Written by Frank Li
Russia has been at the center of attention for the past few weeks: first the Olympics (The 2014 Sochi Olympics) and then Ukraine (read: Ukraine, Russia, and the U.S. and A Pseudo Conversation between John Kerry and Ukraine Leaders). So there is no better time than now to better understand Russia, especially for America.
In this article, I will explain to my fellow Americans what Russia is, in my unique style.
1. Russia and me
Although I have lived in China, the U.S., Japan (America: What is Japan, Anyway?) and Europe (America: What is the EU, Anyway?), I have never been to Russia. However, I believe my life experiences in both the East and the West (My American Dream Has Come True) have given me a unique perspective of many things, including Russia.
I spent my first 23 years (1959-1982) in China. Throughout my teenage years, I had never heard of any western authors like Charles Dickens or Mark Twain. However, I was exposed to several Russian authors like Boris Pasternak (for Doctor Zhivago) and Leo Tolstoy (for Anna Karenina). In China then, virtually everything foreign came from the Soviet Union, including communism and several fantastic movies, such as Lenin in 1918 and The Battle of Stalingrad. Oh, I did know Tchaikovsky (for Swan Lake). Of course, I did not know the existence of Gulag.
I left China October 6, 1982, and have been immersing myself in Western culture since then. A few years ago, I started writing of my experiences, with an insight for the intersection of the East and the West. For a broader understanding, I took a closer look at Russia, from a Western perspective this time.
2. Russia’s history: a brief overview
For practical purposes, I will divide Russia’s history into four periods as follows:
0001 – 1917: Ancient times and the Russian Empire
1918 – 1945: The revolution, USSR and WWII
1946 – 1991: The Cold War
1992 – Present: Modern Russia.
2.1 0001 – 1917: Ancient times and the Russian Empire
Why is Russia so vast geographically, spreading over 11 time zones? Russia grabbed a lot of land from its neighbors, including China! For example, the First Sino-Russian War happened from 1690 to 1693. China lost the war, and much of her territory.
The term Russian Empire refers to Russia from 1721 to 1917, during which Russia fought with foreigners three big times, at least, as follows:
Second Sino-Russian War (1854-1855): China lost again, with more land lost to Russia.
WWI: The Russian army played a major role with the allies and contributed to their victory.
2.2 1918 – 1945: The USSR and WWII
After the October Revolution, a civil war erupted between the “Red” (Bolshevik) and “White” (anti-Bolshevik) factions, which continued for several years, with the Bolsheviks ultimately victorious. As a result, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was born in 1922.
The USSR was the first self-proclaimed “socialist” country in the world, theoretically backed up by Marxism and Leninism. In the West, it was appropriately labeled “communism”.
Many bad things happened in the USSR, but its contribution to WWII must not be marginalized. In this video (Untold History USA), historian Peter Kuznick states that Russia actually won WWII, in Europe, with the fact that the Russians fought against some 200 German Divisions, while the allied forces faced only about 20 German Divisions in total! The outcome of WWII may have been very different if Hitler had not made the fatal error of invading Russia before defeating the UK.
Oh, the USSR and China also helped America defeat the Japanese to end WWII in East Asia. Every Chinese must be grateful for that!
2.3 1946 – 1991: The Cold War
The Cold War started right after WWII, with the USSR leading the East and the U.S.A. leading the West. The West won in 1991, when the USSR disintegrated into Russia and some so called “former Soviet republics”, including Ukraine and Georgia.
How did the West win the Cold War over the East? The economic might of Capitalism over socialism, not democracy over communism! More on this later …
2.4 1992 – Present: Modern Russia
Russia changed too quickly after 1991 – It adopted both a new political system (i.e. democracy) and a new economic system (i.e. capitalism) overnight. The results were chaos and misery, to say the least. For more, read: Emerging Economies: An Overview from 30,000 Feet.
Russia has been trying to come back, under the leadership of President Putin …
3. Communism in Russia
Overall, communism did well in Russia for a few decades. Two remarkable achievements:
All of Russia was mobilized to decisively defeat Nazi Germany in WWII.
