240. It was well understood even at the time and certainly soon after that Kiev’s demise had been the result of incessant infighting between Russia’s principalities, with leading princes vying for the Kievan throne. Another wellspring was Novgorod prince Alexander Nevskii’s military conflicts with invading German Teutonic crusaders in the 13th century, culminating in the defeat of the Teutonic knights at Lake Peipus (in today’s Estonia) on 5 April 1242 in the epic Battle on the Ice, in which the Teutonic forces fell through the ice in a seeming miracle that earned Nevskii canonization by the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). Although not related to Western threats, the Mongol subjugation of most Russia’s principalities, excluding most notably Nevskii’s Novgorod and Pskov, began generating Russia’s tendency to emphasize national and ontological security. Russia’s security culture and its central vigilance norm began to form and embed itself in Russian political and strategic culture after the fall of Kievan Rus as Muscovite Russian state formed during the struggle for supremacy among the Russian principalities after Moscow prince Dmitrii Donskii defeated the Mongols in the 14th century, giving Moscow the inside track to assume the mantle of leading Russian principality and the opportunity to reunite the Russias dispersed by Kiev’s collapse and the Mongol invasion.
Moscow’s survival of the Mongol yoke was followed by a history of onslaughts from various Eurpoean imperialist projects from Catholic expansionism to Nazi fascist imperialism to NATO enlargement. The details of the Smuta already addressed and those of more recent, familiar Western invasions broadly well-known, the details of the latter can also be foregone. The focus here will be on the impact of those conflagrations on the reactivation or reinforcement of Russia’s security cultural and vigilance norm.
The Smuta ushered in an even more pronounced campaign against Westerners in Russia, especially Poles, and it embedded in the culture the image of the dangerous Pole scheming to undermine Moscow as a symbol of Western meddling and military aggression. Therefore, the Time of Troubles included all three kinds of the Western threats that would now intermittently mar relations with Russia – ontological subversion, meddling with domestic colluders, and military intervention and invasion – and firmly established the Russian security culture and vigilance norm. The extent to which the Smuta was watershed in Russian history and left an indelible imprint on Russia’s political and strategic culture was made most evident in 2006 when Russian President Vladimir Putin sought to fill the vacuum in Russian self-identity caused by the collapse of communism and the Soviet state and begin reactivating the security vigilance norm in response to NATO expansion and color revolutions by invoking the Russian national uprising against the Poles during the Smuta. In place of the abandoned November 7th holiday commemorating the Bolsheviks’ 1917 October coup, Putin inaugurated National Unity Day on November 4th. The terminology signaled a reconstitution that was already becoming less tolerant of pro-Western opposition elements and that would soon beging to castigate dissidents as colluders or a ‘fifth column.’
After Russia’s Napoleonic experiences and with a lingering threat of revolution emanating from France, a xenophobia, especially Francophobia gripped Nicholas I, the Russian court and the Third Department. Nicholas I banned foreigners from wearing beards, which were greatly popular among the European intelligentsia at the time. Fear of the ‘French infection’ intensified after the July 1830 revolt and the rise of power of Louis-Philip and particularly so after the invention of railroad, which became an iron conduit for revolution into Russia. The French were seen as a harmful, yet useful and necessary evil, given their key role in various spheres of Russian life, though in St. Petersburg they numbered only in the several hundreds in 1839 and around 3,000 (with another 600 in Moscow) in 1843. The Third Department, built on the model of Napoleon’s intelligence service, regarded the French on Russian soil as “scum” and spent a good portion of its resources controlling their entry into and activities while in country. It used an array of instruments – the ‘high’ or secret police, local police, constables, customs control, visa application procedures, guides, and secret informers – to gather information on the French and other foreign nationals visiting Russia. Nicholas’s ideological restrictions and the emergence of large domestic censorship and spying apparatus under the Third Department’s control cast a long shadow over Russian history going forward.
Napoleon’s occupation and sacking of Moscow, his bombing and partial destruction of the Kremlin, and the burning of Moscow forced on Russia as a result of the occupation has made Napoleon another iconic symbol often used to buttress the security vigilance norm as well as suspicion of Westerners bearing a republic, ‘liberty, equality, and brotherhood.’ From Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace to the Soviet period’s film version of the novel, 1812 serves as a reminder of the military threat always present in the West and often emanating from those very Westerners who assert sincerely that their only goal is ‘democratization’.
