While the 1917 revolution was eventually sparked by women queuing for bread who only wanted to feed their families and knew not the word "democracy," we should not forget that the revolution was carried by soldiers and sailors who were less than keen on seeing the front line, historian Peeter Kaasik writes.
It has been three weeks since Russia launched its aggression. It is increasingly held true that listening to historian David Vseviov's iconic radio series "Müstiline Venemaa" (Mystic Russia) from start to finish should be mandatory for everyone trying to predict Russia's future or somehow analyze the mysterious "Russian soul."
It is also to be believed that the listener will eventually arrive at the realization that perhaps there is no great mystery, and that we cannot assume "Western values" to be self-evident for the "Russian soul." The historical background is just too different.
The democratic West has arrived at liberal democracy following a long process. Through antiquity to renaissance and humanism, reformation and secularization, enlightenment, industrial revolution, the development of nation states etc.
Not all of it happened synchronously in different parts of Europe, while these processes affected the whole of Europe, perhaps to some extent the ruling classes in Russia, but definitely the Baltic provinces in the Russian Empire left largely in the so-called German cultural sphere.
When Europe was already seriously debating the perspectives of the "post-capitalist" world following the industrial revolution, life in Russia, with its class society and absolute monarchy, still operated based on the old mold – God-Emperor-Fatherland – being decades if not centuries behind Western thought patterns and developments and occasionally replacing them with pan-Slavic ideas for lack of anything better.
The imperial authority was "God-given," with the emperor and fatherland synonymous. Later developments in Russia undermined this trinity to some extent but did not directly call into question the authority of brute force, at least for as long as that authority was (or appeared) strong.
Now, for the question of whether Vladimir Putin is insane? He is definitely not insane enough to afford to appear weak in the eyes of his subjects as his power is based on nothing other than brute force; he has usurped the throne, which fact has not gone completely unrecognized among his underlings and might be the reason for Putin's excursions into the "glory days" of imperial Russia.
Historian and writer Nikolai Karamzin, when asked to briefly characterize Russia back in the day, supposedly only said, "they steal." Russia's sprawling corruption and its subjects' indifference toward it is perhaps one of the most inexplicable aspects for people in the West.
It has been explained through Russia remaining a class society where obrok kicked up to those in the bracket above is held to be self-evident and regulated through unwritten rules and making "examples" out of people for the thieves to always understand their place in the food chain and retain a sense of moderation. This is hardly unimportant in the conditions of the current war as the traditional shambles in which the whole affair is in could have been roughly calculated in advance, relying on the Tambov constant.
If Karamzin's realization comes from a few hundred years ago and is rather introspective, the West's quandary in dealing with Russia today could be summed up as "unpredictability."
Whereas the shortsighted expound it as "crafty tactics" and at worst as "statesmanlike wisdom" or indeed as an inseparable part of the "Russian soul." However, should one seriously concern oneself with unpredictability and its derivatives of kremlinology and putinology?
Why complicate things when we would be better served by looking to the ordinary plane when trying to understand the paradox.
An unpredictable individual is usually a danger to themselves and others. Figuratively speaking, someone wildly swinging an axe in public would quickly be placed in a closed institution. Should that prove impossible, people would try to steer clear and hope the axe strikes someone else that would at the very least postpone a potential attack on them. A sensible person would definitely not try to "do business" with them. But history has repeatedly demonstrated the volatility of the greed-stupidity-hypocrisy combination.
Therefore, unpredictability is most definitely not "tactical acuity" in this context. A good gambler always thinks at least one move ahead and is capable of changing tactics quickly should things not go to plan, instead of painting themselves into a corner. If Putin's only contingency plan is his nuclear briefcase, he is also a rather poor tactic. Therefore, unpredictable is always very dangerous, which fact should have been included in analyses.
War on multiple fronts
I was completely baffled on February 24. Having spent over 20 years studying totalitarian regimes, no level of wretchedness should be able to surprise me. And yet, it did!
My bewilderment owed less to the Russian economy being wholly unprepared for a war of any considerable length, or to the forces amassed being far too weak to achieve whichever goal; not to the catastrophic underestimation of the enemy and the reaction of the West; not to the call to go to war without a single serious ally etc. What shocked me was the decision to go to full-blown war under Russia's own flag and without having concluded the previous one. In other words, we saw the nightmare of every commander: war on multiple fronts.
A wealthy person usually wants to increase their wealth or at least keep what they have. It is more or less the same with dictators.
A dictator's main goal is to stay in power no matter the cost, with brutality and lies hardcoded into the effort. This means a virtual war on one's own people, and a totalitarian regime is little more than an occupation at home. This requires the centralization of information and, at the very least, driving the debris of free opinion underground.
