Russia reached the apogee of its success during the reign of Catherine II (the Great), who died in 1796. During her tenure, Russia rose to become one of the great European powers, a role her successors, all of them, managed to squander. Pushkin, writing in the 1820’s, remarked that after Catherine, darkness descended on Mother Russia. Take away the nukes and the last time Russia was as weak and insignificant on the world stage as it is today was before Catherine’s role model and grandfather-in-law Peter I (also the Great) came to the throne in 1682, over 300 years ago.
But wait, what about the Cold War, the space race, the victory in WWII, you may ask. The three decades between 1937 and 1967 can be read as an anomaly in Russian history (as they would be in any country’s history), an anomaly which at once brought it to fleeting peaks of achievement and laid the cornerstone for its eventual ruin. During this period, one man, Joseph Dzhugashvili (Stalin), with his iron will alone, marshalled the entirety of the resources of a country of 300 million people (US population at the time was just over a 100 million), a country that controlled over one sixth of the entire landmass of Planet Earth. During this period, Russians, Ukrainians, Georgians, Armenians, Kazakhs, and the multitude of other peoples making up the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics were mobilized in their entirety to build a mighty military industrial complex and use it to win an almost unwinnable war against the biggest military the world had ever hitherto seen, following up on that historic victory by establishing a fleeting world superiority in weapons design and space exploration.
Image by Das Bundesarchiv
Talking about the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the one that states that in the absence of continuous energy input all systems tend to disorder and decay, my thermodynamics professor offered a seeming counterexample to that foundational law of physics. If you find an inflated balloon, he said, sure, you can get some work done and achieve an entropy decrease (order out of disorder). But soon, your balloon will be a limp piece of garbage and the order you have created will rot and decay. For the two decades between the Bolshevik coup d’état of 1917 and the Great Terror of 1937, Stalin inflated the Soviet balloon. He nationalized agriculture and directed all of its products towards cities and factories. While peasants were starving to death, aerospace engineers were eating meat three times a day. He directed all industries towards weapons manufacturing, he exterminated all dissenting voices. He hoped to get a couple more years to inflate his balloon before the inevitable test of wills with Hitler, which is why he signed the Ribbentrop – Molotov non-aggression pact with him in 1939. In his estimation, Hitler had to take care of Britain before he could set his sights on Russia. In this Stalin was mistaken, nearly fatally so. Hitler saw Russia, with its endless natural resources of timber and land, and most importantly oil, a much more important strategic objective than resource poor Britain. And he had no intention of letting Stalin complete his war preparations. Achieving strategic surprise advantage over Stalin who was caught uncharacteristically inflexible in his evaluations, Hitler caused Russia to empty out a big portion of its stored energies before he was finally defeated.
But the war was not all bad for Stalin; he emerged from it more popular than ever, perhaps for the first time in his decades old reign of terror actually popular and not only feared. The Red Army was the biggest and the best equipped military in the world, not only on the ground, but crucially also in the air. The Korean War, breaking in 1950 on the heels of the only recently finished WWII in the Pacific Theater, saw Russian MiG’s successfully deny the United States air superiority, allowing Chinese ground forces to repel General McArthur’s offensive above the 38th parallel. Had the US military been able to provide uninterrupted close air supports to its ground forces, the outcome on the Korean Peninsula would have very likely been quite different.
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Russia’s massive investments in its military-industrial complex, specifically in the aerospace sector, led to its late 1950’s and early 1960’s dominance in the space race, much to the consternation of the United States. But by the end of the first decade following Stalin’s demise in 1953, the Russian balloon was all but exhausted. The Soviet civilian economy, massively neglected for half a century was on its deathbed. Food shortages abounded and forced labor via the GULAG system of prison camps proved financially unsustainable. Attempts at civilian economy restart via five year plans and “creative” ideas (Khrushchev was so impressed by the corn fields in Iowa that he ordered all of the Ukraine to grow corn, a crop to which Ukrainian soil is singularly ill-suited) failed in spectacular fashion and as the US began to take seriously its own investments in the space race, the USSR soon found itself losing both the arms race and the race for civilian standard of living. The limp Soviet balloon breathed its last only five decades after it was first punctured by Hitler in 1941, with nary a whisper.