The two, essentially world wars that were the Crimean War and World War I are rarely viewed by Russians as evidence of the weakness of state and society fostered by autocracy relative to more pluralistic Western constitutional monarchies and republics. Instead, they are seen as Western betrayals. Russia found that its European, Christian ‘Others’ were more prepared to ally with the Muslim than with the Orthodox Russian. The French and British efforts to contest Russian influence in Turkey and the Turkish Straits was driven by no small dose of Russophobia, imagined Russian plans to seize the Straits to the exclusion of other powers’ right to traverse their waters, and wartime attacks against Russian interests across the globe, from the Baltic Sea to the Solovetsk Monastery in the near Arctic and even in the Far East. Russia’s defeat in the Crimean War prompted another phase of Russian westernization domestically under ‘Tsar-Liberator’ Alexander II, but in large part as a way to remain military parity with Europe and not before the Russian army’s heroic defense of Sevastopol was immortalized by Leo Tolstoy, becoming another iconic symbol of Russian security vigilance against the West.
Although World War I’s causes were many and complicated, the war is sometimes painted by Russians as an elaborate Western machination to destroy Imperial Russia, and Lenin’s collusion with the Germans only supports such versions. The Western efforts to force Russia to remain in the war, including the Entente powers’ intervention – in order to keep the Germans bogged down on the eastern front further supports such versions. For our purposes here, the point is that the reality and perception of the war reinforce the security cuture of vigilance against military threats from the West.
It is this history of Western invasion combined with the divisive effects of Western influences, Western meddling in Russian politics to bend the country to serve Western interests of one party or power or another, that led to the immediate negative reaction among Russians to NATO expansion. It is important to emphasize that Yeltsin condemned NATO expansion in precisely the same terminology Putin would. Russia’s turn against the West – a clear sign of the reconstitution of the traditional Russian security culture and vigilance norm from recessive to dominant position – occurred before the state attained hegemony in the Russia’s media system and information space under Putin. It was caused not by Putin, not some Russian antagonism to ‘our way of life’, and not even Russia’s security vigilance culture. It was primarily a function of NATO expansion. It and the color revolutions against Russian allies and neighbors that accompanied it resuscitated the largelt recessive security vigilance norm beginning in the late 1990s, when the Clinton administration announced NATO expansion would proceed over Russian objections.
If the 1990s did not produce today’s Putin and the reconstitution of Russia’s security culture and vigilance norm, then the 2000s surely did. The early Putin still held to the Vancouver to Vladivostok dream; one now deferred for decades under the strong revival of Russia’s security culture and vigilance norm. In the month of his first inauguration on 7 May 2000, the nine countries that had been issued MAPs at the 1999 NATO summit along with Croatia founded the ‘Vilnius Group’ to coordinate their accession to NATO in an expansion that would bring NATO to Russia’s borders—a long way from East Germany. In just the first five months of his first presidential term Putin suggested to the West twice that Russia was open to NATO membership, warned Washington of an impending major terror attack, and promised (and later lent) support in 9/11’s aftermath. Simultaneously, he saw the West back a coup in Russia-friendly Serbia. Russia perhaps was already lost before the subsequent rounds of NATO expansion, Kosovo, color revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine, Saakashvili’s August 2008 South Ossetiyan war, the 2014 Maidan takeover by way of a snipers’ attack carried out by the neofascist wing of the ‘revolution of dignity’—Ukraine’s second Western-backed color revolution in a decade.
In response to the West’s betrayal Putin and – with the state-run media’s assistance, albeit – everyday Russians have been reactivating their national security vigilance norm and purveying iconic symbols to nurture and honor it. On example already mentioned is Putin’s establishment of National Unity Day in 2006. In addition, the post-Soviet era, especially under Putin, saw a strong revival of the sacralization-martyrization of the Great Patriotic War and the May 9th sacrament of Victory Day both from above by the state and from below in society. In the post-Soviet era, in the period of Putin’s rule, the historical period most temporally distant from the war’s events, Victory Day has become a truly national holiday that It is the central icon and cornerstone of Russia’s reactivated security culture and vigilance norm. It is a sacrament reenacted on a yearly basis. Even months before the holiday, preparations are advertised by the Kremlin and on the state-run national news programs.
