What Russian Folklore Can Tell Us About Russia

Image Source: 田中良三 – A humorous Atlas of the World – Public Domain

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

– Winston Churchill, 1939.

“Russia is the only country with an unpredictable past.”

– Winston Churchill, 1939.

Winston Churchill identifies the problems in understanding Russia, although Russian aphorisms provide insight into Russian behavior, particularly their excessive support for the national security state.  The emphasis on national security gives Russian President Vladimir Putin a great deal of leeway in a wartime situation, and explains the overwhelming support from the Russian people for his war.  Russian history is largely the history of war, as Russia found itself engaged in military confrontation between the 13th and 20th centuries.  For most of its history, Russia anticipated confrontation on its long border with China in the East; with the legacy of the Mongols on its “sensitive southern frontier,” and with the Western invaders—Napoleon and Hitler.  Putin and his ilk come by their paranoia, xenophobia, and siege mentality quite naturally.

The extreme barbarism of the Russian invasion has led to greater Western military support for Ukraine as well as decreased focus on ending the fighting, enforcing a cease-fire, and arranging security guarantees for Russian and Ukraine. The international community is increasingly convinced that the United States is more interested in inflicting long-term damage on Russia than in securing a diplomatic resolution to the war.  While the Russian Army is preoccupied with tactical operations against a courageous Ukrainian military, Putin has had to deal with the prospect of war with the West, stemming from a Russian-American proxy war.

The prospect of an expanded war demands greater caution on the part of Russian and American decision makers.  Before the North Atlantic Treaty Organization agrees to admit two additional members—Sweden and Finland—perhaps NATO should consider the long-term consequences of such a decision.  One way to get a handle on traditional Russian thinking is to examine Russian parables over the years, which point to Russian feelings of victimhood and a willingness to make sacrifices to defend the interests of the motherland.  The U.S. campaign of sanctions against Russia has seemingly had no impact on Putin’s thinking because he knows that Russians will respond valiantly and make sacrifices when faced with challenges.

Various aphorisms address Russian victimhood and sacrifice.  These parables don’t help us understand the senseless barbarity of Putin’s war against Ukraine, but we know enough from precedents such as Czar Peter’s savage massacre of Ukrainians in the 18th century, and Stalin’s famine against Ukrainians in the 20th century.  There was also terror against the Russians themselves as manifested in the Gulag and Stalin’s Great Terror in the late 1930s.

“THE BEAR DANCES, BUT THE GYPSY GETS THE KOPECKS.”

Russians believe that they have made great sacrifices over the years, but have never benefitted from their valor.  Russian history emphasizes Moscow’s role in stopping the aggression of Napoleon and Hitler.  It is Russia’s firm belief that WWII was fought and won on the eastern front, and that the United States and Britain delayed opening the second front in order to increase the number of casualties for both Germany and Russia.  The fact that three-quarters of the German Army and three-quarters of their fatalities were on the eastern front provides some justification for these strongly-held beliefs.  Russian veterans have told me that no other nation could have stood up to the German Wehrmacht.

“DON’T CARRY RUBBISH OUTSIDE THE HUT.”  

Russians do not share the Western belief in the importance of free speech and free press.  In view of their security concerns, Russians believe that allowing the media to identify vulnerabilities would invite adversaries to exploit them.  Mikhail Gorbachev’s program of glasnost was opposed by Russia’s national security community, which believed it would create opportunities for exploitation. Russia’s political culture revolves around a sense of victimhood, highlighting adversaries who exploited Russia’s vulnerability.  

Putin’s extreme censorship regulations on all journalists and broadcasters in Russia is accepted as a security necessity by most Russians.  The right to free speech, free press, and free assembly have been denigrated by Russia throughout history.  As a result, Putin, like his predecessors, lives by lies, fearing that truth would threaten the leader as well as the led.

“YOU CAN MAKE A RUSSIAN HOLD HIS TONGUE, BUT YOU CAN’T STOP HIM FROM DRAGGING HIS FEET.”  