However, the USSR eventually proved to be no match against the U.S. for one key reason: It’s the economy, stupid! Specifically, here is the simple truth about communism (in Russia as well as China): let the proletarians be in charge, and everybody became a proletarian! In other words, it was capitalism in the West that won the race against communism in the East!
Communism was officially dead in Russia in 1991, when the USSR ceased to exist, thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev, a brainless and reckless Russian leader!
In short, Russian communism lasted for 74 years (1917-1991).
4. Democracy in Russia
Russia adopted democracy in a hurry after communism, thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, a heartless and reckless Russian leader! It was very devastating to Russia, adding salt (democracy) to the deep wounds caused by communism. The results were untold human misery, a few billionaires (e.g. Mikhail Prokhorov), and a doubtful future. For more, read: Mikhail Gorbachev vs. Deng Xiaoping.
Vladimir Putin, a 47-year-old man, succeeded Yeltsin in 1998. He has proven to be very good for Russia. President Putin, through his first two terms, restored order in Russia and set Russia on the path to success …
Look at Russia’s top leaders since 1917, two points stand out:
After Stalin, nobody in his 40s became a Russian top leader, until Putin.
So Putin must be very good in politics, then and now! More importantly, Putin used his youthfulness to benefit Russia as well as himself: after his two terms as the President, Putin served one term as the Prime Minister, and was re-elected as the President in 2012!
5. President Putin
You can’t understand modern Russia, without a good understanding of President Putin. Unfortunately, the U.S. media is not doing a good job for that, thanks to brainwashing. I will highlight three points:
Putin is portrayed as a de facto dictator.
Putin was previously KGB.
Putin wants to resurrect Russia’s past glory.
5.1 Putin is a dictator
The U.S. political-media complex often portrays Putin as a dictator, under a thin disguise of democracy, which is basically false for two main reasons:
Putin is actually the least authoritarian Russian leader over the past 100 years, except for his protégé and the puppy President Dmitry Medvedev.
Putin is certainly a strong leader, but there is nothing wrong with a strong President, even in a democracy.
5.2 Putin was a KGB guy
Putin’s career in KGB appears to have better prepared him for Presidency than did Obama’s career in community organizating! Besides, what’s wrong with being a former KGB guy? Deng Xiaoping was a bloody communist before becoming one of the greatest peaceful transformational leaders in human history!
5.3 Putin wants to restore Russia’s past glory
Here is an excerpt from a recent article (Power Delusions: U.S., Russia Face Off Over Ukraine):
Putin has long seen his role in epochal terms-to restore Russia’s imperial glory and reclaim the sphere of influence the nation surrendered after the collapse of the USSR, which he previously described as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century”.
What’s wrong with a leader trying to restore his country to its past glory? China has been working hard to restore its past glory. Don’t we Americans want to retain our glory, and restore it if we lose it?
Russia is a great country and the Russians are a great people, having overcome huge obstacles (The Greatest Countries in Human History), with their incredible history and culture.
All signs indicate that President Putin is heading toward historical greatness in Russia. Will that be good enough to save Russia from two consecutive disasters (i.e. communism and democracy)? Time will tell.
Will Putin ever match China’s Deng in historical greatness? Most likely not! Why not? Aside from the fact that communism had lasted a lot longer in Russia (74 years, 1917-1991) than in China (27 years, 1949-1976), Putin has democracy in his way, while Deng did not. Yes, democracy is self destructive! It’s a proven failure in human history; it is failing in Russia just as it is failing in America, unless my advice is heeded. For more, read my book: “Saving America, Chinese Style.”
Finally, no foreigner should ever under-estimate Russia for two main reasons:
No foreign country has ever conquered Russia militarily, not even the mighty Napoleon or Nazi Germany! As a matter of fact, both of them were humbled in Russia! So any invader should consider very carefully before invading Russia!
Russia is a vast country with a vast amount of natural resources. This means Russia can afford to make a lot more mistakes than any other country on earth. Yes, communism was a mistake. So, too, is democracy! However, Russia seems to have realized the shortfalls of democracy, especially after viewing China’s success without it …
As a Chinese growing up in communism, I have great sympathy for Russia. I hope this article has helped you, my fellow Americans, better understand Russia.
There is much America can learn from Russia. How to recover from a fall is one of them ….