In contrast to National Unity Day’s inauguration ‘from above,’ however, a new reincarnation of ‘Victory Day’ worship was renewed ‘from below’, from civil society on its own. The Soviet-era worship featured parades across the country highlighted by the massive show of security vigilance in the form of the traditional May 9th military parade in Moscow on Red Square. A new ritual, one that has become extremely popular, first emerged in 2012 in Tomsk, Russia and Sumy, Ukraine as grassroots initiatives. Christened “the immortal regiment” (bessmertnyi polk) the idea of ordinary Russians walking in silence with photographs or portraits of their forebears killed during the Great Patriotic War, caught on immediately. In 2013 some 200 Russian cities saw immortal regiments march, and the new tradition continues to flourish, touching all political, ethnic, and religious persuasions. The state, in the form of local governments, increasingly cooperated with local immortal regiments helping to plan their marches and coordinate their schedule and routes with the official parades. Nevertheless, the regiments continue to function as a “Non-Commercial, Non-Political, Non-State Civic Initiative,” in the words of the overall Immortal Regiment’s Statutes, and continue to draw millions of average citizens as well as officials. Since 2015, along with hundreds of thousands of Muscovites, President Putin himself has walked in the annual Moscow regiment march holding a picture of his father, who was killed in the war. Despite all the turmoil and limited popularity of Putin and his team, Russian society and the state are wholly united in their worship of their ancestors’ great sacrifice eight decades ago to save their country from a Western horde.
Russia’s security vigilance norm against Western wars and invasion is a direct result of a long history of such wars and invasions beginning most notably in the early 17th century with the Vatican-Polish political and military intervention in Russia’s domestic politics in an effort to expand Catholicism to Moscow. The cultural effect of the Smuta was reinforced by Napoleon’s invasion, the Crimean War, World War I and the civil war intervention, the Great Patriotic, and most recently a potential prelude to war and invasion—NATO expansion. Now Russia’s security vigilance norm against Western wars and invasion is again the foundation of its strategic culture and discourse. Similarly, the same norm’s focus on the risk of societal schism as a result of Western influence and on the danger of direct Western meddling in Russian politics with Russian colluders developed as a result of repeated waves of passive and active Wstern cultural influence punctuated by Western recruiting of Westernized colluders to meddle in Russia’s internal politics: medieval ‘heresies’; passive Westernization influencing Muscovite tsars before and after the Smuta; Peter the Great’s dislocating enlightenment; Western meddling in palace politics and coups throughout the post-Petrine enlightenment century; the rise of Westernized dissidents from Golitsyn and Radischev to the Decembrists, republican and socialist revolutionaries; Western support for such dissidents; and direct Western influence on, protection and material support of 19th century Russia’s socialist terrorists and revolutionaries leading to the Imperial regime’s collapse; ‘bourgeois capitalist’ Western support for Soviet dissidents, and Western support for post-Soviet era opposition forces in Russia and allied and neighboring countries. Now, Russia’s security vigilance norm against Western driven dissent and meddling with alleged colluders is again a central aspect of Russian political culture and discourse.
Over the centuries, Russian elites have frequently asserted a dangerous connection or outright collusion has existed and brought Russia political instability and state collapse. They have been right, despite frequent resort to exaggeration and manipulation for foreign and domestic political purposes. There is no doubt that official and unofficial Westerners have deployed a range of instruments to facilitate change in Russia—from private religious, economic, and political proselytization to government propaganda or “strategic communications” in support of heretics and dissidents to subversive operations and even military action against Russia or her allies. Thus, Russian perceptions of past, present, and potential future Western interference, intervention, and subversion have become crucial in Russian leaders’ responses to opposition and dissent. Past interventions yield suspicion of foreign partnerships and foreign presence in Russia, fueling fears of subversion, destabilization, intervention, civil war and invasion. Indeed, Russian opposition elements often have sought and received the assistance of foreign enemies and visa versa. As a result, Russian regimes and elites began to perceive, expect, search for, imagine, and even conjure opposition collusion with its Western foes. Sometimes real collusion was accurately perceived and measured; sometimes it was missed or underestimated; other times it was exaggerated; more rarely it was imagined or faked. Russia’s security value has been nurtured, reinforced and firmly embedded in her cultural sediment by the way interpretations of historical events and portrayals of key personages in the Russian social sciences, especially historiography, the arts, state education and propaganda. A series of events and personages as symbols have been passed down, utilized, imagined and reimagined by the state and elites to reinforce or weaken the national security strain in Russian political and strategic culture.