Initially the invasion of Ukraine in February led to spontaneous protest demonstrations in dozens of Russian cities.  But these protests were short-lived, and the response of the Russian police and security services was quick and violent.  In general, Russians are not likely to protest the actions and decisions of their leaders.

“THE TALLEST WHEAT IS THE FIRST TO BE CUT DOWN BY THE WIND.”  

The Russian brutality against its own citizens may help explain the brutality of the Russians in Ukraine, which Putin refers to as “southwestern Russia.”  Conversely, it is important not to underestimate genuine Russian support for Putin and his war as well as the overwhelming loyalty of the average Russian toward the state.

“DON’T TRY TO SKIN A BEAR BEFORE IT IS DEAD.”  

The steady expansion of NATO to accommodate the desires of former East European states in the Warsaw Pact and former Soviet Republics in the Baltics ignored legitimate Russian national security concerns.  It was the most fateful decision of the Clinton administration, and it repudiated guarantees from Secretary of State James Baker that the United States would not “leap frog” over Germany to create a presence in East Europe if the Soviets withdrew their 380,000 military forces from East Germany.  The Russians lived up to the agreement, and Putin often reminded the West that NATO membership for either Ukraine or Georgia would be crossing a red line.  Former German Chancellor Angela Merkel reminded President George W. Bush of the red line when the Bush administration considered membership for Ukraine and Georgia.

Putin’s public declarations in support of the invasion have taken advantage of Russia’s view of its national security.  Putin’s emphasis on the need to “denazify” Ukraine seemed bizarre and even risible to a Western audience, but Russian memories of the loss of 27 million citizens in World War II meant that Russians would understand the need for military force against Ukraine.  Similarly, Putin has called attention to the outpouring of Western support for Ukraine as an “existential threat” to Russia.  Russians seem indifferent to the terror that they incite, believing that the historical lessons from the Mongol occupation and the invasions of Napoleon and Hitler require vigilance and brutality.  Any internal opposition would then have to consider the domestic terror of political assassination and police brutality that Putin has reintroduced.

In view of the Russian obsession with its own state security, the recent spate of U.S. statements emphasizing the importance of Western weaponry and intelligence to the Ukrainian war effort is counter-productive.  The remarks of Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin feed Putin’s charge of an existential threat.  Any U.S. acknowledgement of participation in the war on Ukraine’s behalf is helpful to Russia’s propaganda efforts to blame the United States for the war.  As Mel Gurtov noted in Counterpunch last week, we should not be in the business of “providing Putin with a pretext for widening his war.”

It is particularly fraught that a Russian-Ukrainian war has so quickly turned into a proxy war between the United States and Russia.  The time and energy that Putin must devote to war against Ukraine must now be shared by the need to respond to political and military moves of NATO, particularly the United States.  If Putin genuinely believes that Western support for Ukraine amounts to an “existential threat” against Russia, then we shouldn’t assume that the Kremlin’s nuclear threats are merely an exercise in psychological warfare.

For that reason, Biden’s national security team should reassess its thinking about the war and examine U.S. goals and risks. The expansion of NATO led to this war; further expansion could lead to a wider war.  The primary goals should be ending the fighting, securing a cease-fire, and discussing security guarantees for both Russia and Ukraine.  Security guarantees for Ukraine are a certainty but, as long as Russia does not feel secure vis-a-vis its European neighbors, it will be difficult for West and East Europe to feel secure.

NATO membership for Sweden and Finland would double the length of the border between Russia and NATO countries, thus increasing the risk of a confrontation with Russia.  American elite and public opinion have spent an inordinate amount of time exaggerating the power of the Soviet Union and Russia over the past hundred years so the Biden administration must anticipate that the notion of security guarantees for Russia may come as a shock to the American public.

Melvin A. Goodman is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and a professor of government at Johns Hopkins University.  A former CIA analyst, Goodman is the author of Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA and National Insecurity: The Cost of American Militarism. and A Whistleblower at the CIA. His most recent books are “American Carnage: The Wars of Donald Trump” (Opus Publishing, 2019) and “Containing the National Security State” (Opus Publishing, 2021). Goodman is the national security columnist for counterpunch.org.

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