While Putin might seem to have succeeded in this, this is an illusion. As protests continue in a general air of fear and increasingly draconian punishments, it is clear the occupying power has not completely solidified itself yet. The idea of Rosgvardia, the Russian National Guard that answers directly to Putin and treats subjects as the greatest enemy, is a step in the "right direction" but does not go far enough. For example, where is the network of concentration camps?
Provided you are also planning a "major war," you could at the very least have plans for switching the economy into wartime mode and carrying out a covert mobilization. A full-blown war (not some "military special operation" or "hybrid conflict") beyond one's own borders amounts to complete suicide in a situation where one has not yet won the home front and practically (not propagandistically) prepared one's society.
Experts say that a bottom-up coup in Russia is utterly hopeless. But the war is only in its third week and sanctions have yet to have any real effect on the masses, with people still lamenting the loss of Instagram so to speak.
The economy will keep going for a while longer out of inertia, and we will see whether and when it will detail, grind to a halt or manage to adjust to some degree, especially with the continued contribution of chronic oil and gas addicts elsewhere.
What is more, Russia has not yet fully realized that it is in a war, and not against abstract "fascists in Ukraine" but, at least mentally, half the world. A fully fledged war lacking a logically perceivable goal and so abstract that it needs to be sold to subjects using such empty euphemisms as "denazification," "military special operation" etc.
In other words, one's own people are considered not only fools but also the greatest enemy where it is held necessary to criminalize calling a war what it is.
Reading and listening to predictions, one is painted a picture of the average Russian as a hopeless case, living in some Kostroma Oblast backwater, growing carrots in the back yard, watching television and blindly believing the bullshit they are fed.
As if this was not enough, it is seriously presumed that if the crown were to order people to eat cake instead of bread, the aforementioned brainless lifeform would not see anything wrong with the proposal. Even if all of it is true for the moment, looking back in Russian history, a "Russian revolt" tends to be at least as unpredictable as anything Putin is bound to do next.
There is no sense in tying ordinary Russians to Putin's confusing ideology and historical hocus-pocus – all of it is for the "advanced" class. For the average Russian, it is as abstract as the idea of communism was back in the day.
Those are simply the orders that have come down recently and so be it. However, that does not mean they are about to show initiative. Where are the hordes of volunteers? Demonstrations in support of the war? Russia is afraid to declare a general mobilization or refer to the war as what it is. Indeed, it is easier to be a patriot sitting in front of the television, while it is cozier still to do it from a safe distance, somewhere abroad preferably.
The ordinary Russian, currently seen as the bearing pillar of Putin's authority for some reason, showed no great enthusiasm when it came to building communism, just as I see no reason for them to rush headlong into the fire for the latest utopia. It is not their war. It is an affair of the powers that be and those powers are far away. The Russian person lives much as they have lived under every regime, doing just as much as necessary and as little as possible.
While this group of people tends to support Putin's authority, because one needs to support something, expecting its members to gladly pledge themselves to war or the defense of Putin's power is clearly too optimistic.
Let us not forget that many of that company are "Cold War veterans" who tend to have their own understanding of propaganda that could be summed up using a sentence from Yeltsin's day: "Everything we were told about communism turned out to be a lie, while everything they said of capitalism was true."
Putin is an embodiment of Brezhnevist stability: while life is wretched, at least it is wretchedly stable, besides, what do we have to compare it to anyway. But the people need a little "circus" to go with their bread – we may not be wearing pants but we won the Great Patriotic War, and Yuri Gagarin was the first cosmonaut. The part of society fitting this description might not put on a revolution but cannot be expected to prevent one either. Their support can only be retained if Putin's power is and remains strong. Time will tell where the critical mass lies.
That is not to say the group is monolith. We would do well to remember dissatisfaction in regions caused by centralization and national minorities whose "separatism" is always inversely proportional to the central authority weakening.
Will the masses move?
Whether the masses will move in large part depends on what the power will do. The spark could come from something minor, like leaked images of a lavish party or rumors of yet another wannabe functionary having obtained another gilded toilet brush while the people are suffering.
The 1905 revolution followed the authority's obtuseness mixed with a military disaster. The situation was quite similar at the time of the 1917 October Revolution. Ominously similar for Putin's regime once the sanctions come to squeeze the poorer part of society. While they might miss the fact elections have been canceled, they are not likely to overlook the lack of bread, which is something railing against "the fascists" cannot fully replace.
However, and more importantly, while the 1917 revolution was eventually sparked by women queuing for bread who only wanted to feed their families and knew not the word "democracy," we should not forget that the revolution was carried by soldiers and sailors who were less than keen on seeing the front line.
It is to be believed that Putin knows enough history and will give matters some more thought before declaring a general mobilization. Or before those tasked with crushing protests decide to join their targets or at least remain on the sidelines. Let us think back to 1991.
While predictions are a thankless business, I would not rush to write off the ordinary Russian just yet.
Editor: Marcus Turovski