Today’s Russian strongman, Vladimir Putin is well aware of this history and fancies himself Peter the Great’s disciple, but being the product of Russian serfs tossed to the top on the points of Bolshevik bayonets and tempered in the crucible of their security organs, he is inevitably tossing aside the successful precedents of Peter, Catherine, and even late 20th century China and reverting to the only trick he knows; inflating, Stalin-like, the flat balloon that is modern-day Russia.
Peter’s and Catherine’s success was based on creating in Russia a sustainable modern economic system and engaging in military activities only defensively (Peter’s defeat of Swedish aggression) or strategically when the rewards outweighed the risks (Catherine’s push against the weak Ottoman Empire in the Black Sea basin and her strategic use of the Russian military to secure and maintain her network of European alliances). These monarchs sought and secured for Russia a seat at the table; they never made a play for the seat at the head.
China, a country of which many Russians are now extremely jealous, a country that until the late 1960’s was in every way their client state, has been investing in its internal economic infrastructure for over four decades now, ever since the creation of their “socialism with a Chinese face” ideal in the mid 1980’s It is only now, when their economy has become the second largest in the world (and likely first largest if the non-productive government sector is excluded), that China is flexing its military muscles in its own region and economic muscles around the globe. Unlike Russia’s klepto-oligarchs, the new Chinese mandarins have not forgotten the lessons of their own history, of Confucius and of Sun Tzu. They accepted the fact that sustainability is the key to success and that sustainability does not just happen; it is built step by careful step, until true strength finally emerges.
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The likes of Stalin and Putin would do well to reflect on the ancient wisdom of Kyudo, or Japanese archery. In this art, it is the form that counts; the target only an afterthought. Only countless hours of practicing the form of taking one’s stance, picking up the bow and the arrow, drawing the bow, and releasing the string; only the achievement of perfection in the FORM creates the pathway to hitting the target sustainably, every time. The Stalinist way of exhausting Russia’s entire strength to hit the target only once caused Russia to shrink to half its population and be reduced to the status of a rabid dog, blackmailing the world into placating its inflated sense of self-importance via nuclear brinksmanship. Unfortunately, it is becoming clear that Vladimir Putin has learned nothing from this history. To guarantee for Russia a good showing on its home turf Olympic Games in Sochi, he created a failed intelligence services operation to heavily dope the Russian team, making Russia and its athletes pariahs in the international sports community. A single bull’s eye prioritized over sustainability. Again.
More seriously, Putin is now back, deep into Stalin’s cookbook of fist tightening and terror and total government control. Of end justifies means brinksmanship. Of suffering and martyrdom for the Russian people as not only acceptable, but desirable to achieve yet another fleeting triumph, consequences be damned.
The Bolsheviks caused untold suffering, first and foremost to the Russian people and those nations whom history had so disadvantageously placed in Russia’s sphere of influence. Most other people on the planet, in Western Europe, in the Americas, in India, and in China, went about their business, largely unaffected by Russia’s troubles and tribulations. Only in Russia, only for Russians, are their revolution, their enormous suffering, their immense sacrifice, meaningful to the rest of the world. In reality, for most inhabitants of our lonely planet Russian tribulations are nothing but a tragicomical episode in human history, somewhere OVER THERE, somewhere where the people are apparently suckers for punishment.
Putin will not use his nukes. But he most definitely will create untold suffering, once again, for his own people and those who like the Baltic States rely on others to come to their aid. It will be sad, yes, but no $400 bottle service will be skipped in Manhattan or in Shanghai. We can all count on that.