Russia has come full circle after the failed Soviet experiment. Its security vigilance norm has been revived on its original realist principles, shorn of its ideologically driven Soviet domestic vigilantism and hyper-militarism against often exaggerated and misguided national security threat perceptions. In addition to the Smuta, Kurbskii, Mazepa, and tsarevich Alexei, the Decembrists and Lenin are becoming symbols of Western meddling and treason. Lenin is repeatedly condemned by Putin himself for his collusion with Western foes from Vienna to Berlin and fomenting revolution in wartime and ceding Russian Imperial territory to the West—the same territory being contested by NATO’s and Russia’s spheres of influence. A full and less one-sided appreciaton of the history of Russian-Western relations perhaps would have suggested to more policymakers in Washington and Brussels the reckless risk that NATO expansion to the east would spark a revival of foreign and domestic vigilance that in turn would fundamentally damage Russian-Western relations and undermine the tentative consensus regarding the need for pluralism, liberty, and political, civil and human rights that existed in Russia after the Soviet collapse.
The grave threat that hangs over Russian and the West now as a result of NATO expansion and Western brinksmanship in places like Ukraine to achieve it has created a confounding security dilemma. On the Western side, Russian resistance to NATO and Western encroachment in what it regards as its historical and rightful sphere of influence is viewed or is portrayed for mobilizational purposes as Putin’s desire to ‘restore the Soviet Union.’ Less absurd is Moscow’s misperception that NATO expansion is an attempt to destroy Russia’s national sovereignty, if not Russia itself. In fact, since its inception, post-Cold War NATO expansion has been less about Russia and more about creating a reason for NATO’s continuing existence, bureaucratic inertia, feeding domestic constituencies such as the defense industry and anti-Russian Eastern European diasporas, and in the case of Bill Clinton compensating for his lack of national security credentials having been a draft dodger. Once NATO expansion began, it could never stop unless it met a countervailing force that compelled it to halt. With each round, a new ‘exposed flank’ was created in the east that had to be secured. The only exposed flank that needs no security in the Western mind’s less than generous consideration of Russian interests is Russia’s own western flank.
Russia’s principal foreign policy motivation is not territorial expansion but “maximizing security” against the external, outside-in threat vector. In this view, Russia is a “prospect theory player on the international scene,” that seeks “to prevent foreign policy defeats that could translate into a loss of power in the region, a loss of great power status, or, in some cases, translate into political defeats at home.” Russia’s insistence on great power status and a sphere of influence in its immediate neighborhood is a function of Russia’s vulnerable geographic position, a history of foreign (most often Western) invasion, and its security-maximizing goal. Therefore, “Russia’s aggression in its near abroad and its military modernization at home are driven by a concern with security and a heightened perception of threat, which stem from an asymmetry of power relative to the United States.” That asymmetry is demonstrated by Russia’s inability to politically halt NATO expansion and Western deployments of missile-defense and other weapons systems along Russia’s periphery. If the threat of losing regional power status gets too high, then and only then will Russia act militarily as it did in South Ossetiya, Abkhaziya, Crimea and Donbass in 2008 and 2014.
In order to understand Russia’s security-maximizing as well as its perplexity and consternation over NATO expansion and Western actions in Ukraine, one must understand the history of relations with the West that made Russia’s security culture and vigilance norm. Once one understands this, one will also understand why Russians oppose NATO expansion and just how dangerously the West is playing with fire by expanding NATO to Russia’s western border, especially attempting to do so in Ukraine.
 Dmitry Gorenburg, “Russian Strategic Culture in a Baltic Crisis,” Security Insights, George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies, No. 25, March 2019, http://www.marshallcenter.org/mcpublicweb/mcdocs/security_insights_25_-_gorenburg_-_march_2019_-_final.pdf, last accessed 7 October 2019.
*All of the above is covered in greater detail and fully documented in Gordon M. Hahn, The Russian Dilemma: Security, Vigilance, and Relations with the West from Ivan III to Putin (Jefferson: McFarland Publishers, 2021).
About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is an Expert Analyst at Corr Analytics, http://www.canalyt.com and a Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, www.cetisresearch.org. Dr. Hahn is the author of The Russian Dilemma: Security, Vigilance, and Relations with the West from Ivan III to Putin (McFarland, 2021), Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the “New Cold War” (McFarland, 2018), The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland, 2014), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), and Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction, 2002). He also has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media.
Dr. Hahn also has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia and has been a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Kennan Institute in Washington DC, and the Hoover Institution.