Several readers of this Letter have asked me to comment about the situation in Russia and my views on its recent evolution. Indeed the subject is very interesting and does not lack a good amount of controversy. As usual I shall try here to summarize in essay style what I think about my country of “adoption”, and your comments are welcome, especially on points that may raise emotion or surprise among you reading it!
As always, for any analysis of the situation of a Country or region, a key element to consider its history, not in details, but remembering the key events and situation that have influenced the behavior of its population and its leadership.
First, Russia is de-facto a European country on an ethnic and cultural viewpoint. The origins of Russians is a mix of different origins, Finns, Slavic populations from Eastern Europe (Eastern Slavs), as well as a sizable number of people of jewish ancestry, even if many of them russified their family names and converted to Orthodoxy. All in all quite similar to Western Europe, with the addition of long time emigration from Central Asia, that indeed has a very limited influence on the generally quite coherent European scheme of the population, as proven by genes tests that bring Russians close to Poles, Serbs and Slovenians.
The dominant religion also links Russia to Europe. Orthodoxy is not that far different from the major religions in Western Europe, and all of them are issued from a common Christian faith that formally split between West and East in 1054, although after centuries of disputes linked to theological as well as more down to earth fights for influence and power.
Looking further into historical data, there are however big differences between Russia and the rest of Europe.
One is linked to the family structure of Russia. Here I make reference to researches made by a French anthropologist, demographer and great thinker, Emmanuel Todd.
He wrote several books on the origins and formation of Europe, the fall of the USSR (1976!), or the expected fall of the US based world order. Several of his works are available in English, but only one in Russian.
Todd considers that the population’s typical behavior and the structure of society is strongly influenced by the ancestral rural family structure, documented from available historical data (census, church records etc). In his conclusions, he selected two main criteria to characterize the family structure for a given population. Here is a very short summary of the results and I encourage the ones interested to read Todd’s books!
The first criteria is the level of freedom within the family kernel, meaning that a free (or Non-Authoritarian) structure allows children to go out of the family very soon, and get out of elders (light) control fast. On the contrary, an Authoritarian family structure tends to keep younger generation under the strict control of elders until the death of those elders. In demographical terms, it also means that families tend to host several generations in one home in Authoritarian families, while children in Non-Authoritarian families leave home early and create their own household.
The second key criteria is related to Equality, and is assessed based on heritage traditions between generations. In Egalitarian family structure, all children are perceived as equal and have to get the heritage in equal pieces. On the opposite, the heritage in Non-Egalitarian families is split un-equally, the older son receiving the family home and related assets (animals, land etc), while other children are left with almost nothing. The principle by the way applies both in case of ownership of the land by the elders and in case of metayage or serfdom, when assets are owned by the local lord.
Based on the combination of those 2 criteria, we obtain 4 types of family structures. Obviously those structures have evolved with populations moving to cities and the raise of modernity, but they still have a strong influence on the way people perceive the world, others and themselves.
Russia has a fairly consistent structure across its population (while for example France includes several types depending of the region), and is the only European country to show that model : Authoritarian + Egalitarian. It means that the old family structure included several generations living under the same roof, with strong control from older generations, and all children receiving equal part of heritage, implying that even after the death of elders, siblings sometimes shared the same roof with their family. For the ones knowing recent Russian history, this recalls the quite unique development of shared apartments in soviet Russia (komunalki)!
On a more generic view point, such family structure favors a number of behaviors in society, like :
ability (even if hatred in their heart) to tolerate a very authoritarian society, political dictatorship, but also pressure from administration and all collective organizations
low acceptance of racism or exclusion of other groups because they are different (exclusion may happen for other reasons like inability to accept the status-quo)
need to be part of a group (again even if hatred), and low level of personal independency or desire to get out of the crowd
strong influence of the Orthodox church imposing more day to day rules to worshippers than Western Christian religions
Again, those are tendencies only and individuals are all different, but statistically I think those aspects can be identified in the recent history of Russia and Russians. For example, Marx developed his theory believing that a Communist revolution would happen in one country, England, the only place with a large part of population working in factories. But he did not read Todd… and England has a family structure totally opposed to Communist principles, while Russia has the ideal structure to breed a local type of very authoritarian communism. The only major country with that structure is by the way China, and also very interestingly, that structure (Authoritarian + Egalitarian) can be found in Central France and North of Rome region in Italy, both regions were Communists always showed strong results in elections after WWII.
