When Tsar Nicholas II (or rather an official) had to fill out his form for the first census in the history of his country, when he reached the “official” box he wrote down “owner of Russia”. That political culture, markedly Asian in a culturally European country, explains many of the phenomena that surprise Westerners today. Orlando Figes (London, 1959) explores in his latest book, Russian history (Taurus), the trajectory of a country subject to contradictions and where Putin stands as a new autocrat. Figes, who took part yesterday in a conference at the March Foundation in Madrid, warns Western countries in this interview that the war in Ukraine will be long, that after the current Russian leader another worse may come and that the country needs help to build a civil society and a rule of law that facilitate the emergence of political alternatives.
Russia is Europe?
It is an old question that not even the Russians have been able to answer. For the last 300 years, the state, the Russian nation, has been based on the idea that Russia is considered part of Europe and I would say that as a result of its cultural history, it is so. But another thing is the Russian political structure. In my opinion, Russia is a European society with an Asian state structure, that is, the state structure, since the Mongolic occupation, is autocratic and patrimonial, and I say patrimonial in the sense of the tsar as owner of the country. In fact, Nicholas II, the last Tsar, when he registered in the first census in 1897, put “owner of Russia” as his occupation.
There is a complex fusion between European sensibilities in the higher layers of society, which are more Westernized, while government structures remain non-European. The problem with Russia is that it has a lot of Western culture, but, on the other hand, the political culture of a European character has put down very shallow roots there, and the political development in the post-Soviet era shows this. In the last 30 years, no political parties, consumer organizations, trade unions, local government bodies or civic activism by the population have been developed, which is nothing more than the historical continuation of that situation and somewhat contradictory to the one that she spoke.
There are three aspects that he deals with in the book and in which he establishes a parallelism between past and present. The first, which he has already mentioned, is the low weight of civil society. Does that explain the strength of Putin’s position?
Yes, I think to a large extent it does explain it, but the question goes a little further. It is also the result of the long Soviet period, which since the 1930s or 1940s imposed wave after wave of terror and repression. It could even be said that this war is one more wave of this state terror. Citizens for generations have learned to be very cautious about what they say, to be very careful when expressing any political opinion or showing any type of opposition or activity contrary to that of the leaders. That passivity does not necessarily mean that the Russian people support Putin, but that when someone comes to ask them, the Russians answer what they think they should answer. It is a behavior they have learned for decades.
“Russia is a culturally European society but with an Asian political structure”
The second aspect is that the nobility that surrounded the tsars was powerful, but not by itself but because of its dependence on the sovereign. You claim that the same is true of Putin’s oligarchs. Can you explain the mechanism?
It is so. When Peter the Great built the Peterhof Palace, 20 kilometers from St. Petersburg, all the nobility rushed to build their own palace there or nearby just to have that opportunity to be close to the Tsar. That proximity was the surest way to benefit from power, and it’s the same now.
Through the relationship, between the nobility and the Tsar or between the oligarchs and Putin, the circle close to the leader is licensed to enrich himself while managing this huge country, but only keeps his benefits if he agrees with the policy of the sovereign or the president shift. That circle does not own their wealth, but only has it in exchange for their servitude. This is how power works today in Russia. Those who run Russia’s big corporations, Gazprom and so on, can benefit, as landlords were once allowed, to benefit from their proximity to the Tsar. But if they are at odds with Putin they can go straight to jail.
A third parallel that appears in his book is the high cost in human lives that wars imply for the Russians, as we are now seeing in the Ukraine conflict. What is the reason?
In Russian militarism quantity prevails over quality. Stalin, for example, believed that many soldiers should be sent into battle to the point where quantity became a decisive element in itself. In historical terms, this is probably due to the technological backwardness of the Russian armed forces: Peter the Great to defeat Sweden, which had the most powerful army in Europe at the time, needed three times as many soldiers as the opposing army. But beyond that, the phenomenon also has to do with the institution of serfs. Whenever war broke out, and even in peacetime, for every hundred hectares of land, the landowner had to offer a number of equipped men. Those peasant communities had to maintain that number of soldiers for life. As a result of this tradition stemming from serfdom, Russia developed an army so large that life was worth very little and that has been seen ever since.
The Russian official culture considers that the country has made great sacrifices and that it has saved the West on several occasions, such as when they defeated Napoleon or Nazism. But he also believes he has never been recognized. Has the West despised Russia?
That is the basis for much of Russia’s resentment towards the West and which is embedded in its official narrative. Her official culture believes that the country has saved Europe, but also that they have never been fully accepted as Europeans.
I think that resentment resonates among the Russians, even though they don’t agree with the rest of the proposals of Putin’s ideology, because there is a feeling among them of being perceived as barbarians, while the Ukrainians are considered more Western, everything This is well fueled by the way history is taught in schools and by the way movies and propaganda are presented. In Europe in the past there has been a tendency to look at Russia in a very stereotypical way that makes Putin’s propaganda even more effective.
“After Putin, his regime will continue, perhaps even with an even worse leader”
It is possible that one day Putin will disappear from power. What lessons from history should the West take into account for such a circumstance?
Let’s say that one day Putin died. The regime would continue. Some other leader or some collective leadership would emerge, but it is possible that it was even worse than its predecessor – from the point of war or repression – because the current system of power is deeply rooted. The only way out of this circle, and the lesson left for Western countries to learn, is that Russia must be helped to build its civil institutions, to create an independent judiciary, to establish a rule of law of the that it does not now have, to have equivalent contractual legislation. Considering that this can only come from the Russians, it cannot be imposed on them.
The danger we face derives from the fact that there is no political class prepared to fill the gap when the Putin regime collapses – if it collapses – because since 2000 the number of politically educated Russians inside the country has been at a minimum. To make matters worse now, with the war, even more Russians are leaving the country from the group that could change the situation, and the regime is delighted with it. This implies that unless this regime collapses very soon or unless something else is done, like helping those Russians settle in the West so they can create, I don’t know, a government while waiting for the current structure to fall, there is something to replace Putin’s apparatus with.
How do you think the war will end?
I don’t think the war will end soon, because neither side is ready for dialogue. And in any case, what are they going to talk about? You can’t talk to Putin because you can’t trust anything he says. This means that the West must continue to support the Ukrainians for as long as possible and, at the same time, that at some point, who knows when, Ukraine will have to decide how much it wants to continue fighting, considering the enormous costs. It is unrealistic to expect the Ukrainians to think that the return to the post-2014 borders is a victory.
“The West has to define what victory in Ukraine consists of and how far its support goes”
The West also has to decide what victory means, because right now NATO also does not have a clear definition of what could be called a victory in this situation. There are some political leaders, for example, who have already spoken of supporting Ukraine until it even recovers Crimea and it seems to me that this, without a nuclear confrontation, is not going to be possible.
Westerners have to define how far they are going with their support and their governments must be honest with the people, with the cost of this war and why it has to be paid. If we are not honest with the peoples, there is a danger that populist movements in Europe, basing themselves on the rejection of war, will manage to destabilize our societies.