An additional event happened in Russia that in my views came to re-enforce the tendencies identified above, and this is the Mongol occupation that ran over almost two centuries, the 15th and 16th centuries. The occupation did not basically change the life of the majority of the population, as the invaders had very little contact with locals, except with the ruling cast, making sure that taxes would flow to Mongol pockets. However Russia was left out of critical events that had an enormous influence on the further development of Western Europe : the Renaissance.
Russia remained isolated during the whole period, like “frozen” into a late middle-ages society model. In the meantime, Europe changed and developed new ideas in such areas as philosophy (individual freedom, liberty of thinking, respect of human life and of others’ freedom etc), legal system, religion with Protestantism refusing an unlimited authority of the church. Missing all those changes, Russia indeed could not balance its natural tendencies listed above, that remained pretty untouched until Catherine and Peter, when changes happened inspired by Europe, although opposed by large parts of the population.
The final “split” between Russia and Western Europe is of course the 77 years period of Communism that again, not unlike the Mongol period, kept Russia away from the evolutions, especially after WW II, seeing the emergence of modern democracy in Europe. Please note that all what happened in Western Europe during the Renaissance and the 20th Century may not be mandatory good things against nothing or bad things happening in Russia! For example, both had bad enough times in the 20th Century, with Fascism on one side, and the extermination of the ultimate entrepreneurs, the Russian farmers, on the other side…. My point was only to demonstrate why there are clear differences between Russia and Western Europe, and in which areas they are stronger, not to judge and decide what was best or worst, each of you can have his/her own convictions on that.
Since 1991, Russia is back, somehow like a sibling coming back home after many years of absence… call that absence a trip around the world or a long coma, your call! But the sibling is in both cases still part of the family and showing him the door is not an option. But life together is not easy and many simple things can create misunderstanding and conflicts.
Both sides are not very good at overcoming those issues, and the Western media is probably the worst player. For those journalists who are already quite bad at covering and explaining what is actually happening in their own country, the easy path is to explain that Russia is a pack of mafia boys ruled by corrupt dictators. Easy job.
Before finishing I wish to touch only a few points about the status of Russia today and its perception in the West.
One common opinion in Europe is a dislike of Vladimir Putin and his style of ruling. One level of response is that Russia has no tradition of democracy, and this is true of course. But it goes further than that. The cultural profile of the population (another wording for family structure!) makes it difficult to rule Russia like you rule Sweden or Switzerland. It does not mean it shall never happen, but it shall take time. Russia was “out” of the European evolution for almost 300 years – no way to catch up in 20 years!
But a lot of progress has been made and is still being made. After 10 years of anarchy in the 90’s, by the way encouraged and somehow tailored by Western countries, when national assets were stolen or destroyed, it is only since 2000 that the actual rebuilding of the country has started, both on material and psychological viewpoint. Progresses have been made in all areas, including in the relation between State and people. You can today sue a government organization and win, something totally unthinkable 20 years ago. Entrepreneurs are now recognized, even if red tape is still an issue for them ; the concept of friendly Service is developing fast, not only among restaurant waiters but also within administrations!
Is there corruption in Russia? Yes, and you find it in all transitioning countries. And corruption is not a Russian exclusivity, some EU countries do not score too badly.
Instead of listing again and again all the bad things Russians do, Western media should do a better job coming to Russia and speaking to people of all sides ; they in short should do their job. They also should spend more time about other aspects of the Russian leadership and compare it to European leadership.
Where in Europe do you find leaders who have a clear idea of the real interest of their countries, a plan of action on what to do to satisfy those interests. Even more, who has a good understanding of the real situation of the economy or of society in their own country? Why are BRICS leaders taking more and more initiatives to replace the collapsing world governance system, while EU leaders spend all their money and energy to save their banks and the Euro? Those are some of the right questions, messieurs les journalistes!
Shall Putin be listed in school books 50 years from now as a brutal tyran or a Russian De Gaulle? De Gaulle was called a tyran by many in 1968, so all options are open!